Over the past 2 years, new flat-panel LCD TVs with 1080p resolution have turned up in stores regularly, causing plasma-TV enthusiasts like me to wonder: Where are all the 1080p plasmas? A number of such sets have been announced, but the one I've been waiting for is the Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 50-inch 1080p plasma monitor. This beauty lists at 10 grand - substantial coin for a 50-inch set lacking a built-in tuner. But it doesn't just have the highest pixel count yet available in a 50-inch plasma TV, said to be an achievement given the small size and proximity of the pixels. It also offers a handful of superb video enhancements, including 10-bit digital video processing, Pioneer's deep-encased pixel structure (to reduce light leakage between adjacent cells), and a crystal emissive layer (which improves contrast by allowing the phosphors to discharge light more efficiently).
The PRO-FHD1 has the same minimalist, gloss-black look as other gear in the Pioneer Elite line. A dark-tinted acrylic panel bordering the entire screen lends it a "floating" appearance and also helps boost perceived contrast by offsetting the picture. Pioneer tosses in a sturdy, well-balanced plastic table stand (the company's optional PWM-F110 wall mount will run you $199).
Other than the gold Pioneer and Elite logos, the TV's front is free of buttons and other visual distractions, but there's a complete set of controls on its side panel in case you misplace the remote. Input connections on the back include two HDMI jacks and a DVI port (all three accept up to 1080p-resolution HDTV signals), plus five bayonet-type connectors that let you plug in either component-video cables or an RGB source such as a computer. Each input also has a set of stereo RCA audio connectors, just in case you need them.
Full 1080p resolution aside, it was the remote control that really grabbed my attention. The thin yet substantial wand has an amazingly clean, uncluttered layout; it was so easy to find buttons that I didn't even mind that its keypad wasn't backlit. A navigation-control pad is dead center, alongside buttons to enter and exit menus. Six dedicated buttons at the top let you quickly switch sources, and adjacent are the important controls for toggling picture and display modes (aspect ratios).
The Pioneer provides an unusually long list of display modes, most of which work with both standard and high-def signals. Along with a handful of stretch and zoom options, they include 4:3, for watching standard-shape pictures with gray bars on the sides; Full, for widescreen 16:9 DVDs and HDTV; and Dot-by-Dot, a special mode that functions only with native 1080i- or 1080p HDTV signals and lets you bypass the TV's internal scaler. At first I didn't see much difference between it and Full, but test patterns revealed a slightly sharper, cleaner picture in Dot-by-Dot.
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