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Review: Ultrathin TV boasts stunning design

  • Story Highlights
  • The ultrathin Hitachi UT37X902 will draw buyers who want the latest in flat-panel chic
  • The thinnest LCD panel on the market, it's perfect for mounting on a wall
  • At $1,900 to $2,500, the TV is expensive
  • Picture quality is very good, although dark areas of the screen tend toward blue
  • Next Article in Technology »
By David Katzmaier
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CNET.com

(CNET) -- When Hitachi first announced the U.S. availability of its superslim monitors at CES last January, they were the slimmest flat-panel LCDs yet at 1.5 inches thick.

That's still the case as far as we know. Sure, the panel of Sony's OLED-based XEL-1 is, as usual, an exception at 0.11 inch thick, but it requires a nondetachable base. It also requires you to pay $2,500 for an 11-inch screen.

The Hitachi UT37X902 has a more useful 37-inch screen size and a slightly more manageable price, and you can actually remove the base to hang this supersleek set on the wall, where it will protrude no more than a picture frame.

The UT37X902 also exhibits solid picture quality and hits all the feature buzzwords--1080p, 120Hz with dejudder--necessary on a high-end LCD. The bad news, aside from the Hitachi's high price, is unless you add an optional external AV Center, it only has two inputs: one HDMI and one PC.

We tested the monitor with the input-laden AV Center and found the integration of the two less-than-seamless. However, if you're willing to put up with those issues and don't mind spending more for one of the coolest-looking HDTVs available, the UT37X902 deserves a long gander.

Design

This is probably the sleekest LCD we've ever reviewed. We'll start with the headline-grabbing profile; yes, the panel measures just 1.6 inches thick at its widest point, which seems razor-thin when seen from the side, especially in person. Of course, most viewers will see this set from straight on, and its aspect from that perspective is pretty sharp, too.

The frame on all four sides curves back to the edge, there's a chrome-colored accent strip below a speaker slit below the screen, and in a subtle touch that's only evident from up close, the frame is actually composed of smoky translucent material that will let the wall behind the monitor show through along the edges.

After the thin profile, the most noticeable design element is the base, which consists of a doughnut-like ring as opposed to the standard solid pedestal. Including stand, the Hitachi monitor measures 36.9 by 25.9 by 12.2 inches WHD; without it, the dimensions become 36.9 by 23.9 by, yes, 1.6 inches. (In case you're bothered by the disparity between the "1.5-inch thick" elevator pitch and the 1.6-inch dimension given here, we'll explain: the manual lists the official depth of the panel as 1 9/16 of an inch, which works out to 1.5625 inches. We always round to the nearest tenth, hence 1.6.)

Hitachi apparently couldn't pack all of the necessary extras--namely an HDTV tuner and a full complement of inputs--into that thin chassis. So the company offers the AVC08U Audio Video Center, a $300 option we consider nearly a necessity. It's a small box that connects to the television via HDMI and includes the bulk of the connections as well as the tuner itself.

While having an extra box is nice for installations where you want to hide your gear and have just one umbilical, the HDMI cable, connect to the monitor, Hitachi did a terrible job of integrating the two components. You have to actually turn both on separately--that's right, you must remember to turn on both the box and the remote every time, unless you want to keep the box on indefinitely (a waste of power--see below).

Each has separate menu systems and control schemes as well. For example, if you're in monitor mode on the remote and want to switch inputs, the set will simply toggle between the HDMI and the RGB input of the monitor itself, rather than summon the AV Center's input selection.

We would expect Hitachi to take advantage of HDMI's built-in control protocols, known as HDMI CEC, to allow better integration between the two. In fact, with CEC you should be able to hide the box completely, away from the IR blast of the remote, and have the monitor pipe remote signals to the box for control. Alas, it doesn't work that way on the UT37X902.

Taken on its merits, we liked the big-buttoned remote for its backlighting behind every key, which helps make up for some of the similar shapes of the buttons. In addition to the standard array of codes to control up to four other devices (three if you include the AV Center), the clicker also has a learning function, which is rare among remotes included with TVs. No matter, though; anybody who wants to integrate the monitor and AV center seamlessly would do well to get a universal remote instead.

Features

The feature set on the UT37X902 is solid if you include the AV Center; anemic if you don't. As we'd expect from a high-end LCD, the panel does have a native resolution of 1,920x1,080, or 1080p, although seeing the benefits of this resolution at a 37-inch screen size is almost impossible. Hitachi includes a 120Hz refresh rate complete with dejudder processing, the effects of which we'll cover in Performance.

Without the AV Center the UT37X902 itself is just a monitor--it lacks either an old NTSC tuner or a new digital ATSC tuner for over-the-air broadcasts. Both types of tuners are built into the Center, although the analog one will only be useful for most people until next February, when the DTV transition hits.

Quite a few picture controls are available on the UT37X902, beginning with three picture modes that can each be adjusted. Unfortunately, since the monitor itself has only one HDMI input (as opposed to the box, which has the rest), it cannot associate different picture settings with different inputs, so the box/monitor package as a whole lacks independent input memories.

If you select any of the three HDMI inputs on the box, they each will have the same settings for each picture mode, which makes customizing the picture for different sources more difficult.

Advanced controls are plentiful, and include a custom color temperature adjustment with both gains and cuts, along with three types of noise reduction, a contrast mode best set to "Linear," and a few other items best left turned off. The AV Center itself adds a few other controls in a separate menu; of course we'd prefer these to be integrated into a single menu somehow.

More confusingly, both the AV Center and the monitor offer separate aspect ratio controls. The manual recommends setting the monitor to "Full 2" mode and using the box's aspect ratio selections, but if you forget to change the remote's mode to control the box, you'll switch aspect ratios on the monitor instead.

Both box and monitor offer three aspect ratio choices with HD sources, and the one labeled "Real" on the box, when used in combination with Full 2 on the monitor, maps 1080i and 1080p sources perfectly to the display, with no overscan. We recommend using this setting unless you notice interference on the extreme edges of the screen. With standard-def sources you get six aspect ratio selections on the monitor and two on the box.

Conveniences are sparse on the UT37X902; there's no picture in picture or freeze-frame. The menu does offer a power-saving setting, but it only affects standby power. We didn't test this setting because the combined standby draw of the box and the monitor is less than 1 watt anyway.

It's worth noting, however, that the AV Center alone draws 8 watts when the TV isn't turned on. The box is included in the overall power consumption we report below in the Juice Box.

Connectivity on the Hitachi panel itself consists of just one HDMI input along with an analog, VGA-style PC input. You can get a special adapter to turn that VGA input into a composite input, if you want, but no matter how you slice it, most people will want to buy the box for its extra connectivity--or at least spring for an HDMI switcher to add a few more HDMI inputs. When you connect the box to the monitor you monopolize the monitor's HDMI input.

The AV Center's jack pack is fairly generous, with three HDMI ports, two component-video inputs, an antenna port for over-the-air or cable, two composite video inputs, an optical digital audio output, and, of course, an HDMI output to connect to the monitor. There's also a USB port but it's for service only.

Performance

Overall, the Hitachi UT37X902 performed relatively well, although we did encounter a few hiccups. Its black levels were deep enough compared with other 1080p 37-inch LCDs we tested, and we appreciated the calibration controls that helped hone its color. On the downside it became quite blue in dark areas, and we encountered a few issues with its dejudder and 120Hz processing.

The Hitachi's numerous picture controls allowed us to improve the already fairly accurate Cinema preset to a fine degree. Prior to our calibration, Cinema delivered a relatively linear grayscale, although it did dip into blue territory near black, becoming extremely blue at 5 percent and lower.

Afterward it was still fairly blue down there, but the majority of the picture came extremely close to the D65 target, but we would have preferred mid-dark areas, which tended toward red, to be a bit better. Gamma was a superb 2.23 afterward. For our complete picture settings, check out the bottom of this blog post.

Our comparison included a couple of less-expensive 37-inch competitors, the Panasonic TC-37LZ85 and the Vizio VOJ370F, along with the 32-inch Sony KDL-32M4000. Our reference set for color was the Pioneer PRO-111FD, and we used the Sony KDL-46W4100 to compare Smooth processing (no, we don't consider either one competition to the Hitachi). For our image quality tests we watched the Blu-ray version of Iron Man on the PlayStation 3.

Black level: Matched against the other LCDs in our lineup the Hitachi reproduced a comparable shade of black, appearing slightly deeper than the Vizio and about equal to the Panasonic and the 32-inch Sony. In fact the difference between all but the Vizio was really hard to discern, even side by side, and the Vizio itself wasn't too far behind.

If we had to choose, watching an extended sequence of dark scenes such as the ones where Stark is confined to a cave in Chapter 3, we'd give the slightest of edges to the Panasonic, followed by the Sony and then the Hitachi, but all three were very close.

Details in shadows on the Panasonic appeared a bit more distinct than on the others, but again the Hitachi wasn't bad, resolving the dark uniforms of the guards in the cave, for example, quite naturally.

