We've tested a few of Philips's Ambilight-imbued TVs over the last couple of years, including models such as the 42PF9830A LCD and the 42PF9630A plasma, but we've never been sold. The idea says that a set of lights that illuminate the area behind the TV--and change in color and intensity along with the onscreen image--can help increase your viewing enjoyment. Now we've got nothing against a static backlight, which can be a great way to reduce eyestrain if you're watching a bright TV in a dark room from a medium-to-long seating distance, and Ambilight can certainly be static too--but you can buy a separate backlight yourself and put it behind any TV to get the same (or better) effect.
For people who happen to like Ambilight, however, the Philips 42PF9831D is undoubtedly king of the hill. It's the first model with lights on all four sides of the screen, and it goes one better by extending its fuselage beyond the edge of the frame to provide a white surface off of which the lights reflect, reducing their dependence on the walls behind the TV. We still found active Ambilight distracting, however, and in general, the picture quality of the relatively expensive 42PF9831D ($3,999 list) wasn't up to the standards we expected. Unless you really value the impact and panache of Ambilight, you'll be happier with another HDTV. The first thing we noticed about the Philips 42PF9831D is that it's big. At 50.4 by 34.3 by 4.5 inches (WHD) without the snazzy glass stand (and 50.4 by 36.9 by 11.4 with it), this 42-inch LCD is even larger than most 50-inch plasmas. Nearly all of that extra size can be chalked up to the distinctive white border, or skirt, around the thick, glossy black bezel that in turn surrounds the screen. For ourselves, we generally prefer a flat-panel look that's more picture and less frame, but some people might like the unique styling.
Philips installed the skirt so the 42PF9831D's 4-way Ambilight backlighting would show up regardless of what kind of background you set the TV up against. One side-effect of the white frame is that the wall behind the TV doesn't pick up quite as much of the light as with standard Ambilight models, which are designed to shine directly on the wall.
The style continues with Philips's sharp-edged remote. This large, glossy black clicker looks like no other, with slightly raised buttons arranged in orderly rows for a slick designer look. The remote doesn't have backlighting, however, and the lack of delineation among keys means you'll have a more difficult time operating the TV by feel.
Philips has improved its menu system, which is now at a level of usability only slightly lower than other HDTVs. Navigation among items is mostly intuitive, utilizing the directional cursor, and individual items are accompanied by text explanations. We 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 of the screen 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 media cards or USB thumbdrives. The Philips 42PF9831D's biggest differentiating feature is the latest iteration of the company's Ambilight technology, which it dubs "Ambilight full surround." Ambilight consists of colored fluorescent lights along the edges of the screen that illuminate, in this case, the white skirt around the TV, and secondarily, the walls and other objects around it. As a "full-surround" model, the 42PF9831D has lights on all four sides of the screen, and each of the banks of light can react independently to onscreen material.
There are five different Ambilight modes: four that react to the onscreen picture and one, called Color, that does not. The four dynamic modes offer varying intensities and rates of transition, from the relatively mellow Relaxed mode to the frenetic Action mode. Controls that affect the dynamic modes include lamp brightness as well as two that sound as if they were borrowed from a stereo system: balance, which is said to adjust the color and intensity on the sides, and separation, which affects how differently each of the four sides reacts to the four quadrants of the picture. The fifth mode simply creates a constant color around the screen. It offers four presets, with Cool White coming the closest to the ideal 6,500K backlight color (although it was still rather blue), as well built-in controls to create a custom color. No matter what adjustments we tried, we couldn't get closer to the standard than Cool White.
Aside from Ambilight, the Philips 42PF9831D brings a comprehensive set of features to the table. The panel has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, standard among LCD TVs, which should resolve every detail of 720p HDTV. All sources, including HDTV, DVD, standard TV, and computer, are scaled to fit the native pixels.
Philips touts its ClearLCD technology, which is said to improve many aspects of picture quality (see Performance for more). The 42PF9831D also has both an ATSC tuner and a CableCard slot, enabling it to tune HDTV and digital channels over-the-air or via cable without the box. Unlike some CableCard-equipped sets, it does lack a third-party EPG, however, so you won't be able to use a program grid to tune CableCard channels.
There is a fine selection of six aspect ratio modes for standard-def sources, but you get only one with high-def. Other conveniences include picture-in-picture, a favorite channels list, and multimedia capability. A multicard slot and/or a pair of USB ports on the side panel can interface with cards and/or 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 42PF9831D lacks any kind of independent input memories. Instead, it offers just one Personal preset that applies to each input, 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 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--we preferred Standard, since Pixel Plus introduced some edge enhancement; 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.
Philips included a standard but by no means exemplary array of connections on the 42PF9831D. There's a pair of HDMI inputs; one A/V input with a choice of RGB, component video, S-Video, or composite video; one with a choice of S-Video or composite video; one with only component video; a digital audio input; an RF-style antenna input; a digital audio output, and an analog audio out. To connect a PC, you'll need to monopolize one of the HDMI inputs (connecting via a DVI-to-HDMI adapter) or use the first A/V input's RGB capability, which eliminates one of the component-video connections. Overall, we were relatively disappointed by the picture quality of the Philips 42PF9831D. Flat-panel LCD technology has come a long way in the last couple of years, but this set didn't produce as impressive a picture as the current competition's, especially given the price. Its relatively light blacks, less-than-stellar off-angle viewing, and relatively inaccurate color decoding were the major culprits.