While the TV world anticipates high definition like the second coming, Sharp predicts that only a select group of people will adopt Sky HD and Blu-ray upon release. There are far more people who want a flat-screen TV but who have no intention of paying the premium for early HD content.
The P50 range, here in a 32-inch flavour, has been designed specifically for these people. It features a PAL-resolution panel, which is matched perfectly to DVD movies and digital television. In theory, this will give a picture quality more akin to a CRT than high-definition LCDs, which have to process and filter the picture to prevent video artefacts being amplified. In reality it works very well -- pictures from DVDs are brimming with detail and solidity. While not quite at CRT quality yet, these Sharps are the best you're going to get from standard definition sources on an LCD.
The television boasts a designer pedigree -- it was styled by Toshiyuki Kita, a long-time Sharp collaborator, and his fame has even earned him a signature on the rear. The TV is sleek and rather attractive, even standing up well next to Sharp's high-end LCD range, which has won its fair share of plaudits. The frame is a contemporary mix -- the speaker grille sitting under the main panel is silver, while the two side panels are finished in a smooth black plastic.
The remote control is just as memorable for its outlandish design. Seemingly inspired by a hammerhead shark, it's not the first Sharp remote to break from tradition. It's not particularly unusable -- the wide head offers room for more buttons along the top -- but it will certainly garner laughs. "Why has that spatula got buttons on it?" will probably be heard from friends more than a few times during its lifetime.
This is a standard-definition TV, but the connectivity roster still includes an HDMI input. This allows digital video and audio to be sent to the TV across one thin cable. Not many devices support it as yet, but its importance will grow in the future -- Sky will be using HDMI on its HD digibox and it has already appeared on DVD players from Samsung.
Apart from this super-modern connection, it's business as usual -- the back panel detaches to reveal two Scarts (both RGB compatible) plus composite and S-video inputs. There's also a set of component inputs that we suggest you use for playing DVDs, as they improve picture quality over RGB Scart. The back panel then slots back into place to keep the cables out of view, but it would have been nice to have an S-video or composite input on the side for easy access.
The LC-32P50E has a native panel resolution of 960x540 pixels -- a widescreen format, but much lower res than the majority of other LCDs. Sharp claims that this allows the TV to match the resolution of PAL broadcasts and DVDs, and therefore the picture quality should be much more natural. Sharp describes the TV as a flat version of a CRT -- something that will allow you to get the very most out of the TV and DVD sources you watch at the moment. And let's face it, while high definition is all very exciting, standard definition isn't going anywhere for a long time to come. Heavens, the government hasn't even turned off analogue TV yet, so it's not about to ditch Freeview anytime soon.
Thanks to some modern AV inputs, it's slightly complicated to describe the Sharp's HD compatibility. It is HD-compatible -- if you plug a Sky HD box in to the HDMI input, you'll be able to watch all available channels. While the picture quality will be superb, there's no real point in bothering -- the LCD panel's resolution means that video has to be scaled down, and this is why the TV doesn't win the 'HD Ready' badge.
So, why include the scaling functionality at all? Well, next-generation games consoles, such as the Xbox 360, are offering HD outputs, so you can make use of them and still get a nice picture on the Sharp. And depending on how long you plan on keeping the TV, there will be a time when Blu-ray or HD DVD becomes the de facto standard, so you will be still be able to buy these discs with an eye to upgrading to a full hi-def LCD TV when the transition occurs. So to all the videogamers who want a really sharp picture from their Xbox 360 but aren't ready to shell out for a fully high-definition ready TV, check out the Sharp.
As a Europe-specific range, it's a shame that the Sharp doesn't feature an integrated Freeview tuner inside these TVs. Separate boxes don't cost too much and the two RGB Scart sockets afford room for a digibox and games console, but we're starting to get used to TVs that pack Freeview inside.
For the most part though, Sharp gets the functionality right with the P50 range. You can name separate inputs to make it easier for other members of the family -- the component input could be changed to 'DVD' or 'Games' for example. There's also an option to flip the image and engage a sleep mode, plus specific AV modes that include Game, Movie, Standard, User and the default, Dynamic. On the audio side, there's a surround mode, plus all the same presets for video that will adjust the bass and treble levels to fit. There are numerous different picture modes, including Cinema 14:9, Cinema 16:9, Full, Normal, Panorama and Zoom 14:9.
One final point of note is that the Sharp would do a curious thing when we attached the Denon DVD-2910 DVD player and put it into its 576p mode -- the Sharp would show the feed as '580p' and it would automatically focus the widescreen movie into the centre of the screen. It can be remedied by pressing the screen format button on the remote, but it's annoying nonetheless.
When we played standard DVDs through the Sharp from Denon's DVD-2910, picture quality was outstanding. We've been impressed with Sharp's LCD panels in the past, but we secretly expected the P50 range to be cut down in some way. Even poorer film transfers such as Ronin really jumped off the screen with vivid colours and a rock-solid picture overall. Only a small amount of MPEG noise reared its head, which is something you don't tend to notice with CRTs. There's very little smearing, and colour reproduction is absolutely top-notch.
Analogue TV wasn't so much fun to watch, especially with the weaker signal that plagues our building, so we'd recommend the jump to digital. When watching Ronin, we noticed how well the Sharp copes with darker scenes -- the contrast range meant there was heaps of detail in the gloomy warehouses that make up much of the background scenery. Skin tones were also extraordinarily natural and while the detail was smudgy close up, it was the sharpest LCD we've seen in everyday use. Audio quality was also impressively meaty, but you can output stereo audio from the TV if you want to wire up some more serious speakers.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide