Our timing with this big screen test seems particularly handy since it appears that the credit crunch is driving ever greater numbers of us away from cinemas and general 'going out' experiences in favour of enjoying cheaper nights in at home. And let's face it, any night spent at home watching a film is going to be more enjoyable if you're able to watch it on a lovely big 50-52in screen. Especially if you've got a room full of family and friends to cater for.
So without further ado let's put four big-screen contenders through their paces - noting as we do that three of them use plasma rather than LCD technology, suggesting that plasma is anything but the dead horse some commentators would have you believe it is.
Price: £800 More info: LG Electronics Size (on stand): 1236(w) x 849(h) x 364(d)mm Weight: 43.7kg Resolution: 1366x768 Native aspect ratio: 16:9 Claimed max contrast ratio: 50000:1 Claimed max brightness: 1500cd/m2 Connections: Four v1.3 HDMIs; component video jacks, D-Sub PC input, PC audio input, USB input, PCMCIA slot, composite video input, RF input, Two Scarts, digital audio output, RS232C (service and control)
The first thing you notice about LG's 50PG6000 is its price, for at £800 it really is startlingly cheap for a 50in plasma TV. The second thing you notice is its design - its sumptuously glossy black bezel and innovative 'one-sheet' fascia, where the screen sits flush with the bezel, make it truly a sight for sore eyes.
The 50PG6000's rear is nearly as attractive as its front, meanwhile, thanks to the appearance there of four HDMI inputs, a D-Sub PC port, and a USB jack able to play JPEG and MP3 files.
With LG's XD Engine onboard to help improve everything from colours and contrast to noise levels and sharpness, plus 100Hz to reduce motion judder, the 50PG6000 really does carry serious shelf appeal. Really the only slightly bum note on the spec sheet is a native resolution of 1366x768, rather than a full HD resolution.
In action, the 50PG6000 is easily good enough to make its price look like a bargain. Especially winning is how sharp HD pictures look. For even without a full 1920x1080 pixel count the screen gives the impression that you're seeing every dot of information in an HD source, with precious little sign of any scaling noise. A handy bonus here is the way the 100Hz engine makes horizontal motion look smoother and clearer.
Colours look great too, as impressive vibrancy for a plasma TV joins with easily the most natural tones we've seen from an LG plasma to date. Considering how little the TV costs, we also appreciated the depth of the 50PG6000's black level response. We're not talking about anything to rival Panasonic and Pioneer's best plasma efforts, but you're seldom really distracted during dark scenes on the 50PG6000 by tell-tale greyness or flatness.
With some decently potent, well-rounded sound to accompany its more than respectable pictures, the 50PG6000's negatives are restricted to an indifferent standard definition performance, slight graininess if you use any picture preset other than the Cinema mode, and traces of image retention, whereby a ghostly outline of really heavily saturated image elements - like the Sky News logo - can be left behind onscreen momentarily after they're supposed to have disappeared.
Great value, really sharp HD pictures, nice design, good connectivity, strong colours Minus points
Standard def pictures aren't the best, slight image retention concerns
Price: £1,700/£210 More info: Panasonic Size (on stand): 1267(w) x 847(h) x 387(d)mm Weight: 46kg Resolution: 1920x1080 Native aspect ratio: 16:9 Claimed max contrast ratio: 1000,000:1 Claimed max brightness: N/A Connections: Four HDMI inputs (all v1.3), component video input, two Scarts (both RGB), composite video input, PC input, stereo audio inputs, tuner input, CAM slot, S-Video input, headphone jack, digital audio output, SD card slot
The 50PZ800 sits right at the top of Panasonic's current 50in plasma range. Though strangely, that doesn't mean it's got a built-in Freesat HD tuner like the brand's PZ81 models. Still, aside from also being slightly blandly designed, that's pretty much where the bad news ends. For instance, its connections include four HDMIs and an SD card slot, with this latter jack able to play AVCHD video as well as JPEG stills.
There's plenty going on with the 50PZ800's video processing too, including Panasonic's V-Real 3 system for improved noise reduction, colours, contrast and sharpness; 100Hz for enhanced image stability; Digital Cinema Colour which expands the TV's colour gamut to something akin to that witnessed in commercial digital cinemas; and finally Intelligent Frame Creation (IFC), which inserts newly calculated extra frames of image data to make motion look silky smooth.
Add this fearsome video processing power to a full HD resolution, and you probably won't be too surprised to hear that the 50PZ800's pictures are simply superb. Black levels are especially outstanding, with terrific richness and depth right into the darkest corners of the darkest scenes. Yet even these ultra-dark parts of the picture retain enough subtle greyscale and colour detailing to look three-dimensional and natural. Spectacular.
The 50PZ800's black level heroics are given extra impact by a greater general brightness level than we're used to finding with large plasma screens, allowing vivid peak whites and colours to sit side by side with the effortless deep blacks.
More good news finds the 50PZ800's colours looking superbly vibrant and fully saturated, yet also almost infinitely subtle and emphatically natural in tone aside from one or two slightly orangey reds.
Plasma pictures are traditionally not as sharp with HD as LCD ones, but the 50PZ800 has no truck with this argument at all, reproducing the most detailed of HD sources with total authority and noiseless precision.
The only areas of concern we had with the 50PZ800, in fact - aside from it not selling its quality cheap - are that the occasional rogue colour tone sneaks in when watching standard definition, and that the IFC processing can cause some pretty visible glitches (flickering, ghosting) if you don't turn it off when watching really fast moving action.
Stunning HD picture quality, excellent connectivity, plenty of features Minus points
Intelligent Frame Creation can cause problems with sport; occasional colour tone issues with standard definition, all the quality on offer doesn't come cheap