By Cliff Edwards
The Good Lots of real estate (55 inches) on a motorized swivel base
The Bad Exposes every flaw of standard-definition programming
The Bottom Line Great addition if you're using it mainly for DVDs and high-def content
The first question that comes to mind when you look at Hitachi's 55HDT51 UltraVision CineForm plasma monitor is: Is this thing really only 55 inches?
Thanks to the built-in speakers on each side and black glossy finish that add even more to its sizable footprint, this 108-pound set dominates a room. Touches of silver on the bottom and an add-on black motor-control swivel base round out its eye-pleasing design.
In the plasma market, Hitachi (HIT) doesn't have the same brand awareness among consumers as Panasonic (MC), Pioneer (PIO), or even Sony (SNE), but in my opinion it ranks as one of the most consistent providers of excellent picture quality and elegant designs.
USEFUL SET-TOP. One of the things to consider before buying the 55HDT51 is whether you can live with its base setup. Unlike some flat-screen sets that build a tuner directly into the unit, this $5,100 TV comes with a digital set-top box that directs all the action. It can receive high-definition TV programs over the air, as well as from satellite and cable sources.
The box decodes the signal and converts it to the set's native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels before sending the image to the monitor through high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI), component, or composite cables. Hitachi also says its proprietary VirtualHD software will convert both standard definition and high definition to higher resolutions.
Some buyers may be loath to add yet another component to their home-theater setup, but I find the outboard tuner reduces the amount of visible cables.
CUTTING CLUTTER. On the A/V control center, you can connect two set-top boxes to HDMI inputs, a relatively new technology that sends digital video and audio down one cable, or to two component inputs. Since they share the same space on your remote, you can do only one or the other. You also get three composite inputs, as well as two antenna inputs. (You can also use a USB connector on the A/V control center to plug in a digital camera.)
Another feature aimed at cutting cable and set-top box clutter is a slot for a CableCARD, which decodes encrypted premium programming from your local provider. The only issue I had here is that the current generation of CableCARDs doesn't have the two-way technology that lets you download a TV guide and get on-demand or pay-per-view programming. To make this feature more useful, it would have been nice for Hitachi to offer a built-in programming guide.
BEADS OF SWEAT. Still, that complaint seems petty, as the set certainly delivers on its high-definition promise. The colors looked clear and vibrant as I watched beads of sweat on the foreheads of musicians playing on Discovery Channel HD and of the cops tracking down child pornographers on Law & Order: SVU on HDNet.
You'll really notice the difference between Hitachi and lesser brands when playing DVDs. First, I popped in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, skipping to the climatic fight scene at the end. Through all the computer-animated clutter and noise, there was hardly a flutter in picture quality. The same was true in the action-packed Nazi scene of Hellboy. And when I watched Ice Age, the saber-toothed tigers' fur took on much more realistic color tones than I've seen using other TV brands for review.
Even standard-definition programming looks fine on the 55HDT51, although the giant 55-inch screen tended to make flaws stand out even more than they might have normally. On the plus side, the picture-in-picture software works great. You can view two different inputs side by side, as well as in smaller windows that still make my old 13-inch college set pale in comparison.
TRICKY REMOTE. Now for the gripes. While a lot of work appears to have gone into the set's design, the same can't be said for the remote. Most of the action keys are in a confusing circular pattern in its dead center. Unless you memorize the position of each key, you easily can be taken out of the TV viewing experience, unwittingly accessing the menu, info, input, and exit keys.
The set offers two preset adjustments -- day and night -- for color, contrast, brightness, tint, and sharpness, as well as four color-temperature presets. Trouble is, I couldn't find any way to store those adjustments in case I wanted to program multiple modes.
Those complaints aside, I found the Hitachi 55HDT51 to be a dependable performer, capable of handling a number of common viewing tasks with aplomb. It would make a welcome addition to any home theater.
Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau