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Hitachi PH401 review: Hitachi PH401

Hitachi PH401

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David Katzmaier
David_Katzmaier.jpg

David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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10 min read

The 50-inch plasma has become one of the best values in flat-panel HDTV. Similar-size LCDs typically cost a good deal more at this size, and although that's changing quickly, the typical plasma still enjoys a few other picture quality advantages. Hitachi's P50H401 is hardly a typical plasma, however. Its spec sheet proclaims "HD1080" resolution, which sounds a bit like "1080p" but most decidedly is not; in fact, this is one of the softer-looking plasmas at any resolution we've tested. We'd forgive the softness if it weren't for this model's subpar black-level performance, which leads a crowded pack of picture-quality shortcomings. Yes, the Hitachi P50H401 costs less than many plasmas in its size range, and it has a few strong points, but you can do a lot better for the money.

5.8

Hitachi PH401

The Good

Inexpensive; relatively effective antiglare screen; three independent picture memories per input; versatile selection of aspect-ratio modes and power-saving options; three HDMI inputs.

The Bad

Produces a light shade of black; relatively soft picture; inaccurate primary color of green; bluish color temperature that cannot be adjusted; introduces false contouring.

The Bottom Line

Although it's inexpensive, Hitachi's P50H401 50-inch plasma produces one of the least impressive pictures we've seen lately.

Design
The conservative-looking P50H401 incorporates a black border around the edge of the screen, with a matte-black frame around that, laudably eschewing the high-gloss finish employed by so many other HDTVs. Below the frame and screen sits a pair of speakers to either side of a flip-down door concealing a group of inputs and controls. The panel is ringed by a silver edge and there's a black pedestal that's appropriately massive for the large plasma. The whole set measures about 48.8 inches wide by 34.7 inches high by 16.6 inches deep with the stand attached and 48.8 by 32.6 by 5.5 inches without it.

The included remote is among the most basic we've seen and won't inspire many compliments sitting on your coffee table. The few buttons are grouped too closely together, and most are around the same size and shape, making the clicker difficult to navigate by feel. We like the general arrangement of Hitachi's menu system, but it's painfully slow to react; we'd often impatiently depress a button a second time, only to have the menu eventually appear and disappear quickly as our commands finally registered. Just as annoying, selections take seemingly forever to slide down to the bottom of the screen, although we much prefer them there as opposed to obscuring the middle.

Features
Unlike most 50-inch plasmas, which have native resolutions of 1,366x768 or 1,920x1,080 pixels, the P50H401 claims a native resolution of 1,280x1,080. Hitachi calls this resolution "HD1080," but it's similar to the company's old ALiS system in that the vertical resolution (the all-important "1080" part) isn't comprised of discrete pixels. Like all other non-CRT HDTVs, the Hitachi converts all incoming signals to match its native resolution.


Day and Night picture modes can each remember a separate group of settings.

We've always been fond of the Day/Night modes on Hitachi HDTVs. The P50H401 allows you to tweak three completely independent sets of memories per input, allowing adjustment for bright and dark environments, for example.

Update 01/15/2008: We originally wrote that the Hitachi was only capable of "remembering" picture settings after being powered off when the "Quick Start" option was engaged. That's incorrect. An option entitled "Reset TV Settings," found in the "Reset the Software" section of the Setup menu, was marked "Yes" on our review sample. In the standard "No" position for this option, the TV will remember picture settings regardless of the state of the Quick Start option. Users of the TV should certainly choose "No" in most scenarios at home.

The P50H401 has a smattering of adjustments beyond the standard brightness and contrast. We left the Black Enhancement control off because it crushed detail in shadows, and we did the same with Dynamic Contrast because it seemed to create a less desirable gamma curve. There are two kinds of noise reduction, each with Off, Low, and High settings, and an Auto Movie mode that affects 2:3 pull-down (we left it engaged).

Hitachi offers a good selection of aspect ratio modes. With high-def content the TV lets you choose among four modes, one of which includes a variable zoom. Our favorite was the "16:9 standard 2" mode because it displayed nearly the full screen with no overscan. With standard-def content the choice expands to six, including two zoom modes. There's also a setting that changes the brightness of the panels alongside 4:3 content from standard black to bright gray; the lighter the panel, the lower the chance of burn-in, aka image retention.

