If you're going to ask about £3,000 for a 42-inch TV these days, you'd better have a pretty compelling argument for why parting with such a vast sum of money makes sense. Just as well, then, that Philips' £2,800 42PF9831D justifies its cost by being pretty much a showcase for all of Philips' very latest TV innovations.
In fact, since there seem to be few if any other companies out there currently innovating as much as Philips, the 42PF9831D could even go so far as to argue that it's actually the most cutting-edge LCD TV currently available. Which suddenly makes that £2,800 price ticket seem a whole lot easier to swallow, doesn't it?
The 42PF9831D sets about making its price seem like good value as soon as you get it out of its box. For as well as being exceptionally well constructed, the 42PF9831D is almost deliriously easy on the eye.
Three elements combine to create the 42PF9831D's beauty: the gorgeous gloss-black screen surround, an utterly unique white 'canvas' back panel that stands many inches proud from each of the screen's sides, and the fact that its edges glow in the dark.
Clearly the last two points warrant further explanation. The canvas and the glowing bits are related, of course, and have to do with the TV's use of Ambilight Surround technology. We'll cover this more fully in the Features section of the review, but essentially the canvas wings have been incorporated so that the coloured light from the Ambilight's fluorescent bulbs has something to bounce off, even if you don't position the TV next to or on a light-coloured wall.
Moving around to the TV's back, we find a rear panel that's exceptionally well stocked with connections. The star of the show, undoubtedly, is a pair of HDMIs, providing twice the digital connectivity of most of today's TVs, meaning you can plug in a Sky HD box and an Xbox 360, for example. But outstanding support comes from a set of component video inputs, a PC jack, two RGB-capable Scarts, and a bunch of really unexpected multimedia jacks.
These include, for instance, an Ethernet port so you can hook up and play files from your PC. Then there's a multimedia card slot for playing back JPEGs and MP3s directly from any of seven different types of storage card. And finally there are two USB ports for hooking up such things as a USB storage key for direct playback of MP3, JPEG, MP3 Pro, LPCM, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX and XviD files.
We could probably write more on the 42PF9831D's features alone than we'd normally write in an entire review. But we'll try and keep things as brief as possible, we promise.
The single most important feature of the 42PF9831D is its use of new ClearLCD technology. This effectively comprises two main components: Overdrive Control and a Dimmable Scanning Backlight. ODC's job is to ramp up the voltage applied to the LCD panel to speed up the liquid crystals' reaction time -- resulting, it's claimed, in a lightning-fast LCD response time of just 6ms.
The new backlight system, meanwhile, attempts to mimic the scanning effect of CRT TVs via new hot cathode fluorescent lamps that enable the TV to vary the amount of light in each pixel and the duration of time each pixel is lit -- two things not possible with standard LCD backlight systems, but which should make moving objects look cleaner and sharper. Also, since the new backlights in the 42PF9831D can have their output reduced by 30 per cent more than standard backlights, we should hopefully see noticeably deeper, more natural black levels (see Performance for more on this).
Another feature first on the 42PF9831D is the Ambilight Surround system we mentioned earlier. Regular readers may have come across Ambilight before, where fluorescent tubes on the TV's sides emit coloured light that can be sympathetic in tone to the colour content of the picture. But where previous incarnations of Ambilight have only affected the left and right sides of the TV, Ambilight Surround fires its colours from all four of the TV's edges. And you know what? Gimmicky though it sounds, we actually love Ambilight Surround. It really does do as billed: namely, make your viewing experience more immersive and relaxing. The fact that it also looks cool is just a bonus.
Yet another feature first for the 42PF9831D is its use of Philips' new Pixel Plus 3 HD system, which improves on previous iterations with an extra level of colour processing, and more sophisticated digital noise reduction. We could go on for pages about the countless other intriguing features, but the pick of the bunch is Active Control, which continually assesses an incoming picture and automatically adjusts various picture settings according to what it sees.
From struggling to keep the 42PF9831D's Features section under control, we could actually wrap this Performance section up in one word: wow.
With high definition in particular there really is no over-stating just how sublime the 42PF9831D's pictures are. For starters, we can't remember ever seeing any other HD picture look so phenomenally sharp and detailed. Thanks to Pixel Plus 3 HD, our HD sources look like they've actually been made in some new, even higher resolution format than 720p or 1080i.
What's more, this jaw-dropping achievement is delivered seemingly effortlessly, in that the Pixel Plus 3 HD processing used to produce it generates practically zero nasty side effects, leaving the HD pictures to look as clean as they are detailed. ClearLCD, meanwhile, presumably plays a part in motion on the 42PF9831D that's arguably the clearest we've seen on an LCD TV to date, plus black levels that are both exceptionally deep for LCD and absolutely stuffed with the sort of lovely subtle colour shifts that bring dark picture areas to life. This in turn makes the picture as a whole seem more cinematic and solid.
Tearing ourselves away from high definition for a moment, we were slightly surprised to find that the 42PF9831D is also a mighty fine standard-definition performer. Why surprised? Because Pixel Plus 3 HD's extra noise reduction routines seem to do away with almost all of the video noise that's apparent on standard definition pictures with Pixel Plus 2 HD processing.
Really the only negative thing to say about the 42PF9831D's pictures is that its Digital Natural Motion processing system for making movement look smoother can cause some rippling and shimmering artefacts. But then Philips does at least provide the facility to simply turn the feature off.
With so much picture finery on show, we could have forgiven Philips if it hadn't put much effort into the 42PF9831D's sound. But actually its speakers churn out remarkable amounts of sheer power, accompanied by a frequency range that sounds as expansive as many a hi-fi we've heard.
We simply can't sing the praises of the 42PF9831D loudly enough. It's ahead of the LCD game in pretty much every department we can think of, making it high definition's new best friend and, amazingly, arguably a bargain even at nearly £3,000.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide