Boxers or Y-fronts? Peanut butter or Nutella? LCD or plasma? Debates like this have raged forever. In the latter category at least, the answer was always easy: smaller LCD TVs were fine for lounge rooms and bedrooms, while larger plasmas were for home-theatre buffs.
By finally matching their plasma rivals in size, newly released 42-inch LCD TVs have finally made the decision harder. Since size isn't the key decider, the real question becomes one of quality -- so we decided to not only put Toshiba's new AU$6495 42-inch 42WL58 LCD TV through its paces, but also to see how well it would stack up against a 42-inch plasma TV -- in this case, Hitachi's well-reviewed AU$4399 42PD8800TA plasma. Using component video leads, both were hooked up to a Toshiba HD-C26H HDTV set-top box and a Pioneer DVR-630H DVD player/recorder.
Black is the overriding theme for the 42WL58, with a flat-black surround complementing the silver trim and stand for a nice overall appearance. The low-glare matte screen finish dampens reflections, which is nice compared with many other units that could double as a mirror when the unit is off.
The remote control is less polished, with ambiguous buttons and a somewhat cheap feel overall. A side-mounted switch allows for control of TV, VCR and DVD players, but the inclusion of just one input selection button means you'll have to push the button repeatedly - waiting about 3 seconds each time - to cycle between DVD and your HD TV tuner or any of six other inputs.
The Toshiba's S-Video, component and composite video connectors are located on the right-hand edge of the unit, making them easy to reach even when the unit is mounted on the wall. The two HDMI ports, a pair of HDMI audio channels, RGB/PC input and antenna inputs are harder to reach in their location on the unit's back, probably because they don't tend to get swapped as frequently. Channel, volume, menu and power buttons are located on the top edge for easy access.
By contrast, the Hitachi's inputs - save one S-Video/composite input and the card slots - are on its back. Unless mounted on the wall, however, they are still easy to reach: Hitachi's motorised swivelling stand allows 30 degrees' movement, while Toshiba's manual swivelling stand only offers 15 degrees of movement.
Both units offer a broad range of connectivity options, so you're unlikely to be wanting for ports. As has become common in units in this price range, both include dual HDMI ports, RGB/PC input, dual component, subwoofer and monitor out, dual S-Video/composite inputs and an SD card slot for viewing photos. The Toshiba unit also has a Memory Stick Pro slot, but the Hitachi unit is more flexible by incorporating a USB port that can be used to read Memory Sticks or any other USB storage.
The 43kg, 1059mm-diagonal Hitachi is rated at 1024x1024 pixels, while the 35.6kg, 1067mm-diagonal Toshiba offers resolution of 1366x768 pixels. This makes both units well-suited for HD video, with support for signals up to 1080i.
The Toshiba has a range of highly granular controls allow for fine-tuning of the image, including the usual brightness/contrast/colour/sharpness settings as well as a backlight control, MPEG noise reduction, black stretch and colour management mode that allows for individual adjustment of red, green and blue colour inputs as well as yellow, magenta and cyan. A sleep timer, on timer, teletext support, double-window support and esoteric functions like a picture freezing mode round out the unit's feature set.
One area where features seemed lacking was in audio, with the built-in speakers delivering good sound but the unit offering limited options for adjusting it. SRS WOW provided full, simulated surround sound, Bass Boost worked as promised, and bass and treble adjustments are available. However, the lack of preset audio modes made audio adjustment a hit-or-miss activity.
We watched a variety of HDTV and DVD programming on the Toshiba 42WL58. Sharpness was notable, particularly in on-screen menus, and colour rendering was good, with a 170-degree viewing angle horizontally and vertically.
Image clarity was good, but high brightness meant light colours - particularly light shades and whites - were almost painfully bright at the default settings. This made the unit a little hard to watch for long times, particularly since the brightness came at the expense of subtle shades. Adjusting contrast and colour temperature didn't improve the situation markedly, with a 'cool' tint on the picture evident even when white balance was adjusted to make the picture warmer.
Another problem came when viewing a video source with some noise, specifically an analog TV show recorded earlier on the Pioneer unit's hard drive. The slight amount of static in the recording seemed particularly obvious on the LCD screen, which seemed to have inadvertently amplified the noise during the conversion process.
The 42WL58's backlight, which all LCD technology relies upon to function, meant even a fully black screen glowed slightly. This made it difficult to get rich, deep blacks out of the movies we tested, which ranged from The Incredibles and The Fast and the Furious to The Rock and Top Gun.
Each has rapid-fire action sequences and were chosen specifically to test the 'smearing' effect common to many LCD TVs that can't switch colours quickly enough. Smearing was hard to spot with the 42WL58, which rendered breakneck action sequences, like the jungle chase in The Incredibles, clearly and with good colour.
We then used Digital Video Essentials (DVE) to calibrate the screen's parameters. After adjusting to what DVE said were the ideal settings, the panel's image actually seemed a bit flatter and less dynamic than it was on the normal setting.
One striking issue with the display was the heavy image cropping that was evident at most of the Toshiba unit's six aspect ratio settings (Cinema, 14:9, Wide, 4:3, Subtitle and Super Live). All of the modes cropped our widescreen DVE images visibly, with Cinema mode going so far as to cut major parts of the page titles off the screen. DVE's overscan test showed that, depending on the video mode used, the unit was trimming between 3 percent and 13 percent of the top and bottom of the picture, with more than 5 percent of the left and right edges missing.
LCD or plasma?
The 42WL58 was competent if not inspiring, but the difference between it and the Hitachi plasma was immediately evident when the video source was split and fed to both units, side-by-side, simultaneously.
A beach that seemed warm and brown on the Hitachi unit was comparatively flat and beige on the Toshiba panel, while skin tones and even animated films were consistently warmer on the Hitachi unit. Even after adjusting the display modes, we simply could not get a more convincing image from the LCD TV than from the plasma.
The extent of the cropping problem was entirely evident when the DVD was paused and the images compared: on the Hitachi unit, for example, the head of a Torino giant slalom skier was fully visible while the Toshiba unit cropped the head off slightly above the goggles. This issue might not be evident when watching one unit in isolation, but repeated tests confirmed this was a consistent problem with the Toshiba unit.
With both units ready to display whatever was being watched, we found ourselves repeatedly turning back to the Hitachi plasma for its rich, pleasing image and overall watchability. Although the 42WL58 was good overall, the limitations of LCD technology's pixel-based design - which works well for PC displays but is too granular to match the plasma's more subtle tonality - were clearly evident.
The main deficiencies with the 42WL58 come from the limitations of LCD technology, rather than being specific to Toshiba. However, considering that it costs AU$2096 more than the Hitachi 42PD8800TA, it's hard to justify the extra expenditure for an image that simply doesn't deliver an equally jaw-dropping video experience. LCD may have matched plasma in terms of its size, but it still has a way to go before its overall quality catches up.