The Hitachi's setup menu has a "screensaver" option with a variety of modes for preventing image retention or combating it should it occur. There's a three-setting "pixel orbiter" that shifts the image around subtly over time, and a three-position "image power" mode that attenuates light output. If you notice image retention, you can engage the screen wipe, which just fills the screen with a bright white field--although we'd prefer to see some sort of automatic timer for this.

Plasmas use a lot of power, although compared with other 50-inch plasmas, the P50H401 is relatively efficient. You can cut down on power consumption by engaging the image power mode (we used the "Min" setting to arrive at the "Power Saver" numbers in the Juice Box below), but unfortunately that created an extremely dim picture and really messed up the TV's grayscale performance. We recommend leaving the set in the default "Max" setting for image power and simply attenuating contrast manually (see Performance). We also recommend engaging the nifty "Automatic Power Saving" option in the screensaver menu, which turns off the set if there's no active video signal within 15 seconds. The Quick Start feature, meanwhile, allows the TV to turn on more quickly at the expense of increasing standby power consumption from, in this case, 1.1 to 25.1 watts (which works out to about $15 per year). We'd recommend turning this feature off.


The Hitachi's back-panel inputs include a pair of HDMI jacks and two component video inputs.

The P50H401 has plenty of connections for most AV systems, although it is missing a VGA-style analog PC input. The rear-panel jack pack sprouts two HDMI inputs, two component video inputs and an AV input with S-Video and composite video, along with a matching AV output, an optical digital audio output, an RF input for cable and antenna, and an RS-232 port for use with custom installed remote systems. Meanwhile, behind the well-concealed door on the front panel, you'll find a third HDMI input along with an AV input with composite video and something that looks deceivingly like an SD card slot for displaying digital photos. Unfortunately, the slot is labeled "Upgrade card (service use only)."


The third HDMI input can be found under a flip-down door on the front panel.

Performance
The Hitachi P50H401 turned in a disappointing picture quality effort, even for a TV in its price range. Its black-level performance was among the worst we've seen, its color is inaccurate and it appears a bit softer than other 50-inch plasmas with standard 1,366x768 resolution.

We began our evaluation by adjusting the user-menu controls of the P50H401 to achieve the best possible picture in our completely darkened theater. The Hitachi lacks fine color temperature controls, so we weren't able to get a more-accurate grayscale than the "Standard," preset, which measured too blue. For our complete settings, click here or scroll down to the Tips section below.

To formally evaluate the P50H401, we set it up next to a few other HDTVs we had on hand, including the Panasonic TH-50PH9UK, a 50-inch plasma, the Olevia 252T FHD, the Philips 47PFL9732D, and the Westinghouse TX-47F430S, all large-screen LCDs, as well as the Sony KDS-55A3000, our color reference. We watched Hot Fuzz on HD DVD courtesy of the Toshiba HD-XA2 playing at 1080i resolution.

Our biggest complaint with the Hitachi's picture concerns its poor black-level performance. In dark scenes, such as the one in Sergeant Angel's bedroom during Chapter 6, the black areas and shadows looked significantly lighter than any of the other HDTVs in the room. The lighter "blacks" (actually they were more like dark gray) also robbed the picture of impact and muted the colors.

The accuracy of the Hitachi's primary color of green was also an issue. Later in the chapter when Angel goes jogging, for example, the lush fields looked entirely too yellow as opposed to the deep green we saw on the Sony. Even the Panasonic, whose green also warranted a "poor" in our Geek Box tests, looked significantly more natural than the Hitachi. The P50H401's bluish grayscale made the pasty skin tones of the lead British actors appear even pastier--an effect exacerbated by the set's tendency toward undersaturation.

The Hitachi also exhibited more false contouring than any HDTV we've seen in a long time. During the beginning of Hot Fuzz, for example, the light around the logo became disclosed and dropped abruptly into the black background, instead of fading naturally. We noticed similar contours elsewhere in the film, especially in dark areas, such as the shadows on the hero's radiator in his darkened bedroom.

