The choice between plasma and LCD becomes increasingly difficult at the 42-inch screen size, where both offer similar features for around the same price. Philips' 42PFL7432D, a 42-inch flat-panel LCD, tries to compete against similarly priced 42-inch plasmas by bringing the company's trademark Ambilight system to the table. While we're not the biggest fans of Ambilight, you can always turn it off, and when you do so, the 42PFL74D's picture has a few items to recommend it, notably relatively accurate color, especially after proper adjustment. Its black-level performance, on the flipside, has plenty of room for improvement, making those plasmas and even better LCDs seem much more attractive at this price. But if the idea of colored lights playing on the wall behind the TV appeals to you, the 42PFL7432D becomes a lot more attractive.
For a company known for striking designs, Philips took a relatively conservative tack with the 42PFL9732D. Its handsome exterior is entirely black, with a somewhat thick, glossy-black bezel around the screen. The bezel in turn is set forward from the matte-black cabinet, for a double-frame look. A thin strip below the bezel consists of perforated speaker grille, which bends back subtly. The panel itself rests atop a stand with a silver pedestal and black glass base. Including stand, the set measures 41.2 inches wide by 29.5 inches tall by 10.4 inches deep and weighs 76.3 pounds; sans stand it measures 41.2 by 27 by 4.6 inches and weighs 60.8 pounds.
Though Philips has had some cool-looking but painful-to-use remotes in the past, this clicker is a bit better. Its angled lines and silver finish will look great on your glass-top coffee table, and it does include partial backlighting. Sure, there's no Exit key to back out of menus, and the color-coded soft keys are too close together for easy use, but otherwise its spacing and button choice is perfectly acceptable. We can't accept Philips' menu design though. It takes seemingly forever to get to the picture menu, and in general we found navigation confusing and counterintuitive. The menus obscure the entire screen most of the time, and when you finally do get to an adjustment, the menu parameter still obscures half of the screen--we'd prefer a discreet, smaller overlay.
Philips' trademark flat-panel extra is the Ambilight system, which, on the 42PFL3742D, consists of a set of colored fluorescent lights arranged vertically to either side of the back of the TV. Depending on the backdrop--a lighter wall produces brighter reflections--the lights create a colorful accompaniment to the onscreen image. A comprehensive set of controls handles the color and brightness of the lights, and you can choose whether to have the color and brightness mimic the onscreen image, display a constant color, or turn off completely (our preferred setting).
The 42PFL7432D is a 1080p HDTV, which means it has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080, enough pixels to fully resolve the detail of 1080i and 1080p sources. All other incoming resolutions, such as 720p and 480p, are scaled to fit the available pixels.
Philips' set offers three nonadjustable picture presets, and when you make adjustments it reverts to a "current" picture setting. Unfortunately, changing back to one of the presets erases your settings, so there's no way to use one preset for one kind of material or lighting condition and still save your settings. We did appreciate that, unlike previous Philips TVs, any changes are saved independently per input.
We definitely missed having a backlight control, which controls the intensity of the light emanating from the screen and can really improve black-level performance if adjusted properly (that is, turned down). Among the advanced controls the Philips does offer, we left most turned off. According to the manual, Pixel Perfect HD performs a host of enhancements designed to "make every single pixel the best it can be," although in our testing we couldn't tell much difference. Dynamic contrast, Active control, and the light sensor all automatically adjust the picture on the fly in response to content or room lighting, so we left them turned off. Color enhancement didn't seem to do anything, so we left it off. We did appreciate the noise reduction controls, however, and used the adjustable color temperature controls to good effect during calibration.
Philips also includes a Settings Assistant, which is a step-by-step tutorial designed to help you adjust the 42PFL7432D's picture. When you start the Settings Assistant, it splits the screen down the middle and shows you a series of images, then you determine whether you like the left or right side better. It's a decent idea in concept, but in reality it didn't work that well. For example, the first choice we had to make was between an image with full shadow detail and poor black levels and another image with crushed black and good black levels--we didn't want to pick either of those choices. The results of the settings assistant were poor--it looked more like the "torch" mode used by retailers on the showroom floor rather than a properly calibrated set.
Aspect-ratio control is a mixed bag, with the 42PFL7432D offering five modes for standard-def sources but only two for high-def sources. The two high-def choices are Unscaled, which is a "dot-by-dot" mode displaying every pixel of 1080i and 1080p sources with no overscan, and Widescreen, which produces some overscan if you want to eliminate interference on the outer edges of the picture. There are no zoom or stretch modes for high-def sources, which will disappoint anyone looking to eliminate black bars on 4:3 aspect ratio program material.
Connectivity is solid on the 42PFL7432D, beginning with the trio of HDMI inputs on the back panel. There's also a bank of analog AV inputs; the first offers a choice of component-video, S-Video, or composite video; the second only composite-video; and the third only component-video. Additional rear-panel connections include a coaxial optical digital output (most TVs use optical) and an unusual matching input for getting digital audio from source devices to play through the TV's sound system. Unlike most flat-panel LCDs, this Philips lacks an RGB-style PC input. A set of AV jacks on the left side of the panel, with composite and S-Video, offers easy access. The same-side panel bay also includes a headphone jack and a USB port, the latter for displaying digital photos on the screen and playing digital music files though the TVs speakers.