Plasma monitors zoom in on top quality

NEC's PlasmaSync 42MP4 blows away the competition in every aspect of rendering input from disparate sources.

Henrik G. DeGyor

The Sony PFM-42B1 cost comparatively little for its very good performance, especially with DVD input.

The ViewSonic VPW425 cost the least and had good color quality but trouble rendering shadows.

Three models display remarkable advances during the past year in image quality and control

For their huge display areas, plasma monitors have surprisingly low weight and depth. Even with a 42-inch diagonal display, it's rare that a plasma measures more than six inches thick or weighs more than 100 pounds.

In comparison, a 29-inch CRT monitor the GCN Lab reviewed last year weighed 123 pounds and had a 19-inch tube.

Digital-light-processing and LCD projectors can rival plasmas in screen area, but they can't equal plasma quality. And CRTs, DLPs and LCDs each have their own problems with heat generation, bulb life or ambient light effects.

The three plasma displays in this review show dramatic improvement over last year's crop in image quality and control schemes. We invited eight plasma vendors to participate, but several declined to pit their products against top-of-the-line plasmas. Some even mentioned this review's top performer by name. As we began testing, we found out why.

The NEC PlasmaSync 42MP4 was the runaway winner. It bested the other two models in every category'an amazing turnaround considering that NEC's 2001 plasma entry had some fairly acute flaws. This year, we found nothing wrong with the PlasmaSync 42MP4.

The 42-inch monitor's first and most obvious advantage was high native resolution: 1,024 by 768 pixels. Text looked just as good as on a CRT or LCD. The NEC was only 3.5 inches thick and weighed only about 70 pounds with the stand, or 65 pounds without.

We tried word processing'kind of like driving a Ferrari to the corner store'and felt absolutely no eyestrain. In fact, the large letters were quite pleasant to look at. There was no flicker, and it didn't matter whether the room was brightly lit or dark. We could work independently of environmental light.

The viewing angle was nearly 180 degrees, so a user in almost any position could easily see anything on the screen. Images shone through the glass without distortion, and the antiglare coating passed our simulated-sunlight tests.

The staple job for any plasma monitor is still-picture presentations. The PlasmaSync 42MP4 added pop to even dull graphics. Images we've seen many times, such as Microsoft Windows XP's tulip background, seemed new. Blues and other cool colors displayed accurately; yellows and reds literally jumped off the screen.

Part of the reason is NEC's proprietary AccuCrimson filtering, which produces some of the purest reds in the industry.

The monitor worked fine with a standard PC video card at a 4:3 image ratio. It also looked great with a 16:9 ratio card. Most of our tests used a standard nVidia GeForce 3 graphics card.
The PlasmaSync's DVD video display was incomparable. Monitor settings could be tweaked for motion or digital video, though the Auto function did a good job of detecting the right mode.

When it was properly set, we saw no jagged pixels even with fast screen motion.

The PlasmaSync 42MP4's versatility was its next-best feature. It could accept just about any input source, from VGA to Ultra XGA to 1,365-by-768 resolution with a 16:9 ratio digital video card. It also could handle S-Video, component video and High-Definition TV signals.

Three of the eight input sources could be assigned to audio.

The PlasmaSync excelled in every area and earned a rare A+ grade and the Reviewer's Choice designation.

Whenever we test a monitor from Sony Electronics, we watch for a trademark feature that sets it apart from the competition. The uniqueness might lie in exterior design, control buttons, the stand or the monitor shape. The 32-inch Sony PFM-42B1 had innovations in all those areas, plus astonishing accuracy with shadows. It gave the NEC PlasmaSync strong competition.

The 40.8- by 27.9- by 3.3-inch Sony was the smallest and thinnest monitor in the review and would look just fine on a mahogany executive desk. When turned off, it seemed insignificant next to the gargantuan NEC and ViewSonic monitors. But when it was on, the Sony drew the eyes of passersby because of its crisp clarity at native 1,024-by-768 resolution. Its 32-inch diagonal screen means it could fit into relatively small spaces.

Flowery images

Our test image of cherry blossoms in bright sunlight looked good on all three monitors, but the Sony was barely edged out by the NEC and easily outperformed the third monitor.

Our test image had a shadow on some blossoms in the foreground. The Sony recreated the shadow without taking away the pinkish floral tones. Only in a few small areas did the Sony have difficulty. It could properly scan through different tones of light pink, dark pink and back to light pink, and it could do just as well with green leaves of slightly different hue.

The only two negatives for the PFM-42B1 were the menu interface and the analog-only connection ports.

We could alter the screen size from letterbox to wide screen, but navigating through the menu interface to change that or any another option was aggravating.

The select and navigation buttons were too close together. Control buttons were well-placed on top of the monitor but hidden slightly by the frame. We wasted several minutes learning what each button could do; they weren't even visible when the monitor was resting on a fairly high surface.

The Sony could reproduce images well at 1,024-by-768 resolution, but we recommend 800 by 600 for use as a computer screen because text looks much sharper.

Unfortunately there was no digital monitor port. We found it fairly unusual that a plasma monitor would have no digital port capability except for standard S-Video or digital cable.

Even through the analog connection, however, the Sony was very good at video images'not as smooth as the NEC but smoother than the ViewSonic, and overall second in video quality.

Although it was the lightest plasma monitor in the review, the Sony was the most awkward to move, yet the most stable when at rest. Most plasma monitors sit on a bench that connects from below. The Sony's stand connected from the back, elevating the monitor about six inches above the desk. That gave us room to maneuver and made the monitor seem larger, but also harder to move'all 64.1 pounds rested on one small area. The other monitors' weight was spread out more evenly.

The Sony PFM-42B1 is geared to high-end buyers who nevertheless don't want to break the bank. It's definitely worth the $7,000 if you can get used to the menu interface, and if the monitor won't be moved around much. It will stay where you put it, but getting it there requires caution.

The ViewSonic VPW425 was the least expensive monitor in the review and, depending on the application, entirely functional as a presentation monitor. It did have notable flaws, however, so buyers should consider in advance how it will be used.

A Capitol view

The VPW425 displayed vibrant color in still images. In the test image of cherry blossoms, for example, trees were well defined and the background of the Capitol looked quite beautiful. We saw some problems with shading but had to look closely to discover that the ViewSonic blurred fine details the other monitors displayed flawlessly.

A bigger problem was displaying video images from DVD. Darker areas did not look good, especially when rapid motion was portrayed. After we heavily tweaked the brightness, contrast and other controls, the VPW425 displayed detail adequately, but not as well as the Sony, and not even in the running with the NEC.

When we used the ViewSonic as a computer monitor, text looked cloudy even at native 1,024-by-768 resolution. Beyond that it was nearly unreadable.

For displaying still pictures in a presentation, however, the VPW425 crosses the plasma threshold at minimum cost.

GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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