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.
The bad news? There are only five total input "slots" available in the menu, so practically speaking you're limited to five external A/V sources. Input slots 1 and 2 connect to HDMI or S-Video or composite video; slots 3 and 4 are dedicated to component video; and slot 5 covers all of the possible side-panel sources: HDMI, component video, or composite video. There's no dedicated PC input, making the 42HDS69 less than ideal as a big computer monitor. These issues don't spoil the essential fact that this Hitachi has better connectivity than just about any plasma we've reviewed, regardless of price. Overall the Hitachi 42HDS69 offers superior performance to last year's models, owing mostly to its accurate color decoding. Its ability to produce a deep black still isn't as strong as on many other plasmas we've seen, and its color of green is about as far off as we've seen, but otherwise it delivered solid image quality.
As usual we began our evaluation by tweaking the 42HDS69's settings to produce the best picture possible in a darkened room. We started by putting the panel in the Night mode and Standard color temperature preset. The grayscale in these settings, while relatively close to the reference, was still rather green. (To see our complete user-menu settings, check out the Tips & Help tab above.) We also performed a professional grayscale calibration. Unfortunately, the service menu has only three of the six controls normally provided for grayscale calibration, so a significant compromise was necessary (see the geek box for details).
In the Hitachi's favor, its color decoding was quite good, which is a distinct improvement over last year's non-Director's Series models. This resulted in very good overall color accuracy, with the exception of the green primary color, which is offensively inaccurate. Grass and tree leaves, for example, looked like they were on steroids. Unfortunately, there was also visible
Moving on to program material, standard definition DVDs upconverted by the Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player looked relatively good. Seabiscuit in particular had deeply saturated colors, and nice, natural-looking skin tones. Colors were rich, but in chapter 13, when Chris Cooper and Toby McGuire check out the horse that will be Seabiscuit's main competitor in the upcoming race, the grass and hedges looked unnaturally green; sort of limey or neon.
Swordfish on HD-DVD exhibited vibrant, rich color and awesome detail. Looking at the same material side by side with the excellent Pioneer PDP-5070, the Hitachi looked pretty good. The one area where the much more expensive Pioneer trounced the Hitachi was black level; it produces a significantly deeper shade of black. The contrast ratio on the Hitachi suffered as a result of its less than stellar black-level performance, which also hindered its color saturation. Nonetheless, we think that Hitachi has improved the blacks on its current line of 42-inch panels over last year's models. The beginning of chapter 9 of The Last Samurai on HD-DVD is a fairly dark passage in the forest, and the Hitachi handled it well, producing reasonable details in the shadows with no signs of the false contouring that plagues some plasmas.