Import Technology at a Domestic Price Tag
by Grant Clauser
Plasma TVs, the thin, flat TVs that can be hung on walls like picture frames, are about the coolest-looking high-tech home theater product to come along in years. But if you think they’re only available to the grossly wealthy, you’re wrong. Several manufacturers have progressed the technology far enough along to be able to price models at much less than the cost of a new Honda. Notable among those is Sampo, a Taiwan-based consumer electronics company. Well-known in its own hood, Sampo has recently begun exporting its high-tech lifestyle to the U.S.
The product we were lucky enough to get our hands on was the 42-inch PME-42V3 widescreen monitor that slides in at under $9,000. Framed in a smoky gray with a slim base, the 6-inch-deep monitor weights in at only 83 pounds, about 100 pounds lighter than a rear-projection CRT TV of the same size.
Plasma display monitors have gained a lot of popularity primarily due to their flexibility. Their thin size and lightweight construction allow for creative placement in the home or business. Wall mounting is popular with plasmas, but they look equally at home on a small table or custom-designed stand. Plasma is also application-flexible. Though home theaters are where most people make use of them, they also can be used as PC monitors for multimedia applications and presentations. And, of course, video games are great on a big screen. Plasmas are becoming very popular with TV stations. Virtually any newscaster, weather reporter or talk-show host can be seen with a plasma monitor behind his or her shoulder.
Plasma monitor technology is a far leap from traditional TVs. Instead of one large cathode ray beaming electrons on a phosphor screen, plasma monitors are covered with many small cells (in this case 852 x 480) which make up the pixels of an image. In each cell are gases which, when excited, light up red, green and blue phosphors. By varying the intensity of the gases behind the phosphors, different brightness and colors can be created. Because the glowing phosphor itself creates the light, no backlighting is required as in LCD displays. Also, they have a much wider viewing angle than rear projection TVs.
The Sampo PME-42V3 monitor includes a good assortment of connections for home and business uses. For video, there’s S-Video, composite and a set of component inputs (Y, Pb, Br) in the form of BNC connections. A three-jack component cable with RCA jacks on one end and BNC on the other is supplied, so you won’t have to hunt for a DVD player with BNC connections. Horizontal- and vertical-sync BNC jacks are also provided next to the component jacks in case you want to hook it up via RGB/HV. An RGB connection goes out to a PC. A USB port and an RS-232 verify that this display was designed with a computer in mind. Finally, a Digital Video Interface (DVI) connection is included, though I can’t think of much currently available to hook up there. The inclusion is interesting and may help to future-proof the monitor if DVI becomes accepted as the de facto standard of digital TV connection. Audio inputs for each video input power the built-in rear speakers. The speakers aren’t visible from the front, a nice touch since most people should opt to use their own speakers and A/V receiver anyway for better sound.
I connected the monitor to a progressive scan DVD player via a component connection with the supplied BNC adaptors. The first thing I did to get the monitor warmed up was run the opening sequence of Dinosaur a few times. Immediately I noticed that the picture had a more cartoon-like quality compared to the CRT-based displays I’m accustomed to viewing. Also, the image wiggled a bit from time to time in the beginning. The wiggle, thankfully, went away in just a few minutes once the monitor was warmed up. Once into the menu, I adjusted a few of the controls, namely the tint, contrast and color, to get it somewhat closer to what I wanted.
To get better results, I popped in Avia and Video Essentials DVDs to access the many video test patterns. With the component connection, the available menu controls included brightness, contrast, color, tint, sharpness and white balance. The white balance setting is deceiving as it actually indicates color temperature. The display also included a clock phase setting for adjusting the sampling rate of the image on the screen. This is an unusual control to find on a consumer display (or at least to find in the main user menu) and the included manual offered the user no suggestion of how to actually use it. I set the white balance control to 2 for the warm setting and went to work.
Setting black and white levels (brightness and contrast) was more difficult than with CRT displays. The display acted up while running the PLUGE pattern, showing multiple vertical lines (in addition to the two you are supposed to see). Switching back and forth between the contrast and brightness controls, I was able to bring it into balance.
Still, the blacks lack a lot of depth, and truly dark areas of movies tended to take on a blocky green appearance. With a claimed contrast of only 580:1, this monitor simply couldn’t show a truly black black. This is more a fault of the technology then this particular product. While some plasma displays from Runco, Pioneer and Panasonic boast better contrast ratios and better blacks, they also cost between $5,000 and $10,000 more.
While I couldn’t get some of the test patterns to look quite perfect, I came close enough to want to switch back to movie material and look at the results. When I popped Dinosaur back in and watched the opening sequence again, I was pleasantly surprised. My work had paid off better than I’d expected. The colors, blacks and detail had greatly improved. The dinosaur skin took on more texture, and the surrounding landscape ceased to look cartoonish. I never was completely satisfied with green hues, as I couldn’t find a perfect balance between over and under saturated. Large dark patches, such as shadows, would exhibit blocky areas. Detail, with the sharpness setting set to Sharp (as opposed to the Soft setting) looked quite good, particularly evident in the hair and faces of the lemurs. Overall, it was a pleasing, though not videophile-perfect, picture.
Figuring I should move to a more traditional movie, I placed Star Trek: Insurrection on the DVD tray. My assessment with this film was basically the same. Detail was strong, most colors were accurate, but dark areas could have been improved. Green vertical lines appeared during one space chase, but I was able to correct that by going into the contrast and brightness controls.
I also connected the Sampo to a Samsung high definition tuner. Because this monitor has a maximum resolution of 480 progressive lines, I selected the 480p output on the Samsung tuner so the monitor wouldn’t have to do any of the downconverting. The result was very detailed, very vivid, digital television.
Finally, as this monitor is fully a PC monitor as well as a TV monitor, I hooked it up to a Compaq PC through the 15-pin RGB connection and ran some programs on it. All performed well.
Nonprogressive-scan sources, such as satellite TV, VCR and a standard interlaced DVD player, didn’t look as good as the progressive scan player on this display. The monitor does not have a line doubler to improve these video signals. Some of the issues, such as the pixelization and blockiness of some images would be greatly helped with the addition of a video processor.
Plasma display monitors definitely have some advantages over rear projection CRT TVs. Plasmas are generally brighter and have a wider viewing angle. Even with the brightness set fairly low, this TV was bright enough to watch in a windowed room in the middle of the day, or with bright room lights on. Unlike projection CRTs and LCDs, you don’t have to sit directly in front of this monitor in order to see it properly. Also, of course, plasmas are light and versatile.
While this Sampo may not measure up to the strictest home theater standards, it performs well enough for many uses. Movies look good, PC presentations look impressive and you can stick this monitor just about anywhere. You’ll be hard-pressed to find this technology at this price, especially since street price is closer to $6,000. If you’re looking for a TV that will wow the neighbors and let you do PowerPoint on the wall, then this plasma monitor will hit the mark.
September 1, 2001
Sections: Home Theater
Import Technology at a Domestic Price Tag