Philips 50PFL7956T Cinema 21:9 Gold review

4.5 out of 5
£1999

For

Decent 2D picture quality, great handling of non-HD video, superb movie-watching experience

Against

3D could be better, IPTV not as good as some other brands

It’s nearly three years down the line and Philips is still the only major TV manufacturer selling panels as the cinema intended. The original Philips Cinema 21:9 was a hit, if a rather pricey one. The second added 3D and won itself Best TV at the Pocket-lint Gadget Awards 2010. And the third, in the shape of the 21:9 Platinum, with still the same £4k tag, added LED backlighting to bring it up-to-the-minute in terms of display technology. Now the Royal Dutch has done something nearly unthinkable with the fourth iteration - it’s made it nearly affordable.

The Philips Cinema 21:9 Gold comes in at £1,999, it’s a touch smaller at 50- rather than 58-inches and it takes a couple of tech hits here and there with the most important probably the drop from full LED backlighting to edge LED. But then this shouldn’t be too surprising when you’re cutting the price in half. So, does this make the latest 21:9 TV from Philips something more serious for the average consumer to consider or is the fact that no one else is still doing screens this shape proof that it’s all a gimmick?

Design

It’s no accident that the 21:9 Gold is a 50-inch TV. With average household screen sizes creeping up into the 40s in the last year or two, this set from Philips actually looks fairly normal in your living room compared to the earlier versions. Throw in the fact that it’s not as tall as a normal set and you’ll find that it ends up looking a lot more subtle than a huge black slab of a 16:9 aspect, 46-inch TV might look. As a matter of fact, it’s quite beautiful.

The 21:9 Gold isn’t razor thin like some of the LG sets out there but, at 32mm, it’s half the thickness of the 21:9 Platinum and, combined with the rather attractive brushed aluminium frame around it’s border, it comes across very sleek and streamlined indeed. It adds style to your room. So long as you’re room isn’t full of Louis XIV furniture or themed on a hunting lodge in the Kruger National Park, then you’ll probably find that it’s a style that works.

As for the connections, it’s a bit frustrating that they’re all on one end of the TV when it’s as wide as it is - something which grated for us with our Xbox, plug sockets and aerial cables all located on the other side - but there’s certainly plenty of choice with 4 x HDMI ports, 2 x USB slots and an SD card hole along with SCART, VGA, Ethernet and all the other usual suspects. Altogether it means you can play any digital file you like, connect anything you care to and even enjoy Wi-Fi and DLNA as well.

If you’re wall-mounting, which is actually what this TV is really designed for, then you’ve got one of the HDMIs, both USBs and the SD card interface on the side of the set rather than the back. There are a collection of touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom front side of the frame but nothing stays lit up for long enough to spoil the cinema effect once the lights are down and your popcorn’s a-crunch.

Online

The Philps IPTV platform, NetTV, isn’t as rich as you’ll find on the likes Samsung and Sony's televisions, but the most important players are present and correct. As well as the channels that you’ll never really get around to trying out, there’s iPlayer, YouTube, Facebook and Picasa. We can’t say we spent much time with the latter two - although you can plug in a USB keyboard if you really want to go down that route - but it all certainly works fine.

BBC iPlayer is easily the best of the bunch with the interface designed in such a way that there’s no real need for much typing, and the in-program controls are all very obvious. The only issue we had is that it had a tendency to drop out of what you were watching and back to the menu if the connection slowed for too long. It might be down to the buffer size or the tolerance the TV has before it quits but, either way, it’s going to lead to the odd scream and broken incidental at some point down the line.

YouTube is altogether more tricky to navigate with a lot of reliance on laborious button tapping with the remote control, only to accidentally press the wrong thing once you’re in the video you’re after, cancel everything and have to go back and do it all again. There’s definitely work to be down there to get the UI right here.

All the same, the NetTV niggles are completely forgiven by the superb way in which the screen itself handles the digital video streams - particularly those of poor quality. The HD content on iPlayer is as good as you’d expect but both the SD videos and even the low res, low bit-rate YouTube clips work incredibly well. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the standard definition BBC programs for HD and the YouTube clips look, well, how can we put it, not rubbish. And that’s a serious achievement even before you have a go at switching on the MPEG noise filtering technology which, as it turns out, you barely need.

2D picture quality

The real proof of this TV is in its ability to show you HD films and be prepared to turn into an aspect ratio bore, as you spend all of your time flipping over Blu-ray covers looking for the magic numbers 2.39:1. Fortunately, this is how the majority of movies seem to come and your snobbery in looking for it is well justified once you get them on the Philips 21:9 Gold.

Obviously, do remember that this is a Philips TV and they are going to make you work for it but switch off the likes of Perfect Natural Motion and tone down some of the contrast and you’ll find the high definition pictures from a good Blu-ray film a real treat. We watched Gran Torino, The Valley of Elah and 10 minutes of The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford before Mrs Pocket-lint decided that she couldn’t handle a three-hour epic about cowboys, and we were very pleased with the results.

The natural state of the HD on the Cinema picture setting is not that sharp, which was actually preferable to viewing footage that looks too real to be filmic. All the same, the fact that you’ve got eight or so of these presets to play with - as well as a custom mode - was very useful indeed, particularly as the TV will remember which you like for each different input.

If you had to whinge, which we do because that’s our job, the black detail levels are not as clear as you might like. It’s always tricky to tell when you’re having to judge in the face of what the director intended but over the course of the three films - plus those we watched in 3D - we got the impression that there were details in the shadows that we should’ve been picking up.

It’s also at this point that we’d like to address the inevitable normal aspect viewing issue. Let’s get one thing straight, if you’re going to mostly be watching non-21:9 content, then this TV isn’t for you. Sure, you can have a mostly black panel and watch within a 4:3 or 16:9 box but it’s not very nice. Your best bet is to use Philips’s version of pan and scan or auto-fit or whatever you like to call it. In this instance, it’s known an Auto Fill and, on the whole, it does a pretty decent job of guessing the right size image that you’re trying to look at.

On the plus side, the stretch and crop job that it does on 16:9 transmissions is about as good as it could be. People’s heads actually look the right shape, which is generally the thing you notice most of all, with the degree to which the picture is pulled dependent upon how close to the centre of the panel it is thanks to the Smart Screen technology involved. You aren’t going to get the whole scene like this - flick back and forth to the black bars version and you’ll notice what you’re missing - but the bottom line is that it’s passable given the circumstances.

3D image quality

One of the other cost cuttings on the Gold vs the Platinum is that you get passive 3D instead of active. What that means for you on the downside is that you’re not getting a true 3D HD picture with the image only created with half the resolution. The positive end of the equation though is that it makes the glasses more comfortable to wear and infinitely cheaper. Given the current crop of 3D Blu-rays available and the fact that we don’t really feel that Hollywood has got the hang of shooting 3D properly yet, it’s really no big loss, although the purist would be justified in taking exception.

For our tests we watched Clash of the Titans, Legend of the Guardians and the most recently made of the Parallel Lines short films from Ridley Scott Associates. The best test of the lot was the last of three with its genuine, live action, made-for-3D values. The more CGI and cartoon looks of the first two films were perfectly good.

There was no blurring and all that you would complain about was down to the speed of some of the close up action which is more the mistake of the filmmaker than anything else. What the short film showed was a touch hazier in moments. It was perfectly watchable but the lack of resolution came through. For the time being, you can count live action, non-visual effects heavy 3D Blu-rays on the right hand of an Antarctic explorer but, a few years down the line, going passive might be a decision you regret.

What we were pleased to witness was no cross-talk issues at all, even when the 3D was set to maximum depth.

Extras

Among all the usual features, such as recording to USB and upscaling to both HD and 3D, are two well worth a mention. The first is the two-player game mode which turns side-by-side racing into a whole screen experience for each player by using the 3D technology.

A second set of optional glasses, available for £30 per pair, show either just the pixels intended for the right eye, or, just the pixels intended for the left eye, depending on which set of glasses you're wearing. The upshot is that you get an SD version of the action but with enough space to play the game properly across the entire screen.

The interesting side effect is that you have to start using the radar and your rear mirrors - if either are available in your racing game - to tell where your opponent is. It certainly adds a twist to two-play action. You do lose a touch of in-game sharpness but we found it was easily outweighed by the added enjoyment it brought.

The other extra we could really see ourselves getting into is multi-view where you can open up a second smaller window on the right hand side of the screen to the main one which is shifted to the left. Most normally, it seems designed for opening up the NetTV platform next to your video input so that you can browse the web, Facebook, Twitter or even start up a catch-up service but where we used it time and time again was to play games while somebody else watched TV.

It’s easy enough to set up, if not entirely obvious at first, and switching between which input you wish to have the lion’s share was also a nice touch. Obviously, this kind of thing isn’t unique to Philips but the reason it worked so well was because of the sheer width of the panel which actually leaves enough space for this kind of thing to work without feeling too squashed in.

Sound

Last of all is the sound which we’re only mentioning because it’s very good. To care enough about films to spend £2,000 on a TV and yet not buy any home cinema sound system with it is a touch odd, but if that’s what your plan is, then you’ll be pleased to note the 2 x 17W speakers in the set do a remarkably good job for a flat panel TV. Sure, it’s missing a true cinema booming bass but the stereo image is otherwise nicely balanced and very rich.

Verdict

The Philips 21:9 Gold is a superb TV which truly earned its place in the short list for Best TV 2011 in the Pocket-lint Gadget Awards. For the money, there’s simply no better way to watch high definition films. The full screen experience combined with the Philips Ambilight technology is just a real pleasure to behold. It sucks you in within seconds and turns even the dullest of movies into gripping blockbusters.

At the same time, we still wouldn’t encourage anyone to buy it as their one and only set unless you really don’t happen to watch TV at all. Even with Auto Fill, there’s a nagging feeling that you’re missing something. You’re probably not but, oddly enough, that’s not the point. You might not care when it’s Eastenders but if it’s your favourite HBO series you’ll want to drink up every pixel of the plot.

There are niggles here and there with the 21:9 Gold - with the 3D and with the IPTV platform - but it’s a real treat of a telly all the same. Life without it just seems so square.