It's claimed that Henry Ford said, as a joke, that you could have his 'Model T' motorcar in any colour you liked, as long as it was black. In fact, even the Model T was available in other colours. TV manufacturers, on the other hand, seem to have decided that you can only have your TV in one colour. Of course there are exceptions, such as Samsung's 'Rose Black' finish and the more playful colours that appear on many smaller TVs, but mostly it's just black, black and more black.
So with its E4000, Sony has clearly attempted to appeal to people who tired of seeing that big slab of black plastic in the corner of their living room. This TV certainly looks different with its white frame and black trim -- but does it have more to offer than unconventional looks?
What makes the Sony E4000 so remarkable is simply the bold white bezel that surrounds the screen. A black border around the outer edge serves to exentuate the white, and it does its job well. The Sony logo, illuminated from behind with a rectangle of light, sits at the bottom of the screen -- this looks slightly odd to us, but the light can be disabled if you wish.
Other than that, the front of the TV is fairly simple, and leaves you alone to enjoy the strange aesthetic. Of course there's a speaker grille, but even that doesn't distract from the unusual design ethos of the TV.
At the back you'll find a pair of HDMI inputs with a third on the side. For a modern TV of this size, we think Sony should have at least four HDMI sockets -- after all, HDMI is getting more prevalent, not less. There are also two Scart sockets, component and VGA inputs as well as optical audio out, for connecting the TV to a speaker system of some kind.
The remote control is also finished in white, matching prettily with the TV. It's also very simple to use, as the number of buttons have been reduced to make it more friendly to people who don't live for technology.
Sony is now including its clumsily named XrossMediaBar, or XMB, on its TVs, which is an interesting feature if you can get over that travesty of the English language. If you've ever seen the PlayStation 3 user interface you'll be familiar with the concept. Basically, it's divided up into two axes -- on the horizontal axis you get options such as Digital Channels, Analogue Channels, Settings and Inputs; and on the vertical axis you get sub-options that are context sensitive. So for instance you could choose Digital Channels on the horizontal bar and then see all those channels appear on the vertical bar; or you could choose Settings on the horizontal bar and then see all of its relevant sub-options appear on the vertical bar. Despite a name that will make Shakespeare spin in his grave, it's a useful feature.
Of course 24hz playback for Blu-ray movies is included, which should make HD viewing a more fluid, enjoyable experience. The TV can also accept 1080p video and display it natively, which means you'll get the best out of Blu-ray movies and games on a PS3.
As we've mentioned, photo viewing is a key part of this TV's raison d'être, so Sony provides a USB memory stick reader. That's not uncommon these days, but Sony has increased its value by providing picture processing designed to optimise still images.
We've seen the Sony E4000 at a number of press events, but curiously the only material we've ever seen it displaying have been works of art, which Sony includes in the TV's internal memory. Frankly, the fact that the company only demonstrates this aspect of the TV's functionality had us concerned that it wasn't a strong performer with moving video. It would be understandable if this was a £100 photo frame, but it isn't -- it's a £1,000 LCD TV.
Of course, Sony has managed to work some significant magic with the still image processing on this TV. Generally this is an afterthought, but because this TV is designed to do a good job with such material, the TV really shines with it. The included artwork is really quite remarkable and looks stunning on this TV. If you're interested in having a TV that acts as a very large photo frame when you aren't watching TV, this could be the screen for you.
So, how does it cope with more traditional moving images? Actually, the Freeview picture isn't too bad at all. The E4000 does an excellent job with the colour and brightness, without going over the top. Sometimes there wasn't enough fine detail in a picture, but this is more likely to be down to the low bitrate broadcast than anything the Sony is doing wrong.
Upscaled DVDs looked good too. Our X-Men disc had lots of detail, although there were times when we noticed some nasty blocking and general picture distortion in dark areas. Still, not a bad performance overall.
The star of the show is always going to be Blu-ray, so we lobbed in Casino Royale and settled back to see how the TV coped. Happily, it did a brilliant job. The opening black and white scene looked as gritty and grainy as it is supposed to, there is a truly awe-inspiring amount of detail in the picture and the TV handles the mix of muted office and brighter bathroom shots incredibly well. The transition to the highly coloured and totally noise-free opening titles is superb, and the TV once again does a grand job presenting a bold and likeable picture.
We also have to applaud the sound on the Sony. Its front-mounted, front-firing speaker makes listening to dialogue a pleasure, and although it's a little bright at the top end, there is enough bass to manage a movie without too much disappointment.
Overall, black levels are quite good. We noticed that sitting dead-on to the TV gave the best results -- we'd expect this, since all LCDs are best viewed in this way -- but if we moved to the side we noticed the picture became washed out and blacks looked blue. We also noticed that from the side, the backlight doesn't look evenly diffused across the whole display. We'll leave it to you to decide if you can deal with the shallow viewing angle, as it's unlikely to bother most people.
Because the white styling of this TV won't appeal to everyone, you could opt for the KDL-40W4000, which is essentially the same TV in a more subdued case. Movie fans might want to consider a plasma, which won't do the still photo display as well but can handle contrast in a way LCDs can only dream of.
If you do go down the plasma route, we'd suggest either the Panasonic TH-46PZ81 or the Pioneer LX-5090. If you must have an LCD, the Samsung series 8 range looks amazing, and has plenty of cool toys to keep you interested, as well as doing photos, video and music from memory stick.
Edited by Marian Smith