Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.Here's one rear-projection TV men won't be ashamed to take home to their wives. The handsome HLN617W, with a thin, 1-inch black frame surrounding a huge black screen, is about as compact as you can expect a 61-inch rear-projection televison to be. A set of buttons, including ones for menu access, hides along the right side next to a set of A/V and S-Video inputs.
Below the screen is the silver base, which conceals the speakers. It's quite short, so overall, the HLN617W stands only 40.2 inches high. You'll probably want to set it atop a low stand or bench if you're watching from a couch. For example, Samsung's own futuristic TR61L2S stand (listed at $699) is 17 inches tall. Although newer 60-something-inch CRT-based RPTVs have slimmed down, they're still 7 or 8 inches deeper than this Samsung's 19.3 inches. The television weighs 102 pounds--it's roughly 50 percent lighter than a comparable CRT-based set--so it was easy to lift onto a stand.
The remote control is the same medium-sized, nonbacklit, light-gray wand the company has been shipping for the past two years. We found it comfortable and easy to navigate, especially compared with some of the big, button-heavy versions you get with most full-featured TVs. It controls up to three other A/V devices. At the heart of this Samsung is Texas Instruments' HD2 DLP chip, which has a native resolution of 1,280x720 pixels, the exact resolution of 720p high-definition TV (HDTV). And this set can accept and display ABC's HD programs with minimal processing, whereas most HDTVs cannot accept 720p signals at all. Along with 1080i HDTV and 480p progressive-scan DVD, all other video and TV sources are converted to fit the chip's resolution. Naturally, you'll need to use an external HDTV tuner, such as Samsung's SIR-T165, to watch HDTV programs.
All that processing calls for a good processor, so Samsung chose a Genesis chipset including Faroudja's DCDi and 3:2 pull-down. Samsung's own proprietary DNIe processing is said to clean up noise and improve image detail. Fine-tuners will dig the TV's ability to remember each input's picture settings--contrast, brightness, and so on--separately.
The picture-in-picture feature gives you four viewing choices, including two with same-sized side-by-side windows. It works fine with standard sources, but you can't display 480p, HDTV, or computer images in the second window. We were a little disappointed with the aspect-ratio control options, which mandate how different-sized images are fit to the wide screen. Along with Normal (4:3) and Wide (16:9), there's Panorama, which stretches the sides of an image but leaves the center intact, and two Zoom settings that crop the top and the bottom. The problem is that none of the final three works with 480p or HDTV sources, so it's impossible to correctly size a nonanamorphic letterbox DVD, at least if you're using a progressive-scan DVD player.
The HLN617W's jack pack, on the other hand, is among the best we've seen. It includes two component-video inputs that take 480p, 720p, and 1080i sources and a third for 480i and 480p. The DVI input has HDCP copy protection, so it can connect to next-generation HDTV receivers and high-end computer video cards. A standard VGA-style computer input is also on tap (it accepts a resolution of up to 1,024x768 pixels at 75Hz, if you're counting). A pair of A/V inputs with S-Video, two antenna inputs, one antenna output, and an A/V monitor output round out the rear panel. It took an unusual amount of patient adjusting to get Samsung's finicky filly to perform at its best, but afterward the picture looked quite good. Compared with a similarly sized CRT TV, the HLN617W produced a much brighter image that was more tolerant of room lighting. We also appreciated the excellent viewing angle; seen from either side, the image retained almost all of its brightness, although from above or below it faded quickly. On the other hand, this set's detail still couldn't match a good CRT's in dim lighting with darker material, and the Samsung has a few other issues that will deter perfectionists.
Aside from the brilliant menu system, the HLN617W's picture made a generally negative first impression on us. Blacks looked strangely bluish, even when we chose the Warm 1 color temperature, and our measurements bore this out. Colors seemed artificial no matter what user setting we tried.
We performed a full calibration using our Sencore color analyzer, and the improvement was immense. The range of gray kept very near to the NTSC standard of 6,500K in both light and dark material, and although very dark colors weren't perfect, they didn't look tinged with blue anymore.
And we do mean very dark. The letterbox bars bordering the D-VHS version of Entrapment were certainly brighter than true black, but they were also darker than anything we've seen that uses LCD or LCoS technology. Catherine Zeta-Jones's slithering among the red strings did lack some detail; the shadows on her face seemed to drop off into blackness too quickly instead of gradually fading. There was also a good deal of low-level video noise, which appeared as moving motes in the shadows.
We noticed overaccentuated reds and some errors in the greens, so we had to desaturate the color to get a realistic palette and take the sunburn out of skin tones. Afterward, we put on the D-VHS version of Ice Age, and the bright scenes looked stunning, as they did on the Monsters Inc. DVD. Animation really brings out the strengths of the HLN617W.
Unfortunately, when viewing high-contrast images, we did stumble upon one other quirk peculiar to DLP: the rainbow effect. For example, in shots of an otherwise dark room lit by one bright window, we noticed a trail of colors originating from the bright spot. A couple of CNET staffers didn't see the rainbows at all, however, and the effect all but disappeared as we turned up the lights.
We were extremely impressed by the HLN617W's video processing. When connected to an interlaced DVD player, it detected the 3:2 pull-down cadence very quickly, and it passed our gamut of video-processor tests with aplomb. Diagonal edges were smooth and free of stair-stepping regardless of the video source. The image looked so good, in fact, that only an extremely competent progressive-scan player could do a better job.