Roll up, roll up ladies and gentlemen - the Panasonic Viera circus is still in town. And quite frankly, if today's 42in plasma Viera act proves anywhere near as good as the brand's recent two LCD models we've seen, I'll be happy if the circus pitches camp permanently.
Cosmetically, the TH-42PE50B is a match for the previously seen TX- 32LXD500 and TX-26LXD50; all gloss black and silver - especially when mounted on its optional, stylishly slim floor stand.
Connections are not quite as cutting edge as the design. There's no HDMI digital video input. Panasonic has left digital connectivity off very deliberately, as part of its agenda to distinguish its entry-level '50' models from the step-up '500' models. It's this 500 series which comprise Panasonic's HD Ready models (following the future-proofing criteria laid out by industry body EICTA). The standard '50' models are aimed at folk not bothered about HD who just want a flat panel replacement for a tube.
So what do you have?
So what connections does the 42PE50 actually carry? Notable inclusions are three Scarts; component video inputs able to take analogue, non-HDCPprotected high definition sources; and a slot for adding extra functionality to the TV's built-in digital tuner. There's neither the PC input nor the SD card slot found on Panny's upscale 500 models.
The 42PE50's quoted specs are a mixed bag. Its native resolution of just 852 x 480 is clearly a disappointment. Yet its claimed contrast ratio of 4000:1 and brightness of 600cd/m2 both bode well.
Also impressive is the amount of new picture processing technology Panasonic has thrown at the 42PE50. The one you're most likely to have heard about - it being the basis of Panasonic's current TV ads - is the new Viera colour management system. By upping the claimed shades of colour gradation to 2084 and introducing a system where the brightness as well as tone of each pixel can be individually controlled, Panasonic claims its new plasma TVs can deliver a whopping 8.6 billion colours.
Another new development includes circuitry that is designed to spot motion in the picture and then remove the usual plasma noise from it. Also available is a 'sub-pixel controller' that is there to tackle jagged edges; a 10 per cent boost in brightness; and a new black filter that is reckoned to improve on the already exceptional black levels that are delivered by Panasonic's Real Black Drive technology.
Behind the scenes...
And that's just the behind the scenes stuff. A fairly healthy array of useradjustable options includes MPEG noise reduction for tidying up blockiness on terrestrial digital TV broadcasts; standard noise reduction; and an electronic programme guide (EPG) that supports both Freeview's 7-day listings and genre searching.
I must confess to being surprised by how attractive the 42PE50's images are. The new Real Black Drive delivers the sort of black levels usually only seen on quality CRT TVs. As well as giving pictures an immediate cinematic lustre, this black level also makes pictures look decidedly three dimensional. Colour performance is also first-rate. Images have a richness and vitality which makes them scream off the screen, while subtle shades benefit from terrific greyscaling finesse. This latter talent practically does away with plasma's old problems with false contouring (colour banding).
Images are also nice and clean. Grain, dot crawl and grey pixels are all commonly cited as good reasons to pick LCD screens over plasma, but this model betrays precious little evidence of any such flaws.
Given the 42PE50's VGA-grade panel, I was also pleased by the picture's sharpness and detail. The screen coped well with TV sources, from the onboard Freeview digital tuner through to component-fed high definition pictures.
Sonically, this Panasonic is fine. The supplied sound system is broad but not harsh. It's possible to edge up the volume without distortions or cabinet rattles, and an open mid-range that always keeps vocals clear and rich.
Panasonic's 42PE50 can be considered a high-quality standard definition plasma display. Colour performance and black level are first rate, and my only real reservations concern the low resolution of the panel - which will restrict your enjoyment of next generation video games systems, such as Xbox360 and PS3, let alone high definition TV. On the plus side, the screen is being widely bundled with a free Panasonic DVD Recorder. This goes a long way towards sweetening the deal.