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Despite producing some great TVs last year, Sony is still struggling to sell enough to the public to make its TV arm profitable. As a result, this year it's spinning off its TV division into a separate business. It's also decided to concentrate on the mid- and higher-end of the TV market, at least in Europe and the US. There will be plenty of 4K set's from Sony later in the year, but the first model from the 2014 range that I'm looking at here is Full HD, rather than 4K, and it can be yours for £899 from Sony.
It's essentially an updated version of last year's W807, but it boasts a redesigned smart TV system, 800Hz motion-flow picture processing and active 3D support. It lacks the camera and touchpad remote that will be offered on Sony's soon to be released W9 series TVs though.
Thankfully, Sony has decided to redesign its user interface once again for this year's TVs. The new system is much easier to find your way around thanks to its streamlined menu structure. You can now access all of the TV's features -- including the settings menu, smart TV apps, TV guide and media player -- from the set's homescreen. A banner across the top lets you quickly jump between live TV channels, on-demand movies, smart TV apps and music or photos shared from your PC. There are also entries on this tab for search, choosing an AV input and accessing the settings menu. It's much speedier to use than last years' slightly convoluted system.
As with older Sony TVs, there are two TV guides available. The default one is good -- it's the standard Freeview EPG that displays upcoming shows in a traditional bricks-in-the-wall layout. Alternatively, you can use the Web-enabled guide instead. This is able to pull in more metadata, so includes info on actors and directors, for example, but it's slow to open and takes a few seconds to populate. As a result, it really isn't worth the hassle, especially when the standard guide works so well.
Unsurprisingly for a TV of this price, you can control all aspects of the set's pictures via the settings menus, including adjusting the aggressiveness of the motion processing and making fine colour changes in its colour management system. Sony has also kept its Scene selection preset modes, which are essentially picture and audio presets grouped together. If you select Cinema, for example, it'll choose the best audio and video settings for watching movies on Blu-ray. The presets are generally high quality too, unlike those on Samsung's TVs, so that's a bonus if you don't feel confident fiddling with colour and contrast controls.
Weirdly the W829 follows the design of last year's W6 series rather than W8 series. It's got the same wire stand, which is fixed and doesn't swivel, and also has an external power supply. That's very unusual, as last year's W6 was the only other large screen TV I've come across with an external power unit. It's not a big deal, but may be slightly awkward to hide if you're wall mounting the TV. Also, this TVs stand can be reconfigured to act as its wall mount. That's a plus, but bear in mind that the set doesn't have standard VESA mounts, so it can't be used with normal LCD wall-mounting brackets.
Other than that, the TV is actually quite easy on the eye. It's got an extremely narrow bezel, so looks suitably fresh and modern, and Sony has ditched the ugly rectangular box that protruded from the bottom lip of last year's sets. Instead, the Sony logo now sits on the bottom part of the bezel and the power LED is mounted on a thin, transparent, plastic strip. It's a much cleaner, less fussy look.
Sony's been pretty generous with the range of ports on offer. The set includes four HDMI ports (one of which supports MHL, so it can charge mobile devices when connected), a set of component inputs, a full sized scart socket and two USB ports (one of which can be used for recording TV from the onboard tuners). Speaking of tuners, it has two: a standard Freeview HD tuner and a basic HD satellite tuner. The latter doesn't support Freesat though, so it's not hugely useful in the UK unless you want to tune in to foreign satellite stations, as it just tunes stations in a random order and the TV guide doesn't work.
Naturally Wi-Fi is built-in and there's an Ethernet port if you'd rather use a wired connection, which is often the best option for HD media streaming anyway.
Sony has changed the user interface for its smart TV system to better integrate it into the set's homescreen. It's a much improved approach as it makes the smart TV system feel like it's really part of the TV rather than something that's been bolted on as an afterthought. I also like the way there are dedicated SEN (Sony Entertainment Network) and Netflix buttons for quick access to apps or a fast launch of Netflix.
Also new is the football mode button. It selects a dedicated preset for audio and video settings best suited to watching the beautiful game, while also offering quick access to footy videos on YouTube as well as World Cup footage. Sony has added a Social View mode too. This overlays an attractive scrolling banner of Tweets related to your chosen hashtag on Twitter. It's hardly a mainstream feature, but some may like it when viewing reality telly, for example.
Another addition is the Discovery feature. When you call it up via the button on the remote, it offers up thumbnails of suggested content you might want to watch from a range of sources including Live TV, YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Sony's Video Unlimited service, among others. You can also add your own keywords so it'll suggest specific content more tailored to your tastes.
These are all good developments, but on the whole, the smart TV system still lags behind some of those on competitors models'. The range of apps is decent -- iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Demand 5 and YouTube are included -- but Sony's system still lacks ITV Player and 4oD. Also, catch-up isn't as well integrated as it is on Panasonic's forthcoming Freetime compatible TVs, and Sony's smart TV system feels more sluggish here than on many other manufacturers sets. It's an improvement, but it's still not leading the field in terms of smart TV.
Unfortunately this TV doesn't stand out from the crowd when it comes to audio. Its downfiring speakers tend to sound boxy, and like a lot of slimline TVs, its audio is too mid-range heavy. That does help dialogue to sound reasonably crisp, but there's a distinct lack of bass, and even cranking up the bass frequencies using the equaliser in the audio menu doesn't improve matters much.
On the box, there's a recommendation to twin the TV with the SWF-BR100 wireless sub, which may be a good, albeit expensive option.
Let's be clear, the W829's picture quality is extremely good, especially given its reasonable price. The biggest surprise is just how deep its black levels are despite the fact that it doesn't use any edge dimming tricks to achieve this.
The backlighting is pretty uniform across the display too. There were a couple of brighter patches on the right hand side of the screen and on the lower left of my sample, but it's nowhere near as blotchy as a lot of similarly priced LED models from Samsung and Panasonic.
One thing to watch out for though is that if the TV is mounted a bit low, you can see a thin band across the bottom of the display where the backlighting isn't as intense as it is on the rest of the screen. Raising the TV to be more level with your eyeline gets rid of this, as it's really a viewing angle issue, but it's worth noting if you sit your TV on a low-profile AV unit. The set's viewing angles also aren't quite as wide as I would have liked and if you sit at an angle to the TV you'll notice that colours take on a blue-ish tinge.
Sony's 'X-Reality Pro' picture processing generally does a very good job of cleaning up image problems though. That said, if you sit too close to the screen you will see some jaggies if you're watching upscaled footage of standard definition broadcasts on Freeview. This isn't really noticeable when you're sitting back at a normal distance though.
The set's native motion performance is on a par with other 100Hz screens at around 300 lines, so with motion processing turned off there's some blur on fast camera pans. Once you engage its Motion Flow processing using the excellent Clear setting, however, the TV is able to deliver a full 1,080 lines of motion. The Clear setting also manages to do this without introducing lots of tearing around the edges of moving objects in the picture, in the way that many lesser systems do. That's impressive and makes this is an excellent option for watching fast paced sports like footy and F1.
When it comes to reproducing colour, the W829 puts in a fine performance, and this combined with its excellent handling of contrast makes for really engaging and classy looking pictures. If I was to nit pick I'd say it maybe lacks some punch on reds, but you can only really tell this by watching it back to back with a good plasma. So all in all, this is a very impressive 2D performer, especially for a 50-inch set costing under a grand.
Unlike last year's W8 model, Sony has opted for active 3D on this set. There are two of the chunkier, powered glasses included with the TV. They're a bit on the heavy side though, and not hugely comfortable to wear.
This TV isn't a great 3D performer anyway. In most of the preset picture modes there's quite a bit of crosstalk to be seen, with only the Cinema mode managing to cut down on this significantly -- although it doesn't get rid of it entirely. This model's 3D pictures lack oomph in the brightness department too, being noticeably darker than many other LED 3D active sets I've reviewed.
Also, the resolution in 3D seems to be somewhat lower than Full HD. For example, in the opening shot in "Hugo" as the camera moves in towards the Railway Station, the grid of glass windows at the top of the station doesn't look as cleanly defined as it should. In fact, there were quite a few times where I noticed that its 3D pictures looked softer than most other active 3D sets I've used. Overall, it's not a great choice if you're one of the few people who still care about 3D in the home.
In terms of raw 2D picture quality, the 50W829 is a very impressive TV. It delivers rich, contrast-y and colourful images and doesn't suffer as badly from blotchiness in the backlighting as most other LED TVs, especially at this price. What's more, its image-processing chops are excellent. Sadly its lacklustre smart TV system and mediocre sound quality hold it back from achieving an even higher score.