(Photos by Tony Cordoza)
Sometimes just watching TV isn't enough. There I am, sunk deep into the couch, remote in hand, when a Happy Days episode comes on. Suddenly, I'm seized by a fierce desire to know as many details as possible about Pat Morita, the actor who plays Arnold, owner of the drive-in restaurant where Potsy and his posse hang out. Of course, there's only one place to quickly gather such information-the Web. But my computer's in a different room, and the next commercial is about five minutes away. What can I do? Yikes!!
With RCA's HD61W140 rear-projection HDTV parked in your living room, you'll never have to suffer through this kind of nightmare scenario. It can be linked to your broadband DSL or cable-modem connection for instantaneous Web browsing, either in a reduced-size window alongside the video image or full screen during commercials. RCA even offers an optional keyboard to make the Web interface smoother.
The other HDTVs in the company's new high-end Scenium line have the same Web feature, and all have a built-in tuner for pulling in off-air digital broadcasts and the Guide Plus+ onscreen program guide. The free Guide Plus+ service may seem redundant if you subscribe to digital cable or satellite, but since it allows for one-touch recording on a VCR and its listings include both digital and analog broadcast channels, I think the feature's pretty cool.
The slick styling of the new RCA Scenium sets is a far cry from the company's older models. The HD61W140's black-framed, 61-inch (diagonal) screen is covered by a glassy shield and appears to float above its silver cabinet. Like other sets that break with the boxy design tradition for rear-projection TVs, the Scenium's slim top can't easily accommodate a center speaker.
Only a few controls are on the TV's shiny front panel. Besides a green-glowing power button, there are keys to navigate menus, select channels, and adjust volume. A flip-up door hides composite/S-video and stereo audio jacks for your camcorder or game system, and there's also a headphone jack for late-night movie watching.
On the back panel, along with a standard suite of A/V inputs and outputs and an Ethernet jack for Internet hookup, you'll notice a couple of connectors that are now starting to appear on HDTVs, including DVI (Digital Visual Interface) and FireWire ports. DVI is a one-way connection that accepts an uncompressed digital video stream from a set-top satellite or cable receiver. FireWire-or DTV-Link, as RCA labels it, following Consumer Electronics Association terminology-can be used to route compressed digital video and audio and control data between various devices such as a digital satellite or cable receiver, a DVD recorder, a VCR, or camcorder.
Unfortunately, RCA's DTV-Link implementation allows data to flow only from an outboard component to the TV. If you have a D-VHS VCR, this means you won't be able to make digital recordings of HDTV broadcasts. RCA says the link is one-way because there were no firm copy-protection standards in place when the Scenium line was designed, but future models are likely to accommodate a two-way flow of data.
The HD61W140 provides an optical digital jack to route the Dolby Digital signal from digital TV broadcasts to your receiver, outputs for external stereo speakers, and a speaker-level center-channel input. Ordinarily I don't dwell on this capability, but I was surprised at how good this TV sounded. Its volume could be cranked loud, and the built-in subwoofer did a really great job of reproducing the low frequencies of the depth charges in the movie U-571.
Only a few buttons on the remote control are backlit, like those for volume and channel, but the rest are clearly differentiated by size and shape, so I didn't have much trouble finding them in the dark once I got used to the layout. You press the Format button to select one of the set's image modes, which include Stretch, Zoom, and Normal. (The Normal mode displays a standard 4:3 aspect ratio image in the center of the screen flanked by gray bars.) The Input button toggles through the many connection options-a tedious operation. But you can make things easier by selecting Auto Tuning from the setup menu. This lets you configure the five buttons at the top of the remote-VCR1, VCR2, DVD, SAT, and AUX-to trigger a specific input.
I'd strongly recommend placing the Scenium in a room where you have control over all light sources. Its nonremovable screen shield is highly reflective, so any light from a lamp or window will be visible onscreen. And the screen itself is prone to hotspotting. Whenever I moved away from the front viewing axis, brightness dropped off, so you'll want to sit as close to front and center as possible. The Scenium's auto-convergence feature automatically aligns its three CRTs, and there's also a one-point manual centering control for convergence touch-ups. As with most other auto-convergence systems I've used, it wasn't perfect-color fringing was still visible on both test patterns and programs with onscreen text after I completed the adjustment. Fortunately, the set's service-menu adjustments allowed me to dial in a crisp alignment, which improved picture quality (see "in the lab" for details).
Other service-menu adjustments also helped me bring both ends of the grayscale close to the 6,500-K NTSC standard, although the set's out-of-the-box performance here was quite respectable. After I chose its Warm color-temperature setting and made a few tweaks to the Personal Lighting preset, the skin tones of the baseball players in The Rookie looked natural, while the red dirt of the diamond and the green trees in the background had a rich, earthy glow. When my adjustments were finished, I could make out even more subtle details in the DVD image, such as the difference between Dennis Quaid's flesh-toned orange shirt and his slightly sunburned skin.
Since the Scenium lets you create and store custom picture adjustments for each of its video inputs, you can tweak settings for different sources, like a DVD player and a satellite receiver. Another of the TV's advantages is the ability to shut off scan-velocity modulation (SVM), which artificially boosts edge transitions in images. While SVM can make some analog TV broadcasts or VHS tapes look better, it should be turned off whenever possible for high-quality video sources like HDTV or a progressive-scan DVD player.
The Scenium did a great job of displaying dark DVD movies like Jason X, the latest installment of the long-running Friday the 13th franchise. In a scene where the stalking Jason is lured into a chamber and then cryogenically frozen, the image looked punchy, with good contrast, solid blacks, and a wide range of shadow detail. The 2:3 pulldown mode of the set's line doubler also ensured that images with diagonal lines and intricate patterns looked smooth and natural.
This feature is switched on automatically when a film-based program is detected and switched off with material that was originally shot on video-for example, news programs and some TV commercials. But the circuit tended to get confused and remain in video mode when I put in a DVD and skipped ahead to a specific chapter. Eventually it would click back into the right mode.
The set lacks aspect ratio control for progressive-scan signals. This can be an issue if your DVD player also omits that feature, because images on nonwidescreen discs will look stretched. HDTV programs looked very good on the Scenium. Watching a high-def tape of U-571 with a JVC D-VHS VCR connected to the TV's FireWire input, I saw loads of detail in closeup shots of rusty meters in the German U-boat and wider images of bubbles trailing the debris that the crew jettisons to trick their attackers. But I did have a few problems watching HDTV through the FireWire connection. After I switched to the correct input, the TV recognized the digital VCR, but I sometimes had to stop the tape, switch inputs again, or turn the deck off and on again before an image appeared.
RCA's 61-inch Scenium HDTV looks great, offers impressive image quality, and includes both a built-in digital tuner and Web browsing capability. My only real disappointment was that I couldn't make digital recordings of HDTV broadcasts using the set's DTV-Link jack. But if you're on the lookout for a stylish TV for watching DVDs and HDTV, the Scenium's big screen is sure to satisfy.