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If you're looking to buy a new TV, now is definitely the time to reassess LCD, where previously you might have dismissed it out of hand. Thanks to ever-tumbling prices, the technology is within the reach of the casual buyer, and manufacturers such as Dell have shown us you don't have to skimp on features even if you do on price. However, don't expect to find a true bargain with this Thomson. It seems that you still have to make some sacrifices even when you choose a more recognised television manufacturer.
Its sleek silver frame encapsulates a huge 32-inch LCD screen, and at first glance it looks like an evolutionary leap from the televisions of old. But treat it to a few days of varied AV demands and you come to realise that the picture quality isn't very impressive. When you also take into account that it's not ready for high definition and is lacking some important connections, it's difficult to recommend.
If you're willing to treat it with some respect and feed a progressive scan DVD into it, you can get an ample performance. However, the average viewer arguably spends more time watching television programmes, making it hard to reward on these terms. Certainly, while Thomson's attempt to bring LCD technology down to this price (and much lower if you shop around) should be applauded, these problems are severe enough for us to warn off potential buyers completely. If Thomson could have provided high-definition compatibility then it would have at least been future-proofed, but as it stands, budget buyers should be directed towards Dell's smaller but much more impressive W2600.
We really warmed to the design of the 32LB120S4U because it admirably tries to punch above its weight. It looks as if it might be worth at least £2,000, especially when it's hung on the wall (even if the more knowledgeable of you out there will be able to guess otherwise thanks to the Thomson badge). The silver finish is classy and fresh, with only two logos for Hi Pix and Virtual Dolby Surround to ruin the minimalist façade.
The relatively accomplished design continues to the remote control. The buttons are a little too small and clumped together, but it's a 'smart' model, so it can control up to five other devices in addition to your TV. You need to program it by using your old remote, but it works incredibly well, with modern features including Electronic Programme Guide control. It even lights up, which is very handy for any home-cinema owners who are tired of fumbling around in the dark.
The on-screen menu system is uninspiring, with basic fonts and no logos to assist first-time navigation.
While the television may shout 'fresh' from the front, it's a different story on the back. With a barren set of connections, which includes only a solitary RGB Scart, things could certainly have been improved. The trouble with analogue connections is that they look particularly poor on a digital display -- you'll want to avoid composite and S-video altogether, while RGB Scart is only just good enough. Things are slightly ameliorated by the component video input which is also progressive scan compatible, a definite improvement over Thomson's previous generation screens which were interlaced-only. Pair the display up with a modern DVD player and you can appreciate a very smooth, judder-free image that's rich in colour.
You can also use the TV as a PC display thanks to the VGA input, and the rear also boasts a PC-type audio input so you can route the sound through to large main speakers. On the audio side it's also nice to see a separate stereo output in addition to a headphone socket, although it's a mini-jack fitting so you might need an adaptor to connect it all up to a home cinema system.
The television's features list is nearly as barren as the connections board. Although the set boasts Thomson's Hi Pix technology -- Thomson's proprietary solution for sharpening up analogue sources -- there isn't any option to turn it on or off within the menu system. Not that you'd notice too much, as Hi Pix doesn't seem to do an awful lot to the pictures. It's almost as if Thomson saw Samsung or Philips, with DNIe and Pixel Plus respectively, and decided it needed to have an image-enhancing technology of its own.
Having said that, there are quite a few image presets that you can employ to tailor the set in different situations, in addition to setting one up of your own. Film, Sport and Studio are fairly self-explanatory, with Standard looking slightly darker than we might like, but you can up the brightness in the Personal setting. Rather more unexpectedly you can also change the brightness of the backlight as well as a few other advanced settings, including Colour Tone (Warm/Soft/Neutral), as well as Noise Reduction and Black Expand. The automatic picture configuration recognises the original broadcast format too, so if it's 4:3 it can stretch it out to fill the screen while still retaining a natural aspect ratio. It's a nice feature that we first saw implemented by Sony, which helps during the transition period to 16:9 broadcasts, which naturally look best on this screen.
Other features include the now-mandatory (but still useless) Picture-in-Picture facility, as well as Virtual Dolby Surround. The latter will also be of little use to anyone, but it's another offering for Thomson to boast about in the product brochure. If only a DVI input had been included to allow users to upgrade to Sky's high-definition service, which is due in early 2006. The announcement that a HDCP-compliant input would be needed for the service is still relatively recent, but the ringing it made in manufacturer's ears should have filtered through to its finished products by now, especially on a model as large as 32-inch. And with Blu-Ray and HD-DVD on the way, it's enough to make us strongly suggest you hold off buying the display, regardless of its performance.
Picture performance is a mixed bag with the 32LB120S4U. Across all the sources, colour reproduction is generally good, although skin tones can err too much towards the red end of the spectrum. However, there's next to no contrast on offer, so distinguishing fine detail in darker areas of the screen is an impossible task. There is also too much noise and blocking present on pictures from FreeView -- again, where Samsung's DNIe sorts these problems out, HiPix doesn't seem to be up to the job. Having said that, the brightness is very good, especially when set to the highest level in the on-screen menu.
The aural performance is also good, especially in terms of detail. The speakers might not offer a massive amount of depth but they can go up to maximum without distorting, and during everyday use they perform adequately. You wouldn't want to use Virtual Dolby when watching EastEnders, but you can output straight to a receiver and let it handle the more realistic Dolby Pro Logic II processing.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Tom Espiner