Editors' Note 04/17/2008: The rating on this review has been modified from 8.0 to 7.6 due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
The Panasonic TH-42PZ700U is one of the most expensive 42-inch plasmas on the market, but it's also the best-performing flat panel of its size we've ever tested. The high price can be blamed squarely on its native resolution--it's the first and only 42-inch 1080p plasma--but the picture quality has little to do with all those pixels. Instead, we noted its deep black levels and realistic shadow detail along with a commendably clean image. Of course, we could complain about other aspects of its performance, namely its color accuracy, but that's not enough to spoil an excellent picture. If you have the cash to burn but don't have the space to go bigger, the Panasonic TH-42PZ700U fits the bill perfectly.
Basic, glossy black defines the style of the Panasonic TH-42PX700U and its larger cousins in the TH-PZ700U series of 1080p plasmas. The 42-inch screen is surrounded by a rather thick black frame, with the top edge angled back slightly from the main front plane. Its sides are augmented by a pair of inch-wide speakers with tiny perforations for better blend-in, and its bottom edge is raked back to match the top. A central flip-up door hides inputs and controls, while a smaller door to the right conceals the memory card slot. Panasonic includes a matching pedestal stand.
Including the stand, the TH-42PX700U measures 42.5 inches wide by 29.8 inches high by 14.6 inches deep, and weighs 99 pounds. Remove the stand and it measures 42.5 inches wide by 27.2 inches high by 5.5 inches deep, and weighs 83.8 pounds.
We really liked Panasonic's remote. Its layout is basically the same as last year's model, but the somewhat larger buttons feel much better. Its keys--of which there are just the right number--are arranged quite logically, and although there's no backlighting, we appreciated the ease with which we were able to locate buttons by feel. The remote can control as many as three other devices. Panasonic's internal menu system is intuitive enough, although we disliked the ease with which you can inadvertently erase your picture settings.
As we've mentioned, the Panasonic TH-42PZ700U's main claim to fame is its pixel count. It has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels (or, 1080p), the highest available today, and significantly higher than the 1,024x768 resolution commonly available at this screen size. As we found, however, you'll have to sit quite close to the screen to appreciate the benefits of 1080p (see below). All of those pixels allow it to resolve every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources, while all other sources, including 720p HDTV, DVD, and standard-definition television, are scaled to fit the pixels.
Otherwise, the TH-42PZ700U has the feature set of a perfectly normal flat-panel HDTV. It incorporates a good number of picture adjustments, although there is one missing piece--it lacks the ability to fine-tune color temperature beyond the three presets. We did appreciate that the three overall picture presets are adjustable, and there's a fourth adjustable mode labeled "Custom" that's independent per input.
There are a few advanced controls we mostly disabled for critical viewing. The color management control is said to enhance blue and green, but we found that color balance was more accurate when it was turned off. A setting labeled C.A.T.S. supposedly adjusts brightness to optimize contrast on the fly, so we left it off. There are three kinds of noise reduction settings--more on their effects below. In addition to a selector for 3:2 pulldown, you can choose between two HDMI black levels. Light was our preference, as Dark obscured details in shadows.
In addition to the five aspect ratio modes for HD sources, there are four for standard-def. Although the Panasonic lacks a specific mode designed to perfectly match incoming 1080-resolution signals to the 1080p panel with no overscan (a setting known as "dot-by-dot" on some HDTVs), you can achieve the same effect by selecting the Full mode and choosing Size 2 from the HD size selection of the Other adjust section of the Picture menu. We'd prefer the option to be easier to change--you'll want to switch to Size 1 if you notice interference or lines at the extreme edge of the image when in Size 2 mode--but at least it's there.
Convenience junkies will be bummed by the lack of picture-in-picture. Like many HDTV makers this year, Panasonic offers a version of control-over-HDMI, branded EZ-Synch, that allows other so-equipped Panasonic devices to be controlled via the HDMI connection using an on-screen interface and the TV's remote. We were disappointed, however, by the lack of menu item choices to deal with "image retention" or burn-in should it occur--features that can be found on many plasmas, including Panasonic's own professional models. (Update 08-06-2007) While the menu lacks burn-in-related items , this and all other 2007 Panasonic plasmas have an always-on "pixel wobbling" feature that imperceptibly shifts the image one pixel at a time to avoid burn-in. The 4:3 aspect ratio modes also include a screen saver, although it's useless when the TV is set to a widescreen (16:9) mode and you depend on an external souce, such as a cable box, to change aspect ratios.
Somewhat surprisingly for an HDTV in this price range, the TH-42PZ700U's connectivity suite includes not three HDMI inputs--as found on many high-end HDTVs this year--but just two. There's also a VGA-style PC input (1280x1024 maximum resolution), a pair of component-video inputs, two AV inputs with composite- and S-video, an RF-style antenna input, and an optical digital output for the ATSC tuner. A panel on the front flips up to reveal controls and another AV input with composite- and S-video, while a second panel hides a slot for SD, SDHC, and miniSD (adapter required) cards, allowing you to display JPEG digital photos on the big screen.
At the end of our testing we were convinced that the Panasonic TH-42PX700U produced the best picture of any 42-inch flat-panel display, plasma or LCD, that we've reviewed so far. The credit doesn't necessarily go to the set's high resolution--in fact, depending on how close you like to sit, those extra pixels don't matter at all--but rather to its deep blacks, excellent shadow detail, and clean image. We'd definitely like to see more-accurate color, but that's our only real complaint.