Samsung's latest entry-level LCD screen shares a similar future-proof specification and attractive design with models from most big-name brands, but for a recommended price of £1,049 (you can find it for less than £800 online if you shop around) it's a considerably better bargain.
Most budget screens are slighted by poor build quality and compromised features. Samsung's LE32R74BD, however, boasts a stunning design with high-definition compatibility, integrated Freeview and advanced picture processing, while performance comes close to that of more expensive class leaders.
With only a single RGB Scart and one HDMI input, connectivity could be improved, and image quality doesn't quite cut the same sharpness as leading models from Panasonic or Sharp, but at this price you can save a lot and lose very little.
While some screen designs have started to shy away from overbearing aesthetics towards more conservative constructions, Samsung's striking LE32R74BD appears anything but dulled down.
The screen and accompanying swivel stand are entirely coated in a heavily glossed, black lacquer that's immediately more eye catching than most budget models. The sleek finish is exaggerated by a seamless casing with virtually no visible joins, even across the rear panel.
A few primary controls have been almost invisibly integrated on one side. The opposite corner features several standard AV inputs that can be easily reached by occasionally connected devices, like a camcorder or games console.
The remaining connections have been crowded into a narrow arrangement around the back. All input options are covered, but connectivity lacks strength in numbers -- there are only two Scart terminals with just one that's RGB-enabled, meaning if you have any more than one Scart-connected device you'll have to contend with compromised picture quality. Unlike some similarly priced screens, there's only a single HDMI digital input, so if you plan to watch high-definition images from both an HDTV receiver and upscaling DVD player you'll have to switch cables between the single digital connection.
Alternatively, there is a set of analogue component inputs that can be used with some high-definition sources as well as supporting progressive scan video from a compatible player. PC users will be pleased to find a standard VGA input accompanied by an often-ignored PC audio input.
On the audio side, the TV speaker's average sound can be enhanced using either analogue stereo outputs or an optical digital output that can be connected to an external home cinema amplifier.
The attractive, slender remote shares a similar colour scheme to the set, unlike some of the mismatched designs that usually accompany budget screens. There isn't really enough space to accommodate all the controls, but primary functions have been thoughtfully positioned and there's plenty of 'shortcut keys' to save you always accessing the menu.
Now high-definition has officially arrived, it's important that this screen's 1,366x768-pixel resolution will support HD signals using both 720p and 1080i formats, allowing you to subscribe to Sky's HDTV services or watch upscaled DVD images with detail and depth unlike anything we've seen before.
The future-proof specification is supplemented by the integration of both analogue and digital Freeview tuners, guaranteeing its shelf life extends to the eventual digital TV switchover. Digital images are supported by Samsung's Digital Natural Image engine (DNIe) using 10-bit processing, which optimises images by enhancing detail and contrast as well as drawing natural shades from a palette of 12.8 billion colours. Picture processing systems are often sacrificed to cut costs, but Samsung deserves praise for retaining such features for an affordable price.
On screen menus are well presented with neat graphics that ease uncomplicated operation. The out-of-the-box settings have been wildly exaggerated to appear instantly exciting, but you'll want to tone the settings down for more realistic images. There're several picture preset modes defined by your room's brightness -- with the Standard setting performing best in most cases. Otherwise, you can customise individual settings, including colour tone -- the warmer options tend to produce more accurate colours and skin tones.
Digital TV menus are separate with colourful information guides and electronic programme guide featuring moving thumbnails with sound that let you scan schedules without missing any action. Although you can access programme information from the remote, an information bar that temporarily appears as you change channel would be useful. The electronic programme guide only covers a single day instead of the weekly guides presented by some screens.
There are similar preset modes for sound and an SRS TruSurround XT feature that struggles to create surround sound effects from the stereo speakers. Among other extra-curricular features that you won't find from most budget screens is a Game Mode, which uses faster response times for a smoother, sharper gaming experience.
The Samsung LE32R74BD's picture performance is impressive for the price without reaching the exceptional levels that, agreeably more expensive, class leaders can climb.
Digital TV programmes are more than adequate for everyday viewing with excellent stability, natural colours and a particularly wide viewing angle that allows more freedom with seating positions. Edges could be more precise and movement occasionally stutters but images are noticeably clean and unaffected by digital artefacts.
Using analogue inputs to display DVD images does produce sporadic speckling in backgrounds and colour gradation inconsistencies -- but both can be eliminated by turning to the HDMI digital input. With a 720p upscaled signal, even from an inexpensive DVD player like Samsung's own HD850 (£100), the images are outstanding. Detail and depth of field are immediately emphasised, backgrounds no longer shimmer and movement glides across the screen.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of sound performance. The small speakers lack weight and dynamics, while high volumes are frequently affected by sibilance, and the surround effects only serve to muffle the dialogue and create an unwanted echo.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield