HP PL4272N Plasma HDTV

A good flat panel with a punchy image, good color and detail, an excellent remote control, and a tempting price.

When HP introduced its first line of televisions, after years as a leader in home computers, it featured both flat panel and rear projection sets. Now, however, the company sells flat panel LCD and plasma designs exclusively. Its two new LCD models are both 1080p. Its two plasmas are both 768p—an odd number that originated in the computer world and manages to linger on, at least in plasma designs.

It's difficult to make plasma pixels small enough to match the full horizontal resolution of 1280 x 720 high-definition television, much less 1920 x 1080. That's changing this year, with a growing number of higher resolution plasmas coming from other makers, but at a price. To achieve its remarkably low MSRP of $1,299, however, HP's 42-inch PL4272N sports a resolution of 1024 x 768.

Outwardly there's nothing unusual about the appearance of the PL4272N. Its shiny black bezel design is attractive, but the Shiny Black Bezel department of your local Best Circuit Shack is overflowing with similar choices. Let's dig deeper.

Plenty of inputs? Check. In addition to two component inputs, there are three HDMI inputs. Two are intended for use with the audio that rides along with the video on the single HDMI cable. The third HDMI connection offers separate L/R analog audio jacks. Many of you, of course, will be using a separate surround sound audio system for your serious audio listening, leaving the modest two-channel audio system in the HP for light lifting on C-Span and the Food Channel.

There's also an RGB computer input on a 15-pin, VGA connector. It has a single analog audio input.

Onboard tuners? Check. The HP has a built-in HDTV/DTV tuner (ATSC) and standard definition tuner (NTSC) for over-the-air and cable-in-the-clear reception. L/R analog audio outputs and a digital audio output let you route the sound from these onboard tuners into your audio system.

A variety of aspect ratios, on-screen menus, password protection and parental controls, inputs that can be relabeled to match your sources? Check, check. . ...and check.

PIP and POP? No check. Some things had to go to keep the price down. If you want to watch reruns of The Sopranos and Spongebob Squarepants side-by-side at the same time, you're out of luck. Front panel inputs for a camcorder are missing, as well.

The HP's remote is a wonder of simplicity. It doesn't offer the option of controlling six other components. It just controls the TV. As a result, it's family friendly, with big, easy to find, well-spaced buttons. What a concept! The only downside: it's not backlit.

Set up couldn't be simpler. A setup wizard guides you through the steps. Once you're done, select one of the three preset picture modes—Standard, Movie, Vivid—or a User mode. The first three of these are fixed; only the User mode can be adjusted with the set's Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, Hue, and Sharpness controls.

You can set the HP's video controls separately for each type of input, though not each specific input. That is, one block of settings will apply to all of the HDMI inputs, one to component, etc.

You can also save different settings for each of the usual source resolutions through these inputs. The perfectionist videophile will appreciate this flexibility. I do. But the casual user could find it annoying.

There are three selectable color temperature settings: Cool, Standard, and Warm. Warm was closest to correct, but a good color temperature/grayscale calibration, which can be performed only in the hidden service menu by an experienced technician equipped with the right skills and tools, can bring it closer to the 6500K (or more precisely, D6500) standard.

All of my viewing observations below were performed after a full calibration. Even without an aftermarket color temperature calibration, however, the HP is still well worth considering. But full calibration or not I strongly recommend, as always, finding the optimum settings of the User video controls with the help of a good test DVD, such as Digital Video Essentials.

It's surprising just how much performance you can get these days, for very little money, from flat panel displays. Yes, I know that $1,299 isn't pocket change for most of us, but only in the past couple of years have plasmas and LCDs become even relatively affordable.

But affordable doesn't mean much if the performance isn't there to back it up, and the HP has what it takes. While it isn't perfect (what is?), its flaws are seldom distracting, and some of them can be minimized by proper setup.

One of the first DVDs I always pull out to test a display is Charlotte Gray. Yes, it's standard definition, but most of us still watch a lot of SD programming. This beautifully photographed movie is film-like on DVD in the best sense—warm, rich, and naturally detailed. And that's exactly what it looked like on the HP. There's little or no artificial enhancement on this disc, and the HP didn't add any of its own.

The colors (in the Warm setting) were good before calibration and even better after. There does, however, appear to be a little too much red push. At the factory setting of the Saturation control flesh tones were too reddish, particularly after calibration. But that was easily fixed by reducing the Saturation to around 35. This did not wash out other colors to a noticeable degree. Greens, in fact, remained a bit too oversaturated even at that setting, but they were tolerable. (Greens that look artificial on brightly lit foliage are common on many digital displays.)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, another exceptional standard DVD, was crisp and fully detailed. But this DVD did demonstrate two limitations of the HP: black levels and false contouring. The below decks sequence at the beginning of the film, in particular, looked gray rather than believably black, and false contouring could be spotted in many places, particularly on dimly lit scenes. While the significance of the set's false contouring and black level issues varied considerably from disc to disc, they were never as bothersome as on Master and Commander. (This disc has not exhibited false contouring on other sets I have reviewed).

These flaws would trouble me in an expensive set, but at its price the HP just looked too good, too often, for me to become too annoyed by them. And when I moved on to high-definition material the positive side of the ledger easily won out. Hulk is one of the best-looking HD DVDs out there, and while it didn't have particularly good shadow detail on the HP, the set's crisp, colorful image with most scenes definitely kept the set in the race.

Other high-definition discs were beautiful as well. Kingdom of Heaven on Blu-ray looked superb, and a Blu-ray demo disc from Pioneer (possibly the best-looking HD disc I have yet seen) was a knockout from beginning to end.

The HP did appear to be more prone to image retention than many new plasmas. By image retention I mean the tendency of a plasma to display, for a time, the shadowy image of a bright stationary scene after that scene has been removed from the screen. Image retention is the first, but still reversible stage of permanent burn-in.

This suggests that you should use some caution when displaying stationary images for extended periods on the HP (good advice, actually for any phosphor-based plasma or CRT display). I never let stationary images sit on the screen long enough for permanent burn-in, and kept the contrast below 50 (which was more than bright enough on the HP, though I could increase it to around 75 without clipping the whites).

The HP PL4272N is an excellent buy. Yes, you can do better by spending several hundred, or several thousand, additional dollars. But for solid performance at a price that will please your wallet, take a close look at this one.

Reviewed with a Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD player and a Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player. The video cables (HDMI and component) were from Monster Cable, Ultralink, and Tributaries. The test equipment included a Photo Research PR-650 Spectroradiometer, Minolta LS-100 light meter, AccuPel HDG-3000 test pattern generator, Datacolor Colorfacts Professional calibration and analysis software, and test discs from Digital Video Essentials (HD and SD), Faroudja (SD), and Silicon Optix (HD and SD).

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