Pioneer Elite PRO-940HD Plasma HDTV & HP MediaSmart SLC3760N LCD HDTV Review

Who says you can't stream HDTV?

As more consumers embrace high-speed home networking and video downloads, one question is gaining prominence: Can't we view this content on something a little more substantial than our computer monitors? Yes, you can, thanks to the digital media receiver, which is a device that lets you stream video, photo, and music files from your computer to your television.
The digital media receiver comes in many forms. Companies like D-Link, Hauppauge, and Acoustic Research sell standalone boxes that connect directly to your TV. Other manufacturers incorporate the functionality into an A/V source component, like the TiVo Series 2 DVR, the GoVideo networked DVD player, and the Xbox 360 gaming console. No matter its shape, the media receiver talks to your PC over a wired or wireless home network, allowing access to some combination of media files.

These devices accomplish the desired goal, but, like adding a full HTPC, they force you to add yet another box and remote control to your entertainment system—or at least mandate the use of specific source components in order to enjoy the technology. A couple of display manufacturers have realized that they can eliminate the middleman and build the function right into the TV. Admittedly, this solution is only viable for someone who's in the market for a new TV, but it's a compelling option nonetheless. I tried out two "media-friendly" HDTVs: Hewlett-Packard's MediaSmart SLC3760N 37-inch LCD ($1,700) and Pioneer's Elite PRO-940HD 42-inch plasma ($3,300).

Learning to Share
In terms of their media-sharing functions, these two TVs are more similar than different. Both are designed to work with PCs and media servers that support DLNA, UPnP, or Windows Media Connect. For this review, I mated the TVs with Niveus Media's new Rainier Media Center PC, so I focused on how to link the devices using Windows Media Connect, a PC software platform that works in conjunction with Windows Media Player to organize and stream files to remote devices. If you have Windows Media Player 10 or 11, chances are you already have Windows Media Connect on your PC. I did. However, if you don't, HP is kind enough to include a software disc with the TV, while Pioneer expects you to find and download it from the Microsoft Website.

Setting up each set's media function involves two steps. First, you must add the TV to your home network. Pioneer's media receiver is completely integrated into the plasma's chassis; its only visible features are an Ethernet port for connecting to your home network and a USB port, which lets you access media files directly from a USB drive if you don't have a home network. In contrast, HP has essentially affixed a media-player box to the TV's backside, which adds about 2 inches of depth and requires three extra cables to link the two: HDMI for A/V signals, a control cable, and a power cable. While the Pioneer only connects to your network via Ethernet, HP lets you choose between wired and wireless (802.11a/b/g) setup. If you want to go wireless, you also need to screw on two antennas that look like gloriously nostalgic rabbit ears peaking up from behind the TV. It took several attempts before I successfully added the HP to my wireless network, even when I turned off the security, but this could have just been an issue with my network.
The second step is to enable file sharing on your PC. Once you have added the TV to your network, its name should appear on the Windows Media Connect Device page. Simply click on it, allow sharing, and set the folders you want to share. My Pictures, My Videos, and My Music are the default options, but you can add other folders—like, say, your iTunes music folder. Obviously, protected music and video files downloaded from the iTunes Store aren't compatible with this Windows-based system, but, hey, we're used to that by now. Microsoft DRM files should play. Since I used a Media Center PC, I also added its Recorded TV folder in order to stream standard- and high-definition content to the TVs.

Yes, I did say "high definition." Probably the coolest application of this technology is the ability to stream high-definition content for viewing on your new HDTV. Over a wired connection, both TVs cleanly rendered recorded over-the-air HDTV programs and a couple of WMV HD trailers. If you want to view a lot of HD video, I don't recommend you go wireless with the HP; HD playback was very choppy over my 802.11g network, but SD video played back fine. For some reason, the HP wouldn't play any of the music files that came preloaded on my Niveus Media but worked fine with music I loaded myself, while the Pioneer played every file without issue.

I preferred the layout and appearance of Pioneer's media menu, but I found the HP system more intuitive to navigate and use, due primarily to the remote. The media function seems more like an afterthought for Pioneer. Their remote lacks a dedicated button to access the media menu and hides transport controls under a flip-down panel at the bottom; plus, the track-up/-down buttons don't work within this menu. HP treats the media function as the marquee feature, grouping all of the needed access and control buttons in a logical way. They also up the ante by adding a Services menu through which you can access certain online media portals—like CinemaNow, Snapfish, and Live365.com—directly.

Lest We Forget. . .
The media functions are certainly intriguing, but they mean little if the TVs fall short in the video department. Luckily, that isn't the case. Both displays receive solid marks in the major performance categories, although there are some drawbacks inherent in their respective technologies. The HP's 1,366-by-768 resolution gives it an edge in the detail department; it's capable of rendering razor-sharp images, but it also suffers from some motion blurring, which lessens the impact of that detail in fast-moving scenes. The Pioneer's 1,024-by-768 resolution creates a slightly softer image. But I never felt I was missing anything with DVD or HD sources, and details remained intact during faster-moving scenes.

Like many plasmas, the Pioneer's green color point is way off, which gives the image a bluish-green tint. The HP's color points are quite good; its green is also off the mark, but less so than the Pioneer's. As for color temperature, both TVs exhibit a large spike at the lowest IRE levels, causing dark scenes to take on a blue tint, but this evens out with brighter images. Skintones looked natural, with no red push. You can calibrate the Pioneer to measure very close to 6,500 Kelvin across the range; we could not calibrate the HP, but I doubt we would have been able to fix the spike and subsequent dip at the darker IRE points.

Both TVs offer film modes that enable them to pick up the 3:2 sequence in 480i sources pretty quickly, resulting in only minor shimmer in my demo scene from Gladiator. The Pioneer has an adjustable scan rate; you can set it for 72 hertz, instead of 60 Hz, for slightly more natural motion. It also picks up 3:2 with 1080i sources, while the HP does not. Both deinterlace 1080i/30 correctly.

By numbers alone, the HP has a much higher contrast than the Pioneer, but this doesn't tell the whole story. Our measurements use a full-field white for light output, which can put plasmas at a disadvantage. When we measured the Pioneer with a white window, its contrast ratio was closer to 1,400:1. With real-world content, I never felt the Pioneer lacked image depth or dimension, although its light output is somewhat low, even compared with a few plasmas we've reviewed. Combine this with the glass' tendency to reflect light, and the PRO-940HD isn't the best choice for a bright room environment.

The HP, meanwhile, is capable of over 150 foot-lamberts, which is more than enough light output to watch it in a sunlit room. Thankfully, it also has an adjustable backlight so you can turn down the lamps' output when necessary. While the HP is capable of a better black level than the plasma at its minimum backlight setting, black detail was not very good in my test scenes from Ladder 49 and The Bourne Supremacy. Plus, the viewing angle is a concern; move just 45 degrees off axis, and the black level rises while image saturation drops off noticeably. These two factors hurt the HP's performance in a dark room with darker film sources. The Pioneer has good black detail and a solid black level that remains consistent at any angle, making it a better fit for a theater environment. You might notice that I've essentially just summed up the differences between plasma and LCD.

If you're trying to decide which of these media TVs to buy, it really comes down to usage, taste, and budget. The $1,700 HP renders a videolike picture, with razor-sharp images that are clean and vibrant but lack depth. Its connections and features are modest at best: one HDMI input, no VGA connection, no program guide, and no automatic aspect-ratio detection. The Pioneer's image is more filmlike, with a richer, more textured, and generally more natural quality that I really enjoyed, especially since I watch TV mostly at night. Part of the Elite line, the $3,300 PRO-940HD has a healthy list of connections and features, including two HDMI and three component video inputs, two RF inputs for the internal tuners, a CableCARD slot, the TV Guide On Screen program guide, and a fair number of picture controls. Compared with last year's PRO-930HD, this model exhibits less phosphor lag and short-term image retention, which is important if you plan to leave the media menu on the screen for long periods of time. Both TVs are priced at the high end respective to their screen sizes.

With all that in mind, I primarily view the Pioneer PRO-940HD as a theater-based media TV, one that sits in the center in your home theater system and receives streaming media from the various PCs around your home. HP's SLC3760N, on the other hand, is a great fit for a secondary room as a device that taps into your main Media Center PC and lets you stream all that great content as seamlessly and invisibly as possible.

Pioneer Elite PRO-940HD Plasma HDTV:
• Stream media from your computer
• Media receiver built into chassis

HP MediaSmart SLC3760N LCD HDTV:
• Stream media from your computer
• Media function is HP's priority
Article Continues: At A Glance: Pioneer »

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