Everybody's been waiting for it and now it's finally happened—plasma TVs at prices most people can afford. While there's still no shortage of larger state-of-the-art plasma sets for over $10,000, now there's a wide selection of 42" true-HD models just above and below the $3000 price point. We tested an early extendeddefinition Gateway plasma back in our sister magazine The Perfect Vision (TPV, Issue 50) that broke new ground in plasma pricing, but these three sets have true 1024x768 high-definition television or EDTV panels, instead of "enhanced"-definition panels that accept HD sources but can't actually display HD. They also have better features, connectivity, and far better contrast ratios than the original Gateway. Still, the question remains: Can you get the stunning picture that high-definition plasma is famous for at a $3000 price point, or must you still pay much more? To help answer that question, we had the $7999 42" Hitachi 42HDX61 reviewed back in TPV, Issue 60, which remains one of the better 42" high-end models we've seen, on hand for direct comparison.
Gateway started it, but now Dell and HP have joined in as the computer manufacturers get into home video in a big way with a buy-it-direct policy and the usual computer sales philosophy of small profit-per-set but low overhead and big numbers. This should translate into great value for the consumer, and at a promotional price of $2999 including a free DVD player with DVI output and free shipping, who could argue? The question, of course, will be the picture quality, and Dell doesn't have dealers or showrooms where you can see and evaluate that for yourself. Dell does, however, offer a generous satisfaction-guaranteed policy, and we're going to do our best to tell you how the set looks.
The Dell W4200HD is made in Taiwan but Dell's U.S. engineers drew up the specs—and it shows. For inputs, this set leaves little to be desired. It includes HDMI and DVI inputs (both HDCP-compliant) and computer-compatible RGB, in addition to the usual video inputs, plus both analog (NTSC) and digital (ATSC) high-def over-the-air (OTA) tuners, though no CableCARD slot. PIP (picture- in-picture) capability is outstanding, with nearly any combination of inputs available as main or sub pictures. The remote is well laid out, userfriendly, and partially lit (just the numbers), but controls the TV only—no other components. Dell did, however, think to include a SLEEP button on the remote so you can ensure that your TV doesn't stay on all night if you fall asleep in front of it. A tablestand is included as are detachable speakers (which also have tablestands), but several wall mounts are available as options, as is an in-home wall-mounting service. Cosmetically, the set is nice, though I always prefer a totally black trim around the screen for enhancing the subjective contrast of the picture. The owner's manual is short and concise and was obviously written over here. One of the better lines found within is a stern warning: "If at any time you see smoke or sparks coming from your TV, contact Dell." Good advice.
Operation with the on-screen menu system is hassle-free. The INPUT SELECT menu can either show all 13 inputs or just the "active" ones (i.e., those that actually have sources plugged into them). The PICTURE menu includes factory-preset picture adjustments, or you can select PERSONAL and gain access to all the controls. Four color temperature settings are included with NATURAL said to be 6500K and NORMAL said to be the "native panel temperature." Each source has its own picture memory—a very big plus that's overlooked even in some expensive sets—and DVI/HDMI sources allow user-variable (RGB) color temperatures, though TINT and COLOR are (regrettably) no longer available. The AUDIO menu includes a MIDNIGHT mode to compress loud passages for late-night viewing or level out those loud commercials; SRS for a simulated surround sound with just two speakers; and three equalizer modes plus PERSONAL, which allows you to set your own bass and treble. Other menus include SIZE, which gives the various aspect ratios plus a horizontal centering adjustment, and SETUP, which also includes PLASMA CONDITIONING. (Since all plasma panels are subject to "burn-in"—image retention from static images displayed over long time periods—the conditioner can help by displaying fullscreen white for an extended period to age the entire screen evenly. Of course, aging the screen like this, if overdone, will eventually reduce the set's maximum light output.)
Overall, the Dell gets high marks for outstanding connectivity (including both a DVI and an HDMI input) and PIP flexibility. It was hard to find fault with this set's features, except for the omission of TINT and COLOR adjustments with DVI/HDMI inputs and its lack of a CableCARD HD tuner.