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NOT TOO EXPENSIVE 42" PLASMA SHOOTOUT (SUB $3000)
Review Date: 03-8-04
By Robert Wiley

There are nearly countless off name brand plasma displays hitting the market these days. We receive countless e-mails asking if we have reviewed this model or that. We usually wait for decent momentum to review new units. So, in response to the requests, and out of enduring curiosity about what manufacturers are producing quality-wise these days, I am taking the plunge of revisiting a couple of previously reviewed brands.

This shootout consists of three plasma TV / displays in the $3000 and below price range as follows:

Note: This is a 6th generation plasma by Panasonic and since I know the standards set by Panasonic (from previously reviewed models) it will be my benchmark for the other units in the review.


Left to Right: Panasonic TH-42PWD6UY, Gateway GTW-P42M303, Samsung PPM42S3 on the review rack.

These plasma choices represent at least a 2nd or 3rd generation product for the manufacturers to filter out bugs. The Gateway is really manufactured by a Taiwan company named Sampo. It is manufactured there in Taiwan. Therefore, we have Taiwan (China), Korea, and Japan represented in this shootout.

Shopping other brands such as Akia, Luce, Apex, V-Tech, will (from my testing experience) most likely lead to less quality than the Samsung plasma reviewed here. As well, many new Taiwanese, and Chinese manufacturers do not support the product they sell, leaving the market devoid of parts and service centers to repair them. Some extended warranty companies will not even allow their warranties to be sold for these products due to lack of back end support. I would not recommend spending thousands of dollars on a plasma or LCD from these manufacturers.

The above listed models have been put to some serious scrutiny in our latest plasma TV shootout. The models have been tested with different "clean" sources with no loop through. This extensive testing requires a lot of extra time and effort but yields the most relevant results. If testing is to occur side-by-side then we use 5 different video sources at the same moment or a switching device that accomplishes the same. We use Sencore VSB players for HDTV material, Extron video switchers, and HDTV decoder boxes by Sony, Panasonic or Samsung. We test the units with progressive scan DVD players with both progressive 480p and 480i signals. And we test lowly signals of cable and VCRs, before lastly moving to PC computer testing.

We have attempted to cover some of the biggest areas of concern for potential buyers as well as owners of these plasma makes. Picture quality is of course the most important concern of mine as a reviewer of plasma displays for 5 years now. Some considerations have been left out but we do exhibit trait patterns in such a way that we believe it will help you with your evaluation. Factory settings were used for testing rather than fine tuning picture settings before testing, however menu adjustments and setting options are discussed.

These plasma monitors are ranked in order of performance for each category. Each unit was tested using factory settings as well as proper calibration for our showroom environment (low light). The final ratings are simply the ratings multiplied by their inverse relation.

Category 1 BLACK LEVELS

  1. Panasonic - Close call with Samsung. However, dark levels still had excellent definition with the Panasonic and hardly any with the Samsung product.
  2. Samsung - Very deep black levels but with no definition in the content being shown. Dark scenes and material are just solid black. The unit shows poor processing of this of dark matter information.
  3. Gateway - Blacks are washed out and there is poor processing of information, which renders undefined dark scenes. Black banding at top and bottom of picture is a faded charcoal black. In dark scenes there is noticeable false contouring in gradations.
Category 2 COLOR SATURATION
  1. Samsung - Vibrant colors at the factory setting of 80 percent contrast. Color information is overemphasized and not realistic, but radiant.
  2. Panasonic - Excellent color saturation. Color temp is much cooler than the Samsung.
  3. Gateway - There was enduring washed out look to the Gateways colors. This was the first comment from anyone watching the three units side by side.
Category 3 COLOR ACCURACY
  1. Panasonic - By far the most realistic color information. Skin tones looked perfect. Blues and reds have a beautiful hue.
  2. Samsung - Color information was warm (too red) even when using preset color adjustments to cool setting.
  3. Gateway - There was a persisting greenish tint to content. The "washed out" faded color rendition detracted significantly from this displays ability to produce quality image. Finally, there was lots of false color information reflecting through content.
Category 4 CLARITY (480P to 1080i High Def)
  1. Panasonic- Has much less edge enhancement features compared to others units. Images appear softer at first but then appear more realistic.
  2. Gateway - Immediate appearance is clear with lots of edge enhancement.
  3. Samsung - Unit looks better with Samsungs trademarked DNI (Digital Natural Image Engine) turned off. As far as I could see, this feature only provided false edge enhancement, which detracted from the picture.
Category 4 BRIGHTNESS
  1. Gateway - Out of the box this unit was set to an unbelievable 100% contrast. Gateway does not want it to last long for you. It is tweaked to run bright - thus the name "Ultra Bright". Unfortunately, phosphors will burn out much quicker and contrast suffers as a result.
  2. Panasonic - Even brightness across image and through pixels. Provides a little soft but believable picture.
  3. Samsung - Picture runs naturally dark, too dark for my taste.
Category 5 COLOR TEMP (White Balance)
  1. Panasonic - Perfect at "Normal" setting but the unit gives nice options for warm/cool/normal. Accurate color temperature is one of the features that Panasonic has gotten right from the beginning. Skin tones are realistic and near perfect.
  2. Samsung - Runs warm to red, especially with skin tones. Set unit to Cool 1 or 2 for some improvement.
  3. Gateway - Unit has ever-present greenish tint. Skin tones display in many different colors
Category 6 PIXELATION / MOTION ARTIFACTS
  1. Panasonic - Smooth. clear images with almost no artifacts.
  2. Samsung - Few motion artifacts. Overall good/solid performance in this area.
  3. Gateway - Unit displays lots of flickering horizontal bands. Less than 10 foot viewing renders lots of artifacts and pulsating effects. This is even more evident with lower end cable, satellite, VCR signals as the unit tends to flicker and show lots of elements especially up close
Category 7 CONTRAST (Whitest white to the darkest black/levels in between)
  1. Panasonic - Panasonic is untouched in this category. Specifications state 3000:1 for this category, and while that may be exaggerated, Panasonic's superiority in contrast is easy to see with the naked eye. This is a large part of what makes great picture and keeps Panasonic ahead of LCD displays and other manufacturers of plasma.
  2. Samsung - Samsung lists its contrast ratio at 1200:1. It definitely has the black levels, but the dark levels have little definition, ultimately showing weakness in the white peaks.
  3. Gateway - The web site listed the contrast at 1000:1, while my Gateway manual listed contrast at 600:1. Either way, contrast was terrible on this unit. As mentioned earlier, out of the box the Gateway is set to 100% contrast - ready to wear your phosphors out in half the normal time.
Category 8 SCALING (Taking 4:3 to full widescreen, or 16:9 to full screen)
  1. Panasonic - Great algorithm for this adjustment through just mode. Unit does a good job of getting rid of noticeable stretching - especially in center of picture. With 16:9 content, images look perfectly proportioned.
  2. Samsung - Unit has visible stretching from even 16:9 anamorphic content. There is not much technology there for adjustment.
  3. Gateway - Same comment as for Samsung. Scaling algorithms do not justify picture image dimensions and instead yield horizontal stretch.
Category 9 ZOOM Mode Scaling and Functionality
  1. Gateway - Has 3 zoom modes. Option 1 moves the picture image up on the screen to allow for subtitled content. Option 2 is a solid zoom adjustment. Option 3 is worthless as a normal feature - distorting and stretching images. It is probably supposed to stretch 2.35:1 content to fill the screen.
  2. Panasonic - Only one zoom mode but it algorithmically justifies picture extremely well from any content.
  3. Samsung - Unit has 2 zoom modes. The 1st stretches without good justification, while the 2nd is unusable it distorts so badly.
Category 10 AESTHETICS (Overall appearance of unit when turned off)
  1. Panasonic - Subjective opinion but I like the charcoal1 inch wide bezel with the thick black ½ inch ribbon framing the picture. Sleek and non obtrusive.
  2. Gateway/Sampo - Interesting tricolor appearance with silver 1 inch wide trim around ½ inch charcoal and then black ribbon. Not for everyone, but intriguing.
  3. Samsung - Not bad either aesthetically. 1 and ½ inch charcoal bezel, but with a v. thin black ribbon around screen for contrast.
Category 11 MENU/FUNCTIONALITY/ OPTIONS/REMOTE
  1. Panasonic - A pleasure to use. Blue colorful menu with easy navigation, the right set of options and controls and well planned extras. Tidy remote with simple commands. All three units in this test have PIP function.
  2. Gateway - Enormous backlit remote control. Very complete menu as well. Lots of consumer oriented functions (parental control for example).
  3. Samsung- Small cryptic characters goes with the more industrial look of the menu system. Adjustments are confusing to navigate and control.
Category 12 NOISE LEVELS/ POWER CONSUMPTION/ HEAT OUTPUT
  1. Panasonic - runs silent and cool to the touch
  2. Gateway - Slightly audible hum. Hum peaks a bit when white or light scenes are displayed. Unit very warm to the touch.
  3. Samsung - Huge noise problems. Buzzing sounds intensify as light and whites are displayed on screen. Noise is audible from 12 feet with audio on. Runs extremely warm to the touch.
Category 13 CONVERSION FROM 4:3 IMAGE TO FILL SCREEN (Cable, Satellite, VCR)
  1. Panasonic - Panasonic Auto or Just mode used to achieve the correct ratio to fill the screen. Fantastic upconversion of the signal. The built in doubler 3:2 pulldown is excellent and by far the best of the bunch. The worst signal I could give the unit looked very good after the Panasonic scaled and upconverted it.
  2. Gateway - Panarama mode is correct setting or Wide 4:3. Fair job of conversion but the picture jumps as the Sampo's technology can barely handle the task. Picture has lots of flicker and noise. A big jump down from the Panasonic.
  3. Samsung - Has Panarama mode to adjust 4:3 to full screen. Images appear stretched and a bit grainy, but the main problem is just that the unit runs too dark and loses detail in shadowy dark scenes.
Category 14 COMPUTER using RGB 15 pin connection
  1. Panasonic - Average picture quality. SVGA (800X600) resolution works best.
  2. Samsung - Again avg. image quality and best with SVGA resolution.
  3. Gateway - Unit displayed much more flicker from the RGB computer signal. Visible pixelation with SVGA 800X600, which is normally the easiest signal to display.
OVERALL COMPARISON POINTS
(calculated by inverting rating values times 2. i.e. 1=3 X 2 = 6 points etc.)

MODEL NUMBER OVERALL RATING
Panasonic TH-42PWD6UY 78
Samsung PPM42S3
48

Gateway GTW-P42M303

48

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