At the Consumer Electronics Show this year we selected the Philips 42PFL5603D as the best product overall because it addressed one big issue with today's flat-panel HDTVs: power consumption. Now that we've tested the "Eco TV," we can confirm that it does indeed use less power than any flat TV to ever grace our labs. The bad news is that despite appealing to our desire to save the planet, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, or simply save a few bucks on the ol' electric bill, the 42PFL5603D does not appeal to our desire to watch a high-quality home theater image. If your priorities lie less with black-level performance and more with saving black gold, however, the Eco TV's miserly power consumption more than offsets its mediocre picture quality.
There's a lot to like about the external appearance of the Eco TV. Its black frame is the same thickness all around and bordered by a rounded strip of see-through plastic. Otherwise the look is quite minimal, with few logos, LEDs, or other unsightly extras. The matching black stand swivels, and the downward-firing speakers are hidden under the cabinet. Including stand, the set measures about 41.2 inches wide by 28 inches tall by 10.3 inches deep, and weighs 60 pounds, while removing the stand shrinks it to 41.2 by 25.4 by 3.5 inches and 49 pounds.
Philips has always produced funky, if not exactly ergonomically friendly remotes, but the sad little clicker included with this TV represents a new low. Its few buttons aren't well differentiated at all, and the cursor control makes an annoying click when depressed. We're still not fans of the company's menu system, with its less-intuitive navigation and large sections that obscure the screen during adjustment.
The Philips 42PFL5603D's greatest claim to fame is its energy-saving prowess. With its Power Saver mode engaged, which utilizes all of the set's energy-saving functions including a variable backlight, a brightness limiter, and a room-lighting sensor, it draws about as much power as a standard incandescent light bulb. Even in its default picture setting it's more efficient than just about any other 42-inch TV, and in fact uses less energy than even smaller sets we've tested. Check out the Juice Box below for the numbers, and this blog post for other comparisons.
The key to the 42PFL5603's ability to sip power lies in its "Active Control" mode, which causes the TV to vary the intensity of its backlight on the fly according to picture content. Darker scenes cause the backlight to turn down and brighter scenes ratchet up its intensity. As you can imagine, this fluctuation in backlight brightness can become bothersome; the Performance section has the dirty details.
Like many 2008 flat-panel TVs, the Philips has a native resolution of 1080p, the highest currently available. Of course, it's always worth mentioning that at this screen size, it's difficult to appreciate the extra detail afforded by those extra pixels.
Philips' "Digital Natural Motion" is a de-judder processing mode that smoothes motion, much like those available in 120Hz LCDs (the 42PFL5603D is a standard 60Hz display). Active Control also has a light sensor that can detect ambient room lighting and adjust the picture accordingly. There's also a Dynamic Contrast control that again adjusts the picture on the fly--for best picture quality, we left all of these controls turned off. We also tried out the Settings Assistant, which is designed to quickly optimize the picture, but the results weren't nearly as satisfying as a true calibration.
Speaking of picture adjustments, we were quite disappointed to discover that Philips didn't include independent input memories on the 42PFL5603D. All four of the HDMI inputs share the same "Personal" picture memory slot, and the two component video inputs share a different one as well. None of the other picture presets aside from Personal can be adjusted, and to top it off, you can't adjust color temperature beyond the three presets. We were also peeved by the lack of a dedicated backlight control, something found on most other LCDs regardless of price. In short, people who like tweaking the picture or having different picture settings for different components will want to choose another HDTV. We did appreciate the ability to choose from among four aspect ratios with HD sources, one of which introduced zero overscan with 1080 resolution signals.
The input selection on the 42PFL5603D is quite generous, starting with three HDMI inputs on the back panel and a fourth on the side. There are also two component video inputs, an AV input with composite and S-Video, a coaxial digital audio output, and an analog audio input associated with one of the HDMI ports (so you can connect legacy DVI devices and still get audio). There's no analog VGA-style computer input, however. In addition to that fourth HDMI port, the side panel offers a second AV input with composite and S-Video, a USB port to display digital photos and play MP3 music files via the TV, and a headphone jack.
The Philips 42PFL5603D didn't do much to impress us under critical viewing conditions. Its black-level performance was relatively poor; its color, especially in dark areas, was less accurate; and its energy-saving mode made too many picture quality compromises.