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Since its commercial deployment over half a century ago, no bit of household technology has enraptured the attention and the desires of man like the television. After all, we are exceptionally visual creatures. A man must love his TV; if not, he is genetically conditioned to go out (hunt) and get one (gather) that he does. It’s a biological imperative that a sub-par viewing experience is simply intolerable.

That said, seeking an upgrade in the TV department may be a philosophical no-brainer, but it’s still a complex decision-making process with lots of choices available. Not to long ago, we made our recommendations for HDTV selections at a variety of price points. Since then, many manufactures have unleashed their 2009 line-ups, and many are featuring the latest in flat-panel technology. Obviously, it’s the stuff of unbridled technolust but often comes bundled with a price tag that’s out of my (and maybe your) reach. Yuck.

I needed to find the answer to a common pre-purchase question; I needed to know, “what is the least that I can spend to get the most of what I want?” I found the answer in Panasonic’s new line of reliable and refined plasma HDTVs. Having spent some time with the TC-P42X1, I feel just fine getting my fix from tried and true plasma technology. Hit the jump to hear my take on the good (there’s lots), the bad (not much), and the ugly (actually, this thing is freakin’ beautiful).

First, let’s talk about the tech. Just because plasma technology didn’t debut at this year’s CES, doesn’t mean that it can’t please videophiles and casual observers alike. In fact, when it comes to combining picture quality and price, you simply won’t find a better option. The TC-P42X1 and it’s big brother the TC-P50X1 are both members of Panasonic’s plasma lineup that offer a 720p resolution. Now, I realize that many retailers want you to think that a 1080p set is the only HDTV worth buying these days, but I aim to free you of that notion. That’s. A. Lie. At these screen sizes (50″ or less), you simply can’t tell the difference. However, your wallet can; don’t pay $200 more for a feature that won’t benefit you. Instead, spend that cash on some video games, a night out on the town, or producing and airing a local cablevision spot promoting the wonders of Gear Patrol.

Retailers want you to think that a 1080p set is the only HDTV worth buying these days, but I aim to free you of that notion. That’s. A. Lie. At these screen sizes, you simply can’t tell the difference. However, your wallet can; don’t pay $200 more for a feature that won’t benefit you.

When I’m looking at a flat-panel television, the primary attributes that I’m concerned with (save for an resolution appropriate to the screen size) are motion clarity and black levels. The TC-P42X1 (and the entire Panasonic line, for that matter) have these concerns assuaged both quantitatively and practically. To the former, this Panny boasts a 600Hz Sub-field drive which keeps everything in focus during fast-moving scenes like those found in movies or while watching sports.

To the latter concern, this unit really excels in the black is black is black department, with its 30,000:1 contrast ratio sounding impressive and looking even better. I’ve been rocking an LCD unit from a very popular manufacturer for the last few years and, though I’m generally happy with it’s performance, it’s blacks have always been less than stellar. Panasonic’s plasmas are in a whole other league if your past experience is anything like mine. Some people complain about plasmas being a tad heavy or a little too thirsty on the juice (all of Panasonic’s Viera HDTVs are Energy Star qualified), but those gripe fall on my deaf ears when I can enjoy the sort of contrast and clarity that only a plasma can produce.

panasonic-tc-p42x1-viera-plasma-hdtv-portsYou guys know me well enough by now to guess that I’m not going to endorse any HDTV or monitor that can’t keep up with next-gen gaming consoles. Some sets just don’t jive with the graphical demands of today’s systems, often producing horrid lag or motion-blur. I’m glad to say that the Panasonic plasma suffers from no such problems. Again, it’s capabilities are pitch perfect. It even features a preconfigured “game” mode that optimizes the graphic settings for game play. Some users might spend time tweaking the unit’s picture settings to achieve the best results for movies, sports, or games, but I found the presets and out-of-the-box alignment to be more than workable.

Rounding out the important performance details, all of Panasonic’s 2009 line falls under the Viera designation, meaning that compatible devices (DVD players, Blu-ray players, and video recorders) are preconfigured to operate using the same remote. The Viera features also include a built-in SD card reader and photo viewing software, so you can experience your lens work on a worthy screen. Though most of you would likely pair any television of this caliber with a comparable home theater system, should your budgetary or space constraints preclude you from doing so, you’ll find the sound produced by the TC-P42X1 to be more than you’d otherwise expect for a flat-panel TV; it will definitely suffice in a pinch. As for inputs, there are plenty. Connectivity concerns are nonexistent.

Before testing the TC-P42X1, I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. Having used it to watch and play a variety of source material over the last month as only strengthened my opinion that it is a rock-solid HDTV. What I was not prepared for, however, was the aesthetic pleasure that the unit is. Last year’s Panny plasmas were a tad, how do I say… boxy. This unit is wrapped in a subtly curved frame whose glossy, piano black finish is a perfect compliment to the black hole of darkness produced by the set’s non-glare screen.

In conclusion, I want to be clear; the Panasonic TC-P42X1 is the company’s entry-level plasma HDTV. It’s also freaking great. Look below at the price. Then look at that blank space on your wall. Then look again at the price. Yes, it’s in US dollars. As a guy who is constantly scouring every electronics review and deal website known to man, I’m telling you true – it just doesn’t get any better than this. Enjoy the show.

Cost: $700 | $900 (TC-P50X1)

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