Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
When Hitachi first announced the U.S. availability of its superslim monitors at CES last January, they were the slimmest flat-panel LCDs yet at 1.5 inches thick. That's still the case as far as we know. Sure, the panel of Sony's OLED-based XEL-1 is, as usual, an exception at 0.11 inch thick, but it requires a nondetachable base. It also requires you to pay $2,500 for an 11-inch screen. The Hitachi UT37X902 has a more useful 37-inch screen size and a slightly more manageable price, and you can actually remove the base to hang this supersleek set on the wall, where it will protrude no more than a picture frame. The UT37X902 also exhibits solid picture quality and hits all the feature buzzwords--1080p, 120Hz with dejudder--necessary on a high-end LCD. The bad news, aside from the Hitachi's high price, is unless you add an optional external AV Center, it only has two inputs: one HDMI and one PC. We tested the monitor with the input-laden AV Center and found the integration of the two less-than-seamless. However, if you're willing to put up with those issues and don't mind spending more for one of the coolest-looking HDTVs available, the UT37X902 deserves a long gander.
This is probably the sleekest LCD we've ever reviewed. We'll start with the headline-grabbing profile; yes, the panel measures just 1.6 inches thick at its widest point, which seems razor-thin when seen from the side, especially in person. Of course, most viewers will see this set from straight on, and its aspect from that perspective is pretty sharp, too. The frame on all four sides curves back to the edge, there's a chrome-colored accent strip below a speaker slit below the screen, and in a subtle touch that's only evident from up close, the frame is actually composed of smoky translucent material that will let the wall behind the monitor show through along the edges.
After the thin profile, the most noticeable design element is the base, which consists of a doughnut-like ring as opposed to the standard solid pedestal. Including stand, the Hitachi monitor measures 36.9 by 25.9 by 12.2 inches WHD; without it, the dimensions become 36.9 by 23.9 by, yes, 1.6 inches. (In case you're bothered by the disparity between the "1.5-inch thick" elevator pitch and the 1.6-inch dimension given here, we'll explain: the manual lists the official depth of the panel as 1 9/16 of an inch, which works out to 1.5625 inches. We always round to the nearest tenth, hence 1.6.)
Hitachi apparently couldn't pack all of the necessary extras--namely an HDTV tuner and a full complement of inputs--into that thin chassis. So the company offers the AVC08U Audio Video Center, a $300 option we consider nearly a necessity. It's a small box that connects to the television via HDMI and includes the bulk of the connections as well as the tuner itself.
While having an extra box is nice for installations where you want to hide your gear and have just one umbilical, the HDMI cable, connect to the monitor, Hitachi did a terrible job of integrating the two components. You have to actually turn both on separately--that's right, you must remember to turn on both the box and the remote every time, unless you want to keep the box on indefinitely (a waste of power--see below). Each has separate menu systems and control schemes as well. For example, if you're in monitor mode on the remote and want to switch inputs, the set will simply toggle between the HDMI and the RGB input of the monitor itself, rather than summon the AV Center's input selection.
We would expect Hitachi to take advantage of HDMI's built-in control protocols, known as HDMI CEC, to allow better integration between the two. In fact, with CEC you should be able to hide the box completely, away from the IR blast of the remote, and have the monitor pipe remote signals to the box for control. Alas, it doesn't work that way on the UT37X902.
Taken on its merits, we liked the big-buttoned remote for its backlighting behind every key, which helps make up for some of the similar shapes of the buttons. In addition to the standard array of codes to control up to four other devices (three if you include the AV Center), the clicker also has a learning function, which is rare among remotes included with TVs. No matter, though; anybody who wants to integrate the monitor and AV center seamlessly would do well to get a universal remote instead.
The feature set on the UT37X902 is solid if you include the AV Center; anemic if you don't. As we'd expect from a high-end LCD, the panel does have a native resolution of 1,920x1,080, or 1080p, although seeing the benefits of this resolution at a 37-inch screen size is almost impossible. Hitachi includes a 120Hz refresh rate complete with dejudder processing, the effects of which we'll cover in Performance.
Without the AV Center the UT37X902 itself is just a monitor--it lacks either an old NTSC tuner or a new digital ATSC tuner for over-the-air broadcasts. Both types of tuners are built into the Center, although the analog one will only be useful for most people until next February, when the DTV transition hits.
Quite a few picture controls are available on the UT37X902, beginning with three picture modes that can each be adjusted. Unfortunately, since the monitor itself has only one HDMI input (as opposed to the box, which has the rest), it cannot associate different picture settings with different inputs, so the box/monitor package as a whole lacks independent input memories. If you select any of the three HDMI inputs on the box, they each will have the same settings for each picture mode, which makes customizing the picture for different sources more difficult.
Advanced controls are plentiful, and include a custom color temperature adjustment with both gains and cuts, along with three types of noise reduction, a contrast mode best set to "Linear," and a few other items best left turned off. The AV Center itself adds a few other controls in a separate menu; of course we'd prefer these to be integrated into a single menu somehow.
More confusingly, both the AV Center and the monitor offer separate aspect ratio controls. The manual recommends setting the monitor to "Full 2" mode and using the box's aspect ratio selections, but if you forget to change the remote's mode to control the box, you'll switch aspect ratios on the monitor instead. Both box and monitor offer three aspect ratio choices with HD sources, and the one labeled "Real" on the box, when used in combination with Full 2 on the monitor, maps 1080i and 1080p sources perfectly to the display, with no overscan. We recommend using this setting unless you notice interference on the extreme edges of the screen. With standard-def sources you get six aspect ratio selections on the monitor and two on the box.
Conveniences are sparse on the UT37X902; there's no picture in picture or freeze-frame. The menu does offer a power-saving setting, but it only affects standby power. We didn't test this setting because the combined standby draw of the box and the monitor is less than 1 watt anyway. It's worth noting, however, that the AV Center alone draws 8 watts when the TV isn't turned on. The box is included in the overall power consumption we report below in the Juice Box.
Connectivity on the Hitachi panel itself consists of just one HDMI input along with an analog, VGA-style PC input. You can get a special adapter to turn that VGA input into a composite input, if you want, but no matter how you slice it, most people will want to buy the box for its extra connectivity--or at least spring for an HDMI switcher to add a few more HDMI inputs. When you connect the box to the monitor you monopolize the monitor's HDMI input.