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Philips 42PF9631D review: Philips 42PF9631D

Philips 42PF9631D

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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

Our only real complaint about the 42PF9631D's physical presence has to do with size. Owing to the thickness of the frame, which we assume has something to do with the Ambilights on the back panel, it's quite a bit larger than most 42-inch panels, measuring 44.7 by 33.9 by 11.4 inches (WHD) including the stand, and weighing in at 97 pounds. Sans stand, the panel measures 44.7 by 31.4 by 4.5 inches.

6.9

Philips 42PF9631D

The Good

Reproduces deep color of black; relatively accurate initial color temperature; built-in backlighting can help reduce eyestrain; sleek design with glass-base stand.

The Bad

False contouring visible in some scenes; inaccurate color decoding; cannot change aspect ratios with HD sources; no independent input memories; no dedicated PC input; relatively large.

The Bottom Line

While we had some complaints about its picture quality, the Philips 42PF9631D's built-in backlight and sweet style will appeal to people who want something different.
Intro
Philips's flat TVs have always brought unique designs to the table, and for the last couple of years, they've usually included a feature that's completely unique to the Dutch company: Ambilight. These back-mounted fluorescent lights can be set to display a constant color, which can help ease eyestrain in a darkened room, or to follow the onscreen action, which we simply found distracting, although some viewers might like it. The Philips 42PF9631D is among the company's least expensive Ambilight-equipped televisions yet, and since it costs about the same as other name-brand 42-inch plasmas, you're not paying any more for the 'lights--and you can turn them off. This HDTV has a solid feature set otherwise, and its distinctive style certainly increases its appeal. Testing revealed solid black-level performance and color that was a mixed bag, although we did notice a couple picture-quality issues that don't plague other most plasmas or LCDs we've reviewed this year. That said, the image on the 42PF9631D will be perfectly fine for most viewers, and the rest of the package--especially the price--keeps it competitive. Philips's designs are often snazzier and more sophisticated (read: European) than those of many HDTV makers, and the 42PF9631D is no exception. The screen of this 42-inch plasma is ringed by a thick swath of black frame--it's one of the first black TV we've reviewed this year that has a matte finish, as opposed to glossy. Personally, we prefer matte, but we know lots of people are attracted to shiny things. Below and set back from the frame extends a silver section that houses the speakers, and the whole panel is designed to sit upon the included pedestal stand--although, as with all flat TVs, you can also wall-mount it using an optional bracket. The stand itself is even cooler-looking than most, starting with the relatively narrow silver pedestal and finishing with a base made of frosted glass. We wish it swiveled, though.

This HDTV's remote conforms to Philips's proprietary style, with distinctive sharp edges and orderly rows of buttons seemingly designed for the eyes, not the fingers. In other words, we had a difficult time stretching up and down the long wand with our thumb, and we wish the keys were more clearly delineated--and backlit. The remote can operate four other devices.

Navigation among items in Philips's menu system is mostly intuitive, utilizing the directional cursor, and individual items are accompanied by text explanations. We were annoyed, however, by the fact that the OK button in the middle of the cursor didn't advance to the next menu--counterintuitively, it moved back instead. We also would have liked the menu to be partially transparent to the onscreen picture; as it stands, all but the picture-affecting selections obscure the entire screen, and even those take up too much real estate for our taste. There's also a secondary Option menu that offered quick access to a few seemingly random functions, such as closed captions, PIP format, secondary audio tracks, and the content of any attached USB thumbdrives. In case you haven't seen the commercials, Ambilight is a feature that's unique to Philips's flat panels and is designed to light up the wall behind the TV. In the case of the 42PF9631D, the Ambilight is of the "stereo" variety, which means that there are two multicolored fluorescent lights on the back of the television, one to either side (other Ambilight "surround" sets, such as the 42PF9831D have additional lights above and/or below the screen). When activated, the lights can cast a constant color--the intuitively named Color mode--or will follow the onscreen action, becoming brighter or dimmer and casting different colors as the picture changes. A variety of modes are available with different rates of change. You can also control brightness and separation (which determines how the right and left lights react independently) levels, as well as adjust the hue of the color setting or choose from three preset colors.