To try to get a handle on the P50H401's wacky native resolution, which the company says is designed specifically for 1080i sources, we compared it directly with the Panasonic, a standard 1,366x768-resolution 50-inch plasma, from a close seating distance of about 7 feet. With most 1080i sources we watched from our DirecTV HR20, including a hockey match and an episode of Nothing but Trailers on HDNet, as well as a recording of Planet Earth from DiscoveryHD, the Panasonic seemed a bit sharper, especially on sharp-edged text and areas of fine detail, like close-ups including hair and a shot of a craggy mountainside. Like most differences in resolution, it was subtle, and some of it can be attributed to the Panasonic's superior black levels (higher contrast ratio adds punch and increases the perception of detail), but our overall impression was that the Hitachi's image appeared softer. On better material, namely Hot Fuzz and the main montage from the Digital Video Essentials HD DVD at 1080i, again the Panasonic looked sharper, for example in the tiny links of chain on the barge behind the dancing couple in New York harbor. We also noticed flicker on the Hitachi, again most prominently in menus like the DVE selection screen, that wasn't visible on the Panasonic. Overall, we couldn't see any benefit in program material to the Hitachi's "HD1080" resolution.

Our impressions of program material were backed-up by test patterns. The Hitachi failed to resolve any detail in the highest-resolution area of the 1080i multiburst pattern from our Sencore VP403 signal generator; the Panasonic, for its part, did resolve a few lines of detail in that area (as much as can be expected from a TV of its resolution). Video processing on the P50H401 also left something to be desired. The TV failed both of the 1080i deinterlacing tests from the HQV Blu-ray Disc, introducing serious flicker into the highest-resolution areas of the patterns. Many TVs we've reviewed fail the film-based portion of the test, but few fail video as well. As a result of these findings, we recommend P50H401 users choose 720p resolution sources when possible.

In its favor, the Hitachi's antireflective screen did a better job of attenuating bright room lighting than the standard plasma glass of the Panasonic. It wasn't as effective as the screens we've seen on Pioneer and some Panasonic models, but it still helped.

With standard-def sources, tested via the component video input at 480i using the HQV DVD, the Hitachi performed below average. There was serious flicker in the color bar pattern, and although the set did resolve every line of the DVD format, details in the stone bridge and the grass from the Detail test appeared softer than on the other HDTVs. With video-based material, including a waving American flag, the set didn't do much to smooth out jaggies from moving diagonal lines. Noise reduction on the other hand was pretty good, and the High mode had a noticeable impact in cleaning up the motes and snowy noise in the scenes of sunsets and skies--although it did soften the image a bit, as usual. We'd recommend avoiding the MPEG NR setting entirely, however, because the softness it introduced was extreme. The Hitachi also successfully engaged 2:3 pulldown detection.

We tested the P50H401 as a PC monitor using the HDMI input from the DVI output of our test PC, and the results were disappointing. We again noticed significant flicker with a 1,920x1,080 source, enough to make the image unwatchable, and we blame it on the "HD1080" resolution. The best resolution we tested was 1,280x720, which still evinced mild flicker that would be acceptable only for short periods of use. With that resolution text still looked blocky and relatively unclear at 12-point sizes, although we did appreciate that there was no overscan. In sum, if you want to get more than the bare minimum of PC monitor use out of your flat-panel display, just about any other model will perform better than the P50H401.

TEST RESULT SCORE
Before color temp (20/80) 7341/8119 Poor
After color temp N/A  
Before grayscale variation 1313K Poor
After grayscale variation N/A  
Color of red (x/y) 0.659/0.324 Average
Color of green 0.236/0.697 Poor
Color of blue 0.151/0.059 Good
Overscan 0.0% Good
Black-level retention All patterns stable Good
Defeatable edge enhancement Y Good
480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps Y Good
1080i video resolution Fail Poor
1080i film resolution Fail Poor

  Picture settings
Default Calibrated Power Save
Picture on (watts) 336.1 216.65 118.51
Picture on (watts/sq. inch) 0.31 0.2 0.11
Standby (watts) 25.1 1.1 1.1
Cost per year $117.31 $66.46 $36.66
Score (considering size) Good
Score (overall) Poor

5.8

Hitachi PH401

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 4