Hewlett-Packard is not the first computer brand to try stealing a slice of the lucrative rear-projection HDTV market from heavy-hitters like Sony and Mitsubishi, but its rookie effort should strike fear into the hearts of the veterans. Despite coming out of left field, the MD6580n has a respectable pedigree: HP invented the technique used to achieve DLP's 1080p resolution, known as "wobulation", and the company brings long-respected expertise in color printers and PCs to the game. The result is an extremely well-thought-out HDTV that will appeal to shoppers more concerned with video quality and future-readiness than about brand cachet.
One big reason for its appeal is that, incredibly, the MD6580n is one of only a few mass-market 1080p sets that can actually accept a 1080p signal through its primary video inputs. (Others include HP's smaller, 58-inch 1080p set, and some Mitsubishi models will accept 1080p on their computer inputs.) A bit of perspective before you drop the magazine to rush out and buy one, though: 1080p content is exceedingly rare today and pretty much restricted to material that can only be played back from a PC. When native (in other words, not upconverted) 1080p sources do appear, they'll likely be in next-generation DVD players or videogame consoles and not TV broadcasts. Still, if I were plopping down a few grand for a new HDTV, the ability to accept future 1080p sources would be a big plus.
HP didn't mess around with its first big screen - it's a huge presence even when turned off. It just seems to absorb light - almost every inch of its surface is matte black, and the 65-inch screen reflects back very little light. A 1/8-inch strip of silver that runs the width of the face below the screen, a tiny silver HP logo, and a nondefeatable status light provide the only accents. The optional stand ($700, see photo) has distinctive rounded corners that match the television's top.
I liked the friendly remote. It fit easily in my hand and placed most keys, including a big beige cursor control that can access every function via onscreen menus, within thumb-reach. My only complaint is that its lack of illumination may confound unfamiliar users in the dark. HP plans to add backlighting later on.
SETUP HP designed the MD6580n so you'd never have to go 'round back. The front panel has a full-width bottom-hinged door below the screen that swings open to reveal the lamp-replacement compartment (lamp life is rated at 6,000 hours, and replacements cost $300) as well as the TV's full complement of inputs and outputs. And I mean full - there are no jacks on the rear of the set. The illuminated, color-coded input bay leaves plenty of room to insert connectors and manage A/V cables - they can be sent straight down or through a wide channel under the chassis. Imagine being able to add new sources without having to muscle the TV or squeeze behind it. This easy-access panel is hands-down one of the coolest improvements I've seen on any recent TV.
I came across another notable feature while exploring the well-designed menu system: Visual Select, which summons a grid showing video thumbnails of up to ten active sources. You use the arrow keys on the remote to navigate to the input you want to select. Though it worked fine with a couple of sources, when I loaded up the inputs, it completely froze my early production review sample - I had to unplug it and power up again to unfreeze it. HP says it will have fixed this bug before the TV hits the market.
The set also failed to play nice with the digital video output on our Scientific Atlanta 8300HD cable box. Despite the HP's being copyright compliant, the box didn't see it as such, shut down its HDMI output, and issued an onscreen error message. We've encountered this now on several HDTVs when using different samples of the 8300HD in different locales, and it appears to be an issue either with the box or with local cable providers.
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