Most of the TVs that come through the doors of Grayscale Studio do exactly the same thing—display images from DVD players, high-def disc players, and satellite and cable receivers. However, that paradigm is about to shift dramatically with the arrival of Hewlett-Packard’s new line of MediaSmart TVs.
HP’s SLC3760N is among the first of this new breed of TV. In addition to conventional inputs, it includes an integrated Media Center Extender that can access video, audio, and photo files from a networked computer or a compatible device such as HP’s optional Media Vault server (See sidebar “Safe and Sound.”). As we’ll see, however, the reality has yet to fulfill the promise of this new paradigm.
The MediaSmart TV is a 37-inch LCD flat panel with 1366x768 resolution. Bolted on the back is the Media Center Extender, making the TV stick out a lot more than other flat panels when it’s mounted on a wall. I thought it perplexing that the Extender must be connected to the TV with three cables: AC power, HDMI, and a control cable. Why couldn’t these connections be made internally? At least HP supplies the cables along with two Wi-Fi antennas that screw into the top of the Extender.
To give the TV its media smarts, you’ll need a Windows XP computer that supports Windows Media Connect. HP claims the TV also works with Macintosh and Linux computers but acknowledges that the integration process is not as seamless as with Windows. You can connect the TV to your home network with an Ethernet cable or via Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g), but to ensure reliable streaming, HP advises against making a Wi-Fi connection with both the TV and computer/ server—pick one or the other.
The remote is a long, somewhat ungainly design with mostly black buttons on a black background and no illumination (except for the cursor cluster, Media button, and Return button). On the plus side, the buttons are fairly well-organized and not too close together. Like most TV remotes these days, this one is universal with the ability to control up to three devices other than the TV, and there are no direct-access buttons for the inputs.
When you adjust one of the picture controls, the menu appears in the upper left corner of the screen and remains there, obscuring the image you’re trying to improve. The menu system’s organization is generally logical, though the Picture Mode and Aspect Ratio controls are available only as buttons on the remote, which took a bit of getting used to.
As with just about every TV known to humanity, this one came out of the box too bright and too blue, with the backlight cranked up all the way. After turning it down to minimum and adjusting the picture controls (see “Scott’s Settings” box), the dark (read: black) areas of the picture were astoundingly deep for an LCD, many of which have a problem rendering deep blacks. The maximum brightness was just about perfect for a darkened room. If you want to watch TV in a room with ambient light, just turn up the backlight control. The blacks won’t be quite as solid, but the picture will still look darn good, which is not always the case when you start messing with backlighting.
With such great blacks, I couldn’t resist watching some Star Wars IV: A New Hope on DVD. The black of space was exactly what it’s supposed to be—deep and rich. Shadow detail in the Jawa transport was not so great, but things improved considerably in the Mos Eisley bar scenes where subtle shadings were more visible. Skin tones were natural and the other colors looked just right. Likewise, fine details on the space ships and the rough texture of buildings in Mos Eisley looked extremely realistic. In fact, the picture possessed a three-dimensional quality that was especially apparent in the canyons and crevasses of Tatooine.
Turning to HD DVD, Training Day looked sharp and clean, with clearly defined cars in a long shot of the freeway. Colors were spot-on, including green foliage, red no-parking curbs, and the yellows and browns in Roger’s house. On the other hand, shadow detail was only so-so.
To test the MediaSmart TV’s network-streaming capabilities, I connected the Media Vault (see “Safe and Sound” sidebar) to Grayscale Studio’s Belkin N1 router, which provides both wired and Wi-Fi operation. The Vault was connected with an Ethernet cable, while the TV tried without success to communicate with the router wirelessly.
A call to HP revealed that the TV is incompatible with some so-called “pre-N” wireless routers, including the Belkin N1, which implement a preliminary version of the new 802.11n Wi-Fi standard. So I connected the TV to the router with an Ethernet cable and the TV recognized the Media Vault. But all was still not well.