LCD TVs still sit in a niche market, but already Sharp is carving itself out as the manufacturer to beat. Just as we'd recommend anyone buying an MP3 player to consider an Apple iPod, we'd do the same for Sharp's LCD TVs. Not only has the Japanese company's range consistently outperformed the rest on picture quality, it has also managed to pioneer a huge 45-inch model that sits comfortably on our gadget wish list. However, as the 45-incher costs around £4,000, it's simply not a realistic prospect for the average consumer, leaving the 32-inch LC32GD1E as the most practical solution.
Aside from its expected picture performance, we were impressed by the range of features on the LC32GD1E. Sharp's canny inclusion of a media box means the package offers all the connections you could hope for, in addition to an integrated Freeview tuner and powerful stereo speakers. In real-world terms, it's still a premium television, but if you're as excited about the hi-def revolution as we are, this is the Little Red Book of the television world.
We like the sleek silver styling of the Sharp because it reminds us of TVs that hang on the walls of Scandinavian designer pads in Wallpaper* magazine. Simplicity and minimalism are to the fore, with a thin, graphite-coloured frame surrounding the pixel-perfect display. A rather large speaker protrudes underneath, hinting at the power contained within, but you can remove this if you've got a home-cinema system, which is recommended for such an expensive display. And if the price still seems high, consider that the television comes packaged with instant respect as standard.
The accolade for sharpest piece of design (no pun intended) goes to the bundled media box. It houses all the connections, so instead of having a spider's web of cables running between your AV equipment and the screen itself, everything neatly runs into a central box that can be tucked away in a cabinet. Unfortunately, this idea is spoiled by the media box and TV requiring three separate umbilicals to link them together, which we think is overkill. Most other manufacturers using media boxes get away with two interconnects at the most, and who wants a mass of cables running up the wall if they decide to hang their TV up?
Another weird characteristic of the design is the massive remote control. It's about 50 per cent longer than it needs to be, but no matter where you hold it, it never balances correctly in the hand. The battery pack also overhangs uncomfortably at the bottom -- if the remote control were human, it would be asking, "Does my bum look big in this?" Having said that, the main buttons are nicely coloured in a darker shade of the primary hues, so you always have a point of reference, and it's always easy to navigate the menus when you're using it. It's also good to be able to switch between Freeview and your other main source at the touch of a button (which is named DTV on the remote).
Connectivity on the Sharp is also very good. The best feature is the HDCP-enabled DVI socket, which means that if you decide to shell out the money for the set, you can be assured that it's fully high-definition ready. But let's not get carried away -- HD isn't going to be around until 2006, and the set also has to cater to the mass market. Thankfully, it also includes two RGB Scarts for connecting up standard equipment such as a DVD player and games console, plus composite if you get desperate.
Obsessive connectivity fans will be downbeat about the lack of S-video input, which can be very useful when connecting a video camera. However, for everyday DVD playback, we urge you to make use of the component inputs. When you supply the set with a progressive-scan feed, you're treated to a smooth, highly detailed picture that far surpasses that of RGB Scart.
This Sharp may be an iDTV (Integrated Digital Television), but you can still pick up a regular analogue signal by plugging into a different aerial socket on the media box. While the picture quality is dreadful, anyone living in an area lacking Freeview coverage will have no other option apart from a satellite or cable subscription.
iDTV functionality also means that the LC32GD1E has an built-in electronic programme guide (EPG), which lets you view programme details for the current and next programme. While the design won't give Humax or Thomson any nightmares, it's functional and the ability to sort by 'Entertainment' and 'Sports' programmes is a nice touch usually only seen on Media Center PCs. The LC32GD1E doesn't support the Freeview seven-day EPG, which is a disappointing omission.
A number of features mark this out as a premium television. First of all, there are independent picture memories for each of the main inputs, so you can set your preferred contrast and brightness levels differently for each source. You may like to have the brightness level set slightly higher on videogames, for example.
Similarly, there are a lot of changes you can make to the television's colour balance. It may not be a category many people will dip into, but this is a set aimed at more experienced users and they can use the Digital Video Essentials test disc to attain a perfect picture.
There are also some features that can be employed if you're using a poor-quality input source. A 3D comb filter noticeably improves the stability of television and composite inputs, plus you can switch between interlaced and progressive inputs if you're running a games console into the component inputs.
Also of interest is the Common Interface (CI) slot that sits on the back of the media box, which means you can upgrade your Freeview programming by subscribing to TopUpTV. The service has had a couple of high-profile losses recently, with the move of E4 and Men & Motors to the standard service, but TopUpTV has some attractive channels for £8 per month. The other use for the slot is an upgrade that lets you record from the television in MPEG4. While the upgrade will be of relatively little use to most people, it's a real indication of the attention to detail that has gone into the television at every single stage.
To use a broad analogy, if you give the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra a Mozart symphony, you're in for a treat. But replace the sheet music with the Crazy Frog's latest ringtone, and even Britain's finest won't stop the Albert Hall emptying. The same goes for the LC32GD1E -- treat it with some high-definition material or a DVD movie from a decent player, and you'll be in AV heaven. However, malign it with a poor signal, which includes Freeview, and the visual artefacts are hard to ignore. The smooth motion and contrast range of a high-quality source simply aren't present when switching from component to a Scart input, and the amount of image grain increases exponentially.
It's difficult to be too harsh on the Sharp for this weakness, because the same problem afflicts most LCDs. Sharp is by no means the worst offender, and essentially you have to accept that progressive-scan feeds are the only way to make these screens look their best. And with the Sharp LC32GD1E, high-definition material really looks unbeatable.
Aural performance is exemplary. The speakers evoke real power, while providing the sort of treble detail that's essential for television and movie viewing alike. They can also go loud without distorting, and offer great vocal clarity, which really benefits the experience.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide