It's not just the TV world that's eagerly awaiting the high-definition revolution -- both Microsoft and Sony are touting it as the reason to upgrade to their next-generation games hardware. And as the first commercial source of high-definition material, Microsoft's Xbox 360 is likely to drive as many flat-screen sales as Sky HD or Blu-ray.
The television range that Microsoft has chosen to show off the 360 is Samsung's 'LE' range, and this 40-inch model is the flagship product. As well as being fully high-definition ready, the television is nicely styled, has DNIe picture processing and features a PC input. Connectivity is comprehensive, although we could have done with another Scart, but the overriding impression is just what good value it is. At a time when plenty of people will be considering upgrading their TV for an HD model, the Samsung LE40R51B couldn't have arrived at a better time.
In terms of pure aesthetics, Samsung's LCD looks gorgeous. The most striking flourish is the speaker grille, which angles down to a point at the centre. It might not sound like much on paper, but it fits in with the minimalist design perfectly -- there are very few logos adorning the set and the power button has a small LED in the centre, similar to . It's a shame that the remote control doesn't share this modern approach -- it looks like it's from a completely different production line. It's simple to use, but the plasticky finish and dull grey colour means it will be shunned in a modern living room.
In terms of connectivity, every single demand for high-definition and standard video needs has been met. Having said that, it would have been nice to see more RGB Scarts and component inputs -- there's only one of each to be found on the rear. For most users, the allocation should be enough, with a Sky or Freeview box going into the RGB Scart and a DVD player into component or ideally HDMI. If you upgrade to an HDMI DVD player (like Samsung's own DVD-HD850), you'll benefit from an all-digital picture and you'll have the component inputs spare for your PlayStation 2 or Xbox. Any other games consoles or camcorders will have to go in the composite or S-video inputs, which are unhelpfully also located on the rear, so there's no easy access on the front or side. Finally, there's a VGA input for use with a computer or media centre, although you can also use the HDMI input by buying a DVI adaptor.
If you're planning to invest in a lot of new technology to handle high definition in the near future (and you'll have Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Sky HD, Blu-ray and HD DVD to choose from by summer 2006 -- get the lowdown in our hi-def guide here) then you might run out of inputs. HDMI splitter boxes are already available, but they're expensive. Samsung's TV is very good value, so it can be forgiven somewhat for its stingy allocation, but Toshiba has taken the lead by including two HDMI inputs on its latest range of similar-sized LCDs. Helpfully, the Xbox 360 will support VGA, so if you're not using a PC then that will free up one input.
Noticeably, the TV lacks a Freeview tuner -- the 32-inch and 26-inch versions both have models available with a 'D' suffix at the end to denote their digital TV tuners. Samsung is due to add the upgraded 40-inch model later in the year -- expect a £60 premium, but essentially the same set otherwise. In the meantime though, you'll have to buy a separate box.
Budget televisions from Philips have cut costs by omitting internal picture processing, but Samsung's 40-inch LCD boasts the full suite of DNIe enhancements. Helpfully, (for us reviewers at least) there's a button on the remote to see side-by-side comparisons of the technology on and off. With DNIe enabled, improvements such as sharpness and contrast depth are very noticeable. We tested it with an old DVD transfer of Ronin (i.e. not the Special Edition), and it cleaned up the picture as well as boosting the contrast. Previous LCD owners will have noticed how LCD screens amplify the noise that is a negative effect of MPEG compression (and thus evident on DVD and digital TV), but DNIe makes a good stab at cleaning it up. The closer you are to the TV, the more noticeable it is, but DNIe is an excellent technology for reducing this. Sony Wega Engine LCDs are the best at reducing blockiness in our experience, but no matter what LCD panel you use, it simply makes you yearn for high definition even more.
Other more standard features of the TV include Picture in Picture, SRS TruSurround XT and picture/sound presets. There's Dynamic, Movie and Natural for video, plus Movie, Music and Speech modes for audio. If you like to tinker around with the standard settings (which we found useful on the video side, and you may wish to invest in a calibration DVD), then you can engage Standard mode and then play around with every setting to fit. We did notice one mis-firing pixel, which was blue-coloured on our test model, but it wasn't intrusive and is actually quite minimal for a set of this size.
One point to make is that many users of this television series have complained about visual tearing when using high-definition video. The problem has been alleviated via a firmware upgrade, so if you notice it you should get in touch with Samsung for the required cable, or even have a word with your dealer before you buy. The only time it raised its head is when we used a Dell XPS computer plugged into the VGA socket. At a 60Hz refresh rate, there was some 'tearing', which was especially noticeable with high-definition Windows Media Video. We had to use nVidia's toolset to force a higher refresh rate, but the television didn't like this and text became illegible. Video still looked fantastically detailed, though, especially WMV and Apple's new selection of HD movie trailers.
We can see Samsung's LE range and Toshiba's WL56 range of LCDs really kick-starting the mainstream takeup of LCD technology, as both ranges bring strong picture performance to a budget price. Sure, go up close to the screen when it's playing a DVD or Freeview and you'll see noise around people and contrasting colours, but when you're at the optimal viewing distance, Samsung's DNIe processing does a brilliant job of masking it. Contrast levels are deep, making the picture look almost three-dimensional, and the colour reproduction is faultless, even down to usually tricky skin tones.
High definition is where it's at on the Samsung, though. We tested HD video from a computer at 720p and Sony's HDR-HC1 camcorder at 1080i (which the Samsung scaled down). Images were so detailed that it was almost unnatural, and you could go right up to the screen without seeing any pixellation. It was a luxurious experience that impressed onlookers, and even though there was some smearing from Sony's camcorder, the overall impression was that the panel could cope with its relatively huge size without problems.
The 20W speakers are also very good. The HDMI input supports digital audio, so both video and audio signals can be sent in the highest quality possible to the display. What impresses the most is how low these speakers go -- but please invest in a home cinema setup if you have any sort of respect for this LCD giant.
Edited by Nick Hide