A Poltergeist in My Plasma TV


By Cliff Edwards

TECH & YOU PODCAST

My $5,000 LG plasma TV is haunted. And I'm not talking about "ghost" images you see on the screen even after the set is turned off. O.K., it hasn't yet started whispering "Get out," but it's malevolent nonetheless. In the two months that I've been testing it, the unit has confounded my every attempt to get it to work normally.

I had high hopes for LG's ambitious 50-inch plasma HDTV. The first big-brand television with a TiVo-like digital video recorder built-in , it relies on a 160-gigabyte hard drive and Gemstar-TV Guide software to record up to 14 hours of high-definition or 62 hours of standard resolution programming.

FINE -- AT FIRST. With a mirror-like black finish and beveled edges, the set is a real head turner. A thoughtfully designed remote control -- also in shiny black -- completes the promise of good things to come.

For the first few weeks the LG set delivered. First, I plugged my Comcast cable into the TV as well as an antenna to pluck local digital TV signals from out of the air. Setup is simple and intuitive, taking about five minutes, though you have to wait overnight for eight days of TV Guide data to download.

After that, at the touch of a button, the hard drive will store programming. I recorded episodes of The Simpsons, The Amazing Race, and Family Guy. The picture, of course, is as good as the signal -- in this case delivering excellent color saturation and contrast with little need for fine adjustment.

UNPREDICTABLE BEHAVIOUR. The haunting began nearly a month into my tests. At 1 a.m., the set suddenly and loudly fired up -- a disconcerting thing since it was set up in my bedroom. Worse, it refused to turn off, responding neither to the remote nor the off switch on the TV. With no choice, I unplugged the set, then plugged it back in. Nearly an hour later, though, the set burst into life again.

For three nights running, I struggled with the same scenario -- and lost each time. More frustrating yet, the TV Guide data stopped downloading, rendering the core digital video recording feature useless.

Acknowledging defeat, I called the tech gurus at LG. After a bit of hemming and hawing, they sent a flash memory card loaded with software aimed at fixing the problem. Apparently, early production models of the set suffered a software "memory leak." That means tiny errors in the programming replicated in ways that made the TV act unpredictably. Using the picture-card viewer slot built into the set, I installed the software patch and hoped for the best.

DISASTER STRIKES AGAIN. It was not to be. The TV Guide data -- which by then had not updated for a couple of weeks -- yet again failed to download overnight. And after a lull of a week, the set began turning itself on again. An LG executive pointed out that most buyers of this set would simply install a Cablecard and use the built-in recorder, rather than plug in a DirecTV-TiVo and dish personal video recorder, as I had done. But given that the set has connections for additional equipment, that should not have been a problem.

As a last-ditch effort to get the set working, I moved it out of the bedroom. Then I had a Comcast technician install a Cablecard to decode premium programming without the box. Voila! The TV Guide downloaded, and I could again use the digital video recording function.

But like a bad dream, disaster struck once more. Both high-definition multimedia interfaces (HDMI) that I had used to connect DirecTV and dish Network satellite boxes failed. When I plugged those same boxes into the component connectors, everything looked lime green, and no amount of picture adjustment changed that.

Finally, LG decided to replace the set. LG may either replace or repair a set under warranty, on a case by case basis. Five days into a review of the new set, everything works as promised -- complete with all the other devices I had connected previously. No ghosts in the middle of the night. No green slime. Still, I'm not giving up my TiVo just yet.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau


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