Editors' Note 04/17/2008: The rating on this review has been modified from 7.6 to 7.3 due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
At CNET, we've usually found that the best plasmas produce more pleasing images than the best flat-panel LCDs, but LCDs are often a better choice in a room where you can't control ambient light. That's because plasma screens are essentially big pieces of glass, which gather in a lot more reflections than the typical plastic LCD screen. The 42-inch screen on Panasonic's TH-42PX77U plasma, however, is coated with an antiglare compound that really helps attenuate ambient light, giving it similar reflective properties to an LCD. The TH-42PX77U also performs well in most other aspects of picture quality. Although it lacks a PC input and a few picture adjustments, the rest of the TH-42PX77U's package is appealing, especially if you have lots of light in the room.
Panasonic has released two lines of plasma HDTVs in the spring of 2007, the TH-PX77U series, of which this model is the smallest member, and the step-down TH-PX75U series. Aside from the fact that only the 77U series has the antiglare screens, the biggest differences between the two series can be found in their styling. The speakers of the TH-42PX77U and its series-mates flank the screen to either side, while the speakers on the TH-PX75U series are placed below the screen, narrowing the profile about 2 inches on the 42-inch models. The TH-42PX77U measures about 44.5 inches wide by 27.3 inches tall by 14.5 inches deep atop the included pedestal stand; without the stand the panel measures about 44.5 by 25.3 by 3.75 inches.
The redesigned Panasonic TH-42PX77U is one of the better-looking plasmas we've reviewed in the last year. The glossy black frame around the screen--now standard on most flat-panel HDTVs--is augmented by the aforementioned speakers, which are unobtrusive black strips each about an inch wide. Along the bottom is set a swatch of charcoal gray that bows up ever-so-slightly in the middle and tapers on the sides. The only other accents on the front are the red power light and the silver logos. On the right side, invisible from the front, is a hatch that opens to reveal basic controls, an A/V input with composite and S-video and an SD card slot.
We really like Panasonic's new remote. Its layout is basically the same as last year's model, but the somewhat larger buttons feel much better. Just the right number of keys are arranged quite logically, and although there's no backlighting, we appreciated the ease with which we were able to locate keys by feel. Unfortunately, the remote can't control any gear aside from the TV itself (for some reason, the clicker included with the 50-inch TH-50PX77U is universal). Panasonic's internal menu system is intuitive enough, although we disliked the ease with which you can inadvertently erase your picture settings.
With a native resolution of 1,024x768, the Panasonic TH-42PX77U matches the resolution of just about every available 42-inch plasma today. Of course, that's not quite enough pixels to display every detail of 720p HDTV, but the image is still plenty sharp. All incoming signals, whether HDTV, DVD, or standard-def TV, are scaled to fit the pixels.
The range of picture controls bests that of previous "consumer" Panasonic plasmas, such as the 58-inch TH-58PX600U, coming closer to the control available in "professional" models such as the TH-50PH9UK. The most important improvement is the addition of true independent input memories. In other words, the settings for the set's "Custom" picture mode can be completely different for different inputs, allowing you to customize the picture for each of your sources. You also can choose from three other picture modes, which each also can be adjusted (but not independently for each input). There is a monkey wrench in the customization machine, however. Mistakenly deleting your hard-adjusted settings is all too easy; a control labeled "Normal," when selected, returns picture settings to the default position. Writing down your settings somewhere is a good idea.
A number of advanced adjustments complement the standard contrast amd brightness controls, including a trio of color temperature presets, of which Warm is the most accurate. Of course, we would have appreciated the ability to further fine-tune the color temperature, as offered by Panasonic's own "professional" plasmas and by other competing units, like the Vizio VP42HDTV.
Panasonic's color-management control is said to "enhance" the colors of green and blue, but we couldn't see any effect so we left it off. Controls for noise reduction and black level also are present, along with a selection for a standard or a high-def color matrix (welcome with 480p sources, which use standard for DVDs and high-def for SD broadcasts). The selection of aspect ratio choices is quite good, with five available for high-def sources and four for standard-def.
In addition the SD card slot we mentioned above, which allows you to display digital photos on the big screen if you insert an SD card, the Panasonic offers a fair selection of conveniences. There's an ATSC tuner for grabbing over-the-air broadcasts, although as expected this model lacks a CableCard. We missed having the ability to view two programs at once via picture-in-picture, however.
Around back, the Panasonic TH-42PX77U offers fairly basic connectivity. There are two HDMI inputs, two component-video inputs, two A/V inputs with S-video and composite video, an RF-style input for antenna or cable, a monitor A/V output with composite video, and an optical digital audio output for passing the surround soundtracks from over-the-air HD broadcasts. We were disappointed that Panasonic didn't deign to include a VGA-style input for PC, as do many competing plasma makers.