July 23, 2006
HP 32" LCD High-Definition TV
Hewlett-Packard is not a big name in LCD flat-panel TVs, so it may seem odd that I picked the HP 32" LCD flat-panel as a replacement for my mother's dead 25" analog bedroom TV.
The reason I looked at HP in the first place was its highly-rated 58" and 65" DLP rear-projection sets. I figured they had to know something about what makes a good TV. And the specs on the LCD set were good and the price was right.
As it turns out, the HP LC3260N is the same as Sharp's LC32D40U. Sharp of course is a big name in LCD sets; they know their stuff. No surprise that HP went to Sharp for its LCD needs.
The remote controls for the two sets are different, and Sharp's owner's manual has more illustrations of menu screens and is perhaps clearer. But otherwise they're the same.
The Sharp's retail price is $1500 versus the HP's $1300, but the difference narrows on the street to less than $100. Look for $1200 - $1300. Not bad compared to what 32" LCDs were selling for a couple of years ago.
The HP shares the same eggshell black finish as my mother's old 25" analog set it replaced, but otherwise the change is dramatic. The HP stands relatively tall on its base, spans over 32" from side to side, and with its relatively wide bezel, looks substantially bigger than the old set. This notwithstanding the same screen height.
The 32" HP is 4.5" deep (versus the old analog TV's 22" depth); a wall mounting kit can be had for about $50. The base is easily removed for that purpose.
Screen resolution is 1366 x 768, which is fine for a set this size. While it won't display the full 1920 x 1080 resolution of the new high-def DVD movies, this 32" set will certainly show off the best of standard DVDs. The HP's two HDMI inputs will accept digital output from HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc players.
Black levels have not been one of LCD's stronger characteristics, but this has been improving. HP claims a contrast ratio of 1200:1 and a 6000:1 dynamic contrast ratio (whatever that is). The screen has a low-reflection TFT coating that is supposed to further enhance black levels. With these improvements, the literature promises "a new standard for black levels for LCD TVs."
I'll have more to say about that.
Other specs include a 176 degree viewing angle, a fast 6 ms response time, and a flock of video enhancements.
The HP's remote control is relatively simple, which matches what my mother needs. The remote that comes with the Sharp-branded twin (LC32D40U) has more capabilities: more buttons for operating other devices, for selecting favorite channels, etc.; it also has a backlight (which the HP remote lacks).
Setting up the TV was straightforward, although not exactly as described in the manual. All the connections are made on the back of the set, with the various jacks recessed and aiming down. This isn't the most convenient arrangement for making connections, but it makes perfect sense if you plan to mount the TV on the wall (you wouldn't want cables to be sticking out of the back).
There are plenty of connections available. (There was no CableCARD slot in this model, following the trend away from that technology.) On one side of the set, two HDMI inputs accept 1080i (plus 720p, 480p/i) but not 1080p. Separate audio jacks are provided for instances where a DVI-to-HDMI adapter is used.
On the other side there are two component video inputs, two S-video inputs, two for composite video, four AV audio ins, and one RF antenna/cable input. Outputs include one analog audio and one digital audio (coax).
In my application I was going to use only the antenna in, which simplified matters. My parents also get satellite, but that is only for the living room TV. Everything else is fed via the big rooftop antenna for free over-the-air programming.
The antenna's electric rotator died years ago; the antenna is pointed in a compromise direction that gives relatively good reception for all stations (barring thunderstorms). The neighborhood is heavily wooded, and the antenna is surrounded by trees that tower over the top of the house. Nevertheless, analog reception has been good, so I expected that digital channels would (should) be fine.
And so far, that has been the case, with just an occassional dropped frame or pixelized glitch. - Well--update--this morning I went over and checked channels again after overnight showers covered the tree leaves with water, thereby attenuating the signal. Analog channels were still fine but some of the digital channels were missing.
On July 1, all TV stations were required to bring transmit power up to full strength. There is an exception for stations that are now broadcasting on a different digital channel than their assigned channel after the end of the transition (because some parts of their equipment are designed for specific frequencies-stations are not required to buy full power equipment twice). In my area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, NC), all of the stations will move to a different digital channel on February 17, 2009, when stations are required to give up their analog channels (massive switchover). Therefore, my local stations may still be transmitting at lower than full digital power, which would explain the marginal reception.
The local CBS affiliate is WRAL, the first commercial TV station in the country to begin broadcasting digital/HD and also the first station to convert its local news programs to all-HD. They are apparently particular about image quality, because even on this wet morning their local news broadcast had that like-being-there HD picture quality. When their local HD news shows are on, that is the only digital channel the station is broadcasting. (see discussion below)
Okay, back to setting up the HP.
Video adjustments are set for each input (antenna, cable, dvd player, etc.); you can opt for presets for "Sports, Standard, or Movie," or as I did, you can opt for "Memory" and make individual adjustments for brightness, contrast, color, tint, sharpness, and color temperature.
