Are You Ready for Some HDTV? Page 5

Like the other sets, the Hitachi has an abundant supply of video inputs, including two trios of wideband component-video jacks. You can specify one of four display modes - which include Normal 4:3, Full 16:9, Fill, and Smooth Wide - as the default for each of the inputs via the setup menu. This will come in handy if, for example, you have a DVD player connected to the component-video input and a cable box or VCR connected to an S-video input and you prefer not to manually switch display modes every time you change sources. Another notable feature is a special HDTV setting to ensure accurate color when you're watching high-def programs.

Hitachi's nicely shaped remote control fit snugly in the palm of my hand. Most of the buttons on its keypad can be backlit by pressing a button at the top, and there's a joystick in the middle for navigating the menus. Right below it is a group of direct-input keys for switching video sources. The remote can be programmed to control up to seven components in your system besides the TV.

Setup of the 53SWX10B starts with the Magic Focus button located on the set's front panel. This feature did a passable job of aligning the three CRTs, but I could still see a fair amount of color fringing on a crosshatch pattern from the Ovation Software Avia test DVD. Unfortunately, Hitachi doesn't provide a manual control to perform convergence touchups, so unless you call in a professional calibrator you'll have to live with any convergence errors.

There are four picture presets: News, Sports, Movie, and Music. Any of them can be user-adjusted, and the set will store your changes. Advanced setup options include SVM on/off, black-level expansion on/off, color-temperature selection (Cool/ Warm/Standard), and switchable 1080i/ 540p conversion of standard and 720p-format HDTV signals. Movie is the only preset that engages the line doubler's 2:3 pulldown feature, so make sure that's the one you select when you watch movies from a standard DVD player.

I was very impressed with Hitachi's line doubler. Standard programs on satellite looked relatively sharp and clean, and it did an excellent job of handling the visually complex opening of Star Trek: Insurrection. The haystacks looked solid, and the diagonal lines and green grass patches in the overhead shot looked natural and free of artifacts and noise.

After I made my initial picture adjustments and selected the Warm color-temperature setting, the high end of the grayscale looked accurate, but the low end was way off the map (see "In the Lab"). A swampy green tint in the shadowy scenes of Citizen Kane made it seem like I was watching the film through a fish tank. Once I calibrated the set's grayscale, however, contrast and shadow detail were very good, and the set's rendering of both blacks and intermediate gray tones dramatically improved.

Colors on The Fifth Element looked robust, but a slight reddish tint to flesh tones forced me to turn back the color control a few steps. Afterward, I had the Hitachi's picture pretty much dialed in. In a scene from Antitrust where Milo and Lisa gas up their vehicles against a gray Pacific Northwest backdrop, their flesh tones looked natural, and I could distinguish between Lisa's black sweater and her chocolate-brown coat.

The Hitachi's handling of high-def images placed it in the same neighborhood as the Toshiba and Pioneer sets. Panoramic shots of the Arkansas stadium conveyed an awesome "you are there" effect. And closeups of the South Carolina team struggling to regain its advantage were packed with enough detail to show their determination turning into resignation as the seconds ticked away on the clock. It was a close call, but the Hitachi ultimately proved less adept than the Pioneer and Toshiba in delivering fine textures and subtle gradations of color in wide-angle shots. Even so, I was impressed with its overall performance.

Hitachi's towering 53SWX10B is the defensive end of big-screen HDTVs. And its excellent line doubler truly makes it shine when you're watching DVDs. You'll need to put some effort into the initial setup to get it to look its best, but once that's done, you'll be pleased with the payoff.

Having closely followed the HDTV rollout and watched the initially scant but now abundant high-def program offerings on the first generations of sets, I'm happy to report that this season's lineup finally got things right. The dramatic high-def pictures delivered by any one of these widescreen TVs will leave you clamoring for more. And because each set is also equipped with powerful features for making standard NTSC programs look good, you won't get caught in the crossfire as our country's television system goes digital. Whether you're a sports fanatic, a movie nut, or just enjoy sitcoms, the time is right for taking the HDTV plunge.