The battle for the best mid-sized TV is back on. Sony stole first blood with models such as its excellent Bravia KDL-32V2000, but Philips has come back fighting with one of the finest LCD screens we've seen yet. It doesn't come cheap, but a stunning design, advanced technology and peerless performance make it difficult to ignore.
The ace in the pack is the super-cool Ambilight technology, plus a future-proof specification that includes integrated Freeview, high-definition compatibility plus state-of-the-art processing and plenty of ports.
As with the Sony, image quality is sensational with both standard and high-definition material. But add in the sleeker design and Ambilight, and you have a Sony-beater.
Although this screen looks similar to any number of more affordable LCDs, its inflated price is justified by immaculate build quality and exclusive design features.
Like a host of recent LCD designs, the screen is luxuriously framed by a lacquered, black surround with a single speaker system beneath. Ours arrived with an easily assembled, swivelling glass stand. Wall mounting brackets are also supplied and there's an optional floor stand.
What raises it above cheaper TVs is Philips' Ambilight system. This unique technology independently projects light from the sides, creating a surrounding glow that changes in colour and intensity according to what you're watching.
It supposedly improves perceived image quality by reducing eye strain, but is more of a style statement that either excites or annoys, depending on your tastes -- you can always adjust the settings or simply turn it off. Be careful not to catch a glance of the fluorescent panels or you'll be left seeing rainbows.
Easily accessible side connections include standard AV inputs and a USB port that lets you access music and photo files from digital cameras or storage devices. But, unlike the more advanced 37PF9731D, there's no memory card slot.
Most of the remaining connections are awkwardly arranged under the rear panel. This makes them difficult to reach but at least it conceals cables by running them through the base of the stand.
There are dual HDMI inputs, which allow you to simultaneously connect two HD sources without having to switch cables.
You can also use the component inputs to accept high-definition signals or progressively scanned video from a compatible DVD player, while the rest of us can use the two RGB-enabled Scart terminals. A standard VGA terminal with a dedicated audio input will support monitor and media centre applications from your PC.
Standard stereo ports are accompanied by a pair of digital coaxial connections, which allow you to either output sound to an external home cinema amplifier or input audio from devices like a DVD player or satellite box.
Unlike some of the ugly, plastic remotes that escort flat screens, this model is reassuringly weighty and attractively styled -- although the glossed white finish is at odds with the screen's dark veneer.
The screen has a typical WXGA resolution (1,366x768 pixels) and supports 720p and 1080i high-definition formats. It's a lower resolution than the 'Full HD' (1,920x1,080 pixels) specification featured in the larger 37PF9731D, although neither model will support the latest 1080p format used by next-generation devices such as the PlayStation 3.
But Philips insists that it's the processing, and not the panel's resolution that has the greatest effect on performance.
This processing comes courtesy of the latest Pixel Plus 3HD engine, an all-digital system that Philips says improves the image quality from both standard- and high-definition sources.
The TV also measures the quality of incoming signals to determine the level of processing required. This helps prevent standard-definition TV looking fake and 'over processed'.
The Clear LCD system provides a scanning, dimmable backlight, which in combination with enhanced 6ms responsiveness creates superior contrast and motion tracking. This system only works with standard-definition content, though.
There is an integrated digital TV tuner with a CI card slot at the rear that allows you to subscribe to limited channels from TopUp TV. Freeview broadcasts are accompanied by a beautifully presented seven-day EPG (electronic programme guide), although unlike some models you can't see the programme in the background as you browse the listings.
Elsewhere, the menu system is equally resplendent using sharp, colourful graphics that are easily navigated by the direction keys from the remote's cursor.
A unique Settings Assistant helps the lethargic tweak images without fuss. The system shows you before and after images on a split screen, asking you which version you prefer before adjusting settings automatically. This sounds great on paper, but in practice it's a bit hit-and-miss, working best when you simply select the first option that comes up. We found it easier to adjust settings the traditional way using the standard menus.
This is the first LCD we've seen recently that can rival models from Sony's class-leading Bravia range for overall image quality.
It may be more expensive than most, but picture performance is outstanding across virtually all sources -- we tested using Freeview, Denon's upscaling DVD-1930 and Sky's HDTV content.
The way TVs deal with black is what often separates the best from the worst models, and this screen's dense blacks provide images with solid definition and depth-defining contrast without losing detail in dimly lit sequences like the escape scene in Severance. Colours look magnificent, striking a superb balance between vibrant and natural shades.
Philips' processing definitely improves standard-definition pictures from Freeview broadcasts and DVD players with more detail, vitality and depth than models from Toshiba and Samsung.
Normal and fast-paced action is rendered with almost surreal fluidity, but the screen stutters when challenged with slow-moving camera pans, such as the landscape scenes in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Complex scenes are occasionally affected by background instability, but disturbances are generally kept well under control and true high-definition content suffers less.
Sound performance is impressive for a flat screen, with plenty of detail and expression, although the screen's dazzling image quality deserves to be accompanied by a surround setup to complete the ultimate home cinema experience.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield