Video experts have long warned couch potatoes that watching TV in complete darkness can cause eye strain and fatigue. But that doesn’t mean you should watch CSI with the lights blazing—the only thing that’ll do is wash out the picture and prevent you from reveling in all those gory details.
The solution is something called a bias light, which videophiles have been using for years. The idea is to put a lamp (typically fluorescent) behind the TV to help your eyes adjust to the brightness produced by the screen. Ideally, the light should exhibit a certain white and brightness to properly bias your eyes for watching TV.
If you watch much TV at all (and you wouldn’t be reading this magazine if you didn’t), you’ve probably seen the commercials for Philips Ambilight TVs—sexy flat panel sets with lights built into the edges of the frame behind the screen. The intent here is to “add a new sensation to the viewing experience” by offering various “ambient lighting” modes, including several that adapt the Ambilight’s brightness and color to what’s happening on the screen.
Among the Philips TVs featuring Ambilight is the 50-inch 50PF9731D plasma— certainly not a model number you’re likely to remember, but then again, most TV model numbers are eminently forgettable. The inputs are adequate with two HDMI ports and a full suite of standard A/V connections. You’ll also find a CableCARD slot, which accepts a special card available from your cable company that allows you to receive digital cable (including HDTV) without having to hook up a cable box. The downside to CableCARD is it’s not compatible with the electronic program guide (EPG) offered by cable companies, which means no movies on demand and no easy way to navigate through all those channels. Many CableCARD-equipped TVs include the free TV Guide On Screen EPG for this reason; this set isn’t one of them.
On the side of the TV are two USB ports and a multi-format memory card slot, which is great for spur-of-the-moment slide shows. Pop in a memory card with photos of your trip to Las Vegas and ...well, maybe not; as the saying goes, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
After exploring the various Ambilight modes with some TV and movie clips, I settled on the fixed Color mode. While I’m sure many folks will like the “lightshow” option, I find it to be gimmicky and distracting. Using the fixed mode, I was able to effectively set up a bias light. (In technical terms, I selected a color that approximated D65 white at a brightness level that was about 10 percent of the TV’s peak white level.) Watching different programs with the light on and off, there was no question that my eyes felt more relaxed with the light turned on. Having this videophile option built into the TV is a nice touch.
The remote is a long, slender, silver affair that is not illuminated. As with most TVs these days, it is a universal design, capable of controlling up to four devices in addition to the TV. Like most such remotes, you select the input you want from an onscreen list. In general, the button layout is fairly simple and straightforward.
The menu system occupies the entire screen—none of the source image is visible. When you select a picture control to adjust, the rest of the menu disappears, but the control occupies most of the right half of the screen, making it a bit difficult to see the image you’re trying to improve.
Overall, the menu is well-organized with a few quirks. For example, selecting a picture control and pressing the OK button jumps back one level rather than forward to activate that control, which is not exactly intuitive. Also, individual controls time out quickly, while the main menu doesn’t time out at all, which means you must exit manually.
I was stunned to find that user controls are global, meaning they apply to all inputs and you can’t save different settings for different video sources. This is a significant drawback because it’s very unlikely that ideal settings for satellite TV are going to match those for your new HD DVD or Blu-ray player. Philips says it plans to include separate memories for each input in its 2007 models.
As with most TVs, this one came out of the box with a picture that was way too bright and too blue. Generally, the first thing I do is find the colortemperature control and set it to Warm, Normal, or Medium, which usually brings the set’s color balance closer to neutral than the factory setting. There’s no way to know for sure which is best without some sophisticated measurement equipment, so let your eyes (and our reviews) be your guide.
In this case, the Warm color-temperature preset was closest to correct, though it tended toward red. The Normal preset had a bluish cast, which some viewers may prefer. Black level, which is the lowest light level the set can produce after the controls have been properly adjusted, was respectable but not the best I’ve seen from a plasma TV.