The Bravia KDL-40EX524 is the entry-level model in Sony's new range of slim-line LED TVs. It may measure a mere 42mm thick, but it still crams in plenty of Internet features, including widgets for Facebook and Twitter, along with support for BBC iPlayer and Sony's own Qriocity movie-on-demand service. Despite all this, the 40-inch, 1080p KDL-40EX524 has a relatively affordable price tag of around £700.
For ages, Sony's TVs used the XrossMediaBar interface, also seen on its PlayStation consoles. Sony has finally decided to take a fresh approach to its TVs in its latest range, which includes this model.
XrossMediaBar was reasonably easy to use, but one of its flaws was that it pretty much took over the entire screen when you called it up. This made it overly intrusive when you just wanted to quickly tweak a few picture or sound options.
The new system takes a slightly different approach. Hit the 'home' button on the remote and the live video feed is shuffled into a fairly large video window on the left-hand side of the display. Across the bottom, there's a rotating menu of icons that shuffles by as you move from one to the other. Above these, on the right-hand side, there's a sub-menu, giving you access to the various functions associated with the currently selected icon, such as the online services, settings menu, channels list, electronic programme guide and AV inputs.
The new system takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you're more familiar with the traditional menu approach seen on LG and Samsung TVs, but it's certainly more immediate and faster to use than the old XrossMediaBar menus.
The new menus also make setting the TV up very straightforward. We also like the way that Sony has replaced the traditionally separate picture and audio presets with what it calls 'scenes'. These are really combined presets that cover a range of different settings. For example, you can quickly skip from the cinema scene, which is optimised for viewing movies in a darkened room and has the pseudo-surround-sound effect turned on, to the sports preset, which ramps up the brightness and boosts the audio settings.
Sony has also done away with the traditional paper manual, and replaced it with an 'i-manual'. It's stored in the TV's memory so that you can call it up on-screen whenever you want. It's rather like a series of simple Web pages that you navigate with the remote by clicking on hyperlinks. You'll probably find, however, that you have to temporarily memorise many of the steps in the manual, as you can't simply look from page to screen when changing the settings, as you can with a normal printed manual.
Internet, media streaming and USB recording
The KDL-40EX524 really excels in the range of Internet services on offer. Ever since Sony launched its Bravia Internet Video service a couple of years ago, the company's TV have offered some of the best online video content around. The options include a good implementation of BBC iPlayer, along with content from Demand 5, Eurosport, Sky News, LoveFilm, YouTube and Sony's own Qriocity music-subscription and movie-on-demand rental service.
Along with the Internet video services, there's support for Skype, although you have to invest in an optional and pricey camera add-on if you want to use this feature. There are also widgets for Twitter and Facebook. These differ from rival implementations, because the widgets can sit at the side of the screen when you're watching a channel, rather than taking over the entire display. For example, you could be viewing tweets about X Factor while simultaneously watching the show.
Another interesting feature that Sony has added is TrackID. This is rather like the Shazam service for mobile phones, in that it lets you find out the title of music tracks and the name of the artist just by recording a snippet of the song. The difference with TrackID is that it's actually built into the TV and has its own dedicated button on the remote.
Hit this button when you come across unfamiliar music in an advert, TV show or movie, and the telly will record a few seconds of it and then upload it to the TrackID servers. The TV then shows a list of matches. The service works surprisingly well and seemed very accurate every time we tried it out.
The set can also act as a digital media player, and will happily play back files locally from a hard drive connected to one of its USB ports. Alternatively, you can play files across a network via the telly's Ethernet port. Sadly Wi-Fi isn't built in, but it is available via an optional USB dongle.
The set played most files without any problems, including MP4, DivX and Xvid formats. But, like many recent Sony TVs, it doesn't play ball with MKV files. This is a format that's becoming increasingly common as a way of distributing HD files on the Internet, so it's something that Sony really needs to start supporting.
The KDL-40EX524 follows the trend of many other recent TVs in that it allows you to record shows from its Freeview HD tuner to hard disks or memory keys connected to its USB port. It has to format the discs first, which is rather annoying and inconvenient, but the feature works well and you can schedule a recording either manually or just by selecting the programme name in the neatly laid-out electronic programme guide.
Design and connections
The KDL-40EX524 uses LED backlighting, so it's much slimmer than its stablemate, the Bravia KDL-40CX523, which uses older CCFL technology. Measuring just 42mm deep, it's slim, but by no means the slimmest LED set on the market right now.
Nevertheless, the KDL-40EX524 is a handsome beast, as the bezel around the screen is quite narrow, and the glossy black and chrome styling really looks the business. It feels like it's well bolted together too, which isn't always something you can say about rival screens.
On the connection front, this set doesn't stray too far from what's considered the norm on most of today's 40-inch models. There are two USB connections, so you can have the optional UBS Wi-Fi dongle attached at the same time as a USB hard drive. There's also an Ethernet port, and the rear is home to three HDMI inputs, along with a Scart socket and component inputs. There's another HDMI input mounted on a side panel, as well as a mini VGA port for hooking up a PC.
The set certainly has a number of strengths when it comes to picture quality. High-definition pictures from the Freeview HD tuner show off this TV's impressive sharpness levels, and it even managed to tease out plenty of detail from standard-definition channels, as its upscaling engine adds in extra sharpness without making the results look artificially processed.
Black levels are also impressively deep for a set in this price range. This, combined with its good contrast performance, means the KDL-40EX524 is able to pull impressive amounts of shadow detail out of dimly lit, moodier scenes. It's also got a knack of delivering rich and vibrant colours that manage to avoid the gaudy look you sometimes get from lesser LED displays.
It's not all good news, though. This TV lacks the MotionFlow picture-processing technology found in Sony's higher-end models, so it only delivers 50Hz performance, and has a pretty low motion resolution of 650 lines. As a result, the set does suffer somewhat from motion blur, and it's particularly noticeable on fast-panning shots in sports footage.
Another issue is that the backlight is a tad inconsistent. While this isn't particularly noticeable during daylight hours when there's plenty of ambient light in the room, you do start to see it in the evening when you turn the lights down to watch a movie. In darker scenes, it manifests itself as a grey misting over parts of the picture, and, unlike with many rival displays, it's not confined to the edges of the screen.
The TV pumps out 10W of sound. Although it's loud enough to fill an average-sized front room, the sound taking up that space won't be particularly spectacular. Like many LED models, this set's audio is hampered by its thin and tiny down-firing speakers. The result is pretty limp audio that, at its worst, actually sounds somewhat muffled.
You can play around with the audio controls in the set-up menu to improve matters slightly, but there aren't actually that many options available to tweak, so this only gets you so far. Panasonic and Philips have been adding larger speakers to their LED TVs and have successfully managed to get their sets to produce beefier-sounding audio, so we hope Sony follows their lead soon.
The Bravia KDL-40EX524 is a decent-enough TV, but it doesn't offer as good value for money as some of Sony's other recent budget and mid-range models. It excels when it comes to Internet features and its overall picture quality is of a high standard, but it's let down by some backlight inconsistencies and weedy audio. You'll probably find yourself having to twin the set with a surround-sound system.
Ultimately, if you're not overly concerned with the slimness of your TV, you'll get similar features, but slightly better performance, from Sony's chunkier Bravia KDL-40CX523.
Edited by Charles Kloet