Hitachi's Recession-Era Entry into LED TVs

Hitachi last year sat out a bruising price war in the flat-panel television industry. This year it's back with a vengeance with a new line of energy-sipping LED, or light-emitting diode, LCD televisions.

While the Japanese television maker is better known for its defunct plasma TV business, the $800 LE42S704 could help Hitachi make a name for itself using LCD technology. The set steps up to reclaim market share from industry leaders Samsung, Vizio, and Sony (SNE) with its affordable price and exceptional picture quality. Indeed, the LE42S704 fills a void created by other LCD makers, which are touting more expensive technologies such as combination LED and 3D sets. Sales of traditional LCD sets have fallen sharply this year as consumers flock to cheaper plasma-based set priced in the same range as Hitachi's LED set.

Hitachi is betting Americans obsessed with energy efficiency will opt for its affordable set over plasma. Replacing fluorescent-tube backlighting typically improves image quality and delivers greater power efficiency by adjusting lighting only in areas of the set required to view the picture on the screen correctly. The 1080p set is a svelte 2 inches thin, achieved by positioning the light engines on the edges of the unit. It also comes with a swivel stand that allows for quick adjustment of the viewing angle. The stand increases its overall depth to slightly more than 8 inches.

Plenty of Tech

The LE42S704 packs in a lot technology as an incentive to buy. Users get four HD multimedia inputs (HDMI) with what it calls Instaport technology, to enable faster switching between inputs. There's one composite input for high-definition Blu-ray players or game consoles and one component input for older electronic gear, plus a headphone jack and USB input for connecting a digital camera to view pictures on the big screen. There's also a VGA PC input for hooking up a laptop.

So what's missing? Many consumers who are replacing or buying their first flat-panel television are opting for the Internet-connected variety that's fast becoming the norm for accessing such content as Hulu, Yahoo! (YHOO) Widgets, and news and information sites.

Hitachi's set doesn't include a broadband connection for doing such things as connecting to Netflix's streaming movie and TV service or checking your local weather and drive times. Users could connect a Roku box, Blu-ray player, or Apple TV (AAPL) to the set to do some of those things, of course, but there's an extra cost that's worth noting.

Built-in Timer

One neat feature the Hitachi set does offer is its ability to customize the picture for bright daytime settings and darker home-theater settings. Although it follows other sets of this class with light sensors to adjust the picture automatically, depending on the ambient lighting, it adds a built-in timer to switch automatically to your customized settings at a predetermined time.

Another of my favorite settings, simply because of its relative novelty, is the hearing-aid mode, which boosts the sound for hearing-impaired viewers.

Hitachi delivers deep, rich blacks and offers great color reproduction. I hooked it up to Dish Network's high-definition ViP922 receiver, using the crazy quilt of colors from recordings of Ugly Betty as a good test for out-of-the-box viewing of flesh tones and surrounding colors. It does take some color adjustments, but you get to choose from three color temperatures.

Games vs. Movie Mode

Once you get a picture that suits your tastes, it retains those settings by tying them to the particular input. That means you can have a movie-mode setting on one HDMI input attached to a Blu-ray player and a game setting for the Xbox 360 console attached to another.

The set's 120 hertz technology also handled with surprisingly little judder the fast-action scenes in Blu-ray movies, such as the spy spoof movie MacGruber and in the climactic battle scenes between the Cylons and humans in the finale of the Battlestar Galactica television show.

One thing you can't clear up is image uniformity. That's because HItachi, rather than opting for the more expensive full LED technology across the entire screen, follows Samsung and other manufacturers in using edge-lit LEDs. When viewed from the side in particular, some areas of brightness should not normally show up in the darkened areas. Would the average user notice even without this technology? Probably not, but it's worth noting if you're a picture purist.

Hitachi may not come to mind when you're on the hunt for a new flat-panel set, but from what I've seen of the LE42S704, it should be worth considering.

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