When Philips first introduced their Ambilight technology, I found myself (much to my surprise) enjoying it immensely. That first 42-inch plasma I reviewed retailed for about $8,000 back then, and was pretty good as a plasma - but not great, deriving most of its notability from the Ambilight function. For those of you unfamiliar with Ambilight, it is a pair of fluorescent lights mounted on each side of the plasma that project light outward from the sides of the unit.
These lights can either stay fixed on one particular color, or rapidly change color to match the predominant color on the screen, so as to create the illusion of stretching the boundaries of the screen into the room. It has always been recommended to have a light on behind a television to ease the strain on your eyes in a dark room. The Ambilight function takes this idea and builds it into the unit and also gives an interesting twist with dynamic illumination. The viewer has the choices of having the lights off, using the lights as originally recommended - as backlit illumination to decrease eye fatigue - or using the dynamic function.
When Philips sent me the second generation of their 42-inch Ambilight plasma, I was rather surprised to find the retail price had dropped by over half to $3,000. There are a few areas where cost-cutting is evident, such as the loss of the fancy glass and steel footstand, which has been replaced by a conventional metal one. There are a few other slightly-less fancy touches, such as only a green LED on the front for when the plasma is turned on, but otherwise the unit still portrays the rich, modern detailing that is common on Philips's models today. The speakers are to the side of the screen, and the Ambilight units are on the outside of the speakers, pointing back toward the wall. This unit is best mounted on the wall, as you will get the full lighting effect. The lights do not add any bulk to the unit - it still appears as sleek as any other plasma.
This particular unit uses a 16:9 1024x768 pixel array, so it is considered a true HDTV as it is able to display a native 720p signal. The truly knowledgeable among you will notice that the 1024 does not make for the right 16:9 ratio with a 768 resolution, but that is because this panel uses oval pixels. This has become a very common resolution with 42-inch panels, and seems to work quite well, overall.
The remote is a nice, heavy, elegant unit with an aluminum plate on top. Although not backlit, it has fairly clear, well-placed buttons and manages to avoid having a million buttons that all look the same. The remote can also be programmed to run multiple other units, such as a VCR or DVD player, although I wish it had discrete buttons for them instead of one that cycles through the choices.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
I have to say, it is nice to finally see plasmas coming standard with a footstand. I always found it a little silly that you had to buy a wall mount or a footstand separately from the unit. The footstand was pretty easy to set up, but be forewarned that it is a two-person job.
I set up this plasma television with a Marantz DV-9500 DVD player outputting 720p via a Tributaries HDMI cable and a Time Warner HD cable box outputting HD via a set of Tributaries component cables. This unit comes standard with two HDMI connections compatible with HDCP encryption and also with two component inputs. The feature list continues to impress with built-in NTSC (analog television) and ATSC (digital television) tuners. That makes this a true high definition television, but I did not have the opportunity to test it with over-the-air signals. It's also CableCard compatible.
Setting up this unit is really very easy, as the Philips setup menu is large, easy to understand and even easier to navigate. It continues to be one of the best in the business. The auto-programming function will find all available over-the-air channels if you are using the internal tuners. Full user controls are present for color and picture calibration, for which I used Video Essentials. There are also advanced controls for individual RGB correction, if necessary. The television was fairly good out of the box, and was not particularly difficult to calibrate.
One very interesting feature on this unit is Pixel Plus 2. This is Philips's proprietary system for de-interlacing, interpolating and scaling sources to create a picture that is crisper and, as they claim, closer to high definition. The original Pixel Plus was mainly for analog sources, but Pixel Plus 2 can be used for all sources, whether analog or high definition. The original Pixel Plus was interesting in the way it made images crisper and more vivid, and the Pixel Plus 2 appears even better. The only issue is that part of the process makes the picture look more like video and less like film, and there are also some issues with how images move on the screen. The movement just doesn't seem natural, at times. These issues are totally unnoticeable when watching the news, but are more noticeable in an action drama. I really did not notice these issues as much with HD sources, more with analog sources, and I noticed these effects less with Pixel Plus 2 then with the first version. It makes for a mixed bag of positive effects, and the user will probably learn how and when to use this powerful feature.
After firing up this television, I immediately noticed that this panel was not only brighter and punchier than the first-generation 42-inch Ambilight, but also had a better black level. After picture calibration, I went about just watching analog television with the cable box, and I noticed there were the aforementioned differences with Pixel Plus processing turned on. In many cases, I found I preferred the Pixel Plus 2 processing on - it just seems to create a crisper, cleaner picture - and in many cases the issues I mentioned before did not bother me on much of the programming I watched.
Picture quality is actually one of the best that I have seen on a 42-inch HD panel. I was able to calibrate the colors easily to NTSC level, and as I mentioned previously, the black level was one of the better levels that I have seen. Black detail is still not fabulous, but it never is on a fixed pixel device, so that is a moot point. Analog television was about as good as I have seen on a plasma, with a stretch mode that has also been refined from the first generation to have less stretch in the center and more on the edges for a more natural picture. This unit has one of the better stretch modes that I have seen, significantly better than the last generation.
When using HD sources, picture quality was very good - not quite as crisp as a 1280x768 panel, but significantly better than with an EDTV 480p panel. The black level is again very good, and I did not really notice much in the way of the aforementioned Pixel Plus 2 issues.
DVD playback was much like the HD, but not quite as crisp. I used the Marantz in the 720p output mode, and DVDs were smooth, clean and a pleasure to watch on this panel.
I still enjoy the Ambilight effect, and this is personal taste. I could easily see some deciding this feature is just gimmicky and not important. For those folks, Philips makes a similar, less expensive version without Ambilight.
Overall, this is a lot of plasma for $3,000, and I have already seen it available from major retailers for less. The picture quality is top-notch; Pixel Plus 2 processing makes a significant improvement and is very desirable with certain programming; the Ambilight feature is fun and, in my opinion, desirable; and it looks pretty nice to boot. I would say it is highly recommended.
Philips 42" Ambilight Plasma Television
16:9 1024 x 758 high definition plasma television
Video Connections: (2) HDMI
(2) Component (including one RGBHV)
Built-in NTSC/ATSC tuners w/75 Ohm aerial input
(2) USB ports
Memory Card Types: Compact Flash, Compact Flash Type II, Memory Stick, Microdrive, MMC, Secure Digital, Smart Media
Built-in speakers with 2 x 15watts amplifier
48.8" x 26.8" x 4.1"