Vizio P42 HDe 42-inch Plasma Display 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs Plasma HDTVs
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Sunday, 01 January 2006

During a recent trip to one of my local AV stores, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of plasma screens available on the market today. Being a die-hard fan of front projection, I’ve resisted the urge to pony up the dough and welcome the flat gas into my home, but this trip was different. As I gazed at the countless options, I noticed two things. The image quality had gotten much better over the years, and the prices have gone way down. Instead of talking my way out of the store, I began daydreaming over the possibilities of having one such plasma in my home. Sure, I didn’t really need another television, but that’s never stopped me before.

Not wanting to break the bank, I was immediately drawn to a manufacturer that I had never heard of: Vizio. At a sub-two thousand dollar price tag, the 42-inch 16x9 Vizio P42 HDe plasma screen warranted further investigation. The salesman informed me that Vizio was the brainchild of William Wang, former head of Princeton Graphics and MagInnovision. Launched in 2003 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Vizio has quickly become one of the 10 most prominent manufacturers of plasma screens nationwide. Not bad for a company going into its third year. The salesman continued by telling me that the brand was also behind the highly touted Bravo D1 DVD player, which was the first DVD player to feature a DVI output. A 42-inch, widescreen, high-definition plasma television with DVI capability for less than two grand – okay, I’ll bite. Normally, I don’t shell out the green for a product from such a fledgling company, but this time I thought, why the hell not?

Out of the box, which was well-designed, easy to maneuver and completely structurally sound, the Vizio P42 HDe looks a lot like plasma screens from a few years ago: simple, clean and black. That suited me just fine. Video displays need to wow me with what they’ve got inside and not whether or not they look more at home on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise than in my living room. With a retail price of $1,999, the P42 looks a lot more sophisticated than the competition, even those costing three times as much. Measuring in at a little over 40 inches wide by 25.5 inches tall and five inches deep, it was a less imposing than I had remembered in the store. Weighing in at approximately 85 pounds, it’s not light, but it’s also no 36-inch Sony WEGA CRT set either. With the help of two convenient handles on the back of the set, I was able to move the P42 rather easily by myself. The Vizio P42 comes with removable 15-watt speakers that flank either side of the screen, for those of you without home theater set-ups. The P42 also comes standard with a rather beefy table stand that I’m pleased to announce is rock-solid, without detracting from the P42’s rather sleek appearance. If you’re a bit tight on space, it’s important to note that attaching the speakers will increase the P42’s width to almost 50 inches. I went ahead and installed them on the side for the duration of the review. With the exception of the optional speakers, the only other items that grace the P42’s front are five small silver buttons that control power, inputs, volume and channels. All other controls default to the P42’s remote.

Moving on to the rear of the P42, there are two very convenient handles to help in moving and positioning your plasma screen on a tabletop or wall. The P42’s inputs rest below a small box that protrudes from the rear of the panel. The P42’s inputs all face downward, which will allow for the cleanest cable connections when mounting your screen against a wall. The P42 has two sets of composite audio/video inputs, as well as two S-video inputs. You can also connect a standard-definition TV antenna to the P42’s RF input. While the P42 is high-definition-ready, it does not have a built-in high-definition tuner so a third party set-top box is required. For standard-definition broadcasts, the P42 has a built-in NTSC decoder for over the air programming. It has a pair of RCA audio inputs that rest beside each of its two component inputs. The P42 also has a DVI input with HDCP support for a truly digital transfer from your satellite box, HD tuner or DVD player. For the audio portion of its DVI section, the P42 features a mini-pin to the stereo RCA jack, instead of the usual RCA composite inputs. The P42 can also double as a computer monitor via its DVI or RGB PC input, and is both PC and Mac compatible. The P42’s speakers are connected via its two-pushpin speaker terminals. If you plan on connecting the P42 to a pair of third-party powered speakers, it has a pair of RCA audio outs, as well as subwoofer output. There is a master power switch also on the rear that will completely turn off the P42 or put it into standby mode. To bring the P42 out of standby, you’ll have to press power on the panel’s faceplate. Lastly, there is a standard detachable power cord like those found on most high-end electronics and plasma screens.

The P42 boasts some pretty impressive specs, given its rather modest price tag. Starting with resolution, the P42 has a native resolution of 1024 x 768, which makes it well suited for DVD and 720p high-definition viewing. That’s not to say that standard-definition signals can’t be enjoyed as well. To the contrary, the P42 supports all of the current signal resolutions, such as 480i (standard television), 480p (EDTV), 720p (HDTV) and 1080i (HDTV). The P42 also has progressive scanning through either of its component inputs, as well as through its DVI input. If you’re thinking about using the P42 as a computer monitor, its resolution can be set to 640 x 480, 800 x 600, 1024 x 768 and 1280x1024 through either its VGA or DVI inputs. The P42 is plenty bright for even well-lit rooms, with a brightness rating of 1000cd/m2. Mate that with a manufacturer-stated contrast ratio of 5000:1 and a 160-degree viewing angle, and you’re sure to get a picture that is crisp and clear in almost any environment. The P42 also features 3:2 pull down and has an internal scaler and de-interlacer to assist you in achieving the smoothest image possible. The P42 has picture-in-picture capability, as well as a built-in V-Chip for you concerned parents out there and a 3D comb filter to round out its list of features.

Which brings me to the remote. The P42’s remote is rather typical in size and shape. It’s a little bulky in the hand, but the buttons are large and clearly labeled. The remote is a universal design that can operate other Vizio products or can be programmed to operate other components. Unfortunately, it does not feature any sort of back-lighting, which is a huge red flag for me, but at this price point, I’m not surprised. Needless to say, if you’re planning on operating the P42 via its remote in low light or dark settings, you’ll need a flashlight or a third-party remote, such as the Harmony 880 from Logitech.

I’m a front-projection guy, so having to unhook my trusty Panasonic for the duration of the review was a little gut-wrenching. I maneuvered the P42 atop a low media bench that placed the screen about two feet up from the floor, with my chair approximately 10 feet away. When I was sitting in my primary listening position, the P42’s height and distance gave me almost a perfect horizontal line of sight from the center of the screen. I connected the P42 to my reference Denon 4806 receiver, via a Monster HDMI to DVI cable, which provided full video switching from my numerous components. I kept my set-up pretty much the same from there on, relying on my Denon 3910 universal player, JVC D-VHS, and my Direct TV HD box for high-definition programming. My Definitive Technology ProCinema 80 system rounded out the system, with all cabling, both audio and video, coming from Monster.

I began by cueing up my Digital Video Essentials DVD to calibrate the P42 for the best possible performance. Out of the box, most television sets, be they plasma or CRT, come calibrated for the best image on your dealer’s shelf. This usually means the color and picture controls are maxed out to ensure the brightest, most colorful image possible to stand out in a crowd. Sadly, most people don’t re-calibrate their sets and live with this funky image for as long as they own their televisions. Out of the box, the P42 is very bright, with a sharp red shift in color. I chose the Digital Video Essentials disc over some other calibration discs because I feel it’s a bit easier to use, and if you’re at all new to calibration, it walks you through every step, allowing you to check your progress along the way. The P42’s set-up menu is very clear and easy enough to navigate, which made the calibration process that much easier. I was able to correct the P42’s red shift slightly; however, I was never able to completely render the image “neutral.” Also, when correcting for one aspect of the picture, others would quickly become a little out of sorts, so eventually I had to settle for the best solution overall. After going through the calibration dance for about an hour, for both the P42’s DVI and component inputs, I was able to achieve better than average black levels and a fairly even color balance and saturation. If what I’ve described sounds at all daunting to you, there are professionals out there who can help you calibrate your set for a very nominal fee. Given that most plasma sets can cost thousands of dollars, an extra couple hundred towards proper calibration is money well spent.

I concluded my set-up procedure by attaching the P42’s speakers. The P42 includes a set of small speaker cables to attach the speakers to the P42’s pushpin terminals.

The Movies
I started with M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment). I chose “The Village” for its many scenes featuring dense woodland landscapes, which can really test any screen’s metal, be it state of the art or budget. I set the Denon 3910’s DVI output to 720p to take full advantage of the P42’s heightened resolution settings. Beginning with the opening scene at the funeral, the windswept blades of grass showed little to no signs of “jaggies” or pixilation. While all of the elements in the frame were smooth and clearly defined, I did notice a bit of noise in the darker regions of the image, as well as the brightest. Also, there were hints of color banding happening in the lightest areas of the image, like around the flickering candles that light many of the characters’ bungalows. Shifting my focus to the P42’s black levels, I found them to be rather admirable. The P42 went a little darker than my reference Panasonic projector, which was to be expected. However, for a plasma screen, it didn’t go quite as deep as some of the best. During the film’s darker scenes featuring members of the cast, I found the gradation between the blacks and darker skin tones to be a bit splotchy. Even though the P42 had excellent separation between levels of gray during my set-up time with the Digital Video Essential disc, its gradation between darker levels of color was often less than perfect. Regardless of the color rendering, the P42’s edge fidelity was topnotch, resulting in a clear, three-dimensional picture. Overall, the colors were very rich and vibrant, with the appropriate amount of saturation with both light and dark scenes. The P42’s heightened resolution provided excellent detail during the film’s many close-ups, allowing me to see further into the characters’ eyes and emotions than ever before. The P42 avoided a lot of the pitfalls that I find with most plasma screens, which is an overly glassy image with smoother than thou skin tones and color gradations. Despite some of the P42’s shortcomings, I was able to enjoy the film in a way I wasn’t expecting, given my propensity for much larger screens.

D-VHS titles are a little hard to come by these days, so I was forced to turn to an old favorite in “The Peacemaker” (DreamWorks). With its true HD resolution, I was able to take full advantage of the P42’s capabilities. Immediately, many of the problems I encountered with standard DVDs were lessened or ceased to be all together with true high-definition content. Starting with the blacks, they were deeper and more clearly defined with high-definition material when compared to DVD. The gradations between blacks and darker levels of color were still a bit muddy, but they improved again over DVD. The skin tones also shaped up considerably in terms of true color and saturation. The red shift in color was all but gone with the exception of the darker regions of the image. The red shift, however, did cause a slight green tint to the blacks, where they met with a lighter shade of color. This anomaly was only apparent intermittently and became less of an issue during daylight or well-lit scenes. Movements, like rapid camera pans or characters running after baddies, showed no signs of pixilation or smearing against the New York backdrop. Often, when looking at high rise buildings during action sequences, the vertical lines of the buildings themselves can become harsh and begin to blur together, thus destroying the illusion of depth. I’m pleased to announce the P42 rendered every corridor of the city faithfully and clearly. The noise level in the image also dropped dramatically, as did the banding in the lightest regions of the image. If you want a great test of all that the P42 has to offer with high-definition material, cue up the last scene with Nicole Kidman going for a swim in the community pool. The ripples on the surface of the water mixed with the wonderful color saturation of the blues makes the water real enough to have you want to just dive in.

My building is currently being remodeled so my high-definition service has been a bit touch and go. However, I was able to obtain a clear signal from a CBS affiliate, which meant all the “CSI” I could shake a stick at. Knowing nothing about the show, I was able to really focus on the image. First off, I was struck by the sheer range and depth of the P42’s color palette. As with the D-VHS copy of the “Peacemaker,” the image depth was phenomenal, allowing me to see clearly through the various layers of glass and techno hardware that make up much of the “CSI” sets. Edge detail was superb and never lost focus, even when holding on a character’s blowing hair against a lighter background. There were several outdoor shots featuring steam billowing from the city’s manhole covers, which never showed any signs of breakup or pixilation. Black levels were great, helping the image to pop right off the screen. Darker areas of color, mainly in the skin tones, still remained a bit patchy at times, but not distractingly so. Again, noise and banding were held tightly in check through the high-definition feed.

Since not everyone is going to have access to high-definition material, or there just simply isn’t enough of it yet, it’s important to look at standard-definition programming as well. I turned my satellite tuner to one such channel with less than stellar results. With standard-definition programming, the P42 provided a washed-out image that was plagued with grayish blacks and muddy colors. Edge detail suffered dramatically, as did image depth. Noise levels and pixilation rose significantly with 480i source material. Also, the P42 didn’t automatically adjust to changes in aspect ratios, so you may find yourself going from watching the “beautiful” people to everyone needing to go on “The Biggest Loser.”

I wanted to conclude my evaluation by using the P42 as a computer monitor. However, I lacked the necessary cable to connect my Apple PowerBook G4 to the P42, so I cued up my Nintendo Game Cube instead. I’m not much of a gamer in the traditional sense, but it’s never stopped me from enjoying the occasional game of Mario Golf. The P42’s natural image brightness and color rendering made the game come to life. I found the image to be a little sharper when compared to a traditional CRT set, which at times became a bit distracting by calling extra attention to some of the larger polygon elements. The characters’ movements, as well as those of the camera, were very smooth and showed little to no sign of “jaggies” that often come standard with most video games. Sadly, the P42 isn’t immune to burn-in or “image sticking,” as Vizio chooses to call it. After only nine holes of golf, the game’s information pallet was still visible on the screen even after switching off the game. Happily, this effect went away after only a few minutes of television watching after my rout of that pudgy plumber Luigi. The P42, like many other plasma screens, features several menu settings to help combat burn-in, but it won’t completely solve the issue, which makes me wonder about using the P42 as a dedicated computer monitor for long periods of time. If having a huge computer monitor is your ultimate goal, I recommend focusing your attention towards monitors featuring LCD technology.

The Downside
First off, the P42’s inability to recognize or change aspect ratios automatically with the source material became a bit frustrating. Granted, it’s easy enough to rectify with a simple push of a button, but I still would prefer that the P42 do it for me. Speaking of buttons, some backlighting on the remote would have been nice as well. I understand the lack of backlighting is a cost-cutting device, but I wonder how much can it really cost when you’re manufacturing hundreds of thousands of remotes.

The P42’s image and color delineation could at times become a bit muddy and/or noisy, depending on the overall brightness of the scene. While I experimented with various cables and power conditioners, I found the best way to combat this effect was to observe a proper viewing distance (eight to 12 feet) and to utilize the P42’s DVI input whenever possible. I would have liked to see an additional DVI or HDMI input, since most computers like my Apple G5 now use the connection for their monitors and I’d hate to have to constantly play musical chairs with my cables between different electronics.

While the P42 excelled with the higher-resolution formats like HDTV and upsampled DVD, it just didn’t cut it as a standard-definition television. This isn’t exclusive to the P42; in fact, most plasma screens suffer from poor standard-definition picture.

At just under $2,000, the Vizio P42 HDe is the least expensive 42-inch high-definition-ready plasma on the market today. It’s the perfect size for most living room situations and, with its above average brightness and viewing angle, you’re sure to get a picture the whole family can enjoy. The P42 has a wonderful way with high-definition sources and DVDs, but it trudges along when having to deal with standard-definition broadcasts. Obviously, you can spend more and get more in terms of image quality and size and you owe it to yourself to shop around to decide which screen is right for you. If you’re looking to get into the plasma arena without breaking the bank, the Vizio P42 is a very viable way to go. While I may have been wooed by the P42’s meager asking price, this is one impulse buy that I’m happy to say hasn’t been followed by buyer’s remorse.
Manufacturer Vizio
Model P42 HDe 42-inch Plasma Display
Reviewer Andrew Robinson
Diagonal Screen Size 37 to 42-inches

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