Features from high-end TVs are trickling down to cheaper sets, with some enticing results. Take Samsung's 40-inch, 1080p UE40D5520 LED TV, for example. Despite costing a very affordable £550 or so, it's as thin as a rake thanks to its LED illumination, offers 100Hz processing and comes with Samsung's full complement of Smart TV features, including digital media streaming and support for BBC iPlayer.
User interface and EPG
Of all the major TV manufacturers, Samsung has probably done the best job of creating a user interface that looks rich and inviting, yet remains very easy to use. Like the rest of Samsung's recent TVs, this one has a Smart Hub page that brings together all of the TV's key features on a single home screen.
The Smart Hub displays a series of colourful icons with a live video window of the currently selected channel shown in the top left-hand corner. From here you can skip between the various AV inputs, access the main settings menus, use the media-streaming features, and access video-on-demand services, such as BBC iPlayer.
Even the standard video and audio menus look very colourful and inviting. Tucked in among them, there's an on-screen manual that you can browse in much the same way as you would a Web page, as it has links from one topic to another.
The electronic programme guide is also first-rate. It's rendered using a large, crisp font that's easy to read from a distance, and it shows programming data for six channels at a time using a horizontal layout. The EPG screen also has a video window in the top left-hand corner, and, to the right of this, it displays information about the currently selected programme.
Digital media and Internet features
This set includes Samsung's full Smart TV platform. This means it comes loaded with apps for a number of online video-on-demand services, including BBC iPlayer, LoveFilm, Acetrax and YouTube. Alongside these, you'll find a number of apps for simple games, as well as news and information services. There's also support for services like Facebook and Twitter, and the Smart TV platform even includes its own app store, so you can pick and choose which apps you want to have loaded on the home screen.
Smart TV is stylishly presented and fast to navigate. We had an issue with the BBC iPlayer app, though -- fast-forwarding through shows is extremely slow, as essentially you can only jump along in 30 second hops. Sony's implementation, in contrast, lets you quickly zip back and forth through a show via the progress bar.
It's also worth noting that, unlike Samsung's higher-end TVs, this one doesn't support Skype and doesn't include a full Web browser.
Along with the Internet features, the set can also playback content from memory keys or hard drives plugged into either of its two USB ports. A pretty broad range of formats is supported. We had no problems getting the telly to play a number of different video formats, including Xvid, DivX and HD MKV files.
The set also supports digital media streaming, via its Ethernet port, from a PC or network-attached storage drive. Again, playback is smooth and format support is impressive. One anomaly, however, is that the TV would only play MKV files if we renamed them as AVI files, which is strange, as the set doesn't have a problem playing MKVs locally via USB.
Design and connections
Samsung has a knack or producing TVs with great designs. Despite its modest price tag, this TV still looks drop-dead gorgeous. The company has gone for a glossy black finish with a transparent edge that manages to look striking without drawing too much attention to itself. The transparent edge is also echoed in the sexy Perspex stem used on the pedestal stand. Thanks to its LED backlighting, this telly is also supremely slim, at just 30mm deep, and this, combined with the narrow bezel, means it has a very modern look.
The rear of the TV is home to a line-up of connections similar to that which you'd find on tellies of double the price. There are four HDMI ports, as well as a set of component inputs, a Scart socket, and a VGA port. There's also an Ethernet port for the Web features, as well as two USB sockets. The second USB port is provided largely so that you can add the optional Wi-Fi USB dongle and still have a spare port for connecting up a hard drive.
Sadly, the TV's slick styling isn't matched by the remote. It's a rather bulky unit that's slightly too wide and thick to be completely comfortable in the hand. Nevertheless, the buttons are large and feel responsive under a finger or thumb. You do also get used to the chunky dimensions after a while.
The first thing you notice when you turn on this set is just how good its pictures look -- not just in comparison to other budget sets, but also in comparison to many mid-range models we've seen. The LED backlighting means images are very bright, which in turns gives the set's colours real impact. But colours aren't overly garish -- far from it, in fact. The TV delivers pictures with great subtlety, helped in no small part by its deep black levels.
The depth of the black levels could embarrass many higher-end TVs. These black levels aren't achieved by crushing out shadow detail either -- the telly manages to retain plenty of detail in darker areas of the image, rather than descending into a sea of murky black. There's even a shadow-detail control in the picture-settings menu that you can play around with to get the best results for any given source.
On the negative side, the TV does suffer from inconsistent backlighting. In very dark scenes, you can see a slight misting where the backlight is bleeding through into the picture. It's not all that noticeable in brighter scenes and you can reduce the effect by turning down the set's backlight level in the picture menu, but then you do also naturally lose some brightness.
To keep motion looking as smooth as possible, Samsung has added 100Hz Motion Plus processing to the UE40D5520. You're given control over how much this works on the TV's output. We think it's best to opt for the lower settings, if you feel the need to turn it on at all. This is because the processing introduces some artefacts, such as slight shimmering on the edges of objects.
Even with Motion Plus turned off, the set's motion performance isn't too bad. Blur is only really noticeable here and there, rather than being a feature of normal viewing, as it is on many budget sets.
This model is at its best when dealing with HD material. BBC HD via the Freeview HD tuner looks stunning, thanks to this telly's impressive sharpness levels and its innate ability to make every pixel of detail count. It's not a bad performer when it comes to upscaling standard-definition pictures either. The upscaling process manages to add in significant amounts of extra sharpness, although we did have to tame this down slightly to avoid it also introducing extra noise. Nevertheless, with a few tweaks of the picture and noise-reduction settings, we were able to find a pretty happy medium.
When it comes to sonic performance, this set is a mixed bag. The bad news is that, like many slim TVs, it's rather pathetic when it comes to reproducing bass frequencies. Its small speakers simply aren't able to reach down and strum the bass notes.
But it still offers a decent level of mid-range presence, which helps dialogue to stand out cleanly in the mix, and it also sounds precise at the top end of the frequency spectrum, without reducing audio to a tinny mess.
Basically, this TV isn't as good a sonic performer as Panasonic and Philip's LED sets, which include larger speakers, but it's not the worst LED model we've heard either.
The Samsung UE40D5520 puts in such a strong performance across the board that we think you'd struggle to find better value for money elsewhere. Its pictures have real punch and clarity, the line up of Internet and media-streaming services is superb, and its design is a treat. It's something of a steal.
Edited by Charles Kloet