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Ambilight has been around for a few years now and tends to split people into two distinct factions. One groups says, "oh, cool! Lights that work alongside what's happening onscreen" and one groups says, "that sounds like a damn waste of time and money".
Most people who sit down with an Ambilight TV, however, do start to understand the value after a while. The good news with this Philips Cineos 42PFL9632D TV is that if you don't like it, you can always switch it off and be left with a 42-inch 1080p screen. But does this £1,400 TV impress in the other more important ways?
We haven't always found Philips TVs as nicely styled as the competition, but this TV is very pleasant looking. The case is finished in black, with a glass covering that makes it look both smart and stylish.
The PFL9632 has three HDMI sockets at the rear, as Philips hasn't gone down the route of having a side HDMI yet. They do provide a USB socket, though, for plugging in memory sticks to view photos onscreen. For analogue sources, you'll find two RGB Scart sockets and a component video in for HD material. You'll also find a digital audio output and analogue RCA audio outputs for hooking the TV up to an AV receiver.
The good news is the HDMI sockets are all 1.3 compliant. The bad news is Philips hasn't included a VGA connection for hooking up a computer. Instead you'll have to get a DVI-to-HDMI converter. Additionally, the TV can only accept a PC input of 1,360x768 pixels at 60Hz, so you won't be able to send a 1,920x1,080-pixel picture from a PC.
Philips seems to have spent a bit of time improving their remote control, too, and we really like this new design. It's clear, all the buttons are logically placed and the whole thing feels sturdy. The TV also responds to the remote quickly, with no discernable lag.
It would be rude to discuss anything but the Ambilight first, as it's likely to be one of the major reasons people choose this TV. Our initial reaction to Ambilight is likely to be similar to yours. For the first hour or so, you tend to concentrate on the light more than what's on screen. Once the novelty wears off, you get used to the system and you watch the TV normally.
Ambilight does some things very well and other things not so well. First of all, it does help to improve the perceived contrast levels of the screen. Because you get light from the back of the TV, you find the TV looks better and blacks appear deeper.
Where the feature comes into its own is where you have specific onscreen conditions. For example, in The Matrix, when Neo is first introduced to the all-white construct, the Ambilight pushes out a strong white, which works really well. The system also works well when action shifts to outside. If you watch in a darkened room, the Ambilight will light everything, which makes you feel like you are outside.
Where the Ambilight doesn't work so well is where it just mimics what's on the outside edge of the picture. Say someone with a red jumper is standing on the left of the screen. The left light will display red, but it doesn't look very natural because a jumper doesn't give off that much light on its own.
However, for movies in general, we think Ambilight is a nice feature. Just remember, it needs to be against a light-coloured wall to work best. This won't suit every living room, so consider the layout of your house before spending the money.
Besides the Ambilight, the TV also comes loaded with a great number of picture processing modes, all of which are designed to get the best out of the material you're watching. The 100Hz Clear LCD system smoothes film motion out to give it a judder-free look. As we've said before, some people like this mode and others think it changes the feel of film and isn't what the director intended people to see. We'll discuss the merits of the picture processing modes in the performance section below.
The TV also supports 24p and video up to 1080p, which should make it very popular with people who are getting into Blu-ray and HD DVD.
Freeview performance on the Philips is good. The TV includes a number of modes to reduce MPEG compression artefacts. Mostly these are designed to conceal the blocking effect you sometimes see on moving objects. This is more of a problem on Freeview DVD because the bit rates are significantly lower than they should be. We opt not to turn this mode on because generally it works by softening the picture.
The same goes for the sharpening feature. We leave this off because it can give hard outlines a sort of halo effect, which isn't especially pleasant. We also strongly recommend you turn off the 'auto format detection' mode, which switches the screen in and out of the various widescreen and standard picture modes. It's absolutely useless, and kept changing the picture size at the start of some HD DVDs.
For the 100Hz ClearLCD mode, we tested it with the HD DVD of Hot Fuzz. This disc makes for excellent test material, because the transfer is second to none with lots of bright whites, deep blacks and very sharp fine detail. With the picture smoothing modes on, we noticed some artefacts around moving objects. Although everything took on a video-like smoothness there was image distortion as a result. We've seen this before on motion smoothing systems, so it's not just this set that suffers with it.
If you really can't bear the judder of film, you'll probably want to keep these film smoothing modes on. If you're a purist, or don't like artificial picture processing, you'll probably want everything turned off.
With all the trickery turned off, we have to say this TV produces an excellent picture. Our test material was exceptionally sharp and detailed. Hot Fuzz and The Matrix both looked awesome, although for quite different reasons. The TV also produces an incredibly bright picture with very natural colours.
Sometimes we felt that the blacks lacked detail, and the backlight was a little over-bright, which meant that in dark scenes everything looked a bit blue. Turning down the backlight takes care of the worst.
We also liked the sound quality of the set. Dialogue was clear, and easy to understand but at the same time, Philips has produced a TV that can deliver decent bass performance. While it's not as good as a 2.1 system, its good enough for day-to-day viewing.
The Philips produces an amazingly detailed and refined picture with natural colour, it also produces decent quality sound, which is always a welcome benefit on a flat panel TV.
It's probably fair to say that Ambilight adds to the cost of this TV. Although you can probably pick one of these up slightly over £1,400, the RRP is £1,800 so it will be up to you to decide if you think the extra features are worth a premium over a regular LCD TV. If you do buy this TV, we'll wager you won't be disappointed by the picture quality.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday