Sony's KDL-S32A12U is an affordable, entry-level LCD TV that provides an ideal introduction for anyone looking to trade in their old CRT set for a slimmer model with a future-proof specification.
With high-definition content looming on the horizon, the screen features a high-resolution 1366x768-pixel panel that will support 720p and 1080i high-def signals with pixels to spare. There's also an HDMI digital video connection -- essential if you want to receive Sky's HDTV services, which begin next year. Until then, you can watch either analogue or Freeview digital broadcasts from a pair of integrated TV tuners.
The typical Sony design gives you both flair and functionality -- offering complete connectivity for video components and a basic range of fuss-free settings that even technophobes will understand.
Analogue TV performance is plagued by picture noise, but that can be cured with a dose of digital technology. Freeview broadcasts and especially HDMI-induced video images realise the panel's potential for high-def with well-defined, smooth and stable pictures on a par with several more expensive sets.
Sony has an unerring sense of style and even this relatively sober design falls under the influence. Understated aesthetics and flawless finishing give the screen a timeless appearance that will age more gracefully than some futuristic designs.
While most new-generation LCDs favour a glossed black frame, which is supposed to enhance edge contrast, Sony's screen has a silver lining. The slim surround and a speaker system stretched across the base instead of the sides free up space. And, although there are wall-mounting options, the screen arrives on a pedestal stand that can be fixed to a surface to prevent it from toppling over -- not likely, but it'll give you some peace of mind.
Remote controls are often ignored as an afterthought, but if you're buying into this sort of minimalist lifestyle then an outdated, oversized black remote isn't going to appeal. Fortunately this slender, silver remote isn't embarrassed in the company of its style-conscious screen partner.
The screen itself is better connected than Tony Soprano. Perhaps most important is the inclusion of an HDMI digital input, which allows you to receive HDTV broadcasts or high-resolution video signals from a compatible DVD player. Positioning the HDMI input at the screen's side allows easy access, but leaves unsightly cables sprouting Medusa-like from the straight-edged surround.
Also situated along the side is a standard set of AV inputs including composite and S-video that can be used for additional equipment such as camcorders or games consoles, which needn't be permanently connected. Along the opposite side there's a standard D-sub PC terminal that allows the screen to be used as a monitor and a CAM card slot that supports limited subscription services like TopUp TV.
Otherwise, remaining AV connections are all out of sight at the rear. Here you'll find a pair of RGB-enabled Scart terminals accompanied by component inputs that support PAL/NTSC progressive scan to cater for your main video equipment. There's also a pair of stereo audio outputs if you want to supplement the sound performance with an external amplifier -- but sadly no digital audio output for connecting to a home cinema receiver.
With HD1 already broadcasting limited high-definition services and Sky planning to introduce its service next year, Sony's KDL-S32A12U arrives with a future-proof HDTV specification. The W-XGA resolution of 1366x768 pixels will support high-def signals of 720p up to a maximum 1080i, while the inclusion of an HDMI digital input completes the criteria.
And with digital broadcasts destined to eventually usurp their analogue equivalents, it's great to see an integrated digital tuner. If you're one of the unlucky few still unable to receive Freeview, you can still watch terrestrial broadcasts from a similarly integrated analogue tuner. You can switch between tuners at the touch of a remote button -- although we advise you to do things digitally.
Digital programmes are accompanied by a colourful information bar providing full programme details. There's also an easily accessible electronic programme guide (EPG) that will leave your TV listings mag redundant. By cramming 13 programme schedules onto a single page, the EPG can look convoluted. But you can slim your search to view programme schedules by category or simply organise your own Favourites list, which saves you skipping through unwanted channels. The EPG also allows you to set up programme reminders and even initiate recordings if you have a separate recorder with the so-called Smartlink compatibility, which allows it to communicate with the screen.
Elsewhere, on-screen menus are presented at the corner of the screen so they don't obstruct the picture while you're tinkering with the settings. The sensibly arranged remote is uncluttered and easy to use, including short-cut keys that save you from always having to access the main menu.
The range of settings is pretty basic, but this means fuss-free usability. If you're lazy you can choose between several preset picture and sound modes. The Vivid mode enhances colour and brightness at the expense of natural colours if you have a bright living room. But like the sound modes, including a Dolby Virtual setting that attempts to conjure the illusion of surround sound from two speakers, the effects are negligible.
Instead, we suggest you take time to customise settings from an elementary array of adjustments. The self-explanatory menus couldn't be easier to navigate and traditional TV users will recognise the standard settings that ignore often confusing and ineffective advanced adjustments. Even self-confessed technophobes need not fear.
Sony has kept things simple with a standard set of features, but there are a few functions that you won't normally find on an entry-level TV. For instance, there's a light sensor that can be activated to automatically adjust picture settings according to ambient brightness, plus a Picture Freeze function that creates stills on-screen if you want to spend more than the allotted time mulling over the football results.
For TV broadcasts, digital does it better on the KDL-S32A12U. Analogue TV images are beset by a constant drizzle of picture noise that occasionally turns into a downpour. However, turn to the digital tuner and the forecast improves.
Freeview broadcasts are characterised by plenty of detail and contrast, courtesy of excellent black levels, which provide the picture with density and perspective. Evenly balanced colours are equally adept at realising natural skin tones in daytime talk shows as they are at enhancing special effects in music videos. Complex scenes can struggle with a smattering of digital noise, though. Movement, especially slow pans or unpredictable sporting actions, occasionally staggers across the display -- but that's a criticism of the technology more than the screen.
Video performance, especially using HDMI, offers an insight into the screen's high-def potential. Images are immaculately clean and intricately detailed while movement glides across the screen with all the grace of a figure skater.
Sound performance is a touch two-dimensional and the various sound modes are best left ignored. The average audio quality won't affect typical viewing, but if you try and amp up the sound, it can descend into distortion and over-pronounced sibilance.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide