Samsung's LN-S3251D has been one of the most popular LCD TVs on the market in 2006. We don't exactly know why, but we can speculate: it looks cool and has plenty of features. You won't be able to pick up one of these 32-inch flat-panels for less than $1,000--at least not yet--but the brand recognition and slick styling of the Samsung are apparently worth a few hundred extra bucks to many, many TV shoppers.
To our eyes the Samsung LN-S3251D is one of the best-looking LCDs available. Its round-edged, glossy black case takes a distinctive wide V shape along the bottom, which opens up to reveal a subtle blue swatch of color across its width. (Samsung also makes a white version, the LN-S3252D, with a burgundy swatch instead of blue.) The company hid the speakers under the upper lip of the opening, contributing to an extremely clean overall look. The bottom of the TV meets its matching glossy black stand in a rounded pedestal that swivels about 35 degrees to either side. Including stand, the set measures 31.5 by 9.9 by 23.7 inches (HWD) and weighs 32.6 pounds.
Samsung's remote is the same as those included with its other 2006 HDTVs, and it's an improvement over last year's controller. It offers a smarter button layout, better differentiation between the keys, and a longer, easier-to-hold shape. Although it still lacks backlighting, we appreciate its ability to control four other devices. The black LN-S3251D gets a black clicker, while the white LN-S3252D's remote corresponds to its color as well. The internal menu system looks the same as that of Samsung's other flat panels. Although not as slick as the menu system from the company's DLP televisions, it's intuitive enough to navigate. We appreciated the ability to choose and rename inputs from the menu, as well as the helpful information explaining various menu items.
The spec sheet of the Samsung LN-S3251D starts with a decent connectivity suite, including two HDMI inputs, still relatively rare among 32-inch LCDs. There's also single component-video input--we'd like to see two but it's no big deal on a TV of this size--along with one each for composite and S-Video, plus a VGA-style PC input that can take resolutions as high as 1,360x768. The side panel gets another set of A/V inputs with S-Video as well as a headphone audio output. Like most HDTVs this year, the LN-S3251D includes an ATSC tuner and lacks a CableCard slot--not a big omission in our book.
Conveniences are also solid for a smaller LCD in this price range, starting with a fairly flexible picture-in-picture option. There's a freeze option for writing down phone numbers, for example. You can choose from as many as four aspect-ratio modes with standard-def sources, two of which are adjustable zooms and two with high-def sources, and neither of which are adjustable zooms.
Picture controls include four adjustable picture modes. Unfortunately, the set lacks true independent input memories, so you're restricted to just those four modes of different picture memories--which should be plenty for most picture-fiddlers to customize their sources. You also get five different color-temperature presets, with the Warm2 setting coming closest to the standard. Samsung also includes its gimmicky DNIe demo mode but unfortunately doesn't provide a switch to turn it off, which introduces some edge enhancement (see below). Finally, the company included a Game mode on this set, which generally makes the picture look more garish and unrealistic, but which may please the eyes of some gamers.
One thing absent from the picture menu is an adjustable backlight, a control found on many other LCDs that, when set to a relatively low position, can often improve black-level performance. The company does have a four-position Energy Saver control buried in the setup menu, however, that accomplishes the same thing in less precise steps.
To evaluate the Samsung LN-S3251D's picture, we followed our normal routine of adjusting it for as good a picture as possible in a darkened room. We found that the backlight/Energy Saver control was best set to Medium in this situation; the High setting did produce a marginally deeper black, but it didn't allow the TV to reach our target peak brightness of around 36 footlamberts. See the Tips and Help tab for our complete dark-room settings.