V Inc. Vizio P4 46-inch plasma TV

VInc. is a new company with a filial relationship to Princeton Graphics, a maker of computer displays and a line of commercial DTVs. The companies share a major investor in William Wang, and V Inc. has ambitious plans for the world of consumer electronics.

The Vizio P4 is a promising start. The first thing that might strike you about this admirable new plasma display is its price: only $3999. That's a lot for a 46-inch TV—you could buy a larger rear-projection television for half that—but it's a bargain for a plasma. Most plasmas of this size cost twice as much, or close to it. Obviously, the P4 must be missing something.

It doesn't lack for inputs. Real estate on the back of a plasma set is scarce, so many have few inputs. The Vizio P4 has a full complement: composite, S-video, component, RGB, and even a DVI digital connection. The DVI inputs in the first production run of P4s (including our samples) were not HDCP compliant. From the second run on, according to V Inc., they will be. Check to be certain that yours is if you plan to use the DVI connection; a non-HDCP DVI connection will be of limited use for home theater.

You might be surprised to see an RF input as well—unlike virtually every other plasma I've seen, the P4 comes with an analog television tuner built in. It's a TV, not a monitor, and it even has tiny built-in speakers. And the screen is 20% larger than the 42-inch (diagonal) that up to now has been standard for plasmas in this size range.

So what's missing? HDTV, that's what. Though it has a 16:9 screen, the Vizio P4 is a standard-definition plasma TV that displays everything with a vertical resolution of 480 lines. V Inc.'s literature promotes the set's ability to accept an input from a digital tuner and downconvert a high-definition signal to the set's native display resolution of 852x480. That sounds to me like a subtle way of suggesting that the P4 is some sort of HDTV. It isn't. Connect a digital receiver to this set and the maximum resolution you'll see is 480p, nothing more.

But despite recent price drops, plasmas of any resolution that sell for under $4000 are still scarce. The Vizio's most direct competition at present appears to be a model offered by computer manufacturer Gateway. Like the Vizio, it will display high-definition programming, but downconverts it to 480p. At $3000, it's $1000 cheaper than the P4, but at 42-inches, it's also smaller. A 42-inch, $4000 model from Apex is due this Christmas that, according to Apex, will offer full high-definition. But as we go to press, it's still vaporware.

The Vizio P4 is a handsome TV with a broad silver frame. Seven silver control buttons are at the bottom right, and the large, bold V at the bottom reminded me of the Zenith Z. The P4 comes with a matching tabletop stand as standard equipment, but it can also be hung from the wall or ceiling-mounted using optional mounting accessories. Like all plasmas, it's quite thin: 3.2 inches.

The inputs on the back face downward, as they do on most plasmas, so they're difficult to access. But the Vizio offers a graphic depiction of the inputs facing out from below, which makes it a lot easier to find the jack you want. One problem, though, is that the wide vertical support for the stand blocks several of the inputs. They are difficult to reach as a result, though not impossible. The back of the set also offers two spring-clip speaker outputs for those who want to use external speakers powered by the TV's puny amplifier.

The P4 offers most of the advanced features one expects from a modern-day TV, including 3:2 pulldown correction for film-based material, the ability to detect anamorphic DVDs automatically and display them properly, and a scaler that converts all images to 480p, in theory ridding them of interlace errors. And like many new plasmas, the P4 has no fan—my sample was perfectly quiet.

The Vizio provides six different settings for adjusting the aspect ratio, so you can conform 4:3 images to the 16:9 screen, or stretch more severe letterboxes to fill the screen. The variety is impressive, but none appears to stretch the edges of a 4:3 picture while leaving the center of the picture more or less untouched, a method of dealing with this problem that's appealing to some viewers and is included in more and more widescreen TVs.

The remote is well-designed and easy to use (though it's not backlit), and it includes all the functions you'd expect. Among these are freeze-frame and a zoom capability that lets you magnify a portion of the screen by several powers. It worked quite well.