At long last, there's now a way to enjoy high-definition broadcasts without paying Sky's hefty HD subscription charge: it's called freesat. To underline the importance of this new subs-free HD revolution, Panasonic has gone innovation-mad to present us with the very first TV with a built-in freesat receiver. Available for around £1,400, it's also the first TV with a built-in HD broadcast receiver.
Although not the most glamorous TV in town, the 46-inch 46PZ81 exudes an understated confidence. We're sure many people will actually prefer it to the strident fashion shows of some rival brands.
It's well connected too, including three v1.3 HDMIs with Deep Colour compatibility, an SD card slot capable of playing JPEG stills and AVCHD movies, and a mysterious Ethernet port for -- at a guess -- allowing future BBC iPlayer functionality.
The 46PZ81's features are, of course, dominated by the freesat HD tuner. But the set also carries Freeview and analogue tuners, making it the UK's first three-tuner TV. Before you start questioning the usefulness of a tri-tuner arrangement, you should be aware that Freeview actually carries a few channels that freesat currently does not, including Sky Sports News.
On hand to get the very best from the freesat source material is the top level of Panasonic's V-Real 3 picture processing engine. It boasts impressive abilities when it comes to suppressing noise, boosting colours, enhancing resolution and loads more besides. As expected, the V-Real 3 engine, together with the 46PZ81's 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and Panasonic's innate plasma quality, helps produce some really scintillating picture quality from freesat's BBC HD and ITV HD channels.
Particularly exciting is how sharp HD pictures look. There was detail galore in the recent broadcast of Raiders of the Lost Ark on BBC HD, with each jungle leaf and strand of Indy stubble immaculately rendered during the film's opening scenes.
Indy's subterranean exploits also considerably benefited from the 46PZ81's outstanding black level response. Panasonic claims a dynamic contrast ratio of a 1,000,000:1 and while we're not convinced the picture quite lives up to that, there's certainly a naturalism and depth to dark parts of the picture that could reduce most LCD rivals to tears.
There's practically no noise in HD pictures either. In fact, they look better here than from any freesat set-top box we've seen. The 46PZ81's picture processing also tries to make freesat's often rather ropey standard-definition pictures look better. Add to all these picture glories a very respectable audio performance and pretty reasonable price tag and it seems likely that our weaknesses section isn't going to take very long.
In an ideal world, the 46PZ81's reds would look a touch less orange. When watching sport, we'd recommend that you deactivate the set's Intelligent Frame Creation feature, which calculates extra frames of image data to reduce motion judder. Plus, it would have been nice if the SD card slot had let you record as well as play HD video.
Aside from these miniscule issues, our only moans are to do with the freesat service and therefore out of Panasonic's hands. We're disappointed in the lack of HD content available to show off the best this 1080p TV has to offer, and the fact that some of the standard- definition channels are of such poor quality -- yes, we mean you, ITV -- that even V-Real 3 processing can't help them.
Coupling yet another fine example of Panasonic plasma TV picture quality with the cutting edge attraction of a built-in HD broadcast tuner has made the 46PZ81 a genuine landmark product. Here's hoping that freesat can ultimately deliver the sort of service and channel base -- especially when it comes to HD -- such a product deserves.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday