I'm not going to go into too much detail about image quality, since I'll be publishing a full review of this set in the near future. Also, the model that Panasonic gave me access to was still pre-production and I was assured that there would be some firmware tweaks applied before the retail units start to roll off the factory line. However, even in its early state the TH-46PZ81 produced an impressive picture, with deep blacks and vibrant colours - LCD may be coming on in leaps and bounds, but plasma is still streets ahead when it comes to black level response.
Image quality is further enhanced by a Full HD resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, ensuring that high definition 1080p sources are displayed with pixel for pixel sharpness. Unlike last year's range, this new breed of Panasonics will also accept a 1080p 24Hz signal and display it without converting it to 60Hz using the new Real Cinema technology - although I'm not sure what pull down method is employed on this set. There's also 100Hz processing, x.v.Colour wide gamut processing, and the option of playing back Deep Colour material through the three HDMI 1.3 ports. The latter feature should become useful when Panasonic launches its Deep Colour camcorders later in the summer. And talking of camcorders, this TV also has an SD card slot, which can not only playback JPEG images, but also AVCHD high definition footage, direct from a camcorder.
You get a healthy array of inputs - on top of the aforementioned three HDMI ports, you get component for analogue HD or progressive SD signals, D-SUB for hooking up a PC, two SCARTs, analogue audio in/out and optical digital audio out for sending a 5.1-channel bit stream to an external amp or processor. There's also a CI slot for adding subscription channels, but only for the Freeview tuner - there will (allegedly) be no subscription content on Freesat, ever. Finally, there's an Ethernet port, which is great news, although I'll explain why a little later.
Of course the flagship feature of the TH-46PZ81 is its integrated Freesat receiver. When the TV is switched on for the first time it will automatically tune the Freesat, Freeview and analogue channels. There are separate EPGs for Freesat and Freeview, but unfortunately neither of them will give you a windowed view of the current channel. To be fair though, Sky doesn't offer this feature either, but I don't understand why it isn't standard across the board. The Freesat EPG works in a similar way to Sky's with the ability to view channels in specific sections - news, movies, sport etc. - while you can also create your own favourites list, making it easy to access your most watched channels. Some of the EPG features weren't functioning in this early sample of the TH-46PZ81, but I've been assured that these issues will be resolved in production sets.