Although it looks just like many other 42-inch flat-panel TVs in stores today, Philips's 42PF9986 has two characteristics that should make its £4,000 price tag seem more palatable. One is that it uses LCD technology, joining a choice few sets such as the Sharp LC-45GD1E to challenge plasma for big-screen flat-panel supremacy. The other is Philips's unique Ambilight feature, which consists of a pair of customisable fluorescent lights that illuminate the wall behind the TV. During testing, we discovered that the 42PF9986 performed surprisingly well in some key areas, but at the same time, it lacks a couple of features that keep it from earning our highest accolades.
The 42PF9986 is a very attractive flat-screen set with a distinctive high-tech look. Philips wrapped a 51mm black border around the screen, which is surrounded by an even thicker silver border, which is in turn surrounded on three of the four sides by an even larger dark-gray frame. The result is a slick three-tone look.
In a first among flat-panel sets we've seen, Philips includes both a stand and a wall-mount kit. The former looks especially nice, consisting of a glass base that's designed to sit atop a table or a floor stand.
The sleek, slender remote fits well in the hand, its buttons are logically laid out, and we found it simple to use -- though sometimes too simple. For example, who would think that the channel +/- button on the remote changes the input as well as the channel? And while we're griping, the GUI, or internal menu system, could really use some improvement; we found it frustrating and unintuitive to navigate.
Ambilight is the 42PF9986's claim to fame. You can adjust the intensity and colour of the light that shines from the back of the panel on to the wall, 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. Shifting colours on the wall is a real conversation starter, but if you care about accurate colour perception, you'll probably want to leave the backlight off for serious viewing (see Performance for more). If you find Ambilight appealing, Philips also offers a 42-inch plasma and a 32-inch LCD with this feature.
The panel's 1,366x768 native resolution is enough to display every detail of 720p material. True, there's no abundance of high-definition material at present, but there's no harm in being future-proofed. Also note that the set didn't scale 720p sources correctly, leaving a black border around the image via both HDMI and component-video inputs. If you want to fill the screen with HD, you'll need to feed the 42PF9986 1080i material.
Otherwise, the feature package on the 42PF9986 is fairly comprehensive. Dual-tuner PIP (picture-in-picture) will no doubt appeal to sports fans. Three selectable colour temperatures are on tap, with Warm being the closest to accurate. There are also a total of six selectable aspect ratios -- although none work with high-def sources, and only two work with 576p (progressive-scan DVD) sources.
The invisible flat speakers, developed by NXT, are pretty cool: the outer surface of the TV cabinet on the sides is the actual speaker membrane. This, combined with the Virtual Dolby feature and the integrated subwoofer, make the audio package pretty nice for those not utilising an outboard surround system.
Connectivity is hampered by the fact that many of the jacks are mutually exclusive. On the back panel, there are three Scart inputs (of which two are RGB), plus S-video and composite. Thankfully, there's also a HDCP-compliant DVI connector, which not only keeps video signals completely in the digital domain, but also offers compatibility with Sky HD. On the audio front, there's a set of stereo audio outputs, a centre-channel input, and a subwoofer output.
Overall, the 42PF9986 is a surprisingly good performer in many ways. As far as LCD flat panels go, it produced one of the best pictures we've seen to date in the category. But, unfortunately, Ambilight doesn't help much. While it does have a Soft White setting that's supposed to approach the broadcast standard of 6,500 Kelvins, it was clearly too orange. Any other setting, whether it be blue, red, or whatever, will negatively affect your perception of the colours on the screen. To get it right, you'd have to put D6500 filters in the lamp housings, which would definitely make this feature useful in reducing eyestrain and fatigue while still maintaining accurate colour perception (although one could put a lamp with a D6500 bulb behind any TV and get the same benefit). By the way, we recommend you don't use the Active Control Plus with Light Sensor feature, as it basically changes the black and white level of the picture depending on light fluctuations in the room.
The panel calibrated fairly well, although grayscale tracking was not as good as we would have liked. Unfortunately, that's the norm these days with LCD TVs.
Most surprisingly, black-level performance was better than on any flat-panel LCD set we've seen yet. Sure, it's still not as good as a tube-based display or as the best plasmas, such as Panasonic's TH-42PD25U/P. But for an LCD, the colour of black was quite deep. Colour decoding was also exceptional, with no red push whatsoever.