The Achilles' heel of LCD TVs has, for a long time, been the backlight. In an LCD TV the image is created by a panel that is illuminated from behind. For most uses this is fine, but when you are trying to reproduce black, or something dark, it has an impact on the depth and reality. Mostly, truly deep and rich blacks will come off looking washed-out.
The answer to this, according to Philips, is to use an array of more than 1,000 LEDs behind the LCD panel to illuminate the picture. We've seen this done before on a Samsung and even a gargantuan 72-inch Sony TV, and the results have always impressed us. So will the Philips 42PFL9803 manage to win our approval? With a retail price over £2,000, we should hope so.
The first thing you'll spot when you look at the 42PFL9803 is the remarkable styling. Rather than a boring black case, Philips has chosen a brushed aluminium one. We applaud this because it's different to every other piano-black TV on the market. The result is a wonderful-looking TV.
As you would expect with a stylish TV like this, the front is unspoilt by any hideous buttons -- there's a large Philips logo and a thin LED strip beneath the screen that reminds you the TV is on.
The remote control matches the basic colour of the TV, but it's a slightly disappointing silver-coloured plastic. Pioneer makes its remotes with real metal and we think Philips should too. As with other Philips models, the remote has a rotating wheel that can be used to select menu items. We aren't a huge fan of these devices usually, but we will say Philips has done a decent job with it.
Connectivity is well thought-out. There are four HDMI inputs -- three on the back, one on the side. You also get component video in, a VGA connection for your media centre PC or Xbox 360, and there are a pair of Scart sockets to hook up that older, standard-definition equipment.
As you would expect with a premium Philips TV, the screen features Ambilight. We weren't that impressed to see the more basic two-sided Ambilight Spectra 2, rather than the three-sided Spectra 3 system included on the 9703 range. It might not sound like it makes a difference, but the top strip on Spectra 3 really adds to the involvement you feel when you watch a movie.
Philips does include its Perfect Pixel HD engine, which is designed to process the massive amount of picture information in video signals and present it on-screen in the best possible way. We've always been very impressed by this system -- it works very well and Philips TVs always seem to do a very good job with Freeview pictures.
You can view your images in this TV via the USB or Ethernet connections. It's also possible to listen to music -- in the MP3 format -- and even watch MPEG-2 video using either format. The PFL9803 is also DLNA certified, which assures a certain level of support for third-party devices that also carry the logo.
Our first impression when we turned the TV on was how amazing the black levels were and how brilliant the colour reproduction looked. Even if you don't have a problem with existing LCD TVs, you will be impressed by how much better the Philips handles shadows and darkness.
Because of our past experiences with LED backlights, we were on the lookout for haloing around bright items on dark backgrounds. And by chance, we found an excellent demo -- a screensaver on our Blu-ray player. When the bright blue logo appeared on the black background we were indeed able to see a halo of light around it.
This artefact is one of the problems with LED backlights, and the Philips is certainly less prone to it than the Samsung we saw some time ago. It's also only going to be a problem on material where there's a black background and a bright object, so most regular viewing simply won't be affected.
So, let's talk specifics. We used several movies to assess the quality of the TV. Our old favourite, Casino Royale, looked fantastic. The opening scene retained all of its grit and stylish film noise and the title sequence looked brilliant with every colour seeming to leap off the screen and attack our eyeballs.
Philips also includes its Perfect Natural Motion system, which is designed to make film material look silky-smooth and lose any judder. To its credit, this system does work incredibly well. The result, however, is not to our taste. Film that generally has a very specific feel begins to take on a video-like quality.
While that might not sound like a problem, we are of the opinion that it destroys the director's vision. Obviously, this is a personal taste issue, and if you like smooth films, you'll love it. On the high setting, we did notice some artefacts associated with the processing. Some fast-moving objects have blocking around them.
Freeview looked very good indeed. The picture processing does a very good job of cleaning up the noisy signal and there is no MPEG noise at all. Colours also looked natural, and we thought everything from trees to skin was represented as it would appear in real life.
As much as we like the picture, we really don't think plasmas from Pioneer and Panasonic need to quake in their boots at this stage. The Philips doesn't quite manage the accurate balance of colour and natural look that our reference Pioneer LX-5090 does. We felt that sometimes we could see a slight dark blue hue to images. It's quite possible this is a side-effect of a different backlight system, as we've not noticed it on any other Philips TVs.
But with that said, this is the first generation of a technology. By next year, it's likely Philips will have made a TV that has even greater control over the array of LED lights, and in so doing, will make a TV that can look as impressive as any plasma.
As always, the sound from the Philips is incredibly strong. The company has the right attitude to built-in audio, providing front-firing tweeters and rear-mounted woofers. This means that movies sound terrific, and even action films with explosions are well handled.
So, what's our opinion of the 42PFL9803? Well, it's a good TV and we love the styling. At this price though, we didn't think the 9803 delivered as much as the Pioneer LX-5090. We would also suggest that any one of Panasonic's 1080p plasma screens will give you all the benefits of deep blacks and rich colours and often at significantly lower prices.
There's much to like about the 42PFL9803 -- the LED backlight does a great job under most circumstances. That said, for this money, we'd expect something that is slightly nearer perfection and this isn't there yet.Edited by Cristina Psomadakis