Competition in the computer business has heated up over the past few years, with companies slashing prices to the bone in order to move product. You can now get a PC with a speedy processor and huge hard drive for only $399, and they'll undoubtedly cost less than that by this time next year. What's a forward-thinking computer company to do? If you're Gateway, you add home theater to the mix, using your existing chain of stores to give Circuit City and Best Buy a run for their money. You also launch the enterprise with a deal that's guaranteed to turn heads: a 42-inch flat-panel TV for $2,999.
The lowest-priced plasma set on the market, Gateway's GTW-P42M102 is a widescreen model with 852 x 480-pixel resolution. That's a perfect match for widescreen DVDs, but it comes up short for high-definition TV (HDTV) images, which have to be scaled down for viewing on the set's enhanced-definition display. With a silver case and a thin black border framing its screen, the Gateway's sleek look will appeal to James Bond wannabes. The TV includes a pair of sturdy plastic feet for table placement, but you can order an optional $199 bracket to hang it on a wall and complete the 007 effect (Gateway will install it for an additional $150).
An unobtrusive group of controls located on the front panel includes buttons to adjust volume, navigate menus, and switch inputs. There's no front- or side-panel convenience input for temporary camcorder or game-console hookups, but a wide assortment of jacks around back almost makes up for that omission. Options include two sets of wideband component-video inputs, a VGA-style 15-pin RGB input, and a DVI (Digital Visual Interface) jack for hooking up a computer (new HDTV satellite receivers with copy-protected DVI outputs aren't supported). There's also an antenna input for the built-in TV tuner-a relatively rare find on a plasma display. The TV offers only basic audio reproduction via a couple of small built-in speakers. The sound quality is tinny and weak, so I'd suggest using the speakers only as a last resort.
I found the Gateway's bulky remote control uncomfortable to hold but liked the keypad layout, which concentrates basic control buttons at the top and hides the rest under a sliding door at the bottom. The keypad isn't backlit, but a row of direct-access buttons makes it easy to switch inputs. You toggle through the set's display modes by pressing the Wide button on the remote. In addition to a widescreen 16:9 mode and a 4:3 mode that displays standard images at center screen flanked by gray bars, there are two stretch and three zoom modes. Two of the zoom modes are customized to fill up the screen and eliminate black bars when you're watching programs with either a 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which covers the great majority of widescreen movies. Any of the display modes can be selected for both interlaced and progressive-scan signals, which means you won't ever have to contend with squished-looking heads and stretched-out bodies when you're watching nonwidescreen DVDs.
The Gateway offers a pretty wide range of setup options for tweaking its picture. Color-temperature settings include High, Medium, Low, and 6500D, with the latter two delivering a grayscale that closely matches the 6,500-K NTSC standard. There are no picture presets, but you can create and store custom settings for each of the TV's video or computer inputs-a useful feature.
Before I got down to the business of critically evaluating the Gateway's picture quality, I hooked it up to an antenna and kicked back to watch a broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight. Right out of the box, I thought that the Gateway delivered a level of image quality that most viewers would find acceptable: graphics were crisp, Peter Jennings's skin tones were natural, and the picture looked uniformly bright even at off-center viewing angles.
After making picture adjustments with Ovation Software's Avia DVD and selecting the set's Low color-temperature setting, I confirmed that even a videophile would find the set's grayscale and color rendition acceptable. In the opening aerial sequence of the Insomnia DVD, the deep green hue of the forest looked utterly natural. So did the skin tones of the actors' faces, which looked as good as I've seen on any properly calibrated cathode-ray-tube (CRT) TV.
Gateway recommends using a DVD player with a progressive-scan output. After sitting through a few discs with a nonprogressive player, I could see why. The set scales standard 480i (interlaced) signals to its native 480p (progressive) resolution, with 2:3 pulldown for film-based programs. (This feature compensates for frame-rate differences between video and film, ensuring that images look solid in shots with camera motion.) The Gateway's image held up well in static, brightly lit scenes from Insomnia. But when Al Pacino pursued a suspect into the dark interior of a cabin, contrast flattened out, swallowing shadow details and making everything look a washed-out shade of gray. And in a subsequent scene where Pacino gives chase through a foggy landscape, I could see both banding artifacts, which appear as striated patches of color, and ghost-like visual echoes trailing bodies as they darted back and forth through the mist.
Later on, I went back and played the same scenes with a progressive-scan player connected, and they looked much better. Colors were crisper and better defined, and the banding/ghosting problem all but disappeared. I still noted a loss of shadow detail in dark scenes, but that's an issue with plasma sets costing two or even three times as much as this one.
Animated movies like Ice Age looked very good on the Gateway. Colors were bright and clean, and there was no visible edge enhancement in scenes where computer-generated characters were set against a flat blue sky or a white sheet of snow. Even darker scenes, like one where a pair of hungry mountain lions stake out a human encampment, displayed some degree of shadow detail.
Although Gateway's plasma set doesn't have HDTV resolution, its VGA and component-video inputs can accept high-def signals from an outboard tuner. You can also use one of its component-video inputs to hook up a D-VHS VCR. The picture from a D-Theater tape of Terminator 2 looked sharp and clean, but it wasn't any better than I've seen from a progressive-scan DVD player. Bottom line: the Gateway is best suited for watching DVDs and standard TV programs.
Everybody, it seems, wants a plasma TV, and an increasingly long line of companies is lining up to sell them to us. The good news is that the competition is driving prices down, as evidenced by the $2,999 price tag of the Gateway GTW-P42M102. Could you spend more money on a different model that offers higher resolution? Absolutely. But if your goal is to get a decent-performing plasma set on the wall for about the same price you'd pay for a conventional HDTV, Gateway's deal looks almost too good to be true.
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