You may still think of a plasma HDTV as incredibly expensive, but prices are falling every day, and even manufacturers who have traditionally charged a big premium for their panels, such as Hitachi, have had to become more aggressive on pricing. The company's 42HDS69 is a great example, selling for just over $2,000 online at the time of this writing. This 42-inch plasma manages to offer a complete feature set, including CableCard and a third HDMI input, both of which are nowhere to be found among flat-panel displays at this price. In the Labs, it evinced decent performance with commendable color saturation, although black levels weren't quite up to the standards set by the best plasmas out there. Given its price and excellent feature package, the Hitachi 42HDS69 is a fine overall value. Like the flat panels of Sony and some other manufacturers, Hitachi's 42HDS69 sports a black and silver two-tone look. A black frame surrounds the immediate area around the screen, and there is silver trim around the black. We found the smooth, high-tech exterior attractive enough, although silver-and-black definitely doesn't have the same drop-dead-gorgeous appeal in person as the all-black of Hitachi's step-up 2006 models or last year's 42HDT52.
Stereo speakers flank the left and right sides of the screen rather than being housed below, a design move that adds to the overall width of the set. Including its (nonmotorized) swivel stand--increasingly rare among flat panels--the 42HDS69 measures 43.1 by 31.3 by 4.5 inches and weighs 48 pounds. Before adding this 42-inch plasma into an existing entertainment center, you should take careful measurements to make sure it will fit.
The remote is a basic black rectangular design that's nonetheless logically laid out and relatively easy to use. This simple clicker lacks illumination, but at least Hitachi has done the right thing and given it discrete codes for programming its functions into a universal remote or a touch-panel system. Internally the menu system hasn't changed from last year's plasma models, and we found it intuitive and easy to navigate. Looking at the spec sheet, you may notice that the Hitachi 42HDS69 doesn't have the same native resolution as most 42-inch plasmas. Its unusual 1,024x1,080 resolution is new for this year and exactly matches the vertical resolution of 1,920x1,080 (1080i) signals. In theory this should produce a sharper picture than standard 1,024x768 plasmas, but in reality it's extremely difficult to tell the difference. As with all other plasmas, the Hitachi scales all incoming signals, whether from HDTV, DVD or standard TV, to fit the available pixels.
The Hitachi 42HDS69 comes fairly well equipped with convenience features. Many entry-level panels omit picture-in-picture nowadays, but the Hitachi still has it, allowing you to watch two sources simultaneously. The set's selection of aspect ratio modes is excellent, including six for standard-def and four for high-def, one of which shows every line of 1080i sources without any scaling or overscan--a great option since it lets you see the entire picture. We appreciated the ability to adjust vertical position while using a few of these modes and the presence of an "auto aspect" setting that can choose a mode for you. A few modes are designed to address image retention, including a "wipe" setting that displays a white field across the screen.
Like nearly every other HDTV on the market, the Hitachi 42HDS69 offers a built-in ATSC tuner for tuning over-the-air high-def and digital channels. Unlike most of its competition, it also includes a CableCard slot, which lets you watch cable high-def and digital channels without attaching a cable box. Note that the set lacks an EPG such as TV Guide, so you won't be able to search for programs on a familiar grid. Since digital cable boxes usually offer an EPG and often a DVR to boot, we suspect most users won't take advantage of CableCard.
Picture-affecting features include two separate independent input memories per input, entitled Day and Night. We like this feature because it allows you to do two separate setups for each input, allowing you to optimize the picture for nighttime and daytime viewing. There's even a timer that will switch from one mode to the other. The obligatory selectable color temperatures are available, including Standard, which comes closest to the reference, as well as Medium and High. Selecting the Auto Movie Mode engages 2:3 pull-down detection to eliminate motion artifacts from film-based video sources. A Black Enhancement mode simply crushes black to a lesser or greater degree, obscuring details in shadows, and it's best left off.
As we mentioned at the outset, one of the Hitachi 42HDS69's best features is industry-leading connectivity, beginning with three HDMI inputs--one on the side and two on the back. The good news continues with three component-video inputs (one on the side), a number that's again unheard of at this price. Other jacks include two A/V inputs with both S-Video and composite video, one more on the side with only composite, and an RF input. Finally there's an RS-232 control port for programming purposes, a monitor A/V output with S-Video and composite video, and a digital optical audio output for passing surround soundtracks from digital TV sources to an external sound system.