Philips helped to start the flat-panel TV craze years ago with its plasma commercials, and the company has always tried to position its sets as leaders in design. The 32PF9986, a 32-inch LCD, is no exception. While it is a matter of taste, it's arguably as stylish as models such as the Sony KLV-L32M1, and its built-in Ambilight backlighting will definitely turn heads when you turn it on. In terms of performance, this Philips' black level and colour temperature are clearly better than those of many panels we've tested. However, the real question is whether you're willing to fork over the extra dough for this Philips over a budget model, again using the Sony KLV-L32M1 as an example.
It's official: clear Plexiglas is the new silver. In this case, it forms the base of the stand and surrounds the 32PF9986's frame. Moving in from the Plexiglas border, you'll find the artfully concealed speakers, then a silver plastic frame, then a black bezel, then the screen. Thanks to the panel's lack of 720p scaling, you get another black box around the picture when you watch 720p material (more about this later). Buttons for power, volume, and channel control; menu access; and input selection are on top of the panel.
Like its big brother, the 42PF9986, this 32-inch LCD boasts a pair of fluorescent lights on its backside. You can adjust the intensity and colour of the light, choose to have the colour reflect the onscreen content, or select from a few preset colours, including intense blue and red. You can even turn on the backlight while the TV itself is turned off. If you care about seeing accurate color, however, you'll probably want to leave the backlight off for serious viewing. Even on the Soft White setting, the light appeared too orange, which adversely affected how we perceived onscreen colours.
The pretty silver remote isn't backlit and doesn't have direct input access. Instead, switching inputs requires one of three actions: holding down the AV+ button for a couple of seconds, then pressing repeatedly to scroll through the inputs; using the channel rocker switch to select channels lower than 1; or pressing the Info button, then navigating through that menu. There's no reason changing sources should be this complicated.
The 32PF9986's native resolution of 1,366x768 is enough to display full 720p HDTV. Unlike most panels, this Philips displays 720p sources without any scaling at all. The upside is that it's a rock-solid, full-resolution picture. The downside is that black bars surround all sides of the picture. We appreciated the lack of scaling artefacts and the sharper picture, but most folks won't want to look at those bars. All other incoming signals are scaled to match the available pixels.
Single tuner picture-in-picture and independent input memories top the list of convenience features. Philips also includes a slew of automatic picture adjustments. It's best to turn off Colour Enhancement, DNR (which stands for Dynamic Noise Reduction), and Dynamic Contrast for high-quality sources, as they'll only cause garish colours, softness, and fluctuations in black and white levels, respectively. We preferred to set the Digital Processing option to Standard instead of Pixel Plus 2.
The numerous aspect-ratio selections include Automatic, which fills the screen with all sources except 720p; Super Zoom, which stretches the sides of 4:3 sources to fill the screen; 4:3, which displays 4:3 sources with black bars to either side; Movie Expand 14:9, which zooms 14:9 letterboxed content to fit screen height; Movie Expand 16:9, which zooms letterboxed content to fill the screen; 16:9 Subtitle, which shifts Movie Expand 16:9 upward so that subtitles are visible; and Wide-screen, which displays 16:9 sources properly. Unfortunately, you can't change aspects with HDTV sources, and only two options (4:3 and Wide-screen) are available for 480p/576p sources -- a real bummer if you want to fill the screen with a nonanamorphic letterboxed DVD.
The selection of rear-panel inputs is quite a weakness for the Philips, despite offering high definition compatibility. There are three Scart inputs (two of which offer RGB), a DVI input, plus RCA stereo audio, and one centre channel, so you can use the TV's speakers as a dedicated centre-channel speaker. And that's it. The most notable omission is a set of component inputs, which normally feature on all LCDs of this size -- so you'll really need to upgrade your DVD player to a DVI-compatible model if you haven't already done so.
Out of the box in the warm setting, the Philips' colour temperature measured better than we've seen on many LCDs (see the Geek box). Though blue on the darker end of the grayscale, it came extremely close to the 6,500K standard at the high end. We were unable, at press time, to conduct a proper greyscale calibration, although we did play with the user controls. After our adjustments, the darker end was a little better, but still blue, and the high end measured a perfect 6,500K. The colour decoder showed noticeable red push. Compared to many LCDs, in which reds appear orange, the primary colours looked accurate.