We often discuss technology the way we discuss great fighter. First we alight upon the obvious – the heavyweights: Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson. But then there's the best "pound-for-pound" discussion – not who would beat who, but who was simply the best pure boxer, regardless of weight – Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Henry Armstrong.
How does this discussion of boxers pertain to technology, HDTVs in particular?
The "best" HDTV is often defined as the most feature and technology laden bleeding-edge state-of-the-art HDTV – a plasma 3D smart HDTV, maybe the coming OLED models from Samsung and LG or the 4K models I saw at IFA in Berlin last month.
But this "best HDTV" discussion differs greatly from "which TV should I actually buy" – the pound-for-pound discussion, usually with budget-constriction considerations holding sway.
Well, after much research, I think I found the best metaphorical pound-for-pound HDTV extant.
The Panasonic TC-P42X5, a 42-inch plasma HDTV I personally bought with my own hard-earned money for (drum roll) – $442.09, with shipping.
Plasma better than LCD
What makes this Panasonic pound-for-pound the best HDTV value is not just price – there are many cheaper HDTVs. I contend this Panasonic sits nearly alone at the deserted intersection of high technology/low price.
On the high technology side, this is a plasma HDTV, not an LED LCD set. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the picture quality of a plasma HDTV is far superior to that of an LED LCD, especially at the cheap TV end of the market.
Any budget 42-inch plasma is superior to any 42-inch LCD, regardless of resolution, for one reason:
Plasma HTDVs have a native 600 Hz screen refresh rate – this means the image reconstitutes itself around 600 times a second, reducing what is called "motion blur" – fast-moving objects and text, like those stock tickers that run across the bottom of many news channels, look sharp and readable no matter how fast they flash by.
Conversely, cheaper LED LCD or plain old LCD HDTVs (LED is simply the way LCD TVs are backlit) have a refresh rate of either 60 or 120 Hz, which means fast-moving objects and text look streaky like smeared ink as they streak across the screen.
Any higher refresh rate on an LCD HDTV – 240 Hz, 480 Hz – is "interpolated," boosted artificially, digitally, in software, interpolation which introduces an unnatural look to on-screen motion.
Plasma also is superior to LCD or LED LCD sets at this price level because of their deep black levels. More black creates higher contrast, more detail in dark scenes and vivid colors that pop off the screen.
Not exactly bleeding edge
So, it's a great set for $400? What's the catch?
Well, the Panasonic TC-P42X5 doesn't offer state-of-the-art full HD 1080p resolution, "just" 720p (technically 1024 x 768 pixels rather than full HD 1920 x 1080). Panasonic makes higher-quality HDTVs with not only higher full HD resolution but higher-quality panels overall.
Plus, it lacks any cool new features – it isn't 3D capable and it's not a "smart" Internet-connectable TV. It's also mostly plastic, including the stand. But, as you can see in the photo, it still looks pretty good.
But I'll bet the bulk of you don't need any of these modern (maybe you think gimmicky and unnecessary) features. Since this is our bedroom set, I certainly didn't. (That's right, our bedroom is painted orange. Get over it.)
And I know you don't need 1080p on this set – in fact, you never need 1080p on a set smaller than 50-inches.
From a distance
You're likely going to sit on your sofa or Lazy Boy and watch your TV from around eight feet or more away. At that distance, the pixels are too small to see on a 42-inch HDTV, even when watching a Blu-ray disc.
In fact, the quality improvement of Blu-ray (the only format capable of reproducing full 1080p; broadcast TV stations broadcast in either 720p or 1080i) is wasted unless you're watching it on at least a 50-inch HDTV. But I digress.
Panasonic also skimps on some inputs – although you get a USB jack to view photos from a memory stick or external hard drive, you get only two HDMI jacks. I had to connect an HDMI switcher to connect all my cable box, Apple TV and Blu-ray player (Blu-ray blows DVD away even on a 42-inch 720p HDTV).
Finally, this Panasonic tends toward a greenish tint. It took a bit of futzing with the tint, color and color temperature controls to get a more natural tone to flesh tones.
But other than the green tint, this Panasonic gives great, bright, colorful picture and much satisfaction. Not as good as the Pioneer Kuro in my living room – but then no HDTV does.
So, if you're looking for a really good TV for not a lot of money, I heartily recommend this Panasonic TC-P42X5. It's available from a variety of vendors, both brick-and-mortar and Web-based. I bought mine online from Abt in Chicago.
What's that thing underneath the TV? It's a Zvox 420 soundbar – no HDTV, especially at this price, has anything near what I'd consider to be adequate sound. I'll tell you all about the Zvox next week.