Aside from Ambilight, the 42PF9631D offers a solid feature set. It has a native resolution of 1,024x768, as do most 42-inch plasmas. All material, whether HDTV, DVD, or standard television, is scaled to fit the pixels. You can choose to watch two shows at once, thanks to picture-in-picture and enjoy over-the-air digital and high-def shows via the ATSC tuner, which is common to almost every HDTV. Like many manufacturers, Philips did not include a CableCard slot, but that's no big loss as far as we're concerned.

There's a fine selection of six aspect-ratio modes for standard-def sources, but you don't get any with high-def. We did appreciate the option to move the HD picture to the right or left using the directional pad on the remote, and with standard-def sources, you can move it up or down as well. A USB port on the side panel can interface with thumbdrives to display digital photos and play music files on the TV.

People who like to adjust the picture will probably be disappointed that the Philips 42PF9631D lacks any kind of independent input memories. Instead, it offers just one Personal preset that applies to all of the inputs, making it impossible to adjust different sources separately. None of the five picture presets can be adjusted--doing so just reverts to Personal, erasing all of your settings in the process.

The range of additional picture controls includes three adjustable color-temperature presets, among which Warm comes closest to the standard; a digital processing menu offering Pixel Plus and Standard choices (see Performance, below); four steps of dynamic contrast, where Off was the best choice since the others modified light output on the fly; four levels of noise reduction; a color-enhancement control that's best left off to maintain the best color temperature; and four steps of active control, which we left set to off for critical viewing, again because it modified the picture on the fly.

Connectivity on the Philips 42PF9631D is about average for a plasma in this size range. It includes two HDMI inputs; an analog A/V input that offers a choice of component-video, S-Video, composite-video, or RGBHV (the latter lets you connect a PC as well); an analog input with only component-video; another with S-Video or composite-video; an RF-style antenna input; a digital audio input and output; and an analog audio out. There's also a side-panel A/V input with composite and S-Video alongside the aforementioned USB port. To connect a PC, you'll need to monopolize either the HDMI input--and utilize your computer's DVI output as well as a DVI-to-HDMI adapter--or the first A/V input and connect from your computer's VGA output via a VGA-to-RGBHV adapter. The Philips 42PF9631D delivered a decent overall picture, mostly owing to its ability to reproduce a deep color of black, but we did notice that its color appeared less accurate than it should have--although not terrible--and that some scenes caused it to exhibit false-contouring artifacts; others led us to notice unusual uniformity issues that detracted from the picture quality somewhat.

As always, we began our evaluation by setting the television up in our darkened lab and adjusting the picture for optimal home-theater quality (see the Tips & Tricks section for our complete settings). To do so, we used the Personal picture preset and chose the Warm color temperature. We also performed a service-menu-level calibration, which did improve the television's grayscale performance somewhat (see the Geek box, below). We compared the Philips to a few other flat-panel TVs we had onhand: the Sharp LC-46D6U LCD, the JVC LT-40FN97 LCD, the Westinghouse LVM-47w1 LCD, and the Panasonic TH-50PH9UK plasma; then watched the Hitch Blu-ray disc played via the Samsung BD-P1000. We chose 720p because, as with the Philips 37PF9631D, test patterns revealed that the 42PF9631D resolved more detail with 720p sources.

Right off the bat, we were impressed by the Philips's ability to render a deep shade of black. The film's letterbox bars appeared darker than those of the JVC and the Westinghouse, for example, and only slightly lighter than the Panasonic's and the Sharp's. During the initial scene in the bar, the shadows near the seats and the pool table were relatively inky, as was the black sweater of Ben (Michael Rappaport). The depth of black added impact to every scene and also increased color saturation.

We still felt the Philips 42PF9631D looked a bit less saturated than it should have, however. In the scene with younger, nerdier Hitch (Will Smith) at Columbia, the grass in the quad, his skin tones and those of the girl, as well as her red sweater all appeared slightly less punchy than on the other displays. The grass was also yellower than we would have liked, a result of the Philips's inaccurate color of green. Blue and red looked good, however, and overall color temperature was acceptable in the Warm preset before calibration.

Although most displays we've reviewed recently haven't had any issues with false contouring, the Philips 42PF9631D did exhibit that artifact occasionally, In the bar scene, for example, there's a shot with Ben in the foreground and out of focus, and a couple of the shadows on his face took on precipitous edges that appeared smoother and more-realistic on the other displays. Similar artifacts cropped up in other areas, such as the sky behind the window in the office of Albert (Kevin James). We also noticed a bit more noise in some of the flat fields, such as the walls of Albert's conference room, and in shadows, such as the wood paneling behind his boss. These artifacts weren't so obtrusive as to be distracting in most scenes, but all of the other displays we had onhand did look a bit cleaner than the Philips 42PF9631D overall.

As we expected, the Philips stayed true when seen from off-angle, unlike the LCDs, which washed out more in varying degrees. Most plasmas have perfect screen uniformity as well, something few LCDs can claim, but in the Philips's case, we noticed slight discoloration across the screen. Mostly visible in bright fields, such as the white walls of Albert's office or the overcast sky when Hitch takes Sara (Eva Mendes) jet-skiing, it manifested as four distinct areas that alternated between green and red several times. It's not something that was visible in every scene, but it was unusual compared to other plasmas we've reviewed.

Turning from Hitch, we tested the Philips 42PF9631D's ability to handle 480i standard-def sources via its component-video input, using our trusty HQV test disc, and results were mostly good. The set resolved all of the detail of the 480i source, as it should, and also passed the 2:3 pull-down test quickly, eliminating moiré in the stands behind the race car. The waving American flag and the test patterns featuring moving diagonal lines did cause the set to display jagged edges, however, and we noticed that the detail shot, with the statue and the stone bridge, appeared a bit soft. Noise reduction wasn't nearly as effective as it was with the aforementioned 37PF9631D or the Sharp; even at the Maximum, the noisy shots of sky and clouds appeared only slightly less noisy than with NR turned off.

Ambilight To test the Ambilight feature we set the Philips 42PF9631D up in front of a large Da-Lite Da Mat movie screen, which helped maximize its effect. Of course the color of the surface behind the TV has a big impact on Ambilight; Philips recommends a white or neutral gray wall for best results. In the past we've complained that the Ambilight modes where the lights followed the onscreen action--the dynamic modes--distracted our attention from the picture, and that was the case again with the 42PF9631D. Once again the lights were most noticeable during dark scenes, when they seemed too bright, regardless of the brightness setting. Strangely, however, the Ambilights on the 42-inch plasma weren't nearly as bright as those on the 37-inch 37PF9631D LCD. Of all the dynamic modes, we liked the least intense one, called Relaxed, the best, but it still changed too abruptly. We also noticed disconnect between the lights and the screen material again contributed to distraction.

Then again, maybe we're just easily distracted; at least one CNET staffer who watched the lights didn't seem to mind the effect. We all preferred the static backlight, however, and the Cool White setting looked the most neutral. When we measured it, Cool White came commendably close to the ideal for a home-theater-quality backlight. It's an important benefit of Ambilight that, especially with a midsize television, it can help reduce the incidence of eyestrain when you watch TV in a darkened room. Of course, you could buy a backlight to use with any TV and get the same effect.

TEST RESULT SCORE
Before color temp (20/80) 7,452/6,992K Average
After color temp 7,126/6,754K Poor
Before grayscale variation 483K Good
After grayscale variation 180K Average
Color of red (x/y) 0.651/0.335 Average
Color of green 0.257/0.679 Poor
Color of blue 0.148/0.059 Good
Overscan 4.3 percent Good
Black-level retention All patterns stable Good
2:3 pull-down, 24fps Yes Good
Defeatable edge enhancement No Poor

6.9

Philips 42PF9631D

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6
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