The Dell also looked better because it had a smoother, more refined picture than the other two sets. There was less video noise, particularly on darker scenes. This clean detail was always extremely apparent on grass and the leaves of trees. The LG, with its XD ENGINE on, took on an overenhanced, etched look with small details, but turning it off and pulling SHARPNESS down eliminated most of that and made it and the VIZIO comparable, though still a noticeable notch behind the Dell.
Blacks with these sets were surprisingly good (though still not in the league of the Panasonic TH-42PX254 reviewed in TPV, Issue 56) and similar enough that one might suspect their glass panels came from the same source. The LG's XD ENGINE, however, significantly hurt its ability to hold black. What this means is that, with the LG, seemingly ideal settings of the brightness control will look perfect on average-to-bright pictures, but dark scenes will look totally washed out with terrible blacks that look more like a bluish haze. In effect, the XD ENGINE dynamically raises its brightness control on dark scenes for some (intentional) reason. Turning it off solves the problem. Contrast ratio and picture impact were slightly better on the Dell due to more peak light capability, while the LG trailed a bit due to slightly less bright whites and slightly less dark blacks (as delivered), even with the XD ENGINE off.
All three sets were occasionally guilty of false-contouring, with the Dell slightly worse than the others. Contouring is rarely an issue with highquality source material but tends to rear its ugly head frequently with dark scenes and low-quality source material. The more expensive plasmas I've tested have less of this artifact, though I still don't consider it a fatal flaw even with these cheaper sets.
The VIZIO was a standout with DVI and would be hard to beat if DVI was your primary source(s). DVDs looked particularly good (noticeably better than with the other two sets) when using VIZIO's Bravo DVD player with its DVI output running at 852x480p and the panel's custom color temp set as described in the Technical Sidebar. The Dell wasn't even competitive since it omitted color and tint controls for DVI and HDMI sources.
Deinterlacing and performance, using the Silicon Optix DVD and other torture tests with 480i component video, wasn't good with either the Dell or the VIZIO. Both had lots of jaggies and artifacts. The LG made a remarkably strong showing here. Most displays I've tested recently have fared better with these torture tests than the Dell and V, Inc.
Directly compared to the 42" Hitachi 42HDX61, whose advertised prices have dropped considerably since our review in TPV, Issue 60, all three had darker blacks but slightly more false-contouring and considerably more color errors due to poorer factory grayscale calibration and poorer grayscale tracking. Pure reds and blues were done acceptably by all, and the Hitachi's greens were every bit as annoying to me as those of these three, but more subtle shades of color were usually done with noticeably greater accuracy by the Hitachi. The Hitachi was also slightly sharper. Night and day difference? Hardly—and not nearly as much difference as I expected! But with all of the sets adjusted to perfection and playing the same picture side-by-side with a variety of sources, the Hitachi still looked best overall.
My final testing was with cable and off-the-air DTV. With analog cable, the Dell looked O.K., and was easily the fastest channel-surfer. The LG, thanks probably to superior video processing and even to the XD ENGINE that I didn't like with DVD or HD sources, looked cleaner and sharper and had more impact in a typical lighted room situation. The news channels didn't differ much, but the lousier the video being broadcast, the more advantage the LG seemed to have over the Dell. And though the manual didn't mention it, the LG scanned the digital portion of my cable feed and allowed me to get all the digital music and several digital local channels without CableCARD. The VIZIO surprised me by even looking slightly better than the LG, with a bit more detail and less noise. On the Dell and VIZIO, 4:3 pictures were shown with black bars—a recipe for eventual screen burn. The LG had gray bars, which nobody likes but which are necessary for protecting the screen when it's not filled.
Digital off-the-air TV was between the Dell and the LG, since the VIZIO doesn't have a built-in ATSC tuner. With digital stations, both SD and HD, the Dell looked quite good. Still, the LG held a very slight advantage (XD ENGINE off) in picture quality and a significant advantage in reception of weak signals. Even the LG displayed black bars on the sides of 4:3 digital programs, so I had to use the CINEMA ZOOM feature to fill the screen.
The plasma TV market is not much different than other consumer electronics fields—you generally get what you pay for. While these three budget sets can look pretty darn good, they also have shortcomings that nitpickers like me have a field day exposing—but that's our job. Now if it actually took $10,000 to buy a top-of-the-line 42" plasma these days, I would just be jumping up and down and raving about these three sets. They really can look surprisingly close to the very best some of the time. But the fact of the matter is that expensive high-end plasmas with few technical weaknesses have dropped significantly in retail price and are also deeply discounted. Much unlike high-end audio, the best in plasma does not go up in price exponentially. So, while I can recommend these three sets at this price point, just be aware that an additional thousand dollars or perhaps even less may get you significantly closer to perfection. Still, if you're less picky than I am and $3000 is your budget, you'd probably be most satisfied with the price/performance ratio of the Dell, with the other two very close behind. If regular cable and movies via a DVI-equipped DVD player is where you want the emphasis, check out the VIZIO. If digital off-theair is more important, the LG has a distinct advantage. None of these three cheap plasmas are duds, and at the finish line, you could probably throw a blanket over all three.