Philips 32PF9996 LCD HD Monitor

It dares to be different.

In the crowded world of flat panels, a manufacturer that can make their product distinctive certainly has a leg up on the competition. Philips clearly understands this, equipping their line of LCD and plasma displays with some unique features that help these displays stand out from the pack. Of course, when you veer away from the tried-and-true approach, you also risk alienating some consumers.

I've seen a lot of demos and heard a lot of talk about Philips' Pixel Plus 2 and Ambilight technologies. People clearly have strong opinions about them, so I decided it was time to evaluate one of these displays for myself. My guinea pig: the 32PF9996 32-inch LCD display, a widescreen model with a 1,366-by-768 resolution. Having spent a good deal of time with this model in my own home, I can definitely say that your personal impression of these technologies will most heavily influence whether you purchase this TV—so let's spend some time addressing them specifically.

Pixel Plus 2
What is Pixel Plus 2? As with any display, the 32PF9996's internal processing needs to adjust the incoming signal to match its resolution. According to Philips, Pixel Plus 2 first increases the number of lines and pixels in the incoming signal up to a maximum resolution of 2,560,000 pixels. It then sharpens the quality of each pixel and alters it to better match the surrounding pixels. Finally, it scales the processed picture to match the native resolution of that particular Philips display—in this case, 1,366 by 768.

Exactly how it "alters" each pixel, I can't rightly say, but I can say that the result is an extremely smooth, detailed image with vivid colors—whether the source is DVD or HDTV. Even standard-def signals look much better than average. As someone who really dislikes a noisy digital image, my first reaction to Pixel Plus 2 was quite positive.

The more you watch a Pixel Plus 2 image, though, the more you notice its effect on the picture. For one, it makes every source look like super-detailed video. You don't have to be an expert to notice that film-based sources no longer look like film. Second, the way images move on the screen is slightly unnatural. I liken the effect to the way a pan-and-scanned image looks on a 4:3 TV—when the image moves so you can see what's on the outer edge of the frame, you can tell it's not a natural camera movement. It's almost too fluid.

Back in our January 2003 issue, we did a Face Off that included one of the original Pixel Plus displays, and the judges were mixed in their reactions. Some appreciated the enhanced detail, while others found the effect to be overly distracting. My reaction to the display in question here was also mixed. On the one hand, I loved how clean and crisp the images were, but the unnatural motion often pulled me out of the moment. My husband, meanwhile, preferred it when I turned off the Pixel Plus 2 feature—that's the good news for anyone who doesn't like it. You can turn it off, but you will see a step down in detail when you do.

You've probably seen a commercial or two about this technology. Basically, a light behind each side panel casts a colored glow around the TV. Why do this, you may wonder? It's not just for the cool factor, although it does make the image seem larger and more involving. That backlight also helps reduce eyestrain.

Devoted HT fans may recall that, back in our December 2000 issue, we discussed how the use of a bias light behind your TV can help reduce the strain your eyes endure when you force them to jump between light and dark images on the screen. The constant light provides an anchor so your eyes' adjustments don't have to be so extreme.

Such is Philips' goal with Ambilight—although I'm sure they would like it if you appreciate the feature for looking cool, too. You can set the 32PF9996's Ambilight to a fixed color (red, blue, warm white, or cool white), you can tailor your own color in the personal mode, or you can set it to change the light's color to mimic the colors onscreen. I felt the shifting colors drew too much attention away from the onscreen action, but I found a personal setting that I liked. As you read this, Ambilight 2 TVs should be hitting the market, which will offer even greater control over color adjustments.

As with Pixel Plus 2, if you don't like the Ambilight technology, you can turn it off. It doesn't adversely affect picture quality in any way to do so; however, once you're used to the light, the image does feel smaller without it. Given this screen's smaller size, the Ambilight effect is all the more helpful.

Besides That
Now we arrive at the $20 million question: Unique features aside, how does this TV perform? The 32PF9996 produced a nice-looking picture through both the component and HDMI inputs. It measures reasonably well out of the box and better after calibration. Colors are pretty accurate, and the detail level is solid—again, it's better with Pixel Plus 2 turned on. Even without Pixel Plus 2, the image isn't overly noisy. When I tested the TV's ability to transition from light to dark, it did a good job, although there was one noticeable jump in the grays, which took on a greenish tint in that area.

The viewing angle isn't as wide as I've seen on other LCD models. When you view it straight on, the black level is decent for an LCD; combined with its good light output, the TV can produce an enjoyable image in either a bright or a dark room. However, the black level begins to rise when you move even slightly off-axis, so you should be mindful of where the seats are positioned in your room; people off to the sides won't get as rich of an image.

The 32PF9996 did a good job handling video-based images from my Silicon Optix and Video Essentials test discs, but I saw more jaggies than I'd like with regular program material. With film-based material, the TV never picked up the 3:2 sequence on my test discs and created some jaggies in demo scenes from The Bourne Identity and Gladiator, so you'll want to mate this TV with a good progressive-scan DVD player.

As I tested the TV's processing, I stumbled across another unique feature. When I set my cable box for 720p output, I noticed that this display passes 720p signals pixel for pixel. It doesn't scale them to match its 1,366-by-768 resolution, so the image doesn't fill up the entire screen. In theory, I understand Philips' reasoning for this—it does produce a clean image free of any scaling artifacts, and I'm sure videophiles love this feature on larger Philips displays. However, on a 32-inch TV, I'll take all the picture I can get, thank you.

Setting your sources for 1080i solves this problem; but, even with my cable box in 1080i mode, the 32PF9996 didn't center 4:3 windows on the screen. Rather, it placed them slightly to the right. Philips has included a feature called Nudge that lets you use the remote's directional keys to move the image and center it on the screen.

The 32PF9996 is well built and has an attractive style, incorporating NXT flat-panel speakers into the frame to make for a sleek overall design. It's also generally easy to set up and use, but I do have a couple of issues in the ergonomics department. The connection panel is very difficult to access. Connections and their labels run along the bottom side of the TV, making it tough to see if you're plugging things in correctly. There's also a slot through which you're supposed to feed your cables, but I had trouble getting both HDMI and component cables through it. The remote lacks dedicated input buttons; instead, you can press the AV+ button and then the corresponding input number on the keypad. You can also use the channel-up/-down buttons to scroll through the inputs.

The 32PF9996 gets the fundamentals right in terms of its video performance and produces an attractive picture as a result. Still, things like Pixel Plus 2, Ambilight, and the passthrough of 720p sources will generate mixed reactions. More so than many TVs that pass through our doors, this is one you really need to see for yourself before you make a final decision.

• Pixel Plus 2 creates a wonderfully sharp image but also affects motion
• Ambilight function makes the 32-inch screen seem larger