Philips's 42-inch plasma panel, the 42PF9630A, certainly looks cooler than most of the competition on store shelves. And if you're the kind of person who goes for neon ground effects under your car (or your PC), the Philips 42PF9630A's Ambilight feature will fit right in with your concept of cool. But once we turned on the actual television, we came away with more than a few complaints. Yes, Philips has finally seen fit to add the important 2:3 pull-down to its video processing, which improves the 42PF9630A's performance over that of previous models. But the Philips 42PF9630A's image quality falls short of other plasma sets in its category. While we like the feature set, which includes two HDMI inputs, the overall package doesn't justify a price that's somewhat steeper than that of comparable models, such as the Panasonic TH-42PX50U. As we've come to expect from Philips, the 42PF9630A is quite attractive; its sleek, high-tech look will appeal to the aesthetically sensitive and will blend in with most modern decors. A large, black bezel surrounds the 42-inch-diagonal screen, helping to enhance the picture's perceived contrast ratio and give it more impact. The speakers that flank the left and right sides of the screen are finished in silver and contribute to the set's ultrawide feel.
A curvy silver tabletop stand measuring 32 inches wide completes the picture, though naturally you can opt to hang the 93-pound Philips 42PF9630A from the wall using an optional bracket. The panel is a bit deeper and wider than most, measuring about 49 by 27 by 4 inches without the stand.
With the exception of a confusingly named AV+ button (it's used for switching inputs, but we're used to designations such as Input or TV/Video for this function), we found the 42PF9630A's svelte silver remote to be well designed and relatively intuitive to use. Philips's internal menu system, on the other hand, is one of the least intuitive we've seen. It's awkward and frustrating to navigate, and we failed to scale the learning curve even after spending plenty of time with the television. Philips's claim to fame for its flat TVs is Ambilight, which consists of a pair of rear fluorescent lights that cast colors onto the wall behind the set. Ambilight is definitely a conversation starter and could even have improved image quality if it had a neutral-gray setting. But all of its settings contain a mixture of red, green, and blue, which adversely affect your perception of the color coming from the screen. In addition, you can set the intensity and the color of the light to change depending on the content of the picture--for example, to turn blue during a shot of the sea--but we found this effect extremely distracting. If you want an effective backlight that won't detract from image quality, look for special "daylight" bulbs that glow at 6,500K.
Like most other high-resolution plasmas, the Philips 42PF9630A has a native resolution of 1,024x768, so it will deliver more detail with HDTV and PC sources than will lower-resolution EDTV 42-inch plasmas (more info). Like all plasmas, the 42PF9630A scales any incoming source, including 1080i and 720p HDTV, DVD, and standard-def, to fit the available pixels.
The Philips 42PF9630A offers a solid selection of conveniences, including an onboard ATSC tuner for receiving over-the-air HDTV broadcasts and a CableCard slot for those wishing to rid themselves of their cable box and save some money on rental fees. Dual-tuner PIP (picture-in-picture) is also on tap, though it won't work with two high-def sources. The set provides a good selection of six aspect-ratio choices when upconverting standard-definition sources, but you won't be able to modify aspect ratio at all with a high-def signal.
Among the Philips 42PF9630A's relatively sparse collection of picture adjustments are several preset color-temperature settings, with Normal approaching closest to the NTSC broadcast standard. There are also a handful of picture presets and a dubious Active picture-control setting that we left turned off. Unfortunately, this plasma lacks independent memory per input--an inexcusable omission, since nearly every HDTV in its class offers at least an approximation of this feature.
The lack of independent memory per input is especially glaring given the 42PF9630A's generous connectivity options. Two HDMI inputs head the list here, enabling you to digitally connect both an HDMI-equipped DVD player and an HDTV set-top box, for example. You can also connect DVI sources to either HDMI jack via an inexpensive dongle or cable, although you may need to use the latter, since the jacks are very close together and don't allow much room for the dongle. In terms of analog connections, one input offers a choice of component video, RGBHV (the maximum resolution of 1,366x768 at 60Hz, and you'll need a VGA-to-RCA x5 adapter for PCs), S-Video, or composite video and analog audio; another provides just component video and coaxial digital audio, though no analog audio; and a third supports S-Video or composite video and analog audio. Rounding out the A/V connectivity are the CableCard slot, a coaxial digital audio output, an RF input, a set of A/V outputs with composite video, and a set of side-panel A/V inputs for S-Video or composite video.
On the opposite side of the panel is a comprehensive collection of multimedia connections, including a pair of USB ports and two slots that between them will accept Microdrives and just about every type of media card except xD-Picture. By inserting your storage device into the appropriate port or slot, you can play MP3s or display JPEGs on the screen. Compared to recent plasmas such as the excellent Panasonic TH-42PX50U, which we had on hand for comparison, the Philips 42PF9630A's overall image quality leaves something to be desired. Black-level performance, or the ability to produce a relatively deep color of black, is the panel's biggest shortcoming: blacks appeared dark gray, and we detected significant false-contouring artifacts in dark scenes. The void of space in the opening scenes of the Alien DVD clearly revealed both these problems, and small greenish motes of video noise were apparent in the shots of the ship traveling through space. We tested both the component-video inputs and the HDMI inputs and found no difference between them in terms of noise.
While relatively accurate after professional calibration, the Philips's grayscale gamma implementation was inconsistent from darker to lighter areas of the picture. In other words, the color temperature varied too much at different brightness levels. While the set did not show much red push, color decoding of green was significantly off, which resulted in less than ideal saturation of grass and other green areas.
In its favor, the 42PF9630A's video processing finally has 2:3 pull-down detection, which we haven't seen from Philips since the early big-screen CRT-based rear-projectors of the late 1990s. This is a big improvement over previous Philips plasma models, as it helps combat motion artifacts and jagged lines from film-based material, such as most prime-time television.
After calibration, we sat back to enjoy some DVD and HD content. Bright scenes from the Superbit version of the Vertical Limit DVD looked fairly good overall, but the picture appeared a bit soft, especially when compared with that of Panasonic's TH-42PX50U. We were surprised by this discrepancy, since both sets have the same native resolution; the Panasonic simply did a better job of scaling DVDs. HDTV from our DirecTV satellite feed also looked a bit softer than it did on the Panasonic. A dimly lit concert on HDNet again revealed grayish blacks and plenty of the aforementioned noise issues. The set rendered bright scenes much more cleanly, but we were still somewhat distracted by floating noise in areas of saturated color.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6,375/7,800K||Average|
|After color temp (20/80)||6,925/6,550K||Average|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 794K||Average|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 302K||Poor|
|Color decoder error: red||-5%||Good|
|Color decoder error: green||-15%||Poor|
|DC restoration||All patterns stable||Good|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Y||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|