VIZIO L42HDTV and GV42L LCDs Vs. VIZIO P42HDTV Plasma Page 2

The image here was detailed and crisp, typical for a good DVD though a bit less detailed than the best I've seen from this film (on far more expensive displays). Nothing was obviously missing or compromised. There was a little of the gray fog that's characteristic of sets with poor black levels visible mainly on the few dark scenes in this film, but shadow detail on this DVD was acceptable.

The L42HDTV's deinterlacing and scaling was below average for a modern set on my usual selection of torture tracks. There's more on this under "Tests," but the upshot is that the artifacts I saw on test patterns weren't often visible on most program material. They might occasionally distract the video purist, but Aunt Hildegard from Bingen will be too busy with her spending plans for the money she saved on this set to see them.

What she will see is the VIZIO's bright, vivid image. I actually toned it down a bit with the Backlight and Contrast controls (too much contrast on this set results in a subtle pink shift in bright whites before it actually clips them). Only the video purist will nitpick an occasional artifact here, a spot of noise there, and other minor flaws. Standard definition DVD looked fine, HD DVD even better, so the set was clearly resolving differences among high quality sources.

The Vizio GV42L

The set's HD tuner worked well with an indoor antenna located about 25 miles from most local TV transmitters, with no serious obstacles (hills, etc.) in the way. (The testing was not performed at my usual, more difficult reception area). It picked up nearly all the local DTV stations, including the important Los Angeles area network affiliates: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and several PBS stations. As noted earlier, there is no cableCARD feature; if you use cable or satellite, you will need a set-top box for HD and other premium stations.

Potential sports-minded buyers of this (or any other) LCD display should check carefully for motion blur before purchase. It's less noticeable on film than on sports and other fast-moving, video-sourced material because film's lower native frame rate results in more motion blur to begin with.

Much as with color wheel induced rainbows in DLP displays, or small errors in audio-video synchronization, viewers have varying sensitivity to motion blur. Fortunately it's one of the easiest display characteristics to check for even in the typically poor store setup; just drop into the store on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon during football season and ask them to switch on the game! There are no adjustments for this, so even the typically poor store display won't hide or exaggerate it. It will either bother you or it won't. In the case of the L42HDTV, I found it to be average and inoffensive—far less than on early LCD displays, but a little more perceptible than on a good plasma or DLP.

The Achilles heel of the L42HDTV, however, was its performance on dark scenes. As I've said before, when the black areas of the screen are dark enough, we don't assume we're missing something. We simply accept that we're not supposed to see into those dim corners. But when the light in those areas approaches mid-gray, we know something is wrong. There's light there, so our eyes tell us there should also be visible detail. Our most common real world explanation for a featureless, dark gray world is fog. Thus, the "gray fog" or "gray haze" description.

And you can't miss this on the L42HDTV. A pervasive gray fog often settled over the image on such material. On many movies, such as Charlotte Gray (which only has a few dark scenes), it was rarely noticed. But on material like the opening five minutes or so of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, it was hard to ignore.

Which brings us to. . .

Plasma vs. LCD
In many aspects of performance the VIZIO 42" P42HDTV plasma ($1,399.99) is comparable to the L42HDTV. The greens are OK if slightly too intense, though a bit more natural on the plasma. The image on both sets is sharp, and although not as detailed as the best (and invariably more expensive) sets, you're unlikely to find either obviously soft or lacking in resolution. But there is an advantage in detail in favor of the L42HDTV, with it higher horizontal resolution (1366 vs. 1024). More on that in a moment.

I did notice some video noise on the P42HDTV that I did not see in the L42HDTV. It was most evident in large areas of solid color, but occasionally visible in more complex images.

Even after calibration, the LCD's blacks had a trace of blue, which the plasma blacks did not. The plasma's flesh tones looked a bit more natural, but this was only obvious in a side-by-side comparison. The L42HDTV could look brighter if I went all out with the Backlight and Contrast controls. But most program material, particularly films viewed in a dimly lit room, looked better with the LCD's backlight turned way down (15-30% of maximum) and the Contrast turned down a bit to eliminate that pink cast mentioned earlier.

But even with both sets calibrated, and closely matched in peak light output on a peak white (100IRE) window pattern, the LCD often appeared brighter on bright scenes. This is due to a specific characteristic of plasmas in general. As the average picture level gets brighter on a plasma, the peak white level drops. That is, as more and more of the screen is called on to reproduce high brightness levels—think of a bright landscape as viewed through an open window in a dark room vs. a full screen shot of a ski slope at noon—the plasma gets dimmer. The eye rarely notices this dimming, but it's easily measured. A CRT has a roughly similar characteristic.

