Philips's flat TVs have always brought unique designs to the table, and for the last couple of years, they've usually included a feature that's completely unique to the Dutch company: Ambilight. These back-mounted fluorescent lights can be set to display a constant color, which can help ease eyestrain in a darkened room, or to follow the onscreen action, which we simply found distracting, although some viewers might like it. The Philips 42PF9631D is among the company's least expensive Ambilight-equipped televisions yet, and since it costs about the same as other name-brand 42-inch plasmas, you're not paying any more for the 'lights--and you can turn them off. This HDTV has a solid feature set otherwise, and its distinctive style certainly increases its appeal. Testing revealed solid black-level performance and color that was a mixed bag, although we did notice a couple picture-quality issues that don't plague other most plasmas or LCDs we've reviewed this year. That said, the image on the 42PF9631D will be perfectly fine for most viewers, and the rest of the package--especially the price--keeps it competitive. Philips's designs are often snazzier and more sophisticated (read: European) than those of many HDTV makers, and the 42PF9631D is no exception. The screen of this 42-inch plasma is ringed by a thick swath of black frame--it's one of the first black TV we've reviewed this year that has a matte finish, as opposed to glossy. Personally, we prefer matte, but we know lots of people are attracted to shiny things. Below and set back from the frame extends a silver section that houses the speakers, and the whole panel is designed to sit upon the included pedestal stand--although, as with all flat TVs, you can also wall-mount it using an optional bracket. The stand itself is even cooler-looking than most, starting with the relatively narrow silver pedestal and finishing with a base made of frosted glass. We wish it swiveled, though.
Our only real complaint about the 42PF9631D's physical presence has to do with size. Owing to the thickness of the frame, which we assume has something to do with the Ambilights on the back panel, it's quite a bit larger than most 42-inch panels, measuring 44.7 by 33.9 by 11.4 inches (WHD) including the stand, and weighing in at 97 pounds. Sans stand, the panel measures 44.7 by 31.4 by 4.5 inches.
This HDTV's remote conforms to Philips's proprietary style, with distinctive sharp edges and orderly rows of buttons seemingly designed for the eyes, not the fingers. In other words, we had a difficult time stretching up and down the long wand with our thumb, and we wish the keys were more clearly delineated--and backlit. The remote can operate four other devices.
Navigation among items in Philips's menu system is mostly intuitive, utilizing the directional cursor, and individual items are accompanied by text explanations. We were annoyed, however, by the fact that the OK button in the middle of the cursor didn't advance to the next menu--counterintuitively, it moved back instead. We also would have liked the menu to be partially transparent to the onscreen picture; as it stands, all but the picture-affecting selections obscure the entire screen, and even those take up too much real estate for our taste. There's also a secondary Option menu that offered quick access to a few seemingly random functions, such as closed captions, PIP format, secondary audio tracks, and the content of any attached USB thumbdrives. In case you haven't seen the commercials, Ambilight is a feature that's unique to Philips's flat panels and is designed to light up the wall behind the TV. In the case of the 42PF9631D, the Ambilight is of the "stereo" variety, which means that there are two multicolored fluorescent lights on the back of the television, one to either side (other Ambilight "surround" sets, such as the 42PF9831D have additional lights above and/or below the screen). When activated, the lights can cast a constant color--the intuitively named Color mode--or will 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. You can also control brightness and separation (which determines how the right and left lights react independently) levels, as well as adjust the hue of the color setting or choose from three preset colors.
Aside from Ambilight, the 42PF9631D offers a solid feature set. It has a native resolution of 1,024x768, as do most 42-inch plasmas. All material, whether HDTV, DVD, or standard television, is scaled to fit the pixels. You can choose to watch two shows at once, thanks to picture-in-picture and enjoy over-the-air digital and high-def shows via the ATSC tuner, which is common to almost every HDTV. Like many manufacturers, Philips did not include a CableCard slot, but that's no big loss as far as we're concerned.
There's a fine selection of six aspect-ratio modes for standard-def sources, but you don't get any with high-def. We did appreciate the option to move the HD picture to the right or left using the directional pad on the remote, and with standard-def sources, you can move it up or down as well. 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 42PF9631D 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.
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, below); 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 we left set to off for critical viewing, again because it modified the picture on the fly.
Connectivity on the Philips 42PF9631D is about average for a plasma in this size range. It includes two HDMI inputs; an analog A/V input that offers a choice of component-video, S-Video, composite-video, or RGBHV (the latter lets you connect a PC as well); an analog input with only component-video; another with S-Video or composite-video; an RF-style antenna input; a digital audio input and 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 either the HDMI input--and utilize your computer's DVI output as well as a DVI-to-HDMI adapter--or the first A/V input and connect from your computer's VGA output via a VGA-to-RGBHV adapter. The Philips 42PF9631D delivered a decent overall picture, mostly owing to its ability to reproduce a deep color of black, but we did notice that its color appeared less accurate than it should have--although not terrible--and that some scenes caused it to exhibit false-contouring artifacts; others led us to notice unusual uniformity issues that detracted from the picture quality somewhat.