Dell has a reputation for leading the computer market in aggressive pricing for a major brand, and its first entry into the high-resolution plasma-television space, last year's , was no exception, selling for a cool $2,599. Its replacement, the W4201C reviewed here, actually sells for the same promotional price of $2,599. Given today's prices and high demand that's still a fair bargain, and the new Dell also offers plenty of features that the competition lacks--namely a set of connections that's among the best on the market. Along with its 50-inch brother, the W5001C, this plasma also promises improved picture quality with a contrast-ratio spec of 10,000:1. If hands-on testing proves anything, however, it's that specs don't tell the whole story. At the end of our evaluations, the W4201C's image quality fell a bit short of the competition's, especially in darker scenes. The design of the Dell W4201C is virtually identical to that of its 50-inch brother, the W5001C, as well as to that of LCDs such as the W3201C. The W4201C has a clean look, with a silver finish that surrounds an inch-thich black border abutting the screen. The stand also has a two-tone silver-and-black motif. The Dell W4201C measures 40.75 by 28 by 9.75 inches (WHD) and weighs 95.7 pounds with the stand and without the speakers attached. Some configurations include a pair of speakers, which can either be attached to the sides of the panel or separated to stand on their own.
All black with silver buttons, the remote struck us as a model of style and user-friendly design. It becomes fully backlit when you press any button, and the most important keys are within easy reach of your thumb. Our main complaint is that navigating the menu system requires using a second cursor pad at the top of the wand, which took some getting used to. The internal menu system, while straightforward enough, is a bit awkward to use. The main menu runs horizontally across the bottom of the screen, but selecting options calls up a vertically aligned submenu in the top portion, making navigation somewhat counterintuitive. Like most high-resolution plasmas, the Dell W4201C has a native resolution of 1,024x768. That's not enough pixels to fully resolve HDTV, but then again, no 42-inch plasma, whether HDTV or EDTV, can do so (more info). All incoming resolutions, including those for high-def, standard TV, DVD, and computers, are scaled to fit the available pixels.
Apart from screen size and native resolution, the 42-inch W4201C and the 50-inch W5001C share the same feature set. Dell elected to include an ATSC tuner in the W4201C, which allows the set to tune free digital and HDTV stations when connected to an antenna. The company neglected the CableCard slot, however--a minor omission in our book but notable since many sets in this range, such as the Panasonic TH-42PX50U, include the slot.
The Dell W4201C offers a few other conveniences, with PIP (picture-in-picture) heading up the list. The set has numerous PIP configurations for watching two sources at once, such as PC and HDTV. The only two sources you can't watch side by side are the HDMI inputs. We also appreciated the five aspect-ratio selections for standard-def and the three for HD.
Selectable color temperatures include Normal, Natural, Blue, and Red. Blue is definitely way too blue, and Red is definitely too red; we found that Normal color temperature came closest to the standard. Interestingly, Natural was closest on the Dell W5001C. All five picture modes, with the exception of Personal, have fixed presets for all picture parameters and cannot be changed. The Personal setting is adjustable, however, and changes to picture controls such as contrast and brightness are saved separately for each input. This capability, known as independent input memory, is critical to optimizing the picture for all of your sources.
Like some other plasmas we've seen, the Dell W4201C offers a setting to help get rid of burn-in, which may occur from keeping a static image element onscreen for long periods of time. Called plasma conditioning, it displays a fully white screen and engages a timer.
Able to connect to up to 13 different video sources, the Dell W4201C enjoys one of the most comprehensive input bays we've seen on any plasma TV. Unlike those on panels such as the , all of the W4201C's jacks are discrete, so you don't have to sacrifice one type of connection for another. You can give the inputs names, such as DVD, and elect to have the input menu show only active jacks--a real convenience.
The two HDMI inputs are the most important connections, and one includes stereo audio jacks for connecting a DVI source (DVI-to-HDMI adapter required). The set also has two component-video inputs, two S-Video inputs, two composite-video inputs, and a 15-pin VGA input for computers--each with stereo audio jacks. The set comes with screw-type RF connections for analog and digital antennas, along with optical and coaxial audio outputs for getting digital audio from the Dell's ATSC tuner. On the right side of the panel is a set of A/V inputs with S-Video for easy connection of portable video sources, such as camcorders and game consoles. Overall picture quality on the Dell W4201C is good but not quite up to the level we've come to expect from late-model plasmas. While the panel produces a reasonably deep black, the attendant artifacts that occur just above black are distracting when you're watching dark material. On the Alien DVD, for example, we saw significant false-contouring and solarization artifacts throughout the entire movie. We noticed more motes of greenish noise near black in the deep-space shots toward the beginning of the film, and the light from the explorers' helmets evinced banding instead of a smooth gradation from light to dark. The W4201C exhibited fewer of these artifacts than its bigger brother, the W5001C, but they were still severe enough to be noticeable in most dark scenes.
Dell has also incorrectly implemented the digital HDMI inputs, giving them the wrong reference for black. The black reference is set for PC use at 0/255 rather than for video at 16/232. As a result, the W4201C doesn't pass below-black content, and therefore blacks aren't quite as detailed as they could be. To be fair, we've seen the same effect on some other HDTVs.
In the Dell W4201C's favor, its color decoding was quite good, so we were able to turn up the color control to achieve deep saturation without sacrificing accuracy in difficult areas, such as skin tones. The grayscale in the Normal color temperature setting came reasonably close to the 6,500K standard (see the geek box below)--a good thing, since we were unable to properly calibrate the panel. According to Dell, that's because changes to color temperature in the service menu do not stay saved after you power off the set.
The opening scene of Star Trek: Insurrection clearly indicated the presence of 2:3 pull-down from our reference Denon DVD-3910 via its component interlaced outputs. However, we saw more visible noise than usual in this scene and in other DVDs we viewed, as well as in HD material, which leads us to believe that the Dell's video processing leaves something to be desired.
Bright scenes from the awesome Superbit DVD version of Vertical Limit were impressive. Color looked punchy and saturated, although green was way off from what it should have been. Skin tones looked natural, thanks to a reasonably good grayscale. With HD content from our DirecTV HD satellite feed, bright images looked solid, but dark ones were much less impressive. Dark concert footage on HDNet, for example, had some visible artifacts, as we described above.
In sum, the Dell W4201C is not as suitable as many plasmas for serious home-theater applications because of the artifacts it generates in dark material. It will work fine for noncritical viewing environments, such as bright family or living rooms, where you can set the black level (brightness) higher than it should be to minimize the visibility of artifacts in dark material.
|Before color temp (20/80)||7,000/7,550K||Average|
|After color temp||N/A|
|Before grayscale variation||878||Average|
|After grayscale variation||N/A|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.666/0.323||Poor|
|Color of green||0.241/0.687||Poor|
|Color of blue||0.143/0.055||Good|
|DC restoration||All patterns stable||Good|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Yes||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||No||Poor|