It's taken just a few years for flat-screen TVs to go from rich man's plaything to veteran of the high street. Already, most of the big manufacturers are slowing down their CRT production, and the industry has been promising that by 2007 LCD TVs will cost only 50 per cent more than their CRT equivalent. But with companies like Akai constantly pushing the envelope, it seems that day has already come. Its LCD is over £200 cheaper than anything else of the same size, making it a serious proposition for those in love with the idea of hanging a TV on the wall, but not spending over £1,000 to get it.
The company's LM-H30CJSA is a budget TV, make no mistake, but as David Dickinson would say, it's still a 'Bobby Dazzler'. With a 30-inch panel and component inputs to boast about, it's more than capable of providing your living room with a cinematic experience. However, if you're more interested in using this as the centre of your AV setup, it simply won't be able to keep up, because it's missing the connectivity that rival budget manufacturers have been working to perfect. The picture quality punches way above its weight, though, making it superb value for money, especially as an oversized style statement for the bedroom.
When we receive a budget LCD for testing, we often get a strong sense of deja vu. It seems that a lot of the smaller manufacturers buy LCD panels, connection boards and remote controls from mass production plants in China, and then badge them as their own. In this case, the LM-H30CJSA shares many characteristics with the ViewSonic NW2750w, particularly the uncannily similar remote control. It's as boring as they come, but without a standard layout, it's unintuitive to use. It also feels so cheap it might as well have been made from detergent bottles and sticky-back plastic. However, it does have individual buttons for all the AV inputs, which is always a welcome alternative to cycling through inputs with just one button.
Unfortunately, Akai has chosen a particularly poor connection board to attach to the rear of its TV. While ViewSonic and Dell have shown us that budget televisions don't need to make sacrifices in this area, the connection list on the Akai is as barren as the Gobi desert. It also features some idiosyncrasies that grate during everyday use. For example, the audio inputs are located on one side of the back panel and the video connections on the other. Many cables, such as our PlayStation 2 component lead, just won't stretch far enough to fit into both sockets.
However, if you have a collection of long cables to play around with, all the key connections are available, even if they're mostly sitting by themselves on the back. There's only one RGB Scart -- a criminal offence in the eyes of the AV police -- plus one composite, S-video and VGA input. The component inputs are fully progressive-scan compatible, making them the best thing on the LCD by a country mile. It's still a rarity to find these on budget LCDs, and the improvement over RGB Scart makes their inclusion wholly worthwhile. Obviously, at this price you can't expect a DVI input, but the panel does have 1,280x768 WXGA Resolution. This means that it will support high-definition video if you want to link up a PC and download some clips from the Internet.
Simplicity is the order of the day when it comes to the Akai package. The screen is surrounded by an understated silver bezel, but the protruding speakers that flank it are too big for our liking. The only distinguishing feature is the Akai logo, plus a little LED to indicate whether the television is on or on standby.
The on-screen menu makes Commodore 64 games look sophisticated. It's a nice touch that you can make the menu more or less transparent, but the only thing going for the pixellated, blocky lettering is that it's relatively easy to read. However, if you're less concerned about how your gran is going to be able to change the brightness level and more worried about the setup process, it's a cinch. The TV asks you which country you're in, searches for analogue television signals, and about three minutes later you're flicking between all the terrestrial channels in the correct order.
You don't buy a budget car and expect it to have leather seats, but if you look hard on the LM-H30CJSA there are a few treats to be found. The television does Picture in Picture, and it's easy to switch between sources, thanks to the number of buttons on the remote. We don't find PIP particularly useful in everyday situations, but a lot of people find splitting channels lets them navigate more easily, or allows them to check the football score without infuriating everyone else in the room. You can use one of the stereo audio connectors as an input or an output, so you can use some more powerful external speakers, which is handy.
Two buttons on the remote control allow you to control the picture format and brightness directly. As with televisions from Sony, you can keep 4:3 material such as The Simpsons in a square format, or take the top and bottom off the picture to make the characters look less stretched out.
But in terms of other tweaks you can make to the image, the options are minimal. If you use Digital Video Essentials to optimise your picture quality, you probably won't be interested in a budget TV in the first place and you won't find much to tweak if you are. There are only basic options to change contrast and brightness -- the former is set at maximum by default and needs dropping down -- and there's a second menu to alter colour hue/saturation and sharpness. And that's your lot -- it's lacking essential features such as picture presets (like Movie, Game or Sport) and the only other things to adjust are the treble and bass settings.
One useful feature, for AV geeks at least, is that the main menu displays information about the current source, such as resolution and whether it's progressive or interlaced. This tells you whether your PS2 games or movies are being played back in progressive scan, which gives us a warm feeling inside.
If we've given the impression the Akai is a no-frills LCD, then the picture quality tilts the story back its way. Across all sources, even composite, the picture is impressive. While the lack of contrast has a noticeable effect on shadow detail, nearly all the other telltale signs of a cheap LCD are noticeable only by their absence. There's no colour bleed and fast motion is handled well, thanks to a nippy response time. So, in real-world terms, this is a fantastic TV for everyday terrestrial viewing. Stick on an atmospheric movie, such as our test disc Underworld, and the dark areas result in an annoying lack of depth.
If anything, the Akai's ability to hold its own when faced with a poor analogue TV or composite signal is the most important strength -- it means you don't have to be so picky when choosing how to connect the rest of your AV equipment. We'd like more connections, but you can be sure the picture quality from those available is universally impressive. The only other limiting factor is the viewing angle. You'll need to position the TV so you can view it straight-on.
Audio is tinny, which is strange, because the speakers are rated at 2x10W -- not too shabby, given the price. However, they struggle to keep up with the demands of even a modest soundtrack, making a meaty film like Master & Commander sound as lightweight as an episode of Neighbours.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide