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Stereo speakers flank the left and right sides of the screen rather than being housed below, a design move that adds to the overall width of the set. Including its (nonmotorized) swivel stand--increasingly rare among flat panels--the 42HDS69 measures 43.1 by 31.3 by 4.5 inches and weighs 48 pounds. Before adding this 42-inch plasma into an existing entertainment center, you should take careful measurements to make sure it will fit.
The remote is a basic black rectangular design that's nonetheless logically laid out and relatively easy to use. This simple clicker lacks illumination, but at least Hitachi has done the right thing and given it discrete codes for programming its functions into a universal remote or a touch-panel system. Internally the menu system hasn't changed from last year's plasma models, and we found it intuitive and easy to navigate. Looking at the spec sheet, you may notice that the Hitachi 42HDS69 doesn't have the same native resolution as most 42-inch plasmas. Its unusual 1,024x1,080 resolution is new for this year and exactly matches the vertical resolution of 1,920x1,080 (1080i) signals. In theory this should produce a sharper picture than standard 1,024x768 plasmas, but in reality it's extremely difficult to tell the difference. As with all other plasmas, the Hitachi scales all incoming signals, whether from HDTV, DVD or standard TV, to fit the available pixels.
The Hitachi 42HDS69 comes fairly well equipped with convenience features. Many entry-level panels omit picture-in-picture nowadays, but the Hitachi still has it, allowing you to watch two sources simultaneously. The set's selection of aspect ratio modes is excellent, including six for standard-def and four for high-def, one of which shows every line of 1080i sources without any scaling or overscan--a great option since it lets you see the entire picture. We appreciated the ability to adjust vertical position while using a few of these modes and the presence of an "auto aspect" setting that can choose a mode for you. A few modes are designed to address image retention, including a "wipe" setting that displays a white field across the screen.
Like nearly every other HDTV on the market, the Hitachi 42HDS69 offers a built-in ATSC tuner for tuning over-the-air high-def and digital channels. Unlike most of its competition, it also includes a CableCard slot, which lets you watch cable high-def and digital channels without attaching a cable box. Note that the set lacks an EPG such as TV Guide, so you won't be able to search for programs on a familiar grid. Since digital cable boxes usually offer an EPG and often a DVR to boot, we suspect most users won't take advantage of CableCard.
Picture-affecting features include two separate independent input memories per input, entitled Day and Night. We like this feature because it allows you to do two separate setups for each input, allowing you to optimize the picture for nighttime and daytime viewing. There's even a timer that will switch from one mode to the other. The obligatory selectable color temperatures are available, including Standard, which comes closest to the reference, as well as Medium and High. Selecting the Auto Movie Mode engages 2:3 pull-down detection to eliminate motion artifacts from film-based video sources. A Black Enhancement mode simply crushes black to a lesser or greater degree, obscuring details in shadows, and it's best left off.
As we mentioned at the outset, one of the Hitachi 42HDS69's best features is industry-leading connectivity, beginning with three HDMI inputs--one on the side and two on the back. The good news continues with three component-video inputs (one on the side), a number that's again unheard of at this price. Other jacks include two A/V inputs with both S-Video and composite video, one more on the side with only composite, and an RF input. Finally there's an RS-232 control port for programming purposes, a monitor A/V output with S-Video and composite video, and a digital optical audio output for passing surround soundtracks from digital TV sources to an external sound system.
The bad news? There are only five total input "slots" available in the menu, so practically speaking you're limited to five external A/V sources. Input slots 1 and 2 connect to HDMI or S-Video or composite video; slots 3 and 4 are dedicated to component video; and slot 5 covers all of the possible side-panel sources: HDMI, component video, or composite video. There's no dedicated PC input, making the 42HDS69 less than ideal as a big computer monitor. These issues don't spoil the essential fact that this Hitachi has better connectivity than just about any plasma we've reviewed, regardless of price. Overall the Hitachi 42HDS69 offers superior performance to last year's models, owing mostly to its accurate color decoding. Its ability to produce a deep black still isn't as strong as on many other plasmas we've seen, and its color of green is about as far off as we've seen, but otherwise it delivered solid image quality.
As usual we began our evaluation by tweaking the 42HDS69's settings to produce the best picture possible in a darkened room. We started by putting the panel in the Night mode and Standard color temperature preset. The grayscale in these settings, while relatively close to the reference, was still rather green. (To see our complete user-menu settings, check out the Tips & Help tab above.) We also performed a professional grayscale calibration. Unfortunately, the service menu has only three of the six controls normally provided for grayscale calibration, so a significant compromise was necessary (see the geek box for details).
In the Hitachi's favor, its color decoding was quite good, which is a distinct improvement over last year's non-Director's Series models. This resulted in very good overall color accuracy, with the exception of the green primary color, which is offensively inaccurate. Grass and tree leaves, for example, looked like they were on steroids. Unfortunately, there was also visible
Moving on to program material, standard definition DVDs upconverted by the Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player looked relatively good. Seabiscuit in particular had deeply saturated colors, and nice, natural-looking skin tones. Colors were rich, but in chapter 13, when Chris Cooper and Toby McGuire check out the horse that will be Seabiscuit's main competitor in the upcoming race, the grass and hedges looked unnaturally green; sort of limey or neon.
Swordfish on HD-DVD exhibited vibrant, rich color and awesome detail. Looking at the same material side by side with the excellent Pioneer PDP-5070, the Hitachi looked pretty good. The one area where the much more expensive Pioneer trounced the Hitachi was black level; it produces a significantly deeper shade of black. The contrast ratio on the Hitachi suffered as a result of its less than stellar black-level performance, which also hindered its color saturation. Nonetheless, we think that Hitachi has improved the blacks on its current line of 42-inch panels over last year's models. The beginning of chapter 9 of The Last Samurai on HD-DVD is a fairly dark passage in the forest, and the Hitachi handled it well, producing reasonable details in the shadows with no signs of the false contouring that plagues some plasmas.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6,200/7,075K||Good|
|After color temp||5,750/6,800K||Poor|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 394K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 311K||Poor|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.655/0.322||Good|
|Color of green||0.233/0.697||Poor|
|Color of blue||0.150/0.065||Good|
|Black-level retention||Gray pattern stable||Average|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Y||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||N||Poor|