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If LCD TVs are still seen as a luxury item, then Samsung's latest range is the one that's pushing it to the mainstream consumer. This TV's price, typically a mere £950, was unthinkable at the beginning of 2005, making it hugely popular -- you might find it hard to go out and buy the LE32R41BD without a wait of at least a week. The TV's high-definition compatibility and integrated digital tuner appeal to the technophiles, while the modern styling and low price appeal to, well, everyone.
The Samsung LE32R41BD is a tour de force bargain from Samsung, ticking nearly every box on our list of demands while trouncing the competition on price. True, Samsung's picture quality doesn't touch Sharp's peerless efforts, but the TV still offers high-end technology, with DNIe image processing giving particularly colourful images with a good contrast range. There's also high-level connectivity from HDMI, meaning the set will be more than ready for the rigours of Sky HD when it launches. Standard connectivity could be more plentiful, but if you've been putting off buying an LCD TV until they become affordable, your wait is over.
The Samsung LE32R41BD is gorgeous. It may be a budget LCD, but it will look the part even in the most expensive designer pad. It sits quite tall on its stand compared to other LCD TVs, as the large speaker panel is situated below the screen. The pointed design gives the Samsungs an immediate focal point, and we're sure this will become as iconic as the Panasonic's Viera range's famous curved stand. The rest of the frame is finished in black, continuing the understated feel.
Disappointingly, there are no connections on the front or side for easy access -- everything is housed on one small panel on the rear of the TV. The selection is adequate, a case of covering all bases without being extravagant. While Samsung has satisfied all reasonable demands, there's only one of each connector included. So there's one S-video input, one composite input, one set of component inputs, one VGA socket and one of the all-new HDMI digital inputs. There are two Scart inputs, but only one is RGB-compatible. This is our biggest complaint, as Scart is still the standard video connector for games consoles and DVD players. If you're going to upgrade to a component video player then you should be fine, but any users wanting to connect a digibox and a normal DVD player via Scart will have to compromise picture quality on one or the other.
Of course, there are audio inputs to accompany the video terminals, so there are stereo inputs for S-video/composite, a headphone-style input for PC, plus stereo outputs to connect up to a home-cinema system. There's also a service input in case you want to upgrade the television with a firmware upgrade, but more on that later.
The design of the remote control is simplistic and completely different from the TV itself in colour and design. Whereas the TV is mainly a sleek black, the remote is a dull grey and looks like it was designed by a completely different department within Samsung. It's easy to use, though, with the main buttons organised in a methodical manner and advanced features tucked underneath a sliding panel at the bottom. As this is an iDTV (including a digital TV receiver), it incorporates Guide buttons necessary for using the electronic programme guide (EPG). The menu system is also easy to navigate, and you can even name the various AV inputs ('Game' or 'DVD' for example) so that it's easier for people not used to the TV to operate it.
The Samsung is certainly feature-packed, with both high-definition capability and a Freeview tuner. While high definition isn't readily available as yet, the television will support 720p and 1080i signals via component and HDMI. The native resolution of the screen favours 720p, but the TV can scale images down. And as the HDMI input has HDCP compatibility, the TV will be fully compatible with Sky's High Definition service, not to mention the as-yet unfinalised HD disc formats. (Read our guide to upcoming high-definition services here.)
Freeview integration is masterfully handled, especially as far as the EPG is concerned. When you hit the Guide button on the remote, the channel you're currently viewing stays in the top-right corner, while you're given a seven-day view of every channel available. If something takes your fancy, simply highlight it and press Enter on the remote, and the television will remind you before the programme starts. We've seen dedicated digiboxes with far worse user interfaces, although the digital TV setup screen is ugly and completely different to the main setup GUI.
Philips' recent 26-inch TV attained its budget £700 price point by abandoning the company's Pixel Plus engine, but no such cutbacks have been necessary for the Samsung TV. The company's DNIe image processing improves standard television and DVD sources as they are taken from a low resolution and then fed into a high resolution panel. In this respect, there are improvements, but if you're using the Scart, S-video or composite inputs, there are plenty of artefacts to be seen. No matter what video source you use, DNIe also boosts the contrast and detail in the picture, as well as making colours appear more natural. There's a mode to see the before and after effects of the DNIe engine, which is an impressive demonstration when you first see the TV, and there's an option to boost image contrast even further in the main menu. This was quite useful for movies, but when we tried Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox, it made some of the areas seem unnaturally coloured, so we turned it off.
We can't help but reinforce the point that very few shortcuts to reduce the price appear to have been made on this TV. For example, there's a clever feature that monitors the light level in your room and adjusts the brightness automatically. As picture purists, we found it a little annoying, as the brightness would constantly change slightly in a dimly lit room, but it didn't detract too much and provided extra sheen to an already good picture.
Of the many people who have sung the praises of this TV already, nearly as many have expressed problems with image tearing through the television's component inputs. Newer models shouldn't be affected, but this is something that Samsung has recognised, and the company has issued an upgrade pack that the user can install (more nervous customers can have a Samsung engineer take a look).
We occasionally saw image tearing on our review model when playing Xbox games at 720p or playing high-definition movie clips from Apple's Web site. Previously we've only seen this on PC games, where you sometimes have to engage 'VSync' to make sure the lines that make up the image line up correctly. If you don't, the image seems to rip horizontally. At this point, it's only truly hardcore AV fans that will be bothered by it, but it could be more problematic in the future. If you're in doubt when you buy the TV, get in touch with Samsung about the firmware upgrade or have a word with the dealer.
Samsung's panel can't compete with a Sharp or Panasonic when it comes to sharpness, but it does offer rich colours and very little image smearing. The DNIe engine offers a real boost in terms of contrast, which consequently improves colour levels. Freeview picture quality is good and the television will automatically format the picture if it's being broadcast in 4:3. We found that you need to use the component or HDMI inputs to get the most from the TV. We used Samsung's own DVD-850 to test the HDMI input and the picture quality was fantastic. The same was true for an Xbox outputting a progressive-scan signal -- Burnout Revenge was so detailed that we don't know how we managed before. Make the effort to invest in the best equipment you can afford (and it doesn't have to be expensive -- Samsung's player is available for under £100), and you'll be getting truly excellent picture quality at a fraction of the price compared to the beginning of this year.
Audio performance is impressive, if nothing to write home about. The speakers offer a decent range for movie viewing, meaning that you get intelligible dialogue and spot effects, but not enough impact at the lower end to fully enjoy an action movie. Plug the LE32R41BD into a home cinema system and you'll have a much better time.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide