Rear-projection TVs used to be regarded as oversized alternatives that offered big-screen entertainment at the expense of living-room space and picture quality. And the emergence of large flat screens threatened to expel the technology altogether.
But improved picture performance, reduced dimensions and above all affordability has seen a resurgence in the rear-projection market. Sony's KDF-E50A12U is a huge 50-inch screen that claims to take up the same corner space as a 42-inch plasma -- and at only £1,220 online, it costs considerably less.
Sony's latest 3LCD technology has freed the picture of typical rear-projection constraints such as blurred detail, bleached colours and poor off-axis viewing to produce a surprisingly creditable picture. And the future-proof specification includes an integrated digital TV tuner and high-resolution panel with digital connectivity that's high-definition compatible.
There's few frills elsewhere, with only basic picture and sound settings available, but if saving money rather than space is a priority, this is an ideal alternative for large-screen enthusiasts.
The design of the KDF-E50A12U is virtually unrecognisable from the imposing constructions that characterised rear-projection screens in the past. In fact, when facing the television you could be forgiven for presuming it's a large-screen plasma. Only a glance around the side reveals otherwise, but even then the dimensions are less deep than a typical CRT television -- and it's also incredibly light, considering the size.
Sony's eye for inconspicuous style, featuring a slender matte-grey surround underscored by a narrow speaker system, reinforces the illusion that the design is slimmer than it actually is. Wall-mounting options are obviously out of the question, but the package includes an attractive, glass-tiered stand.
Primary controls are hidden in a lowered panel at the front of the screen and there's a comprehensive range of easily accessible connections across the screen's left side. Camcorder users and gamers can quickly connect using S-video or composite inputs while a 15-pin D-Sub terminal with accompanying PC-audio input caters for computer or media centre applications.
Other, more significant, connections are housed around the rear. There's a pair of Scart terminals, both of which are thankfully RGB-enabled for uncompromised picture performance. And owners of progressive-scan DVD players can improve image quality further by using the set of component inputs. Associated analogue audio inputs and a pair of stereo outputs are also included, but dedicated digital audio is ignored.
However, there is an HDMI input, which carries both high-definition digital audio and video signals for optimum performance. HDMI is the future of AV connections and essential if you want to receive Sky's upcoming HDTV broadcasts or watch hi-def quality video from a similarly equipped Blu-ray or HD DVD player.
Somewhat confusingly, there's three aerial connections, which can be used to receive analogue and digital broadcasts while supporting a recording device. If you're not connecting a recorder, then the unused aerial input and output must be linked using a supplied coaxial cable. Standard Freeview digital broadcasts are also supplemented by a CAM-card slot for receiving limited subscription services like TopUp TV.
Finally, the stylish, silver remote is intelligently arranged and comfortable without being confused by an overabundance of controls.
The KDF-E50A12U uses Sony's latest 3LCD technology which divides light from the projection lamp into three basic colours -- red, green and blue -- before shining them through three separate LCD panels. This separation is intended to produce more consistent, rich colours with excellent image quality.
An impressive future-proof specification, a rarity for rear-projection screens, supports this underlying technology. The screen's high-resolution (1280x720-pixel) panel and HDMI connectivity will support high-definition images using formats up to 720p and 1080i. And, before the mainstream arrival of HDTV, you can watch standard analogue and Freeview digital channels from a pair of integrated tuners.
There are still some weaknesses with rear-projection models -- a slight delay when you turn the screen on as the projector warms up, and you'll hear a gentle hum from the lamp's fan while you're watching. But the simplified operation with few frills makes the screen extremely easy to use.
A mildly transparent menu system is neatly presented at the corner of the screen and lists all adjustment options inclusively -- making it easy to navigate through various settings using simple scrolling. Only relatively basic adjustments are available, with custom picture and sound settings supported by limited preset modes, and there's little else to play with.
For the picture, the Vivid preset mode performs best, especially since tinkering with the custom settings appears to have little effect on the image. Sound presets include a Dolby Virtual Surround mode that recreates superficial depth and dynamics from two speakers. Shortcut keys used to select presets or change inputs mean you rarely have to access the full menu.
The digital TV menus are graphically removed from the main menu system, but are nonetheless simple to operate. Freeview channels are supported by a decent electronic programme guide that allows you to view schedules by category, co-ordinate recordings if you've got a device with Smartlink compatibility and set up programme reminders. Its only fault is that by listing details of 12 channels at a time it can appear overcrowded and, although you can hear sound, there's no thumbnail picture to prevent you from missing what's on.
The quality of pictures produced by the KDF-E50A12U is testament to how far rear-projection technology has improved in recent years. You will need a distance of at least 2m from the screen and soft lighting to avoid glare and a softening of the image, but if you can meet these needs the picture is surprisingly commendable.
HDMI-induced images are at the forefront of picture performance. Colours are immediately engaging, with a rich spectrum of shades boasting excellent gradation and balance between natural and superficial tones. Decent contrast creates bold images with depth and solidity, while detail is precise enough to compare to considerably more expensive plasma screens. There are also fewer digital disturbances than you'll find from a flat screen.
Digital TV broadcasts display the same density and intense colours, but with less stability. Challenging programmes, especially the unpredictable movement in sport, can suffer from staggered movement and motion streaming, but otherwise the picture is fine. Analogue broadcasts are inevitably less impressive, with coarse detail and constant noise disturbing a picture that's best ignored unless you fall outside of the digital reception area.
The audio ability of standard TV speakers is rarely anything above acceptable and although the sound is reasonably detailed and expressive, it lacks the scale that this size screen deserves.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide