Philips Essence 42PES0001D television review

4 out of 5
£1800

For

Gorgeous remote control, terrific high-def pictures, slim screen, strap-on soundbar

Against

Clunky separate media box, ugly cabling, preset picture modes

It’s not often we at Pocket-lint can slide a 42-inch flatscreen TV from its box and into our test room using without breaking into a sweat, but the mere 16kg of Philips’ svelte screen still managed to make us perspire.

OK, so its slim 38mm depth makes this "Essence" LCD TV one of the slimmest around, but we spent far more time than usual setting-up. Its chief feature - and possible problem - is its use of a chunky separate media box.

Once the screen itself has been hung on a wall using the supplied bracket (although a desktop stand is also included) it does leave the problem of where to put the media box. About the size of a Sky set-top box, though deeper, it’s a hefty addition to any lounge or AV set-up. Other similarly priced screens from Sony and, soon, Panasonic, use the same concept but send video and audio to the screen completely wirelessly.

Here, the media box connects to the Essence using a proprietary two-pronged cable that takes all video, sound - and even power - to the screen itself. All the user has to do is connect all video sources (DVD, Blu-ray, Sky box, games, whatever) to the media receiver; as said, you don’t even have to plug the screen into a separate power socket.

The ivory-coloured cable itself is an unsightly and inflexible monstrosity when it should be sleek, slim and easy to hide. If that makes the Essence seem something of a white elephant when compared to, for example, Sony’s wireless KDL-40Z4500, remember that here the screen itself doesn’t need to be plugged into the mains, as it does on the Sony. And more importantly, the Essence boasts much better pictures.

Whatever you make of the concept, Essence comes with plenty of top technology that makes it worthy of an audition by anyone interested in slimline high-def.

The media box itself is relatively well connected, with three HDMI inputs and Component video dealing with HD. It’s also got an Ethernet port (for streaming photos, music and some WMV video from a PC - but not DivX), a Common Interface slot (for adding pay TV channels to its built-in Freeview TV tuner) and a USB connection, though the latter, strangely, is on the box’s rear, and well out of reach.

What we do like a lot is the Essence’s speaker bar. This sleek component comes in the box, but if you’ve already got a home cinema rig, there’s really no need to use it - just route all sound from the media box using its coaxial digital audio or analogue audio outputs. So there’s no doubling-up of separate speakers with those already built into most flat TVs.

For the rest of us, the speaker can be pinned to the bottom of the screen itself without ruining the aesthetic (and with no linking audio cable required).

And "the look" is all-important to the Essence, whose waif-like appearance is helped further by its lack of Ambilight, the signature Philips feature. No matter, because at the beating heart of the Essence, as on most of Philips’ impressive TVs of late, is a Perfect Pixel HD Engine. And here the picture processing tech works wonders, helping the Full HD 1080p resolution LCD screen excel with detail and sharpness, and features almost no picture noise.

Other tech called Perfect Natural Motion and 100Hz Clear LCD successfully banish any blur and help create a lot of depth to DVD and high-def pictures. The occasional shimmer around actors and moving games graphics aside, it’s a successful partnership. The contrast is reasonably good, too, though a lot of detail drains out of really gloomy pictures.

Where Perfect Natural Motion and 100Hz Clear LCD can’t help is on Freeview, which is left looking blocky, while the preset picture modes don’t help much on any source. Games mode, in particular, lends an overt brightness and colour over-saturation that leaves a feed from an Xbox 360 really quite unpleasant. It’s time brands expanded "game mode" to include settings for various genres; lumping together the contrasting content of, say, Halo 3, FIFA and Scene It is never going to work.

If picture presets can’t be relied on, it’s time to dive into the onscreen menus. Though Philips has tried hard to make picture adjustments a cinch, a trial and error process has to take place before near-perfection can be achieved - though we still prefer Philips’ slightly higher-end 42PFL9803H.

Verdict

Some decent audio emanating from the strap-on speaker bar is a highpoint of a TV that meets its brief, but could do better: a media receiver half the size and a cable that doesn’t resemble a hose-pipe would make the Essence concept more convincing, though its fine picture and sound qualities keep it firmly in the top league of LCD TVs.