I've seen Panasonic's rear-projection LCD sets in stores for a couple of years now and have always been impressed with their picture in store demos. (I've also been impressed with Panasonic's smaller flat-panel directview LCD sets in store demos.) This review was my first opportunity, however, to evaluate either with critical eye and test equipment.
The specs look great on this current model. Here's a 52” 16:9 HD set (1280x720 resolution) with digital tuner and CableCARD at only $2499 retail. Though it's not a plasma TV you can hang on the wall, the Panasonic PT- 52LCX65 RPTV is considerably thinner (17”) and lighter (83 lbs.) than older CRT-based rear projectors. Since I'd already tested more expensive versions of this technology from Sony and Hitachi, I was looking forward to seeing how the Panasonic measured up. For direct comparison, JVC's $3800, 52” D-ILA set was available, as was my reference 55” Hitachi plasma. If the set compared well, it could be a real value in the 52” RPTV size.
The PT-52LCX65 is missing a few exotic features, but it does have most of the important ones. For starters, there are three (not two) component inputs, though only one HDMI input. Computer use is encouraged, and the computer input is located right on the front panel. There are built-in analog and digital tuners (with picture-in-picture capability) plus a CableCARD slot for receiving digital cable without an annoying set-top box. Dolby 5.1 audio is available from these sources (for driving your surround receiver) via a digital-audio-out jack. There's even a memory slot for viewing pictures taken with your digital camera, provided it uses an SD memory card.
Though this set receives both cable and off-the-air TV (via antenna), only one RF input is provided. No guidance is given as to how to connect both simultaneously, but a customer service rep suggested I use an A/B switch available from Radio Shack—not very convenient if you have both sources.
Selecting your desired video source requires two button-pushes but thankfully no scrolling. Inputs can be named and unneeded inputs can be removed from the list.
While various aspect-ratio choices are given, only FULL is available when receiving 720p or 1080i signals. This is unfortunate and will force you to look at those dreaded black bars when watching many commercial broadcasts. The ZOOM MODE allows use of the vertical size adjustment, so text at the bottom of the screen can be completely displayed.
A signal strength meter is provided for tuning digital off-the-air broadcasts, but it's several layers down in the menu system rather than on a dedicated remote control button. There is a dedicated "Sleep" timer button, however.
I liked the simple, intuitive, backlit remote more than most. The owner's manual, too, was better than most with reasonably good explanations. Included in it are full instructions for replacing the 100-watt lamp, should that be necessary. While no guidelines are given as to lamp life, Panasonic does recommend that owners keep a spare.
When you first turn the PT-52LCX65 on, it will come up in VIVID MODE—too enhanced and too bluish. But the various video modes are simply factory presets of all of the regular user picture settings, so if, for instance, you compared VIVID and CINEMA and then adjusted all the picture controls alike, the two modes would look identical. Some sets have hidden tweaks (often undesirable ones) for each mode that can't be adjusted. This is not the case with the Panasonic. If you select a par- ticular mode while watching a particular input, your choice of mode as well as your custom settings for that mode will be remembered for that input. In my initial picture setup, I found that CONTRAST could be run as high as 25 with no white crush. SHARPNESS needed settings of 15 or less for minimal enhancement artifacts. COLOR TEMPERATURE was only acceptable in NORMAL MODE. Several additional video adjustments were unusual: according to the manual, BLACK LEVEL ("Light" or "Dark") needs to be set according to the input (only 480i uses the "Light" setting). It's actually a twoposition gamma control for the darker part of the picture. I found that "Dark" excessively obscured detail in darker scenes and opted for "Light" all the time, with BRIGHTNESS adjusted accordingly. GAMMA ADJ did not affect the maximum white level of the picture (that's the CONTRAST control), but something more like overall brightness. I found that "Full" was always needed for best picture. BLK EXTENSION is a variable "black-enhancer" that may seem to give more contrast by inaccurately crushing the darkest regions of the picture. Normally I'd say keep it off, but set between 5 and 7, dark scenes did look a bit less washed out. 3D I/P is just a strange name for 3- 2 pulldown, which is required for the fewest artifacts from film-based sources with 480i (non-progressivescan) DVD players.