I turned brightness, contrast, and sharpness down for a more natural picture. Adjust color and color temperature (white balance) for realistic skin tones (I set color temperature to "Warm"), or whatever looks good to you.
You don't have to go into the full menu to do this; there is a "picture" button on the remote for quick changes if you want to tweak the video for a particular show.
There is the usual complement of stretch and zoom modes.
You can also adjust the LCD backlight. I turned that down about halfway or so for a more accurate picture, and to enhance black levels (although that's a tradeoff between deep blacks and shadow detail--improving one worsens the other).
Lowering backlight intensity also prolongs the life of the backlight - you may want to make adjustments as the TV ages.
So how did the picture look? Compared to the analog set that it replaced -- awesome! And the old set had a really good picture.
In fact, analog channels looked better on the old set than on the new LCD display. But for digital channels, the improvement was obvious, even for standard-definition digital programming.
One thing I was looking for in particular was viewing angle. This turned out to be a non-issue. You had to pretty much sit right in front of older LCD flat-panel displays (including computer monitors) to get a good picture. Not so with the better new LCDs (TVs and computers), including this set.
You could move thirty degrees off center without any adverse effect, and even at 45 degrees, the picture was still quite watchable (there was some small loss of color saturation). Beyond that you would not want to go simple because of the viewing geometry, not so much because of video quality degradation.
Black levels were good for most programming during the daytime or when ambient lighting was at normal levels, especially for brighter scenes.
But for dark nighttime scenes, it was apparent that the blacks were not "black"--that inky, deep-space black. It became obvious while watching a scene from "24" during Jack Bauer's assault on a Russian submarine. While watching in a darkened room, the TV's black bezel (frame) contrasted with the dark-gray "black" in the submarine. Dark shadow detail was somewhat lacking.
These conditions were the exception, however, but if you are looking for a widescreen home-theater television, an LCD flat-panel might not be the best choice (for several reasons), as I have noted in my "crystal-ball" articles.
Update: After comparing the blacks of the LCD set to the blacks on my reference CRT monitor, the HP looked pretty good. The blacks are not as good as the blacks on my CRT monitor. but not so bad!
Picture quality for normal (well-lit) scenes ran from awesome to merely very good (but all much better than analog). Resolution, color, contrast. No visible scan lines, even from four feet away. The best had that wow factor.
Standard definition digital programming was sharp and clear compared to analog. Widescreen programming was generally better (mostly being HD), but some of that widescreen programming might also have been standard definition.
Some of the HD widescreen shows seemed a little soft.
When I checked to see if the station was broadcasting another digital standard definition channel at the same time (starving bit-rates for the HD channel) instead of using the station's whole 6 MHz bandwidth for the HD channel, I discovered that in almost all cases they were. It wasn't just one other channel either. Most stations were broadcasting two other SD channels besides the HD channel and one (PBS) station was broadcasting three other channels! Picture quality on all channels suffered.
High-definition TV was designed for one HD signal to use the whole 6 MHz channel allocation; later broadcasters discovered that up to five standard-definition digital channels could be broadcast instead of the one HD channel. Now some idiot corporate bean-counters have decided that TV stations should do both!
That's another reason to discourage multi-cast must-carry. Hopefully the government will not require cable companies to carry every channel every broadcaster throws up. Without cable carriage, stations would have little incentive to run multiple low-quality trash channels. One digital must-carry channel should be sufficient. The cable industry negotiated a multi-cast agreement with PBS (cable carries all PBS channels), and look what happened.
It was therefore difficult to judge how good the set was (because of the reduced bit-rate for HD programming), except that the best high-definition programming was excellent.
Unfortunately there was no available progressive-scan (or better -- HD-DVD or Blu-ray) DVD player to run another check.
The HP LCD set has stereo speakers built-in below the screen--ten watts per channel. This is fine for casual TV watching. There are audio enhancements that you can turn on (besides adjustment of bass and treble), to give you better (or at least different) sound to suit your personal preferences: SRS 3D (surround sound effect), FOCUS (vocal emphasis), and TruBass (bass emphasis).
This is a great set for many applications: bedroom, den, big kitchen, small living room. You can use the included stand or mount the 4.5" deep set on the wall. Viewing angles were impressive; there is no "sweet" spot.
With its wow-factor widescreen picture, it's easy to forget that TVs like this will be tomorrow's "normal" TV, just as smaller CRT direct-view sets were the ordinary TVs of the past. But that's what the transition to the new U.S. digital TV standard is all about. Better TV. Technology marches on (hooray!).
Also consider the HP's Sharp twin if you want a more capable lighted remote control.
HP also sells a 37" version of this TV. Sharp has matching LCD sets with the same specs in 26", 37", and 45" sizes.