Thin is in and it looks to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Although bulkier tube televisions and big-box RPTVs can still generate some of the best pictures available, LCD and plasma flat panel displays continue to dominate the television market. Whether it's above the fireplace in your friend's living room or above the bar at your local watering hole, flat panels are everywhere you look.
Although some recent advances have improved black levels and shadow detail on LCD TVs, plasma continues to be the popular favorite. The 42-inch 42HP84 HDTV monitor from Toshiba, a company long associated with quality displays, is sure to turn a few heads and is certainly worthy of your attention.
Plasma displays have some inherent strengths and weaknesses, and it's critical that you be aware of these before you start shopping. Getting the bad news out of the way first, remember that most plasmas do not handle low-grade, standard definition content very well. This means that analog cable signals and VHS recordings tend to look rather poor. This issue can be minimized by pairing your display with a quality scaler/line doubler, such as DVDO's iScan HD (see review on page 76).
Also remember that plasmas are subject to image "burn-in", whereby an image or line can become permanently engrained in the display due to prolonged viewing of a stationary image. A good example of this is the stock ticker running along the bottom of CNBC, or the "pillarbox" bars that flank 4:3 content on your 16:9 screen. Whenever possible, fill your entire screen with the picture/zoom mode that is least offensive to you. In case you don't believe in burn-in, I should point out that Toshiba has placed a large, bold-text box on NINE different pages of the 42HP84 owner's manual warning owners about this plasma phenomenon. The box is also kind enough to remind you that "This type of damage is NOT covered by your warranty." Consider yourself warned.
The good news is that plasma displays are capable of tremendous picture quality, especially with HDTV and DVD sources. Also, plasmas tend to be capable of very high brightness and they perform exceptionally well in rooms with high amounts of ambient light. Anyone with a CRT-based RPTV will tell you that one uncovered window or glass door can completely wash out your picture during daylight hours. This is not the case with plasma. Finally, as with LCD panels, plasmas are extremely easy to mount on the wall and they instantly add a splash of style to any room. Toshiba's 42HP84 is no exception.
Proving that it's ready to be connected to the latest and greatest source devices, Toshiba's 42HP84 features a High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) input. HDMI provides a 100% digital signal path for both video and multi-channel digital audio over a single cable. Many new DVD players and set-top boxes feature HDMI (or DVI, which is identical to HDMI but for video only). If you can take advantage of this connection, HDMI will give you the best possible picture on the 42HP84.
To risk sounding greedy for a moment, I'd really like to see two HDMI inputs on future Toshiba plasmas, and on all quality displays for that matter. Most new DVD players and set-top boxes now feature HDMI output and most households have both devices. In my case, my Onkyo DV-SP1000 reference DVD player has a 1080i-capable HDMI output. But, my VOOM satellite receiver also has a digital output (DVI) which I'd like to use to watch my HDTV (with a DVI/HDMI adapter.) So which do I choose? In the end, I gave the HDMI input to my VOOM box since that's outputting native HDTV. I relegated the DVD to component video, but it'd be nice if I didn't have to make that compromise. With analog connections becoming a thing of the past, I'd be happy to forfeit both of the 42HP84's rear-panel composite/S-Video inputs in exchange for a second HDMI input.
For viewers who like to multi-task, the 42HP84 has a unique Picture-out-Picture (POP) feature which allows you to watch two windows side by side in the display. This handy feature extends to the set's various inputs, so you can watch a DVD in your POP window while surfing your cable channels in the main window. Several buttons on the remote handle this feature, including one which lets you swap the window content, and another to toggle which window's audio is output.
Speaking of audio, the built-in speakers on the 42HP84 are definitely unique. Many plasma displays forego speakers entirely, expecting the consumer to use a 5.1 speaker system. That's fine, and that will certainly sound better than any set's built-in speakers. But some installations (such as a bedroom) require nothing more than a decent set of built-ins. The column speakers on the 42HP84 are beautifully integrated into the panel's design, and while they do make the unit considerably wider, they're an artful and useful addition.
An extra bonus is the presence of WOW• Surround and Virtual Dolby Surround for creating enhanced 3D sound with only two speakers. During my evaluation period, I detected some cabinet resonance during a bass-heavy Sheryl Crow song playing over a scene from Jersey Girl. This was only detectable when the WOW• TruBass setting was engaged (the default setting). Toshiba was unable to duplicate this problem at their facility so it may have only been an isolated issue specific to my review sample.
Read more about the Toshiba 42HP84 on Page 2.