This is not true, however, of LCDs, which maintain nearly the same peak output no matter how much of the picture demands full white. For that reason, the L42HDTV (and the GV42L, below) will look brighter than the P42HDTV on brightly lit program material like sports, even when both sets are properly calibrated. It also means that the L42HDTV can be uncomfortably bright in a dim or dark movie-watching environment.

(There's a limit to how much you can reduce the picture brightness on a digital set with the Contrast control without the image turning flat and bland from a lowered contrast ratio. This isn't true of a good CRT display because they are less bright to start with and also, more importantly, because their exceptional black level means that even with a lowered Contrast control setting they still produce superb contrast ratios.)

The L42HDTV also has a much narrower viewing angle than the P42HDTV. Despite specs that suggest otherwise, the L42HDTV starts to dim noticeably at about 45-degrees off axis, and less than that if you're watching from above or below the set. The P42HDTV's image changes little at such angles and in fact is more than watchable as far off axis as you can sit and still get a good angle on the screen.

But the biggest distinguishing factor between the P42HDTV and the L42HDTV is in the depth of their blacks. While the P42HDTV is little better than average for a plasma in the way it handles dark scenes, it easily trumps the L42HDTV. The L42HDTV looks two- dimensional and washed-out next to the P42HDTV on such images. That makes for a dramatic difference when watching movies, which often feature dark, moody lighting.

The L42HDTV's black level was acceptable on some darker material, but the overall image never came close to the quality of the plasma's image on these dim scenes. And the differences weren't always limited to the darkest scenes, either. The early morning, above-deck action in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was noticeably punchier and more three-dimensional on the plasma. And while shadow detail on the P42HDTV was actually not much better than on the LCD, those shadows were simply darker on the P42HDTV, and thus more believable. The subjective contrast was much better on the plasma, with far fewer signs of that "gray fog."

Finally we come to the issue of resolution. For a direct side-by-side comparison, I had to use component rather than HDMI. I have access to a high quality (Extron) component splitter, which lets me drive two sets from the same source. (I have not yet found a reliably transparent HDMI splitter; they are not only difficult to make, but can also run afoul of copy protection issues.)

The bottom line is that with a 480i or 480p component input from SD DVD, the L42HDTV, with its 1366 horizontal pixels, looked a hair sharper than the P42HDTV, with its horizontal resolution of 1024. Drive both sets with a good HD DVD on the Toshiba HD-A1 player set to output 1080i and the difference isn't subtle. The L42HDTV was clearly high definition, while the P42HDTV was something slightly less.

There is an additional variable here, addressed further in the "Tests" section. The L42HDTV adds some sharpening to all inputs even at a zero setting of the Sharpness control. While this was evident on some standard definition DVDs, it was very hard to spot on HD DVD at 1080i. But even with this wild-card variable, the advantage in detail the LCD set showed over the plasma was consistent with what you would expect given the different resolutions of the two sets.

Conclusions: L42HDTV vs. P42HDTV
Neither of these sets will be all things to all people. Both are superb values, but which one will be best for you depends on your priorities. The P42HDTV may not be the greatest plasma since sliced pixels, but nothing else I know of in a digital display near its size can touch it for the money. Yes, the L42HDTV is sharper, particularly with high definition material, but the P42HDTV is not soft. I'd love to have it all, but on balance the plasma's richer blacks and punchier image gives it the win by a nose for this movie geek.

But if you watch a lot of television in a brightly lit room, you might prefer the LCD. And if you're a gamer, you should be aware that the P42HDTV plasma is, in my experience, a little more prone to burn-in than some of the pricier plasmas I've seen. It's certainly more prone to it than the L42HDTV, which doesn't have this problem at all.

But if you watch a lot of sports, and I do watch some, the P42HDTV also has its advantages. It has just a bit less motion lag than the LCD, not enough to make much difference with most programming but perhaps enough to be important to gamers. And the plasma is still plenty bright even if it's not a torch.

The L42HDTV does have a bright, colorful image that will grab your eye on bright, colorful program material, particularly on a showroom floor. But overall, it's the P42HDTV that gets my vote for excelling where it counts: reproducing a wide range of program material at a quality level that I never expected to see in a plasma priced this low.