Philips 42in Ambilight LED array TV
The best 1080p LCD TV yet?
Review Philips flatscreens have a lot going for them. The picture quality is usually strong, sometimes outstanding. The designs are striking and eye-catching rather than bland or anonymous, though this doesn't mean they please everyone, of course.
Philips' 42PFL9803H/10: now with LED array backlighting
There are the Philips specialities like Pixel Plus, the image processing technology that has now evolved and been renamed Perfect Pixel. It's widely recognised as a class-leading picture enhancement system, though again it's not universally liked.
And then there’s Ambilight, the unusual lighting system that changes colour of the space around the TV as the picture changes, aiming to deliver an inviting, immersive image.
Philips has put all these components into one TV before, but now it's added LED backlighting. This uses multiple LED arrays each of which can be controlled individually. Regular LCD screens only have one backlight, running constantly, to illuminate the entire screen, washing out dark areas and cementing LCD's reputation for poor picture contrast.
With multi-array LED backlighting, the idea is that where the screen image is black, the LEDs behind that area are dimmed completely so as little spills out as possible. The upshot: stronger contrast and blacker blacks that regular LCDs can’t match. To do this, the full-HD 42PFL9803H/10 has 128 individually dimmable screen segments arrayed in a 16 x 8 grid, each with nine LEDs.
And Ambilight technology too
Surely, then, with all these features, the Philips 42PFL9803H/10 has to be a runaway hit, hasn’t it? Well, pretty much, yes.
The brushed silvery sheen of the frame is attractive and smart. It’s a world away from the grey plastic bezels that came and went from TV fashion recently. This one’s plastic as well, of course, but it looks classy. It also packs in what have been called 'invisible' speakers, though in reality they're just tucked out of sight.
While many flatscreens only manage at best average sound, these hidden speakers do their job very well, with plenty of bass and a strong voice channel so you can hear the hero’s deathless dialogue above the explosions and action-movie mayhem.
The 42PFL9803 has in integrated Freeview tuner, so it's ready to go with standard-definition content. It supports MPEG 4 as well as MPEG 2, so it should display HD content when that starts to flow over the terrestrial network. Unless Freeview opts for an alternative version of the DVB-T standard, of course.
In the meantime, there are three HDMI ports around the back to hook up a PlayStation 3, dedicated Blu-ray Disc player - like the Pioneer BDP-51FD , for instance - or other HD-ready gadgets, and there's a fourth HDMI port on the side. Alongside the latter, you'll find a USB port, composite-video and s-video links, a 3.5mm headphone socket and stereo audio RCA jacks.
There are more audio jacks on the back, along with digital audio outputs, plus VGA, component-video and a pair of Scarts for your old pre-HD kit. There's even an Ethernet port, which you can use to tie the telling into your home network and use it to grab content from DLNA-compliant server software running on a PC.
We’ve complained about Philips remote controls before: they look good and work well except for one thing: a scrollwheel that allows you to move up and down a list of options by spinning the wheel. On earlier models, this control was so hair-trigger responsive it was hard to use with precision, and it's not noticeably better here. However, you can also use the dial as a navpad and press the top or bottom of the wheel to scroll options.
The remote is universal
The good news is, the remote will control other devices - just find your equipment in the list at the back of the manual and punch in the codes.
But the main event here is the LED backlighting – a feature Philips calls Dynamic Backlight. Philips claims a massive contrast level of two million to one, which is impossible to measure outside of the lab. What matters, though, is that it means the TV should deliver plasma-like contrast levels.
Let’s take the same white lettering on a black background test we used for the Samsung LED-backlit LE40A786  set. In the opening credits of Hitman, the tight white lettering was impressive. There was glint of grey between letters, but the light spill beyond the lettering was minimal. It wa certainly better than Samsung’s screen managed on the larger white on black writing that opens the film Sleuth.
Beyond that, the black levels are largely strong, sharpening up dark images and giving them extra definition. The luscious island greenery of Lost looks succulent and the skin tones of the desperate marooned islanders bright but convincing.
But, excellent though the contrast levels and the colour palette are, with the out-of-the-box settings, the Samsung has the edge on the Philips. When you’d switched the Smart LED on, the LE40A786 presented more striking blacks and even more stand-out contrast instantly.
This is why the 42PFL9803 is only almost a runaway success. Sure, you can tune the Philips to match and even beat the Samsung’s default settings, but the tweaking isn't straightforward, requiring lots of trial and error.
Still, the Philips screen exceeds the Samsung’s capabilities when it comes to widescreen film with an aspect ratio greater than 16:9. On the Korean set, the black bars at top and bottom of screen glowed grey – something completely absent here.
The Ambilight only illuminates the sides, not the top too
Philips hasn’t included an equivalent of the demo feature which on the Samsung set divides the screen in half to show exactly how the image is improved by the fancy backlighting. Even if the result is underwhelming, seeing the difference between on and off is instructive and here it’s an annoying omission.
But back to those complicated settlings. Philips picture settings are notoriously finicky, often involving turning the levels down on the many features to avoid motion blur or turning elements off under certain circumstances. This isn't because the Philips image processing technologies don’t work. In fact, they’re good because they’re so specific.
But at least there are fewer problems here than in some earlier TVs by offering simpler ways to reach the effect you want. There seems to be more latitude in how you set things and fewer sudden juddering movements or smeary motion. Of course, some aspects are just personal taste – you can set the Ambilight backlight brightness according to your fancy, for instance.
Cool design - but it doesn't come cheap
Wider viewing angles are de rigueur with flatscreen TVs these days but the Philips didn't impress us. Although the picture looked great if you were directly in front of any part of it - even over to the side of the frame - from only a small distance beyond that the picture quickly deteriorated, making it unwatchable as you walk into the room, say, until you’re nearly in prime position.
Still, there’s always Ambilight, a wonderful invention that, once you’re used to it, makes the TV seem easier on the eye. And makes the room and TV look grey when you watch without it. This is two-sided Ambilight: it’s fine and worth having, but if you’re used to the three-sided version, you'll miss the extra dimension.
This is a great TV, make no mistake. Ambilight is impressive, but it's the addition if the LED backlighting array that really makes this set stand out. Sure, the 42PFL9803 has its quirks - the remote and the difficulting of going beyong the default settings - but it's nontheless an exciting and cool TV that offers good sound, a great design and one of the very best pictures on the market.
But you'll be paying a significant premium for it. That may not matter if you're willing to spend whatever it takes for top picture quality, but you can buy, say, the Samsung for around half as much as you'll pay for the 42PFL9803 and you'll not be much worse of xxxx. ®