Hitachi 51SWX20B HD-ready CRT projection television

While the cabinet of Hitachi's new 51SWX20B 51-inch TV isn't exceptionally large by widescreen rear-projection CRT standards, its weight of almost 250 lbs is still intimidating. But as the delivery men were about to schlep it into my den, we discovered the first of many welcome new features, one that's almost unheard of in RPTVs: convenient carrying handles. Well, not actual handles, but well-positioned handholds, two on each side, fore and aft. If they don't exactly make carrying the set a pleasure, they at least make it less of an ordeal than usual.

The SWX series is one step down from Hitachi's top-of-the-line XWX televisions. The SWX sets require an outboard set-top box to receive high-definition satellite or over-the-air signals. But they include Hitachi's best, five-element SC Super Contrast lenses and HD Hybrid Wide Neck CRTs, which suggests a picture the equal of the considerably more expensive and somewhat more feature-heavy XWX line. The major additions to the XWXs are their onboard HD tuners and IEEE 1394/5C digital connections.

Popping the Hood
First, a small admission. A year ago, a television manufacturer asked if some of their technical people could visit us to discuss how we reviewed video displays and the things we looked for in a television. That manufacturer was Hitachi. But we didn't think it appropriate to provide this information to only one manufacturer, so we published the same wish list in "Viewpoint" in our February 2002 issue, where it was available to anyone. There was nothing particularly revolutionary in that list; we've been beating the drum for many of these features in our reviews for years. As to how we test TVs, that, too, is no secret to any regular SGHT reader.

While some of our dream items are not to be found in the set under evaluation here, a few are: the carrying handles mentioned above, direct input access from the remote, user-defeatable "gee-whiz" features, two component inputs, a (partially) backlit remote with no reset button to accidentally push, and the ability to select black bars (rather than gray) to the left and right of a 4:3 image.

The Hitachi displays all inputs in one of two scanning rates: 540p or 1080i. A number of manufacturers are starting to use 540p (as opposed to 480p) as a scan rate for standard-definition display, not because it provides better performance, but because 540p requires the same scanning frequency as 1080i, simplifying a set's design. I used 540p for most of my standard-def viewing (and a 480i input from the DVD player, thus using the set's own deinterlacer), but saw no significant differences between 540p and 1080i. The Hitachi will accept hi-def inputs of 720p or 1080i, and offers the user the choice of displaying them as either 540p or 1080i.

There are six different, selectable aspect ratios. Standard 4:3, 4:3 Zoom 1, and 16:9 Standard are for full-frame, standard (letterbox) widescreen, and anamorphic (enhanced) widescreen, respectively. 4:3 Expanded is one of those stretchy modes that leaves the center of a 4:3 image relatively intact but expands the sides to fill the screen. It works reasonably well with noncritical full-frame material, but can be left unused if you object to slightly fat people lurking at the left and right sides of the image.

All of the aspect ratios remain selectable with a 480p input. Two unusual modes are designed to blow up 2.35:1 (or "scope") widescreen films to fill the 16:9 screen from top to bottom: 16:9 Zoom for anamorphic transfers, and 4:3 Zoom2 for standard letterbox. I discussed this subject in "Viewpoint" in the October 2002 issue. Yes, both modes cut off information on the sides, and of course none of you would use them. But they might keep the average viewer from complaining about those black bars on his widescreen set—at least on this type of program material. They'd work a lot better, however, if they didn't also increase overscan noticeably in the zoom mode, cropping off not only the sides of the 2.35:1 image but some of the top and bottom as well.

There are ample inputs, including two sets of wideband component inputs and a DVI-HDTV input for use with digital connections from future set-top boxes. While DVI-HDTV might provide some performance enhancements in fully digital displays (which does not include CRT-based units like this set, in which the signal must be converted to analog form in the final display stages), its primary feature is that it incorporates HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection), giving Hollywood the warm fuzzies about copy prevention. Unlike IEEE 1394 (FireWire), which can easily be designed for use with a hi-def recorder such as a D-VHS machine, a DVI bitstream is unrecordable on any current or anticipated consumer product.

While video settings cannot be saved separately for each input, there are four different Picture Modes—Sports, Movies, News, and Music—that can be used in their factory settings or individually adjusted to the user's preference. You then select the mode you want to use with each input, and if you return to that input later, it will automatically revert to that mode. This also applies to one of the three available color-temperature settings (High, Medium, Standard) and the aspect ratio. The one fly in the Picture Mode soup is that 3:2 pulldown is available from the onboard scaler only in Movie mode.

The Hitachi has all of the usual bells and whistles, including picture-in-picture modes supported by two onboard NTSC tuners. The audio is respectable but won't inspire you to abandon plans for a good outboard surround-sound system. In a pinch, you can use the set's amp and speakers as a center channel—a line-level input is provided for this purpose—but we don't recommend it except as a stopgap arrangement.

There are two remotes. The larger, a full-function unit, is excellent, with well-positioned buttons in a variety of sizes. It can also control up to seven additional sources apart from the television itself, either directly or through a feature called A/V Network. The latter makes use of two IR blasters (included) for control of up to four external components, along with onscreen menus for component control. The components can also be controlled by direct reception from the remote (without the onscreen assistance), provided they're within line of sight. Like all the programmable remotes we've seen that come with television sets, however, the Hitachi provides far more limited control than can dedicated remotes for individual components. For example, using Hitachi's remote, you can start a DVD, navigate its menus, fast scan, and stop, but not skip forward and backward through the chapters.