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Plasma Without the Price

By Cliff Edwards


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Feature-rich set of inputs, with image-enhancement technology

The Bad Requires a separate high-definition tuner to view HD content

The Bottom Line A set that delivers nice features and good value for the money

Most flat-panel televisions are designed to either look like a piece of art, with floating glass or a glossy black finish surrounding the picture. The first thing you notice about Toshiba's $4,000 42-inch plasma set is that it doesn't fit the convention.

From the front and with the set turned off, it looks much like a conventional flat-screen, cathode-ray set, with built-in gray-paneled speakers and white trim around its face. It's only when you view it from the side and back that you realize that this is no traditional tube. A detachable dark grey stand can be exchanged for a separately sold wall mount. The styling may be something of a turnoff for some, but I liked it.

Toshiba has a reputation as a television maker that offers decent quality at decent prices. The 42HP84 does exactly that. While rivals charge as much as $2,000 more for similarly constructed sets, Toshiba delivers value and performance. The unit offers many ways to connect peripheral devices, with six audio-visual inputs. And it boosts image quality on standard-definition content with a video processor that converts signals to a native resolution of 1,024 by 768.

There are tradeoffs. The 42HP84, like others plasmas currently on the market, isn't a true high-definition set because it doesn't support a minimum resolution of 1,280 by 720. And Toshiba saved some bucks by making the set only HDTV-ready. That means to decode ATSC (over-the-air digital signals) you need a separate HDTV tuner. A separate HD box typically costs at least $200, plus at least $40 more for an HD antenna.

SMOOTH CONNECTIONS. For some, this won't be a problem: Comcast (CMCSA) and other cable providers rent high-definition boxes for monthly fees of up to $12. Satellite providers sell similarly equipped boxes and are considering moving to rentals as well.

Setting up the 42HP84 was a snap. Inputs were clearly marked, and were designed in the style I like, recessed for simple plug-ins instead of the awkward plug-ups that some manufacturers favor. One gripe I had with Toshiba's design was the placement of control buttons on the right side of the set. I found them to be a little too far back to be easily reached, which makes you rely on the remote more often.

The remote itself is well thought-out. In situations where a user has multiple devices, such as a cable box, a game console, and a DVD player, the direct memory inputs on the remote are a life-saver (or at least a time-saver). The feature negates the annoying task of having to scroll through all the inputs to find the one you want.

HOT, HOT, HOT. Of course, the picture is just as important for making the sale. For HD content and DVDs, the set handled the job quite well. Thanks to its color detail enhancement and digital noise reduction software, I noticed only a few occasional jagged lines and image instability that often occurs in fast-action scenes. Like many other plasmas, the 42HP84 failed to deliver true, deep blacks. Many darker scenes, as well as black hair and clothing, took on very deep blue tones instead.

For analog content, the set has to work a little harder. I tend to like oversaturated colors that make images jump off the screen. The 42HP84 was inclined to produce those sorts of tones in standard definition, even before I fiddled with it. The images certainly looked better than sets that don't include image-enhancement software. With the remote, you also can easily adjust settings to fit your preferences. And 42HP84 offers a variety of preset color "temperatures" that you can select if, say, you're watching movies or sports.

Sound through the built-in 10 watt-each speakers was something of an issue. I had to jack up the volume for some reason when watching DVDs, but turn it down when watching video using a DirecTV-TiVo HD receiver. Despite repeated fiddling with the settings, which offers a sound balancing feature called StableSound, the problem continued. Most home-theater users will channel the sound through a separate system, so this shouldn't be much of a problem.

PROMISES HONORED. Toshiba offers a good range of features for home-theater buffs. There's a split-screen window for viewing two sources of content at once. It was easy to determine which window was associated with the device of my choosing -- simply use the remote to select the appropriate input. The mute button also offered the neat option of "half-mute," which reduces the sound but doesn't turn it off.

The Toshiba is compatible with a wide range of cables that can be used to connect DVD players, computers, and other devices. It has two S-video inputs, three composite video inputs, and three inputs for high-definition content. That includes an HDMI input that sends video and sound through a single cable. Most new sets include HDMI, which also carries copy protection signals between set-top boxes and televisions.

While Toshiba isn't considered in the upper tier of plasma manufacturers, I was pleasantly surprised to find a set that delivers on virtually everything it promises, with a wide array of features and a picture that would please many viewers -- without making you take out a second mortgage.

Edwards covers technology from BusinessWeek's bureau in San Mateo, Calif.

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