Pioneer Electronics PDP-503CMX

Pioneer Electronics PDP-503CMX

Byline: Jeff Sauer

Amidst an increasingly crowded field of plasma monitors and makers, Pioneer Electronics is angling to stay above the fray by making panels designed for flexibility. That can mean anything from custom I/O modules or built-in applications to the touchscreen frame option that I reviewed with the Pioneer’s third generation 50in. plasma monitor, the PDP-503CMX.

From private conference room to public display, this 50in. plasma is a pretty picture in a number of ways. A native wide XGA resolution of 1280×768 delivers good sharpness, I/O possibilities are theoretically unlimited, integrated expansion hardware can make the monitor an all-in-one kiosk or computer, and the touchscreen (part number PDK-50HW2) make it all very user-friendly. However, Pioneer is plenty proud of all this potential and charges a pretty penny for the plasma alone, before you even talk options.

Are We Connecting?

The I/O panel on the back bottom of the 503CMX base unit may look a bit sparsely populated at first glance. It has a single 15-pin analog RGB input and a pass-through out; five BNCs, which can be programmed through the onscreen menu to accept RGBHV or component video; stereo-mini audio in and out; speaker terminals; and control ports. But there’s not much else back there.

However, an open card slot amid the jacks can be filled with any number of present and future optional I/O modules. My test unit, for example, included Pioneer’s PDA-5002 video card, which adds basic composite, S-Video, and a second set of audio jacks. Other modules could include SDI, CAT-5, DVI, DV via FireWire, or even some future format.

The trick is that these intriguing other modules are, at this time, only future and theoretical, and that makes Pioneer’s approach to I/O flexibility work both ways. Certainly, there are bright possibilities and a degree of future-proofing, but basic S-Video and composite I/O that come standard on just about any other monitor cost an extra $500 in this case. That might be fine if Pioneer’s base price reflected a bare-bones spec, but it doesn’t. Competitive models often have two or three computer inputs and a variety of included video options without anteing up extra.

On the other hand, the open card slot does allow customers or third-party developers a way to build custom modules for very specific applications, and that clearly raises the value for those with unique goals. For example, several plasmas might be linked together into a multi-panel video wall. Adding a processor to an expansion card could give the monitor the smarts to automate and vary public display messages. Add Pioneer’s touchscreen and the 50in. monitor makes an effective kiosk or arcade game. The monitor’s bezel is also removable to allow for very custom designs or installation needs.

The touchscreen option is a lightweight plastic frame that fits right over the bezel of the plasma, barely increasing the overall wall space of the monitor. Attaching the frame to a Windows computer via a serial cable adds mouse functionality to an included pen/cursor tracked by infrared sensors and receivers on all four sides (actually sensors on two sides and receivers on two sides). Pen movements on the display are very smooth and responsive, with just a hint of processing latency, even for drawing. A special handwriting mode sharpens lines to assist the creation of onscreen text.

The soft tip of the pen doubles as a left mouse button (right and middle mouse buttons are on the pen’s shaft), allowing you to very easily highlight, drag, and open and close documents while standing at the panel and presenting. For kiosks, the sensors do an equally fine job tracking a finger. The touchscreen option adds another $3,995 to the price of the panel.

I actually had a minor problem with Pioneer’s touch panel that affected an inch-wide area of the screen where one of the sensors was presumably damaged, likely due to a shipping mishap, according to technical support. However, I think the touchscreen worked fine when I got it and, thus, was probably damaged in our lab while switching the frame from one monitor to another (more about this later). The plastic construction of the frame adds very little weight to a wall-mounted plasma, but it also makes it susceptible to damage if the frame is bent or, as may have been in this case, if too much of the plasma’s 86lbs. rest on it in the wrong way during installation. This highlights the delicate nature of the device. Fortunately, this particular problem didn’t render the entire panel unusable, and it is field-serviceable.

The reason I tested two PDP-503CMXs and needed to switch the touch panel is an industry-wide issue more than a Pioneer-specific one. The first unit I received, an obvious trade show demo unit that must have been released for outside, non-company use through fulfillment error, suffered from a serious burn-in problem. The phrase “Experience=Profit” was visible across the screen whenever the monitor was turned on. And that’s a problem for anyone considering plasma, Pioneer or not.

Plasmas have some nice advantages – such as brightness that is for the most part unaffected by ambient light, a wide viewing angle, and thinness that makes them far easier to wall-mount than just about any other large screen display device – but burn-in does happen, and if the same content is shown for long periods of time, any plasma is susceptible. Indeed, the best solution is to ensure that the entire screen burns as evenly as possible. Thankfully, video’s constant motion helps.

Happenstance aside, the picture in the PDP-503CMX is very good and that helps bring the high sticker price onto somewhat more realistic ground, although a couple of other manufacturers make at least equally fine looking panels without the price premium. Pioneer’s high resolution makes images sharp and saturated, colors are accurate and well-balanced. Skin tones are also quite good, although that too is not exclusive to this display.

Contrast is less than ideal and weaker blacks don’t help the overall depth of the picture. Images can appear washed out at times, as can subtler colors. A high-contrast video mode setting does little more than heighten brightness, and that doesn’t help the deeper grayscale tones.

Overall, it’s easy to like Pioneer’s 50in. PDP-503CMX. Image quality is among the best in the industry, save for contrast and grayscale weakness. What’s more, if you’ve got a unique installation or application for a large format display device, Pioneer has a lot to offer. But if Pioneer’s expansion possibilities don’t inherently bring value to your situation, you’ll do well to look for a dealer discount.

BOTTOM LINE

Company: Pioneer Long Beach, Calif. www.pioneerelectronics.com

Product: PDP-503CMX

Assets: An open card slot in the back can be used for custom I/O modules; XGA 1280×768 widescreen delivers good sharpness; optional touchscreen slides over screen to create interactive tool.

Demographic: Display pros creating interactive or large-format presentations who have the means to take advantage of the unit’s I/O.

Price: $12,995

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