Hewlett Packard, like Dell, Gateway, and other computer manufacturers, has recently joined the ranks of HDTV makers to take advantage of the lucrative home-theater market. We've experienced mixed results with computer-branded high-def displays in the past, but HP's new PL4200N 42-inch plasma panel ($3,299 list) is the first we can heartily endorse. This full-featured plasma has a slick look and, most importantly, delivers image quality that's nearly as strong our current favorites from Panasonic, including the TH-42PX50U. The HP PL4200N costs more than that panel, not to mention the step-up Panasonic TH-42PX500U, but its good looks could be worth the difference to some buyers. We really like the design of the HP PL4200N. It has a distinctly high-tech look; the entire screen is surrounded in a black finish with a slightly darker bezel directly adjacent to the screen area. At first glance, you'd think the PL4200N has no speakers, but in fact the thin strips to either side of the panel are speakers, just cleverly disguised to blend into the panel's frame. Without the stand the panel measures 28.7 by 44.8 by 5.4 (HWD) inches overall. The swivel stand is finished in silver, giving it a two-tone appearance when table mounted.
The svelte remote nonetheless has a practical design, with keys differentiated by size and shape. We were pleased that every key is backlit and that the illumination activates whenever you touch a key. The input select key is labeled Source, which is logical enough, but we would have preferred direct access to all inputs on the remote itself for ease of switching and programming. Also, the volume control is not within easy thumb reach, making it a bit unwieldy for people with smaller hands. As with most others of its type, the HP PL4200N has a native resolution of 1,024x768, which isn't enough to display every pixel of HDTV material but is significantly higher than so-called EDTV panels, including the company's own (more info). All incoming resolutions, whether from computers, HDTVs, or standard video sources, are scaled to fit the pixels.
In terms of conveniences, a built-in ATSC off-air HDTV tuner is on tap for local digital channel reception, and HP includes a CableCard slot for Digital Cable Ready compliance. The company doesn't include the TV Guide EPG that's found in other DCR sets such as the Panasonic TH-42PX500U, but we don't consider that a huge loss since TV Guide has its share of problems. HP does include single-tuner PIP (picture-in-picture) with split screen, and POP (picture-outside-picture) features will appeal to those wishing to keep tabs on more than one source at a time. Aspect-ratio controls include four choices for standard-def sources, but you can't change modes when watching high-def.
On the performance side, HP provides three picture modes--Vivid, Standard, and Cinema--with their own picture presets, and each is independently adjustable. This allows you to tailor the image for as many as three different sources, which isn't quite as good as true independent input memories. The three selectable color temperatures--Warm, Normal, and Cool--give you three very different grayscales. We chose the Warm setting as it was closer to the broadcast standard color temperature of D6500. The Color Management feature is essentially an autocolor circuit that should be left off for the best picture. ALA is an automatic brightness and contrast circuit that should also be left off.
HP's connectivity options are adequate but not overly generous. Input options include one HDMI input, two component-video inputs, two A/V inputs with a choice of S-Video or composite, a 15-pin VGA input for PC hookup, and one RF input, as well as a digital optical audio output for routing 5.1 surround sound from off-air HDTV broadcasts to an outboard A/V receiver. Still, in this price range, we'd like to see a second HDMI input. HP also threw in an SD card reader, as well as a PC Card slot, both of which allow you to view digital photos directly on the TV. Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by the HP PL4200N's very good picture quality. The blacks on this panel are right up there with those of our reference Panasonic models, such as the aforementioned TH-42PX50U and the industrial TH-42PHD7UY. The opening scenes of Alien: The Director's Cut revealed deep, rich blacks with minimal low-level noise and false contouring artifacts just above black. In short, black-level performance on the PL4200N is awesome.
In terms of color reproduction, the HP falls a bit short of the Panasonics we've tested, which is the reason for its lower overall performance score. Prior to calibration the Warm color-temperature setting came closest to the standard, but overall, it was quite red, especially in darker areas. Afterward, the grayscale was much improved, although still a bit red.*
The color decoding, as we are finding with most plasmas, was far from accurate. Instead of the traditional red push that ends up yielding a far too saturated picture with sunburned-looking faces, the PL4200N deaccentuates red and green, leaving color just a bit washed-out when set properly. The color-decoding matrix, which determines basic color gamut, is fixed at HD when it detects a high-definition signal. It really should be selectable between HD and SD matrices, since you can feed the panel standard-def sources that have been upscaled to HD. The classic example is an upscaling DVD player.
The opening scenes of the Star Trek: Insurrection DVD revealed solid 2:3 pull-down detection. The HP has a resolution of 1,024x768, so we didn't expect to see as much sharpness and detail as we would on a larger, higher-resolution panel with a true HD resolution of 1,280x720 or higher. With that said, the PL4200N clearly delivered a sharper, more detailed picture than the 1,024x1,024-resolution that we had set up next to it. As usual, specs don't tell the whole story.
Scenes from the Vertical Limit Superbit version DVD were sharp and had great snap or pop, a testament to the panel's high-contrast ratio, due to its ability to do black very well. Color was not accurate and a little flat, but overall, DVDs looked pretty solid.
HD material on HDNet from our DirecTV satellite feed looked particularly impressive for a panel of this resolution. Dark concert footage revealed good shadow detail with a minimum of low-level noise and artifacts. Bright material popped off the screen, with excellent crispness and clarity.
|Before color temp (20/80)||5,250/6,075K||Poor|
|After color temp (20/80)||6,556/6,542K||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 652K||Poor|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 118K||Average|
|DC restoration||All patterns stable||Good|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Y||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|