HP PL5060N Plasma HDTV

When you think of Hewlett-Packard you don't think first of test gear or televisions. But HP began life as a manufacturer of specialized test and medical equipment. Today, however, it's the world's largest seller of home and business computers.

But like many computer-centric companies, HP couldn't resist the opportunities offered by the hot new high-definition television market. And while it hasn't yet broken through to become a household name in big-screen televisions, HP is far closer to doing so than the Dells and Gateways of the world.

HP broke into the TV market in 2005 with a well-received line of rear projection televisions (see our review of the HP md5880n). These sets offered many unique features; their 1080p models, for example, were, to my knowledge, the first 1080p sets that would actually accept a native 1080p input.

Those HP rear projection sets are now history. The company is concentrating on its flat panel displays, both plasma and LCD. The HP PL5060N ($1799.99 after mail-in rebate) is a 50" plasma with a native resolution of 1366x768, and it's currently the company's largest model.

By Design
Outwardly the HP plasma resembles any number of current designs. Its matte-black frame is, however, a departure from the glossy frames of many competitors. The screen is reflective glass, which is common in plasmas and bothers some potential buyers enough to drive them to the less reflective screen finish on LCD designs.

The set comes with a pair of detachable side speakers (not tested) and a stand that's removable for an on-wall setup. The controls are on the left side of the set and remain accessible when the speakers are installed.

All of the HP's inputs are around back; there are no inputs on the front or sides for temporary connections, such as from a camcorder. The inputs include just a single HDMI connection even though many new sets offer two or more. There are two component inputs, one PC/VGA on 15-pin DSUB, one RF (antenna), two S-Video inputs, and two composite inputs. The composite and S-Video inputs are linked; that is, there are two input selections labeled S-VID/VID. You can use each S-VID/VID input for either an S-Video or composite video source, but not both.

The set also provides a choice of optional, alternate names you may select for each input (except Antenna). For example, the HDMI input may be renamed DVD, STB, PVR, Cable, DEC, Aux, Satellite, PC, or HDMI (the default).

In addition, there is a PC/DVI audio input jack, and a TosLink optical digital audio out for routing the sound from the set's on-board ATSC and NTSC tuners to your AV receiver or pre-pro. There's also an RS-232 connection, and output jacks for connecting the external speakers, and, of course, an IEC terminal for the detachable power cord.

The HP's remote is similar to the remote on previous HP sets, and that's a good thing. It isn't backlit, but in every other respect it's outstanding. The most welcome design decision HP's engineers made was to bypass the usual multi-component remote, with its blizzard of tiny buttons, in favor of a remote dedicated to operating only the PL5060N. This means relatively few buttons, all of them comfortable in size, nicely spaced spaced, and well arranged. The navigation joystick also has a positive, tactile feel. This is my kind of remote control—straightforward, to the point, and not weighted down with extraneous "features."

It probably helps simplify things that the set lacks one common feature I can do without but you might want. There are no picture-in-picture or split image options. If you want to watch two games at the same time, you'll need two TVs.

One feature missing that would have been helpful is direct input selection. As with most sets, the HP makes you enter an Input menu and go around-the-horn to select the input you want.

Our sample of the set had several 3-4" long streaks in the screen glass that appeared to be on its inner surface; they would not come off with careful cleaning. But they were only visible with the set off and viewed in just the right room lighting. I hope they were just sample flaws, but I never noticed them during normal viewing.

Apart from the set's difficult to access, vertically oriented rear-panel connections, setting up the PL5060N is straightforward. (HP isn't alone in such vertically oriented inputs; they're common in flat-screen televisions to keep the wiring from protruding out the back and interfering with a wall-mounted setup). A First-Time Setup Wizard guides you through the setup process, including a search for antenna or (clear/unscrambled) cable TV signals. The HP does not have CableCARD, however, so scrambled HD cable channels will require a cable set-top box.

The on-screen menus are, mercifully, both simpler than most and relatively thorough. The set offers four preset modes: Vivid, Standard, Movie, and User. The first three are fixed; call one of them up and while you can see its settings for Brightness, Contrast, Saturation (color), Hue, and Sharpness, you can't change them.

But the User mode is fully adjustable. It may be set separately for different inputs, but within limits: one setting for HDMI, one for both component inputs, one for the antenna and both composite/S-Video inputs, and one for the PC input. And there's one notable design glitch. When the menus are called up they cover most of the screen. They do not drop out of the way when you want to make an adjustment, which makes it hard to see what you are doing.

There are three color temperature settings, Warm, Standard, and Cold. The set may be calibrated only in a code-locked service menu.

There are no other picture adjustments. No user red, green, and blue grayscale controls. No noise reduction. No controls labeled Dynamic Black, Auto Contrast, Black Level, Flesh Tone, Color Management, or any of the other tweaks so beloved by most manufacturers. Such controls certainly fill out a product brochure, but often require test equipment to use properly and can do more harm to the picture than good in the hands of the average consumer. But they can be useful for an experienced videophile.

There are the usual audio adjustments for the speakers that come with the display, plus audio equalizer settings centered at seven different frequencies. There is also a digital audio output control offering the choice of either PCM or Dolby Digital.

A Burning Issue?
Plasmas are phosphor-based displays like CRTs (LCD, LCoS, and DLP are not). And all phosphor-based displays are subject to burn-in. There are two types of burn-in. The worst is a permanent ghost image caused by leaving a bright, still picture (or a moving image with bright, steady elements, like the scoreboard on a video game) on the screen for an extended period. The other, which is more properly called image retention, fades out after a few minutes.

You can produce permanent burn-in on any plasma if you're careless. HP warns about this in the manual. But even if you're careful, you will see temporary image retention on many plasmas, including the PL5060N. This will also occur when you watch a 4:3 or 2.35:1 program that requires black bars on the screen; after extended use you may see the lines where the image transitioned to the black bars.

All such temporary image retention ghosts are very dim. On the HP I only saw them on very dark scenes or a fade to black that following a bright scene with little motion. The problem will vary depending on how high you've set the Contrast control. I strongly recommend keeping it under 50. In fact, I obtained a more than comfortable brightness from the set at a Contrast setting of around 30.

Keeping the Contrast down and minimizing partial filling of the screen during the first 100-200 hours of use will minimize the risk of permanent burn-in. HP also provides a White Wash control that may help clear up a mild case of burn-in. But you should not use this control to erase routine image retention that will fade naturally by itself. The manual warns that excessive use of White Wash may reduce the life of the set.

A Plasma for Sure
Despite a few issues I'll get to a bit further on, I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed watching this 1366x768 plasma, particularly considering the extended time I've spent lately with 1080p LCD displays. LCD has come a long way, and seems poised to do even better as manufacturers find ways to improve its biggest remaining weakness: blacks.