Philips has, by now, established its maverick street cred by installing Ambilight on a large number of its flat-panel HDTVs. The 37-inch 37PF9631D LCD TV is one of the least expensive, and its back panel does indeed bear those two multicolored banks of fluorescent lights, designed to shine upon the wall behind the set, either mimicking the action onscreen or providing a constant color. We strongly prefer the latter effect, but tastes vary and some viewers might like the dancing lights--hey, they're definitely more entertaining than most prime-time TV shows. Ambilight aside, the Philips 37PF9631D is a capable-enough flat-panel LCD, with a slick design and ample features for most setups. Its performance exhibited solid depth of black, countered by color temperature that could certainly have been more accurate. All in all, the Philips doesn't match up to the best LCDs out there in picture quality, but it does hold its own, and some buyers might feel Ambilight is worth the slight premium. The Philips 37PF9631D cuts an eye-catching figure, with a thick, glossy black border surrounding the screen and the black speaker grilles. The only accent is provided by the big Philips logo and the matching silver stand, which sets off the all-black panel nicely. Unlike most LCD TVs available these days, the 37-inch Philips 37PF9631D has side-mounted speakers, so its overall look is much wider than normal for sets of this size. Its dimensions follow suit, totaling 38.9 by 27.8 by 10 inches (WHD) atop the stand; divorced from the stand, the panel measures 38.9 by 24.5 by 4.5 inches.
The silver remote looks pretty cool and has a decent button layout, with plenty of space between the keys and logical placement of the various functions. We would have appreciated illumination of some kind, but that's our only complaint. Philips's menu system is mostly intuitive, but we were annoyed that hitting the OK button took us back a level instead of advancing after we'd made a selection. One we got used to that, navigating the menus was relatively painless--although we did wish that the graphics for picture parameters didn't obscure so much of the screen. As with many Philips flat-panel HDTVs, the 37PF9631D uses Ambilight to differentiate itself from the pack. In the case of this set, the Ambilight is of the stereo variety, which essentially means that there are two multicolored fluorescent lights on the back of the television, one to either side. (Other Ambilight variations may place additional lights above or below the screen.) When activated, the lights can be set to cast a constant color on the wall behind the set--Color mode--or to follow the onscreen action, becoming brighter or dimmer and casting different colors as the picture changes. A variety of modes are available with different rates of change, brightness, and separation, which determines how the right and left lights react independently); you can also adjust the hue of the Color setting or choose from three preset colors.
Aside from Ambilight, the 37PF9631D has fewer features than most LCDs in its price range. Its native resolution, 1,366x768, is standard for the breed, which allows it to display all of the detail of 720p HDTV programs. All material, whether HDTV, DVD, or standard television, is scaled to fit the pixels. The Philips lacks picture-in-picture, so it can't display two programs at once by itself, and it also lacks the ability to freeze the picture. Naturally the 37PF9631D has an ATSC tuner for pulling in high-def stations over the air.
Philips includes a fine selection of six aspect-ratio modes for standard-def sources, but you don't get any with high-def. It does however, offer limited multimedia capability. A USB port on the side panel can interface with thumbdrives to display digital photos and play music files on the TV.
People who like to adjust the picture will probably be disappointed that the Philips 37PF9731D lacks any kind of independent input memories. Instead, it offers just one Personal preset that applies to all of the inputs, making it impossible to adjust different sources separately. None of the five picture presets can be adjusted--doing so just reverts to Personal, erasing all of your settings in the process. We also missed having a backlight control, which, in other LCDs, can be adjusted to achieve better black levels.
The range of additional picture controls includes three adjustable color-temperature presets, among which Warm comes closest to the standard; a digital processing menu offering Pixel Plus and Standard choices (see Performance); four steps of dynamic contrast, where Off was the best choice since the others modified light output on the fly; four levels of noise reduction; a color enhancement control that's best left off to maintain the best color temperature; and four steps of active control, which, for critical viewing, we left set to Off as well, because it modified the picture on the fly.
Another picture adjustment we did like is what Philips calls Nudge. By pressing the directional keypad you can shift the position of the picture to the right or left with HD sources, and with standard-def sources you're able to also shift it up or down.
Connectivity on the Philips 37PF9631D is below average. Unlike most LCD displays available these days, it has just one HDMI input instead of two, which limits the amount of equipment you can connect to the TV directly. In addition, the set provides two A/V inputs that both offer a choice of component-video or composite-video, another with S-Video or composite video, an RF-style antenna input, a digital audio output, and an analog audio out. There's also a side-panel A/V input with composite and S-Video alongside the aforementioned USB port. To connect a PC, you'll need to monopolize the HDMI input and utilize your computer's DVI output along with a DVI-to-HDMI adapter; resolution is limited to 1,024x768.The picture quality of the Philips 37PF9631D had its good and bad points. It exhibited some of the deepest black levels we've seen on an LCD, which lent plenty of punch and depth to the picture. On the flipside, its color accuracy left something to be desired, especially in darker scenes.
As always, we began by setting the 37-inch LCD up in our darkened home theater and adjusting its picture for optimal quality in that environment (for our full picture settings, see Tips & Tricks above). We chose to leave Ambilight turned off for the most critical portions of the test, but see below for our impressions. During setup, we noticed that even the Warm color-temperature preset became quite blue in the darkest areas, and despite giving the set a service-menu-level calibration, we couldn't improve this aspect much.