There was a time when you could release any old LCD TV and people would 'ooh' and 'aah', astounded by its svelte charms. Now, though, you have to offer something different -- see Philips' Ambilight or Sharp's wireless LCDs for proof. Freeview has been a massive success since its launch, and now that it's here to stay, people are asking for digital tuners to come integrated in their TVs (or iDTVs as they're called) as standard.
Sony is happy to oblige, of course, but with one small caveat: the KDL-L32MRX1's digital tuner isn't integrated, but housed in a separate media box. This part of the system has to be near the TV, but it offers the added benefit of increased connectivity. AV nuts will go wild -- three Scart sockets and a set of component inputs -- but computer users and high-defininition fans will rue the lack of a DVI socket. Hi-def compatibility is a constant theme with us at CNET.co.uk -- when you're spending this much on a TV, you don't want it to be redundant within a few years.
If style's your thing, though, this Sony might just be enough to convince you it's worth the high price. It's simply gorgeous, perhaps only beaten by Bang & Olufsen and Loewe in terms of design. The picture quality is also excellent, due to Sony's Wega Engine technology. The ability to record to Memory Stick is novel, but limited -- you can play back recordings on the TV itself, but not in other Sony equipment such as the PlayStation Portable. By not being compatible with the company's biggest piece of new technology, Sony is missing a huge opportunity here.
The KDL-L32MRX1 looks the business. The package consists of the gorgeous TV itself and a slinky white media box, reminiscent of Apple's school of design. The two don't really match, but they're equally good looking.
The screen itself is surrounded by a thick glass panel -- a completely novel approach that has worked beautifully. Sony hasn't stopped with one innovative piece of design, though. The on/off and status LEDs appear to be housed inside the glass panel, as if powered by some magical source that can conduct electricity through glass. It's an optical illusion -- the glass has been etched to reflect a light from the main panel -- but the effect is absolutely stunning. It's the kind of outside-the-box thinking that other companies should take note of.
The same precision applies around the back -- there are only two AV connections and a power supply that go into the TV itself. But since the Freeview decoder is sitting in a separate box, it makes sense to have that same box handling the connectivity. AV buffs will find the provision of inputs to their liking, as there are three Scart terminals and a set of component inputs. It also has stereo audio outputs and an aerial loopthrough (in case you have a hard drive or DVD recorder). Uniquely, you can also use the two speakers on the TV as a centre channel if you're slotting the display into a home-cinema system.
The KDL-L32MRX1's VGA input is compatible with all computers (PC or Mac), but as the TV is a digital display, it would have made sense to use a DVI digital video connector. This omission not only impacts modern computer systems, but also, and more importantly, means the TV isn't truly high-definition compatible. It will display 720p and 1080i signals over component video, but Sky has confirmed that its service will require DVI or HDMI, and we expect Blu-ray and HD-DVD players to go the same way.
The lack of high definition is always a real sticking point for us, but this Sony LCD still has a few tricks up its sleeve to win back favour. Far from settling for vanilla Freeview compatibility, it has a Common Interface slot on the rear that will accept a TopUp TV subscription card. Much like Panasonic and its support for SD cards, Sony's flat screen has a slot for Memory Stick, on to which it will record TV (it can display images from the Stick, too). Sadly, Sony's masterplan doesn't stretch to supporting its own equipment -- recorded programmes won't play back on a PSP. It won't play MP3 or ATRAC music files either -- another missed opportunity.
The television's resolution is a high-definition compatible 1280x768, but the lack of DVI/HDMI input means that it won't support Sky HD. It does mean that you can run your PC display at a nice resolution though, and if you're really keen you can download some high-definition clips from Microsoft and see what all the fuss is about.
Freeview is far from being a simple afterthought and has been integrated into the television very well. The electronic programme guide, for example, is more useful than on most set-top boxes. Not only does it show listings for five channels at a time, but also it displays the current channel in the corner of the screen. You can see the current time, type of programme and a short description of what it is you're watching. It starts to get really clever when you sort programmes by type, such as Film or Education, and the guide goes up to seven days ahead if you have a strong signal.
Memory Stick recording isn't half-hearted either. You can set schedules up to a week in advance and set the individual quality level for each recording. It's doesn't make any sense that they won't play back on a PSP though -- Sony typically has a lot of brand loyalty and plenty of people would want to take advantage of this feature. We should note that our PSP is from North America, and it's feasible that the European version, to be launched in September, could accommodate recorded programmes from the KDL-L32MRX1. We're not holding our breath, though.
The television will also read JPEG images from a Memory Stick Pro or Duo. We experimented with two sets of pictures to see if we could torture our friends and family with mountains of virtual holiday snaps. It wasn't easy -- the menu was slow to navigate, as though there wasn't enough memory inside the media box. It certainly wasn't our Memory Stick that was slow to access, because we were using the very latest 1GB Pro Duo, which offers extremely fast access times. A collection of Glastonbury shots taken from the Nikon D70 digital SLR and subsequently shrunk for the Web looked great. Strangely though, shots that had been kept in high resolution from the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P9 displayed flickering, possibly because of their higher resolution. We doubt it was the camera itself, although the problems with inter-Sony compatibility are quite comical. It would have been nice to see some pretty fades and transitions when running a slideshow, but the only thing you can change is the amount of time each picture stays on the screen.
The KDL-L32MRX1 displays the same excellent menu system as Sony's other TVs, which is a joy to use thanks to another excellent remote control. There were a few small niggles, though -- pressing the Record button doesn't start recording to the Memory Stick. Some of the buttons are far too small, and the recording options are tucked away in two sub-menus. The remote will control other Sony AV equipment, though, and there's a direct button for the Memory Stick picture menu.
We really hate the fact that the KDL-L32MRX1 isn't an HDTV, but as with a child that's failed an exam but tried its best, it's hard not to love it. Freeview pictures look much better than they do on rival LCDs, thanks to the Wega Engine's talent for picture processing. By keeping everything in the digital domain, the screen doesn't display as many of the horrible artefacts that blight most flat screens, and detail is more perceptible as well. The quality of the Freeview broadcasts is pretty poor -- during Wimbledon, the crowd's faces lacked definition when the camera panned across them. You literally couldn't tell whether they had eyes, so we were scared that aliens had invaded earth to catch the women's final. Nevertheless, the Sony copes better than most.
When you upgrade to the component inputs, the noise is removed and the pictures offer real sharpness. Colours aren't amazingly vibrant, but they look natural and the contrast depth of the images is up there with the best. The Wega Engine reflects how well you're treating it, so it's worth investing in a component DVD player.
The audio also punches above its weight. The speakers look sizeable sitting on either side of the glass frame and they certainly don't disappoint. We hope that you'll be using a home-cinema system with the TV, and you'll probably want to use a dedicated centre channel speaker rather than rely on the television's speakers.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide