Recently, we've witnessed a frantic round of flat panel TV price cutting. The latest evidence of this is Samsung's PS-42S5SD: a 42in plasma TV with built-in digital tuner and an HDMI jack that costs typically just - wait for it - £1,700.
You might expect such a tiny price to accompany a pretty ordinary looking plasma TV. But no, the 42S5SD enjoys a lovely gloss black screen frame, tasteful oval pedestal stand, and fancy-pants neon blue circle around the big LED receiver. All very swish.
The 42S5SD's connectivity isn't only distinguished by the HDMI jack. It's helpfully joined by, among other things, a set of component video jacks, a common interface slot to add extra functionality - including Top Up TV - to the set's built-in digital tuner, a VGA PC connection and a pair of Scarts.
Don't, however, let that HDMI digital video confuse you into believing that the 42S5SD is an HD Ready screen, as described by the European industry body EICTA's official definition. Unfortunately, although it can handle 720p and 1080i high definition pictures, its native panel resolution is merely 852 x 480 - which requires too much downscaling of the high definition signals to meet EICTA's approval. This is undoubtedly a pity - yet perhaps it's only to be expected when such a large and attractive screen is selling so cheaply?
Some of the set's other specifications are anything but 'second tier'. The most outrageous claim is a quoted contrast range of 10,000:1 - comfortably the highest number I've ever seen bandied around by a manufacturer. This is backed up by an extremely high brightness figure of 1,500cd/m2, too. Interestingly, in our Tech Labs, the screen doesn't disgrace itself. We actually rated contrast at 640:1.
In point of fact, the 42S5SD doesn't rely solely on the HDMI jack or its digital tuner for its feature appeal. There's some classy refinements on offer. Backing up the digital tuner is support for the Freeview 7-day electronic programme guide (EPG), including direct selection 'scheduling' throughout the period of the listings.
The set also carries Samsung's Digital Natural Image engine picture processing, designed to enhance the appearance of fine detail in the picture, improve motion handling, and boost both the screen's colour response and contrast levels. Chuck in single-tuner picture in picture, noise reduction, unusually sophisticated colour controls, and SRS TruSurround audio processing, and you really would appear to be getting some serious bang for your buck.
That's real deep, man
The 42S5SD is an above average performer. Especially eye-catching, as that claimed contrast range implies, is its outstanding black level response. Blacks are deep and there's a nice sense of greyscale subtlety. Indeed, when it comes to black level, this model gives Panasonic's new Viera screens a run for their money.
Colour fidelity is equally impressive. Strikingly vibrant, its hues are richly saturated, giving the picture life and depth. The tone of the colours is generally natural too - although there is a caveat. It's a similar story with the image's sharpness; it's great at times, most notably with digital tuner programmes and RGB feeds from a DVD deck or Sky receiver, but the screen's lack of native resolution means HD fodder will look soft relative to what better specified screens achieve.
Picture softness is also a major issue with analogue tuner footage; the amount of noise inherent to the source material causes the DNIe processing some real problems, resulting in a bit of a soupy mess. But then, you were never seriously contemplating watching analogue tuner pictures on this TV anyway, right?
The 42S5SD is caught out by a few fairly basic plasma problems, however. Fleshtones can sometimes take on a greenish hue during dark scenes. Next, the image looks rather 'alive' with dot crawl, as the panel fails to keep perfect control on the voltage being applied to each plasma chamber.
Colours can occasionally flare and band a little too, and I often spotted fizzing noise over horizontally moving objects - especially where there was skin involved.
Another slight flaw of the 42S5SD is that something about its picture system - perhaps its extreme brightness - slightly emphasises digital blocking noise while you are viewing programmes via the HDMI input. But to be fair, this interference is subtle enough to only very rarely become bothersome.
It's important to stress at this point, though, that while the above problems scupper the 42S5SD's chances of making a Best Buy, they certainly don't stop it being a very respectable performer compared to everything else currently available at £1,700.
The audio performance of this Nicam set is good, if a little light on bass.
In pure performance terms the 42S5SD still lacks the refinement currently being seen in the brand's LCD panels. But that doesn't alter the fact that the 42S5SD delivers considerably more in terms of features and quality than you really have any right to expect for an outlay of approx £1,700. A better than average, affordable plasma. John Archer