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Plasma TV breaks price barrier

I’ve marveled at plasma TVs since the first time I saw one in person. I couldn’t believe a television could be so large — and so thin. Now Gateway’s offering one for less than $3,000. It was my chance to try a plasma in my home.
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I’ve marveled at plasma TVs since the first time I saw one in person. I couldn’t believe a television could be so large and so thin. But as much as I loved the look, the original $14,000 price tag meant that I could buy fifty or so 27-inch color sets at my local warehouse store. Fast forward to 2002 and Gateway’s announcement that its 42-inch plasma TV would sell for less than $3,000. It was time to try a plasma in my home.

InsertArt(1733747)PLASMA TV WORKS a lot like a fluorescent light bulb. Electrons from one electrode emit ultraviolet light into gases (in a plasma state) which hits another electrode with red, green and blue color phosphors. Electronically control these charges and you can get a very thin screen to produce 16 million colors over a wide viewing angle.

Since their introduction, prices have dropped and quality improved. So much so that PC giant Gateway decided it would be the perfect item with which to enter the consumer electronics market. Gateway’s plasma TV, manufactured for them by Sampo, has a 42-inch 16:9 wide aspect ratio screen. It’s also capable of showing regular 4:3 ratio TV pictures. The screen projects a picture that’s 852 X 480 pixels. What that means is the Gateway is NOT really an HDTV, but it is capable of taking HDTV signals (1080i and 720p) and scaling them down to fit the 852 X 480 screen.

The TV includes a built-in tuner for side-by-side and picture-in-picture features, internal 10-watt amplifier and stereo speakers with subwoofer-out/bass extension circuitry, BBE Sound Maximizer and Sound Processing simulation, DVI-interface for attaching computers, a slew of audio and video inputs (Cable in, composite, S-video and two sets of component inputs) plus a gazillion-function remote control. All audio and video connections are neatly hidden in a back panel well hidden from sight when you’re watching TV.

On the outside, the Gateway is 3.4 feet wide, 2.1 feet high and 3.7 inches, yes, INCHES, deep.

It may be thin, but it’s also heavy: weighing in at 77 pounds with the stand attached. I placed the Gateway on top of my 15-year old, 45-inch RCA rear-projection monster. Gateway also offers an optional $199 wall mount for the set.

BLINDING LIGHT I would never consider trying to lift the Gateway on my own; it has an awkward shape. But with the help of a friend, moving the Gateway into place was easy.

Hooking up all the audio and video was also pretty straightforward. I plugged in the NTSC, 75-ohm Cable RF coax after routing it through my hi-fi/stereo VCR, plus composite and S-video signals coming from my digital Cable-TV box, and component signals coming from a progressive-scan Sony DVD player. The fixed/variable audio out was routed to my living room stereo’s preamplifier.

Then I turned it on.

The first thing I noticed was an amazingly bright picture. Bright as in supernova bright.

It took me thirty seconds to find the TV’s menu system and start making adjustments. But nothing I could do made the picture look real to my eyes and after a day I gave up.

Then came help.

A long-time editor of mine, Robert Harley, is now running the video magazine The Perfect Vision. He put me in touch with his video technical editor, Shane Buettner. Shane, a man with the patience of a saint, spent nearly an hour with me on the phone talking me through a semi-technical description of how to adjust the set. Semi-technical because I had none of the basic tools needed to do the job — except one.

I had just purchased the latest Star Wars DVD. When I put it in the player and got to the main menu, Shane told me to find the THX logo on the screen and click on it. Lo and behold, doing so reveals a series of THX audio and video set-up screens for adjusting a TV. Shane stayed with me step-by-step until the Gateway was transformed into something a lot better than it has started with.

The first THX video test is for adjusting contrast. You’re supposed to play with the TV’s controls until you see eight separate gray-scale boxes. I was only able to see one box no matter what I adjusted on the Gateway. Luckily, Shane helped me adjust the screen to the point where white began turning to gray, and that’s where we left it. Not perfect, but better than nothing.

Shane also suggested I purchase a copy of Sound & Vision Magazine’s Home Theater Tune-up DVD. With a slew of audio and video tests inside, including a color adjustment test for which you have to wear a pair of colored glasses (included), I recommend you too take Shane’s advice and shell out the $20 for it. It’s a good investment for your $3,000 TV.

I also had a small but annoying audio problem: The audio from the TV’s built-in speakers dropped out in spots when I turned the volume up or down, making it difficult to get the exact right volume level. This problem disappears if you turn off the built-in speakers and listen through the speakers of your home entertainment audio system.

HIGH DEFINITION My local cable company just started rolling out HDTV. It’s the same digital cable box, except for the component video outputs provided. Time Warner Cable of New York installed two boxes in my house last week and my eyes have been glued to the screen ever since.

Watching a 1080i HDTV signal — even through an almost-HDTV set — is an amazing experience. First of all, most prime-time offerings from HBO, Showtime and CBS are broadcast in 16:9, wide-screen, super-sharp formats. Add to that a number of shows on NBC and ABC plus the PBS travelogue HDTV demonstration channel and you start to understand why these new TVs will be the “next big thing” for your living rooms.

Gateway’s TV is not perfect, but it’s pretty good. It’s certainly much better than anything else I’ve seen in my home (although I’d love to see a less complicated remote).

I’ve been testing this set for a few weeks now and it’s only after a few adjustment sessions that I’ve begun to really appreciate it. HDTV and progressive-scan DVD video as seen through this plasma TV look fantastic. Actually, the composite and S-video quality is pretty good too.

Yes, there are higher-resolution plasmas on the market, but they’re all more expensive. Thousands of dollars more expensive. (There’s even one very similar plasma TV on the market that sells for nearly double the price of Gateway.

Personally, I still don’t know what do to about actually buying a plasma TV like the Gateway. I love the idea of getting rid of the old rear-projection box, mounting this high-tech device on my wall and reclaiming all the wasted space in the living room. On the other hand, there are some rear-projection designs which are similarly priced and offer true 720p/1080i HDTV.

On the whole, the Gateway is a fine TV and well worth the $2,999 base price (plus shipping/delivery), especially if you value your floor space. If you’re not technically inclined I suggest you splurge for an expert to hook everything up and adjust your set to industry standards. It will make a huge difference.