SETUP The Panasonic's excellent off-air tuner easily grabbed all of the digital stations in my area. I spent only about 30 seconds or so playing with antenna placement using the set's signal-strength meter, and zzzing! Digital channels from NBC to Fox to PBS were all coming in clear.
I was slightly less stoked about some aspects of the picture adjustments. You can't store unique picture settings for each input. Instead, you need to modify the three picture presets and apply them as you switch sources - a task that's made automatic by the TV's ability to "remember" the preset you previously selected for each input. On a positive note, the picture menu includes useful adjustments like variable black level, a switchable 3-D comb filter for composite-video inputs, and a Color Matrix setting that lets you optimize the color decoding for standard- or high-definition signals. Of the three color-temperature presets, Warm delivered the most accurate color, but I needed to make a few service-mode tweaks to remove a greenish tint.
PICTURE QUALITY Tweaks executed, I pulled out Constantine on DVD to check out the Panasonic's picture. In a scene where the supernatural detective (Keanu Reeves) joins Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) at her apartment, both actors' skin tones looked natural, and there was plenty of shadow detail visible in their dark clothing. The charcoal-hued fur of a gray cat in Constantine's arms also stood out against the inky tones of his black coat. And the brighter colors, like the cats' green eyes and the orange and red of a painting in the background, looked vivid yet balanced.
I used an episode of ABC's Lost, which is broadcast in 720p format, to get a sense of how each TV handled HDTV programs. With the Panasonic, I was struck by the remarkable range of blues visible in the background sky as Sawyer approached a vending truck. The Panasonic managed to display strong, eye-popping contrast in this scene without sacrificing any subtlety in its color reproduction. In a close-up shot of Sawyer's distressed face (he's been sent to kill the truck owner), fine details like the lines around his eyes looked a little fuzzy compared with the other two sets. Even so, the Panasonic's high-def picture was generally crisp and solid.
BOTTOM LINE With its clean, natural-looking picture, reliable built-in HDTV tuner, and, most important, affordable price (for a plasma TV, that is), Panasonic's TH-42PX50U is a great option for plasma on a limited budget. If a 42-inch screen is big enough for you, this is a set that I can easily recommend.
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