Color accuracy: The UT37X902 held its own in brighter scenes, soundly beating the red-tinted Panasonic and also proving a bit better than the other two. When Stark talks to the Air Force guys in Chapter 7, for example, his skin tone an the colors in the background appeared natural enough, albeit a tiny bit greenish compared with the reference.

Accuracy suffered in shadows, on the other hand, as evinced by the overly blue fighter in the background and the extremely blue tinge--worse than any of the other displays, in black areas and the letterbox bars. Primary colors, including the green grass outside Stark HQ and the red stripes of the American flag and the blur of the sky, all appeared quite close to the reference.

Video processing: As we mentioned above the Hitachi does include dejudder processing, which can be activated by selecting Smooth 1 in the Film Mode section of the menu. We compared this effect, which was fairly aggressive as dejudder modes go, to the Sony W4100's Standard setting, one of the better dejudder modes in our experience. The Hitachi fared well in most scenes, smoothing out the judder in the slow pan around Stark's lab in Chapter 7, for example, as well as we expected.

As always we saw some artifacts in Smooth mode, such as the characteristic breakup effect (where a part of an object seems to detach) behind the wing of the landing fighter at the beginning of the chapter, for example, or the bottles in Stark's fridge a bit later. Neither artifact was visible on the Sony, so we'd definitely give the dejudder edge to the Sony in this case.

According to the manual, Smooth 2 mode is designed for 60Hz sources, so we checked out some fast-moving action--a hockey game and a football game--but couldn't see any difference between the Hitachi's and the other displays' handling of motion. We're not surprised; we've found it hard to see differences in smoothing processing with non-film material on many displays.

We also fed the Hitachi 1080p/24 sources to see how well its 120Hz processing preserved the native cadence of film. Compared with the Sony W4100 (with its dejudder turned off) and the Pioneer (set at its ideal Advance mode for this comparison) the Hitachi lagged behind. During a pan over Stark's workbench around the 28-minute mark, for example, the UT37X902 seemed to evince the same sort of hitching motion we saw on the non-120Hz displays, as opposed to the smoother judder of the Pioneer and the Sony.

We double-checked on of our favorite tests for judder, the flyover of the aircraft carrier in Chapter 7 of "I Am Legend" and once again the Hitachi showed more hitching than the reference displays, but not as much as the Vizio, for example. To our eyes the differences were tough to discern, however.

According to resolution test patterns, the Hitachi failed to properly de-interlace video-based material but succeeded with film, regardless of the picture mode we chose. As we expect from a 1080p display, it resolved every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources. In our motion resolution test, the UT37X902 delivered 300 to 400 lines, which is more along the lines of results we got from 60Hz displays, not 120Hz models.

We suspect the difference has to do with Hitachi's 120Hz processing methods, which differ from those of Sony and Samsung, for example. Regardless of the results of test patterns, we found it nearly impossible to distinguish between the resolutions of any of these displays, motion or otherwise, with program material.

Uniformity: The UT37X902 fared well in this department. Its screen maintained even brightness and color across its area, and when seen from off-angle its black levels and color didn't fade as quickly as many LCDs we've seen.

Bright lighting: Hitachi uses a matte screen, which evinced the usual stellar performance under bright lighting conditions. The screen attenuated ambient reflections as well as the other matte LCDs in the lineup and better than the glass-screen plasma.

Standard-definition: The UT37X902 is a mixed bag when it comes to SD processing. The set resolved every line of the DVD format, and details in the stone bridge and grass looked relatively sharp. On the other hand it was as bad as we've ever seen at removing jaggies from moving lines; both a spinning diagonal wedge and the stripes of a waving American flag showed significant jagged edges.

The numerous noise reduction options outperformed the other comparable displays in our test, squelching dancing motes and moving lines quite affectively in the strongest settings. Finally, film mode processing kicked in quickly and effectively to remove moiré from the grandstands behind the race car.

PC: The monitor itself has a VGA-style analog input on the back panel, and as the manual indicates, the highest resolution it can accept is 1,366x768. This resolution looked OK on the Hitachi, but we really would have liked to see the analog input go all the way up to 1,920x1,080.

Via HDMI (which we tested via the AV Center, not directly connected to the monitor) the Hitachi performed very well, resolving every line of a 1,920x1,080 source. We did see some edge enhancement we couldn't eliminate however, which made text somewhat less legible, especially at small font sizes.

© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. CNET, CNET.com and the CNET logo are registered trademarks of CBS Interactive Inc. Used by permission.

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