Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs LCD HDTVs
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Thursday, 01 November 2007

It’s time to buy a new HDTV and, after much deliberation, you’ve decided on a 42-inch flat panel. Little did you realize that your decision would inspire so many new questions. Needless to say, there are a few flat-panel models to choose from in the 42-inch category. As you walk that crowded retail floor, I want you to stop for a minute, take a good long look at yourself in that reflective plasma screen or glossy LCD frame, and ask yourself this: Do I really need 1080p in my new 42-inch TV?

It’s an important question, one that will ultimately dictate how much you spend on the TV. Choosing 1080p over 720p can add from $500 to $1,000 to the bottom line; yet, purely from a resolution standpoint, 1080p’s benefits in a 42-inch or smaller panel are questionable. At an average seating distance, you probably won’t be able to see the extra resolution compared with 720p. Does that mean you shouldn’t go with 1080p? No, it simply means that, if you’re basing your decision solely on that single spec, you may not get all you bargained – or, more appropriately, did not bargain – for. Here’s a nifty thought: If you’re willing to step up in price, why not step up to a TV that offers better all-around performance, not just one that offers better specs?

Consider, for example, JVC’s new LT-42X788. This TV’s $2,100 MSRP puts it at the high end of the price spectrum for a 42-inch flat panel, even compared with other 1080p models. Should you invest more money in this particular display, when you can go to Best Buy and a get a 42-inch 720p model for under a grand? Does its performance merit the jump? Let’s find out.

In the aesthetics realm, this year’s flat-panel battle cry is, “Less cabinet!” Designers have shifted their attention from the cabinet's depth to the front bezel, minimizing the amount of frame to allow for larger screen sizes in smaller packages. This may not seem like that big of a deal to some, but it matters to the person who wants to put his or her new TV in a cabinet with limited dimensions. This 42-inch JVC model has almost identical dimensions to my reference 37-inch LCD – and weighs less, to boot. It has a simple glossy black frame with silver accents and a slim speaker bar along the bottom. Reach around the lower right edge, and you’ll find buttons for power, volume, channel, menu and input. These controls, and many others, are also available on the remote, a somewhat bulky unit that hasn’t been put on the same diet as the TV itself. Happily, the remote has dedicated input buttons and a generally intuitive layout, except for the horizontally aligned channel and volume buttons. Its white buttons seem primed and ready for backlighting or at least glow-in-the-dark functionality, but alas, neither exists.

Buttons notably absent from the remote are those for controlling the TV’s picture-in-picture function. That’s because the TV has no PIP function, an omission that’s growing more common on HDTVs. Did I miss the memo declaring that consumers no longer care about PIP? The JVC does have POP - picture on picture. This allows the use of the built-in tuner and another source (ie: satellite receiver or cable box) to be used somewhat like the PIP function. The LT-42X788 has a single RF input to access the internal ATSC, NTSC and Clear-QAM tuners, plus a limited program guide. As for the rest of the input panel, the TV features two HDMI, two component video, one S-video and three composite video inputs (with accompanying stereo analog audio), as well as a USB port dedicated solely to photo playback. The HDMI inputs accept a 1080p/60 resolution, but not 1080p/24; the component video inputs accept a maximum resolution of 1080i. None of the inputs is located on the side or front panel for easy access after wall-mounting. You can choose between a stereo analog and optical digital audio output to send audio to an external sound system. The speaker bar uses two 10-watt speakers, and the set-up menu includes basic adjustment of bass, treble and balance, but no advanced audio-processing option like SRS TruSurround.

On the video side, the LT-42X788 has a healthy assortment of picture adjustments, but lacks a few of the more advanced settings available with other higher-end LCDs. There are four preset picture modes (Standard, Dynamic, Theater and Game), as well as basic controls for tint, color, picture (contrast), brightness and detail. The Energy Saver Mode is an adjustable backlight that lets you tailor light output based on your room conditions. You only get two color-temperature options (low and high). Advanced controls include Color Management (on or off), Dynamic Gamma, Smart Picture (which automatically adjusts contrast), digital and MPEG noise reduction, and a Natural Cinema mode that, when set for Auto, automatically detects film- or video-based sources and handles deinterlacing accordingly. It neither has controls to fine-tune gamma, white balance, or individual colors, nor a 120-hertz setting to reduce motion blur (JVC does offer 120-hertz in another LCD line). The TV does have the desired aspect-ratio options to adjust the shape of SD and HD sources, including a Full Native mode to show 1920 x 1080 sources pixel for pixel, but lacks automatic aspect-ratio adjustment.

As usual, the LT-42X788’s default picture mode is Dynamic, which isn’t as wildly exaggerated as other Dynamic modes I’ve encountered, but is still the least accurate choice. The Theater mode is the most accurate in terms of color temperature: Skin tones look pleasingly natural and darker content, such as the night scenes in chapter five of The Corpse Bride (Warner Home Video), doesn’t look overly cool (blue). Still, I suspect many consumers will prefer the Standard mode, as it looks brighter and has a slightly bluer color palette that makes whites pop, which may be beneficial in a brighter, sunlit room. Edge enhancement is a concern at the default detail setting in both the Theater and Standard modes, but you can get rid of it by turning the setting all the way down. Unfortunately, you can’t adjust each picture mode differently for each input; however, the TV will store different picture settings for SD and HD resolutions within the same picture mode.

A funny thing happens to the LT-42X788 as you play with the adjustable backlight. Turn up the Energy Savings Mode, and the TV begins to manipulate the backlight based on the incoming signal’s average picture level, even when you turn off features like Dynamic Gamma and Smart Picture. This is similar to what an Auto Iris does in a projector, only you can’t turn it off. Put an all-black test pattern on the screen and, after a few seconds, the black level visibly drops; put up a brighter test pattern, and you’ll see the light output jump back up. Essentially, this makes the TV seem like it has a better contrast ratio than it really does, but you’ll seldom if ever get that much contrast with real-world content, since the average picture level is usually changing too quickly and/or consistently for the TV to respond. It allows JVC to claim really high contrast ratio specs, but essentially renders any hard numbers useless. By the way, I’ve now encountered this function on three new LCDs, so it’s not just a JVC thing. At the LT-42X788’s minimum Energy Savings Mode setting of minus 30, the backlight appears to be stable, but it’s hard to know exactly what you’re really getting with real-world content. It is safe to say that, at the lowest setting, blacks look respectably deep for an LCD, while the TV still offers a solid amount of light output – enough to enjoy a well-saturated image in a moderately lit room, but maybe a little dim for viewing in a very bright space, particularly in the Theater picture mode. As you raise the backlight, the TV obviously gets brighter; at the highest setting of plus 30, it has ample brightness for a well-lit room, but its light output is a little lower than average for an LCD.

Television And Movies
The LT-42X788 arrived just in time for the start of football season, my favorite time of the year. I began my review session by evaluating the picture using the component video inputs. I watched a number of college and pro games, both in 720p and 1080i, and took in a few MLB playoff games, as well. The first thing to grab with all of these sporting events was how natural the grass looked compared with most LCD TVs – and even compared with my Epson LCD projector. None of the three color points looked too far off the mark, but green was especially impressive because it’s the one that is usually most exaggerated. Add in the fairly accurate color temperature in the Theater mode, and this was one of more natural-looking LCDs I’ve seen, in both color and skin tones. Just because the colors weren’t exaggerated didn’t mean the image wasn’t engaging. The combination of good light output and solid blacks gave the TV excellent contrast, and HD sporting events looked warm and rich, even at night. That trend continued with prime-time HDTV programming on CBS and ABC: Brighter HD content really had some nice pop to it without seeming cartoonish or unnatural. The image wasn’t as razor-sharp as that of other LCDs I’ve seen, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in detail, either.

Sure, an LCD can impress with bright, colorful HDTV, but what about darker, more complex high-definition movies on HD DVD and Blu-ray? The JVC did a solid job with dark scenes from V for Vendetta (Warner Home Video), Batman Begins (Warner Home Video), and the “Caves” episode of Planet Earth (BBC Video): the black level was a little high, so the overall image contrast did not hold up as well as it did with brighter HDTV content, but it was still good for an LCD, and the TV did a very nice job rendering the fine black details and textures in V’s black-on-black attire. Kingdom of Heaven (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) are two of my favorite HD discs. These transfers are fantastic, and the JVC did nothing to detract from that. Again, blacks were a tad high in the darkest scenes, but the overall image had solid depth and dimension. My Silicon Optix test disc showed that, through the component video input, the TV correctly deinterlaced 1080i and picked up the 3:2 sequence with film-based sources; with real-world TV and film content, I saw no blatant deinterlacing artifacts when feeding the TV a 1080i signal.

I also appreciated how clean the LT-42X788’s picture looked, both with HD sources and when I stepped down to standard-def DVD and TV sources. I saw very little digital noise in background colors and light-to-dark transitions, and facial contours were nice and smooth. I could sit surprisingly close to the LT-42X788 and still enjoy a clean, attractive picture. In chapter 10 of Ladder 49 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), as Joaquin Phoenix’s character searches for an unconscious girl in a dark, smoke-filled room, the smoke looked like smoke, not pixels, and I was able to make out the fine black details that are often lost by an LCD. In the “Whole Truth” episode of Lost: The Complete Second Season (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), as Ana-Lucia and Sayid sit in front of a fire, the dark, reddish transitions between their fire-lit faces and the black background looked very natural.

When I made the switch to HDMI, I found myself feeling less wowed by the picture quality. Don’t get me wrong, the image still looked good with all types of signals: colors and skin tones were still wonderfully natural, the picture had nice detail, and deinterlacing of 1080i and 480i signals was good. Admittedly, the picture was somewhat noisier through the HDMI inputs: light-to-dark transitions weren’t quite as smooth as they had been through component video, and I saw more background noise in both HD and standard-definition DVDs. It wasn’t excessive, and turning on the Digital VNR noise-reduction feature provided some improvement. Still, I couldn’t quite pinpoint the qualitative difference between HDMI and component video … until I did some direct A/B tests using my DirecTV set-top box. As I jumped between the two, the component video image just seemed to have better contrast. Whites popped more, colors looked richer, and the overall image was more three-dimensional, more inviting. I experimented with the picture controls to see if I could coax more contrast out of the HDMI inputs, but ultimately the component video signal just looked better with most types of material.

The Downside
The LT-42X788 is an above-average performer in all the big categories, but it does have some issues that merit a mention. My DirecTV set-top box allows me to output 480i, 720p, and 1080i natively, and this TV was quite slow to switch between resolutions when I channel-surfed. It’s fairly common for a TV to struggle when jumping from 480i to 720p to 1080i through the HDMI inputs; however, the JVC is just as slow through the component video inputs, and it flashes a “No Program or Weak Signal” message on the screen while it tries to move from one resolution to another.

Through the component video inputs, the TV’s deinterlacing and upconversion of 480i content is not as good as I’d like. Standard-definition TV and DVD signals looked a bit soft, and I saw a fair amount of jaggies and other deinterlacing artifacts in demo scenes from my Gladiator (DreamWorks) and Bourne Identity (Universal Studios Home Video) DVDs. To work around this, you might want to mate the TV with a good upconverting DVD player and set up your cable or satellite box to upconvert 480i sources.

The LT-42X788 also suffers from some common LCD issues. Its viewing angle is average at best, so you should be mindful of where you plan to sit in relation to the TV. Screen uniformity is generally good, but there were a few times, while I viewed darker content, when the right side of the screen seemed a little brighter than the left. I recently acquired a great test disc to evaluate motion blur, filled with text, maps and resolution patterns that move at different speeds, and the LT-42X788 clearly struggled to retain fine detail with moving images. This was also evident during the many sporting events I watched, as well as text crawls in sports and news tickers; some detail was lost in faster-moving scenes.

The LT-42X788 is simply an easy TV to like. Its picture quality may not dazzle the way the best high-end displays can, but it will make an excellent general-use TV, especially if you watch a lot of HDTV programming through the component video inputs. Even videophiles need all-purpose TVs, and this one offers the versatility of an LCD with a more accurate color palette. I often found myself forgetting about my review duties and just enjoying the everyday viewing experience, and that says a lot.

As I mentioned in the intro, the LT-42X788’s $2,100 MSRP is on the high end for 42-inch LCD TVs, which brings us back to the 1080p question. If your motivation for spending more money on the LT-42X788 is solely to get the step up in detail that 1080p affords you, then you’ll be disappointed. This TV’s screen size, motion blur and general level of detail will not exploit that 1080p spec. However, if your motivation for spending more money on the LT-42X788 is to get an attractive, high-quality image with a variety of sources, then you will get your money’s worth.
Manufacturer JVC
Model LT-42X788 LCD HDTV
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Diagonal Screen Size 37 to 42-inches

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