The remote control is a universal model with only four glow-in-the-dark buttons, and its plain design doesn't seem up to that of the competitions' snazzy controllers. We did like the inclusion of a button that calls up a signal-strength meter for the HDTV tuner, however. The multitiered onscreen menu becomes an annoying labyrinth when trying to compare different settings. Zenith cobbled together a strange assortment of features for its flagship 34-inch set. The standout is a built-in HDTV tuner. You won't have to buy a separate tuner to receive locally broadcast, over-the-air HDTV, although naturally you'll still need another box for HDTV over satellite.
The C34W23 is ready for tomorrow's high-resolution video formats. It's so ready, in fact, that it converts all standard input signals--regular antenna, cable, satellite, and DVD--to 1080i HDTV resolution. Most other HDTVs convert regular signals to lower-resolution 480p (see the performance section for more details).
Anyone buying a 16:9 digital set will want to watch movies, but unfortunately the C34W23 omits an important process for displaying film-based sources: 3:2 pull-down, which helps eliminate artifacts created in the transfer of film to video. Most sets in this range also have a picture-in-picture function, but this one does not. We also would have appreciated the inclusion of more than one custom picture-memory slot to allow us to tweak the image for various sources.
The C34W23 offers Warm and Cool color temperatures, a 3D Y/C comb filter for cleaning up composite-video signals, and user-defeatable Velocity Scan Modulation--a nice plus. There are three selectable aspect-ratio modes: Normal, which places vertical bars to either side of the 4:3 image; Wide, for wide-screen material (it stretches the 4:3 image so that people look short and fat); and Zoom, for letterboxed 4:3 movies and TV shows. The last mode expands the image in every direction, cropping the top and bottom.
The strangeness continues on the jack pack. Of the two component-video inputs, one accepts only 480i signals, such as the output of a standard DVD player. The other takes only 1080i signals, as output by an HDTV receiver. Absent is a jack that accepts 480p, so forget about hooking up a progressive-scan DVD player. We also missed the inclusion of a DVI input for next-generation set-top HDTV receivers, but that's less of an issue because the C34W23 has one built in. You'll also find a pair of A/V inputs with S-Video, two RF inputs (one for an HDTV antenna), and a digital optical output to send the HD tuner's Dolby Digital bitstream to a receiver. In setting up the C34W23 for critical viewing, we first checked out the two color-temperature presets. Using test patterns and a Philips color analyzer, we noted the typical factory setup: Warm was less bright and pushed the color red, particularly in darker images. Cool was brighter and too blue. We chose Warm to do our viewing, and the grayscale tracked decently. After making our adjustment, we could see that the color decoder--which cannot be altered--was still oversaturating reds.
With everything set, we started with Insomnia for a skin-tone test. Sure enough, all the faces were too red for this film, which has a muted color palette. Detail was pretty good in the low-light restaurant scene, showing the fabric patterns in the men's sports coats.
We moved to Goldmember for a color test. This impeccable disc made the Zenith look good; seeing Number 2's (Robert Wagner) all-black clothing in the "evil lair" scene, we could discern the difference between the black in his silk suit, silk handkerchief, and cashmere sweater--even the striped pattern on his fancy eye patch. The golden and brown tones of Foxy Brown when we first met her looked very nicely delineated, and the bright patterns in the dancers' mod clothes were shown to good effect. However, to keep the shades of red from taking over, we had to back off the color setting a few clicks, which caused all the other colors to wash out slightly and lose some of their pop--not what you want to see on this over-the-top disc.
Checking 3:2 pull-down with the opening scene of Star Trek: Insurrection, we saw that the edges of the temple buildings were crawling with processing artifacts that 3:2 pull-down would usually minimize. The line movement could also partly be due to the conversion to 1080i, but either way, difficult pans didn't look as clean as we've seen with sets that convert to 480p. This is probably our biggest complaint with the C34W23's performance.
Watching 1080i HDTV from Time Warner Cable, we noticed that the Zenith's image showed a great degree of sharpness and clarity. But relative to other HD sets we've seen, it lacked that last bit of resolution. HDTV in 1080i is very crisp, which gives the illusion of great depth of field--as if you could see as far into the image as you wanted too. The slight softening of this Zenith display somewhat dissipates that 3D illusion.