LG 50-inch Plasma HDTV with Hard-disk Recorder

The new 50PY2DR plasma HDTV from LG comes with a bright yellow insert explaining in all caps that the set's CableCARD and TV Guide On Screen electronic program guide eliminate the need to rent an outboard box from your cable company. It even says that "some cable operators may try to persuade you to lease a set-top box," but that you don't need one unless you want to use pay-per-view or video-on-demand services and that operation and connection are simpler with CableCARD/TV Guide On Screen. All of that is arguably true for this and other late-model TVs boasting these innovations, but - as you'll soon see - in going "outside the box" these sets still don't deliver everything inside the typical cable box.

PLUS
•Records HDTV from cable or antenna. •Well-integrated hard-disk recorder. •Accurate color.
MINUS
•Can record only one program at a time. •TV Guide On Screen hard to organize.
Fast Facts
DIMENSIONS (WxHxD) 56 x 35 x 14.375 inches (with stand) WEIGHT 137.875 pounds PRICE $8,000 MANUFACTURER LG, lgusa.com, 800-243-0000
Key Features
•50-inch (diagonal) 16:9 screen •Native 1,366 x 768-pixel resolution •Built-in high-def, 160-gigabyte hard-disk recorder with TV Guide On Screen •side inputs composite/S-video with stereo audio •rear inputs 2 HDMI; 2 FireWire; VGA-style RGB, 2 component-video, and composite/S-video, all with stereo audio; 2 RF antenna/cable; 2 optical digital audio •rear outputs composite/S-video with stereo audio; optical digital audio
The LG is the first plasma HDTV with a built-in video hard-disk recorder (HDR). Combined with CableCARD and TV Guide On Screen, the set provides most of the features found in cable boxes, standalone HDRs, and external HDTV tuners. I wonder why the company didn't throw in a slot-loading DVD player on the side just to complete the picture.

LG houses its feature-packed plasma in a glossy piano-black cabinet that exudes bachelor-pad class but reflects a lot of ambient light back at the viewer. A swivel stand is included, and an LED panel below the screen shows information such as current channel/input and HDR status. No front-panel buttons are visible, but a set of basic controls, including channel and volume, is stashed behind the right side of the frame. The shiny black remote control looks stylish but, unfortunately, attracts fingerprints from the moment you pick it up. Its worst ergonomic offense is hiding the (aspect) Ratio button, which changes the shape of the TV's picture, behind a sliding door.

SETUP In a move that may confuse the uninitiated, LG put three distinct menu systems into this set: standard TV controls, hard-disk controls (labeled X Studio Pro for some reason), and TV Guide controls. The first set of menus was simple enough to use and offered a whopping six video presets plus a seventh, Custom mode that can remember different settings for each input. One very cool feature for enthusiasts divides the screen into quadrants, each of which modifies the picture according to one of the presets so you can compare and choose between them. There are also six display modes (five work with high-def) plus a 16-point adjustable zoom and three modes designed to prevent screen burn-in.

Part of your setup involves loading TV Guide On Screen, which is crucial for getting full use of the hard-disk recorder. The guide grabs program information from cable and off-air antenna sources (though not satellite) and compiles it into a grid so you can browse programs and schedule recordings. In addition to staples like keyword search, sorting by genre, and recording every episode of a show on a particular channel, TV Guide On Screen offers a few functions not found in any cable company onscreen guide. These include the ability to customize the position channels appear in, integrating cable and antenna channels on the same grid, and a preview window that can be set to change channels as you browse.

This kind of functionality is great, but when LG's guide first retrieved its information from my Time Warner Cable New York City system, the channels came in randomly and had to be reordered one by one to match the guide in the cable box, a tedious task on a digital cable system with hundreds of channels. There's no easy way to sort between off-air and cable channels aside from manually ordering them. In its favor, the guide did find all of the channels and displayed their program information correctly, whether I fed the signal from the cable box or straight from the wall, something previous versions of TV Guide On Screen I've tested have failed to do. It also found information for all the off-air digital stations in my area.

PICTURE QUALITY After futzing with the LG's guide setup and adjusting its picture (see "in the lab" for more), I settled back to enjoy a DVD. Like most plasmas, the LG exhibited better performance when fed a digital signal, so I set my Denon DVD-3910 DVD player's output to 720p and used its HDMI connection. The movie made from Elektra, the comic-book spinoff from Daredevil, outdid its big-screen predecessor within the first few minutes.

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