There's no doubt about it, LCD television is the Danny Zucco of the gadget world. And as if this ruling denizen of the technological schoolyard weren't cocky enough, Philips greased up its hair and gave it a brand new leather jacket when it released the Ambilight version of its flat-screen TV. The 42PF9986, otherwise known as the trendiest mainstream television in the world, has a set of fluorescent lights in the back of the TV that reacts to the colours on screen and supposedly relaxes the eyes. Fashion never comes cheap, though, and the Ambilight LCD carries a hefty £1,000 premium.
With the 26PF5520D, Philips has done a complete U-turn, offering what is currently the most feature-packed LCD at under £1,000. It offers everything that you could reasonably want on a modern TV, including full high-definition compatibility and built-in Freeview, all for the miserly sum of £700 (from online specialists; it's closer to £900 on the high street) -- which would have been unthinkable just six months ago. It doesn't offer any of the picture processing or NXT speakers that have become standard on more expensive Philips sets, but with a decent picture quality and a shopping list of features, this is a true bargain.
Bar an abundance of stickers that have been awkwardly placed on the TV (one of which promises that 'excitement' has been turned up to the max), Philips' LCD looks great. The desktop stand is packaged separately, so if you don't want to wall-mount it, you'll need to do some DIY assembly work. When it's all set up, the package easily captures that trademark Philips style. The screen itself is surrounded by a 40mm black bezel, with speakers sitting on either side, making the TV look like it costs substantially more than it actually does.
In order for Philips to get that coveted 'HD Ready' badge, the connectivity requirements are hefty. For consumers, this is a plus point, because it means you can connect up all your AV equipment now and in the future without needing to worry. The TV itself has a DVI input, with PC input, two Scarts (one RGB), S-video and composite. Like a standalone Freeview tuner, the TV itself also has a digital audio output so you can connect it up to a home cinema system, in this case a coaxial type.
Philips' TV package bulges like a bare-chested Geordie's beer gut. There's a nifty selection of interconnects and adaptors which allow even more connectivity to the television. The converter that lets you plug S-video and composite into Scart may be of limited use, but if you have an older computer you can use the VGA-DVI connector to plug it in and use the TV as a monitor. Bear in mind that you'll need a fairly modern graphics card to support a widescreen resolution, though. The most important adaptor is component-VGA, which makes the screen compatible with most modern DVD players.
Freeview is no simple add-on -- it has been integrated into the TV well. The PC Card slot allows you to add a subscription card for the TopUp TV service, which may not be such a big attraction now that E4's freely available, but it's nice to have the option.
The 26PF5520D has a remote control that's very well constructed, with a sturdy frame that feels like it will survive the rigours of everyday use. However, the buttons don't feel well mapped-out and the menu structures have a random feel to them. When choosing an AV channel, the TV does nothing when you press OK -- for some reason you have to press direction right instead.
Philips' LCD is one of the first midrange TVs to carry the 'HD Ready' icon, which assures you it's ready for all future high-definition standards. The compatibility problem lies with Sky, which announced that its HD service (due next year) will require a TV with High Definition Content Protocol (HDCP) on board to prevent its programmes being copied. Whenever you see the 'HD Ready' logo on a TV, you know it'll accept Sky HD, and consequently it won't need upgrading for a long time to come. If you buy the Philips TV, you can avoid all this confusion, because it will accept all current and future video standards.
In addition to all this high-definition loveliness, this Philips LCD also includes a Freeview receiver. Along with the ample connectivity, it means that this TV is one of the first to tick every single box on our features wish list. It also bears the hallmarks of a second generation iDTV, with PIN code protection to restrict certain channels, and a favourites list to simply ignore those that you never watch. Uniquely, you can also tell the TV the age of your children and it will automatically block any unsuitable content. If you subscribe to the TopUp TV service, there are some adult channels available, so in this case you may want to block some channels out completely. The same is true for radio channels. If you're going away and want to make recordings from Freeview, you can set the TV to turn itself to a certain channel at a certain time.
In terms of picture quality, there's no perceivable upgrade over using a standard digital TV receiver. This is partly down to the TV's lack of advanced picture processing, something which is normally only a characteristic of more expensive TVs. You can still tailor the audio/visual just how you like it, with Soft, Multimedia, Personal, Rich and Natural all available for video and Music, Voice, Personal and Theatre on the audio side. You can change the individual parameters such as contrast, brightness and balance and then store them in the Personal settings.
Philips' LCD will also do cross-source Picture in Picture, so you can watch TV while you're typing up an AV review (but don't tell CNET.co.uk's publisher).
Given the price, the Philips 26PF5520D's picture performance is good. With Freeview, you can easily tell there isn't any picture processing going on behind the scenes. The picture is blocky and there's colour bleed, but the size of the screen limits the detrimental impact at the normal viewing distance. Screen detail is very good, making this an excellent PC monitor.
When you compare it to previous-generation LCD screens from Dell and Viewsonic, which retailed for a similar price, picture performance is much superior on the Philips. The 16ms response time is quick enough to prevent too much smearing on Freeview TV, but it can be noticeable on first-person shooter games such as Battlefield 2. For regular desktop work such as word processing and Internet browsing, it's great, and the PIP modes make this an ideal monitor replacement (as long as you can resist the allure of digital TV during work).
The speakers can reach a loud volume without distortion, making them acceptable for Freeview music channels and digital radio. The Virtual Dolby Surround mode should be avoided, and if you have an AV amplifier or home cinema system, you should hook up via the coaxial audio output.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide