In the period of a few short years, plasma televisions have gone from being exotic and rare to being everywhere. Every major consumer electronics manufacturer has jumped into the arena over the past two years, and prices have dropped dramatically. For heaven's sake, even Wal-Mart and Costco have plasmas -- a sure sign that a technology has become mainstream and is headed toward being a commodity.
What is a major company such as Philips to do to distinguish itself from every Tom, Dick and Harry that are jumping into the plasma business? Why, make the whole plasma experience better, of course. With the new 42-inch Ambilight plasma, Philips has done just that, and has added a really interesting new twist to the whole plasma genre.
For years the recommended way to watch a television was to have a fluorescent light placed behind the television. This cut down on the glare and fatigue of watching TV in a dark room, and enhanced the experience. Some brilliant engineer at Philips looked at this and must have asked himself why such a thing could not be included on the television itself. Why no one else has ever thought of this, especially with the huge rear projection televisions that were the norm only a few years ago, is beyond me. Sometimes the best ideas are the ones staring you right in the face, I guess. In any case, there are two fluorescent light panels (that can change color) added to the sides of this plasma TV. These light panels can be set at one color or placed in dynamic mode to change colors to correspond with what's on the screen, thereby enhancing the experience of "being there."
This new technology has been added to a 42-inch plasma that has a 1024 x 768 panel that has become the new trend among HD 42-inch plasmas. As many of you have probably noticed, most 720p plasmas or LCDs are 1280 x 720, as this is a number dictated by the 16:9 ratio, the 720 pixel number to be true high def, and the shape of the pixel. About a year or so ago, Panasonic introduced a new plasma that used a 1024 x 768 panel which had oval shaped pixels to get true high def. There must be some manufacturing advantage to this, as well as some efficiency/price advantage, because many of the HD 42-inch plasmas I see hitting the market this season have this particular type of pixel count. I was not able to determine the source of this plasma's glass in the fairly short time I had before my deadline. This particular plasma takes what Philips has been doing with the EBox and Pixel Plus processing a step further, and integrates everything into the unit itself. This is quite impressive, as not only is this a very attractive plasma, it is also very flexible and has copious connectivity.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
The Philips is a true television, as it has a built-in NTSC tuner (it receives analog signals, it does not have a HD tuner on board). It also has HDMI connectivity, and in a particularly thoughtful touch, a DVI-HDMI crossover cable is included. There are connections for RGBHV, component input, S-Video, composite video, and coaxial video, and the audio inputs for them.
The remote really deserves special mention here, as its surface is a sheet of aluminum that wraps around the front and back, with plastic only on the bottom and sides. It feels special, heavy and substantial, but unfortunately is not backlit. It has controls at the bottom to turn Ambilight on and off, and also for the different modes. I hooked the Philips up to my Pioneer Time Warner Cable box and Bravo D2 DVI player using the included DVI-HDMI crossover cable, and this worked flawlessly. Philips still has the best setup menus in the business at this time. They are straightforward, and easy to understand with a tree system for different categories. I used Video Essentials to do basic picture control adjustment, which I am now convinced more than ever is truly necessary with a plasma to get the best black level possible. I also used Tributaries component cables to check the picture with this modality.
I started watching this plasma using analog and HD television feeds using the DVI output of my Pioneer box. I immediately checked the effect of the Pixel Plus 2 processing as this TV actually has a split screen demo mode that shows you with and without (!). Pixel Plus definitely works, removing a layer of grain and noise from an analog feed, and giving a clearer, more tolerable picture. It made the worst cable feeds watchable, and the good cable feeds really good. This is definitely a technology that has improved since its first version, and is something worth having. The analog picture was actually quite good on the Philips, but I am not a huge fan of the stretch mode on this plasma, as it seems to make the picture just a bit more ovoid than I like, but it is still not as bad as some of the other stretch modes that I have seen. I actually got used to it fairly quickly, and it only really bothered me when watching news channels that had a bit of vertical compression due to a ticker beneath them.
That said, the overall picture quality was quite good if not great. The brightness and contrast ratio of this panel is very good but not quite as bright as my Marantz, and therefore it takes some fine tuning to get a good black level and a bright picture. Once properly tuned, this panel gives a very nice picture with not only analog televison, but also DVD and HDTV. Black level never quite reaches the true black level of the Panasonic glass-based plasmas, but this is again based on my overly critical eye. Color accuracy is easy to achieve, and the panel has a vibrant overall feel. Black and dark detail is also fairly good, not the best I have seen, but definitely better than average. High def feeds look just about as good as on a 1280 x 720 display, so the 1024 x 768 does do the job. Where this plasma really shines is when the lights are turned out and the Ambilight modes take effect. Watching TV becomes a much more involving, intense and fun experience. This plasma is just plain fun, and I mainly used the dynamic mode. I highly recommend having this piece wall mounted to make the most of the Ambilight feature, and also mount it on a wall that is painted a white or light color so the colors from the Ambilight system will be accurate. The dynamic system works fairly well in keeping up with the onscreen colors, except for a few hiccups. The idea is that the Ambilight color takes its cues from the general main color of the screen to create an accentuating effect. There was one winter mountain scene with a lady in an orange ski suit, and the ambient lighting, which should have been white due to the background snow, took its cue from the orange jumpsuit instead and colored the background orange. This hiccup was more the exception than the rule, and the brightness of the panel started to make sense, as an overly bright panel would overwhelm the ambient lighting modes, and the effect would be diminished. You can also derive from this that a dark room is really needed to truly enjoy it.
I only had two real issues with this plasma. The first is the $8,999 price, which is kind of hefty for a 42-inch model, although this unit is so feature-loaded. The second issue I had was the fact that it is only available in a 42-inch model. Where is the 50-inch version so I can beg and plead with Philips to let me keep it? This Ambilight thing is just so much fun, I really hope it catches on.
Philips 42" Ambilight Plasma Television
Brightness: 1000 cd/m2
Contrast Ratio: 3000:1
Panel Resolution: 1024 x 768p
Anti-Reflection Coated Screen
Viewing Angle (horizontal and vertical):160 degrees
Ambilight Features: full operation in Stand-by,
Auto adaptive to video content
Color Settings: full multi color dimming Function: manual and via Light Sensor preset Modes: (6) preset modes and user preset,
(2) Active Adaptive preset modes
Connectivity: AV 1: audio L/R in, YPbPr, component video in, (1, 2, 3Fh autoranging), Y/C
AV 2: audio L/R in, CVBS, RGB+H/V, YPbPr, component video in, (1, 2, 3Fh autoranging), Y/C
AV 3: audio L/R in, HDMI (Digital Stream &
Other Connections: analog audio L/R out, center speaker connection in, monitor out, CVBS, L/R (cinch), subwoofer out
Side: CVBS in, headphones out, S-Video Y/C
Dimensions: 3.9" x 30.5" x 43.5"
Weight: 92 lbs.