The 50-inch plasma has become one of the best values in flat-panel HDTV. Similar-size LCDs typically cost a good deal more at this size, and although that's changing quickly, the typical plasma still enjoys a few other picture quality advantages. Hitachi's P50H401 is hardly a typical plasma, however. Its spec sheet proclaims "HD1080" resolution, which sounds a bit like "1080p" but most decidedly is not; in fact, this is one of the softer-looking plasmas at any resolution we've tested. We'd forgive the softness if it weren't for this model's subpar black-level performance, which leads a crowded pack of picture-quality shortcomings. Yes, the Hitachi P50H401 costs less than many plasmas in its size range, and it has a few strong points, but you can do a lot better for the money.
The conservative-looking P50H401 incorporates a black border around the edge of the screen, with a matte-black frame around that, laudably eschewing the high-gloss finish employed by so many other HDTVs. Below the frame and screen sits a pair of speakers to either side of a flip-down door concealing a group of inputs and controls. The panel is ringed by a silver edge and there's a black pedestal that's appropriately massive for the large plasma. The whole set measures about 48.8 inches wide by 34.7 inches high by 16.6 inches deep with the stand attached and 48.8 by 32.6 by 5.5 inches without it.
The included remote is among the most basic we've seen and won't inspire many compliments sitting on your coffee table. The few buttons are grouped too closely together, and most are around the same size and shape, making the clicker difficult to navigate by feel. We like the general arrangement of Hitachi's menu system, but it's painfully slow to react; we'd often impatiently depress a button a second time, only to have the menu eventually appear and disappear quickly as our commands finally registered. Just as annoying, selections take seemingly forever to slide down to the bottom of the screen, although we much prefer them there as opposed to obscuring the middle.
Unlike most 50-inch plasmas, which have native resolutions of 1,366x768 or 1,920x1,080 pixels, the P50H401 claims a native resolution of 1,280x1,080. Hitachi calls this resolution "HD1080," but it's similar to the company's old ALiS system in that the vertical resolution (the all-important "1080" part) isn't comprised of discrete pixels. Like all other non-CRT HDTVs, the Hitachi converts all incoming signals to match its native resolution.
We've always been fond of the Day/Night modes on Hitachi HDTVs. The P50H401 allows you to tweak three completely independent sets of memories per input, allowing adjustment for bright and dark environments, for example.
Update 01/15/2008: We originally wrote that the Hitachi was only capable of "remembering" picture settings after being powered off when the "Quick Start" option was engaged. That's incorrect. An option entitled "Reset TV Settings," found in the "Reset the Software" section of the Setup menu, was marked "Yes" on our review sample. In the standard "No" position for this option, the TV will remember picture settings regardless of the state of the Quick Start option. Users of the TV should certainly choose "No" in most scenarios at home.
The P50H401 has a smattering of adjustments beyond the standard brightness and contrast. We left the Black Enhancement control off because it crushed detail in shadows, and we did the same with Dynamic Contrast because it seemed to create a less desirable gamma curve. There are two kinds of noise reduction, each with Off, Low, and High settings, and an Auto Movie mode that affects 2:3 pull-down (we left it engaged).
Hitachi offers a good selection of aspect ratio modes. With high-def content the TV lets you choose among four modes, one of which includes a variable zoom. Our favorite was the "16:9 standard 2" mode because it displayed nearly the full screen with no overscan. With standard-def content the choice expands to six, including two zoom modes. There's also a setting that changes the brightness of the panels alongside 4:3 content from standard black to bright gray; the lighter the panel, the lower the chance of burn-in, aka image retention.
The Hitachi's setup menu has a "screensaver" option with a variety of modes for preventing image retention or combating it should it occur. There's a three-setting "pixel orbiter" that shifts the image around subtly over time, and a three-position "image power" mode that attenuates light output. If you notice image retention, you can engage the screen wipe, which just fills the screen with a bright white field--although we'd prefer to see some sort of automatic timer for this.
Plasmas use a lot of power, although compared with other 50-inch plasmas, the P50H401 is relatively efficient. You can cut down on power consumption by engaging the image power mode (we used the "Min" setting to arrive at the "Power Saver" numbers in the Juice Box below), but unfortunately that created an extremely dim picture and really messed up the TV's grayscale performance. We recommend leaving the set in the default "Max" setting for image power and simply attenuating contrast manually (see Performance). We also recommend engaging the nifty "Automatic Power Saving" option in the screensaver menu, which turns off the set if there's no active video signal within 15 seconds. The Quick Start feature, meanwhile, allows the TV to turn on more quickly at the expense of increasing standby power consumption from, in this case, 1.1 to 25.1 watts (which works out to about $15 per year). We'd recommend turning this feature off.
The P50H401 has plenty of connections for most AV systems, although it is missing a VGA-style analog PC input. The rear-panel jack pack sprouts two HDMI inputs, two component video inputs and an AV input with S-Video and composite video, along with a matching AV output, an optical digital audio output, an RF input for cable and antenna, and an RS-232 port for use with custom installed remote systems. Meanwhile, behind the well-concealed door on the front panel, you'll find a third HDMI input along with an AV input with composite video and something that looks deceivingly like an SD card slot for displaying digital photos. Unfortunately, the slot is labeled "Upgrade card (service use only)."