Gateway, the computer manufacturer, has entered the home-theater market with the introduction of the GTW-P42M102 42-inch plasma panel. While the set has some performance issues, especially with darker images, its factory-direct price of $2,999 is a bombshell. At the moment, you will not find a 42-inch plasma TV that costs less than this Gateway. The GTW-P42M102 is less than half the list price of Panasonic's PT-42PD3-P and about $600 less than the best Internet price that we could find on that same panel. This is unquestionably the best value in the 42-inch plasma category. The handsome GTW-P42M102, like all plasma panels, has the form factor of a wall painting. Measuring only 3.75 inches thick, it can hang on the wall or sit atop an included pair of legs. The unit's face is mostly glass, set in a silver case with a thin black border surrounding the screen.
Gateway's included remote is large and a little awkward in the hand but well designed and easy to use. It has a slide-down panel concealing many of the lesser-used buttons, and none of the keys are backlit. This set has a native resolution of 852x480 pixels, which is perfect for wide-screen DVD but not enough to capture the full resolution of HDTV (incoming HDTV is down-converted to fit the pixels). The panel includes a few performance-enhancing features, and the 3:2 pull-down circuit in its video processor is the most important one. It eliminates motion artifacts with film-based material such as DVD movies.
Another standout feature is the set's individual input memories, so the changes you make to contrast, brightness, and so on remain associated with each input separately. The menu has four selectable color temperatures: Low, 6500D, Mid, and High, which range from a warm reddish cast to a cool, blue overall color palette. A 3D comb filter improves the look of composite-video sources such as VHS and cable TV.
The GTW-P42M102 has many useful convenience features that most plasmas lack. Dual-tuner picture-in-picture (PiP) is handy for keeping tabs on two programs at once, and picture-on-picture (PoP) will actually allow you to watch two programs side by side. The onboard audio system has a 5-watt-per-channel internal amplifier driving built-in stereo speakers. One of the few plasma panels with a TV tuner, the P42M102 can connect directly to a cable feed or an antenna.
The connectivity suite on the Gateway is quite comprehensive. Dual broadband component-video inputs, for connection to progressive-scan DVD players and HDTV set-top boxes (STBs), top the list. There's also a 15-pin VGA-style RGB input that can be used with either a computer or an HDTV STB. The set includes a Digital Visual Interface (DVI) connection, but it is for computer use only and will not work with next-generation STBs that use Hollywood-sanctioned copy-protection.
One S-Video and one composite-video input, each with their own stereo audio inputs, are on tap for more conventional sources. The GTW-P42M102 also has an RF input to connect to an antenna and a subwoofer output for enhancing the unit's onboard sound system.
Finally, one welcome characteristic of the GTW-P42M102 is its lack of fan noise. Plasmas generally run quite hot and need to be cooled, and many other panels have internal fans that can be disturbing during quiet passages in movies. As we expected, performance using the factory presets was pretty poor. Initially, the picture looked relatively washed out and lacked detail. A full professional calibration proved to be quite simple and improved the panel's performance immensely.
As with all plasma panels, black-level performance--the ability to reproduce deep, inky black, as well as dark details slightly brighter than black--is the GTW-P42M102's biggest flaw. Blacks on this panel appeared more as dark gray, and details were muddy in dark scenes on both DVD and HDTV sources.
On the positive side, the set's color decoder is relatively accurate, which means you can get deeply saturated color, especially from component-video sources such as DVD and HDTV. We looked at the opening sequence of Star Trek: Insurrection to test for 3:2 pull-down, and the Gateway passed with aplomb. It reproduced the bridge railing, canoes, and rooftops pristinely, without jagged lines or unnatural movement.
Bright scenes on both DVD and HDTV sources looked quite good. Chapter 4 of Monsters, Inc. revealed excellent color saturation and skin-tone rendition, as well as ample detail. HDTV material from our Dish Network HD feed looked very nice during bright scenes, but dark passages were still quite problematic. For a nighttime scene from Romancing the Stone on HBOHD, the picture was washed out even after calibrating the black level correctly for 1080i HDTV.
The bottom line is that the GTW-P42M102 has poorer black-level performance than most of the other plasma panels we have tested to date, so demanding home-theater buffs should probably look for a different panel. Lighter scenes looked much better, however, making the P42M102 an excellent choice for watching TV in well-lit rooms and for presentation purposes.