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HP md5880n 1080p HDTV

These days, you can't tell the players in television manufacturing without a scorecard. At every CES, including this year's, new names sprout like kudzu. Some are strange and unfamiliar. Others are old standards, but under new ownership. Many will be gone by next year.

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But some companies, while new to the video display business, are household names. HP—the now-preferred moniker for the company formerly better known as Hewlett Packard (sort of like KFC without the crispy coating)—is one of the market leaders in computers and computer peripherals. When HP decided to get into the television business, it did so in a big way, with four DLP microdisplay (rear projection) designs, plus flat panel displays in yummy flavors of both LCD and plasma.

1080p and Me
The 58-inch (diagonal) HP md5880n ($3500) is the smaller of HP's two new 1080p sets. It's a striking design, all in black (the HP 720p sets are silver and black). The one styling glitch was a slightly blotchy paint finish on the side-mounted speaker grilles, visible in the right lighting at certain angles. HP also sent along the optional stand with the reviewed set, a handsome piece in itself that matches the size and style of the set perfectly.

The 5880n is loaded with all the features you're likely to want. There are inputs sufficient for all but the most complex systems, including a VGA computer input. The on-board tuner is capable of off-the-air reception of HD and SD programming, and also includes the now ubiquitous CableCARD feature. The latter allows reception of premium cable programming without a separate set-top box, but was not tested for this review. User experiences in obtaining and using CableCARD, not to mention the quality of reception, will be as varied as the cable companies across the country. And the current CableCARD functionality remains non-interactive. That is, it severely limits on-screen program guides and does not provide Pay-Per-View options. But it's there if you want it and your cable company (by law) oblige. (Though reportedly many do no do so willingly, setting up annoying requirements like demanding that a cable guy come to your house to put the little card in the little slot.)

No Intel Inside
The HP 1080p microdisplay sets employ the same Texas Instruments chip used in all other rear projection 1080p sets. They use a technology called Wobulation, which HP developed. How Wobulation works is almost Rube-Goldbergish. The DLP chip itself actually has 960x1080 pixels. These are first illuminated for 1/120th of a second, displaying half the pixels in each 1920x1080 frame. Then the reflected image is then shifted by a half pixel and the rest of the pixels in the frame are illuminated for the next 1/120th of a second.

The shifting is performed by a separate, larger mirror, which HP calls the Wobulation mirror. The two sets of images are perceptually blended together by the image retention of the eye. HP actually developed Wobulation for use with its dot-matrix printers and, in a classic light bulb over the head moment, one engineer said, "Wait a minute, couldn't we…" and the rest is TV history.

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The claim is made that Wobulation produces a higher resolution image than either of the half-frames displayed in those two 1/120th of a second passes, and that it also reduces the screen door appearance of the individual pixels. It's hard to argue with the latter; the overlapping pixels will obscure the lines between them.

(Other 1080p DLP set manufacturers use the same TI chip as HP, but refer to their technique in implementing it as SmoothPicture, a TI trademarked name. This is very similar to Wobulation, and a SmoothPicture image is still "wobulated," in a fashion roughly the same as described, but HP says that some aspects of its design are unique.)

But it also appears intuitive that overlapping pixels will obscure detail. In practice, however, the HP surprised me by producing images that were crisper than I expected. I also found that the dreaded DLP rainbows, while still occasionally visible, were less intrusive than with many of the 720 DLP sets I've experienced. This may be at least partially due to the Wobulation technique, though I have no good theories as to why that might be.

The 1080p 5880n sets use seven-segment color wheels designed to tight tolerances, true 1080p processing with motion adaptive de-interlacing for 1080i signals, and the capability to receive 1080p content through their component and HDMI inputs (at 24, 30, and 60 fps with HDMI). The latter is a feat that most of the new 1080p sets from other manufacturers cannot perform as yet. Whether or not this is important will depend on the future availability of 1080p source material (According to press releases we've seen, Blu-ray Discs will be1080p, but I suspect the resolution chosen for any given disc will depend on the storage requirements of the program material.)

The set also includes DynamicBlack and Digital Video Enhancement (DVE), both of which are said to work together with the seventh segment on the color wheel (dark green) to deepen the blacks and enhance contrast in dark scenes. The DynamicBlack feature sounds like an automatic or dynamic iris, though HP is not that specific in its explanation, describing it as "a mechanical device that cuts down the amount of light projected to the screen…[it] kicks in when the scene is dark…HP does this on a frame-by-frame basis, instead of simply dimming the lamp." That sounds like an automatic iris to me, or perhaps some sort of polarizing filter which performs the same function. In any event, it does appear to operate as claimed without unwanted side effects, which is a good thing as it is non-defeatable. (DynamicBlack is a trademarked TI technology used by several DLP set manufacturers).

All the usual video features are here: PIP, POP, parental control, closed captions, and a sleep timer. There's also a unique on-screen PIP display showing thumbnail shots from up to 10 connected sources. A coaxial digital output lets you tap the 5.1-channel sound from the set's tuner and route it to your AV receiver or pre-pro, and a two-channel analog stereo output is also provided. With an HDMI digital connection from an HDMI source, the single HDMI cable will carry both video and (two-channel) audio to the set.

There are the usual aspect ratio selections. I did occasionally encounter one or two of the aspect limitations that are common in HD televisions. For example, when I tried to play back a standard definition, letterboxed program recorded on my HD cable box/DVR (component connection) I could not zoom it to fill the screen. My only choices were to watch it as a letterbox inside a 4:3 area in the center of the screen (that is, a smaller but geometrically correct image with black bars on all sides), or stretched and distorted to fill the screen vertically (but not horizontally). I choose the smaller, undistorted image.

All the familiar video controls are provided in the user on-screen menus (though the available controls vary with the type of input), plus gamma and four color temperature settings: Cool, Neutral, Warm, and Custom. The latter offers only single R, G, and B adjustments in the user menu, not the more flexible settings for both the top and bottom of the brightness range.

There are four picture modes. Each may be modified by the user video controls, and separate settings may be used for each input. I generally preferred Movie mode for everything; Studio is a little punchier, but for me not as refined and subtle. For a brightly lit room I can see someone preferring Standard for sports. Vivid is a cartoonish setting useful only for a retail showroom.

As with all current rear projection microdisplays, the 5880n uses a projection lamp cooled by an internal fan. The 150W UHP lamp used here is a DC design, rather than the more common AC type, and is rated for a life of 6000 hours (to half brightness).

UHP replacement lamps currently cost around $350, give or take, and my experience with them suggests that they dim relatively rapidly—a loss of perhaps 30% of brightness in the first 300 hours or so. After that, they are said to level off and age much more slowly, though we have not yet been able to verify that (the most time we can typically put on a review projector or microdisplay television is about 300 hours).

But many of these rear projection sets are already way too bright, in my opinion. A small loss of light output, or even 50%, would actually be a plus for these sets, provided the spectral output of the lamp does not change radically (which would cause color shift). The HP, when properly adjusted, is a little less bright than many, which is a plus, but still appears to have more than enough reserve to ease your lamp through puberty.

Setup
For the easiest physical setup of the 5880n, I recommend HP's dedicated stand. The only downside is that the stand comes disassembled and is a chore to put together. And it's made of MDF, which makes it almost as heavy as the set itself! Get your dealer to put yours together before delivery. It doesn't come with casters, nor are holes drilled for them, but it's a mod I would strongly recommend to HP (I put six small casters on the review sample myself). The combination of stand, equipment, and gear is heavy (despite the relatively svelte 119 lbs. of the set itself), and you'll eventually regret it if you don't make the whole thing easier to move around. As for getting the set on the stand, that's relatively painless for two reasonably strong people thanks to the recessed hand-holds HP has built into the chassis.

HP has also designed another unique feature into the 5880n. The input/output jacks are located at the front of the set, in an illuminated, recessed cavity behind a large, drop down panel. It's extremely convenient, and one wonders why someone hasn't thought of it before. The cables may be routed from this panel either toward the back of the set or through a small access hole in front, just under the panel. A similarly placed hole in the matching stand allows cables to be routed down to gear located on the shelves below, but the cables will be more visible from the front than if they are routed around back.

The operational setup of the HP isn't all that different than with other televisions. It involves the usual automated procedure which prompts the set to find over-the-air and/or cable channels (when you use cable connection directly to the set). With a set-top cable box or satellite receiver, of course, the channel setup and switching is in that box, and watching programming on the HP simply involves switching the set to the appropriate input.

CableCARD should be equally simple, but getting a card in the first place will depend more on the whims of your particular cable company than any limitations of the 5880n. A CableCARD saves shelf space, but I prefer the flexibility and time-shifting provided by a separate set-top HD cable box/DVR.

On the Fringe
I live in what might generously be called a "difficult" region for antenna reception. I'm right up against a range of hills that block a direct line-of-sight to Mount Wilson, where most LA area stations have their transmitting antennas. Analog pickup of any reasonable quality is out of the question. Though I can pull in analog signals from several stations, their reception is so noise-encrusted that I can't watch any of them for more than a few minutes without feeling that I've fallen into a 1950's, rabbit-ears time warp.

Two years ago contributor Pete Putman helped me set up and adjust an antenna that provided excellent reception of several DTV stations. But shortly after that, my local cable company (Charter Communications) got serious about HD and now provides more than a dozen high definition stations, including all the major networks. So far the quality has been high enough that I rarely use the antenna, and all of the HD observations in this review were made from cable reception via my set-top box, with the exception of a few programs recorded on a Zenith HDR230 over-the-air tuner/DVR.

But I did check out the quality of the 5880n's own over-the-air DTV tuner. The Zenith tuner/DVR has long been my standard, but the tuner in the HP picked up several HD stations that the Zenith never has, including the local NBC affiliate. Some stations were a bit on-again, off-again, such as KCET, the LA PBS provider, but that is more a reflection on my location than a serious limitation of the HP's tuner.

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