Hitachi 50VX915 Directors Series LCD RPTV

Form factor fueled the development of Hitachi's new line of handsome, black-lacquer-finished LCD RPTVs. Hitachi's focus-group research told them that consumers clamor for plasma more for the thin form factor than for the picture quality. But high plasma prices inhibit sales, so the company decided to take advantage of one of its core competencies—lens technology—to build a microdisplay that looked like a plasma but was priced within reach of a larger group of consumers.

The current sets, including this 50-inch model, aren't thin like plasma, but by reducing the size of the light engine/lens assembly (especially its height), Hitachi was able to create an enticingly thin, plasma-like front bezel around the screen. When viewed from the front, the set resembles a plasma; from the side, it looks much like other microdisplay TVs. Hitachi claims the new light engine/lens system in no way compromises picture quality. In fact, they maintain that the new technology actually improves the overall picture compared to its older systems.

Hitachi builds its own plasma glass, CRTs, and lens systems, but it does not produce LCD microchips for projection televisions, so it sourced the triple-chip 1280x720 microdisplay from Epson.

The thin frame, without the cabinet bulge below the screen area found on other microdisplay RPTVs, gives the set a trim, rectangular "plasma" shape that Hitachi's research showed consumers want. However, Hitachi chose to add non-detachable speakers on either side of the screen behind angular grill-cutout accents that increase the set's already wider than normal appearance (for an RPTV). The "wider than normal" illusion is augmented when viewing 4:3 pictures on the 16:9 screen—they end up looking too skinny. If you remember the famous optical illusion in which you're shown two lines of equal length, one with arrows pointing out, one with arrows pointing in at the ends, you'll know what I'm talking about. This is an easily ignored illusion, but the set's 55 3/8" actual width may make it a difficult fit in some spaces.

At last winter's CES, Hitachi displayed this set next to some of its plasma displays, cannily building it into a false wall to hide its true depth—not to deceive, but to make a point. Physically, at least, it appeared to be an unusually attractive, high-gloss black-lacquer-finished, 50-inch plasma set with an MSRP of $3495. Point well taken.

Features Galore
If you go to Web page, you'll see that Hitachi has packed this handsome-looking set with a great deal of proprietary technology along with a host of worthwhile operating features. That includes CableCARD compatibility with integrated ATSC tuner, dual NTSC tuners, Fresnel screen with anti-reflective high-contrast shield, and exceptionally good sound quality from the integrated speakers. More important, however, is how the set interfaces with human beings, and how it actually performs.

Setup and Use
Hitachi's instruction manual gets an A for being well-organized and written in plain, jargon-free prose, though the reasoning behind the "set up" section beginning on page 73 instead of at the beginning of the book remains a mystery to me. Also, the manual does an extremely poor job of explaining ATSC over-the-air reception.

Two large, glossy inserts are included: a superbly rendered, full-color quick-connection guide and a quick remote-control guide. Between these two inserts and the well-done manual, you really get the sense that a human being is talking to you and trying to help you get the set up and running as quickly as possible. Despite the above-mentioned glitches, Hitachi, in my opinion, shows the industry how manuals should be presented.

Rear-panel inputs include two antenna, two HDMI, CableCARD, two component video plus L/R analog audio, and two S-video/composite video plus L/R audio. Two IEEE 1394 FireWire ports and an optical digital audio output are also included, along with two IR "blaster" jacks and an RS-232C port. There's also an upgrade slot into which a card with new firmware can be inserted. Side-panel facilities include S-video/composite video plus L/R audio inputs as well as a USB port for direct digital-camera connectivity.

Hitachi's AV Network Wizard is an exemplary user interface for connecting and controlling up to four source devices (DVD players, cable/satellite STBs, PVRs, VCRs, etc.) using the supplied IR blasters, the remote control, and codes provided in the manual—if you don't use an outboard receiver or processor for A/V switching. You can also program the system for devices whose codes are not supplied.

I found the backlit remote to be ergonomically efficient and easy to use. My wife didn't like it, especially the dual scroll wheels. I did. One lets you scroll through the tuner or CableCARD channels or, by pressing down on it and turning, scroll only through pre-selected favorite channels. The other controls volume or, by pressing down on it, selects "mute." The remote's Day Night button, which switches picture settings to compensate for ambient light, was one of many much-appreciated features packed into this handsome television.