If you ask Sharp (or me), one of the best reasons to buy a new HDTV, especially if you have one already, is to go big. After introducing massive 70- and 80-inch LCDs last year at prices that in context actually deserve the word "affordable," the company will double down on screen size in 2012. Its entry-level LC-LE640U series occupies the value sweet spot in the company's lineup: the 60-inch version reviewed here costs $1,500 at introduction, while the 70-incher is $2,500. That's a lot of screen for the money, and those prices will inevitably fall further later in the year.
Our tests didn't reveal world-beating picture quality, but the 640U does offer accurate color and a matte screen--the latter especially important in rooms where ambient light control is an issue. Its weaknesses, namely lighter black levels and less-than-perfect uniformity, leave the door wide open for competing plasmas to score higher, but I have a feeling that Sharp's ultra-aggressive pricing, and the mass-market appeal of LED/LCD, will guarantee the 640U its own sweet spot among the most popular big-screen TVs of 2012.
The basic-looking 640U series doesn't try as hard as many of its competitors to make a splash in the living room. I appreciate the narrow frame around the image--which does thicken up a bit along the bottom.
The frame's burnished texture is a nice departure from glossy black, although the bottom section is half-glossy, as is the top of the nonswiveling stand, which tends to collect dust. The illuminated ^ icon bottom-center can be turned off.
Sharp didn't change much about the menu system from last year, and its serviceable if unremarkable. Navigating among the choices along the main top strip could be snappier, and I prefer overlays to Sharp's method of reducing the picture size to make room for its menus.
Sharp's streaming video selection includes Netflix, YouTube and Vudu, as well as second-tier services Blockbuster and CinemaNow. There's no streaming audio offered, however. Miscellaneous apps come courtesy of Vudu Apps, where Twitter, Facebook, Picasa and Flickr are the standouts.
If you're comparing by content, Sharp falls short of most major-name competitors, missing Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, and even Pandora and Napster (the latter two were available on 2011 Sharps). Its interface is simple enough, consisting of a launcher strip across the bottom of the screen. Higher-end models get a "full-screen" interface option and a Web browser.
The LC-LE640U performs better than what I remember of last year's 830U, thanks primarily to somewhat better uniformity and perhaps deeper black levels. It won't blow videophiles away, however: blacks are still grayish compared to better LEDs and plasmas, while uniformity and off-angle were still issues. I appreciated its color accuracy and matte screen, but unfortunately video processing took a step backward.