With HD1 already broadcasting limited high-definition services and Sky planning to introduce its service next year, Sony's KDL-S32A12U arrives with a future-proof HDTV specification. The W-XGA resolution of 1366x768 pixels will support high-def signals of 720p up to a maximum 1080i, while the inclusion of an HDMI digital input completes the criteria.
And with digital broadcasts destined to eventually usurp their analogue equivalents, it's great to see an integrated digital tuner. If you're one of the unlucky few still unable to receive Freeview, you can still watch terrestrial broadcasts from a similarly integrated analogue tuner. You can switch between tuners at the touch of a remote button -- although we advise you to do things digitally.
Digital programmes are accompanied by a colourful information bar providing full programme details. There's also an easily accessible electronic programme guide (EPG) that will leave your TV listings mag redundant. By cramming 13 programme schedules onto a single page, the EPG can look convoluted. But you can slim your search to view programme schedules by category or simply organise your own Favourites list, which saves you skipping through unwanted channels. The EPG also allows you to set up programme reminders and even initiate recordings if you have a separate recorder with the so-called Smartlink compatibility, which allows it to communicate with the screen.
Elsewhere, on-screen menus are presented at the corner of the screen so they don't obstruct the picture while you're tinkering with the settings. The sensibly arranged remote is uncluttered and easy to use, including short-cut keys that save you from always having to access the main menu.
The range of settings is pretty basic, but this means fuss-free usability. If you're lazy you can choose between several preset picture and sound modes. The Vivid mode enhances colour and brightness at the expense of natural colours if you have a bright living room. But like the sound modes, including a Dolby Virtual setting that attempts to conjure the illusion of surround sound from two speakers, the effects are negligible.
Instead, we suggest you take time to customise settings from an elementary array of adjustments. The self-explanatory menus couldn't be easier to navigate and traditional TV users will recognise the standard settings that ignore often confusing and ineffective advanced adjustments. Even self-confessed technophobes need not fear.
Sony has kept things simple with a standard set of features, but there are a few functions that you won't normally find on an entry-level TV. For instance, there's a light sensor that can be activated to automatically adjust picture settings according to ambient brightness, plus a Picture Freeze function that creates stills on-screen if you want to spend more than the allotted time mulling over the football results.
For TV broadcasts, digital does it better on the KDL-S32A12U. Analogue TV images are beset by a constant drizzle of picture noise that occasionally turns into a downpour. However, turn to the digital tuner and the forecast improves.
Freeview broadcasts are characterised by plenty of detail and contrast, courtesy of excellent black levels, which provide the picture with density and perspective. Evenly balanced colours are equally adept at realising natural skin tones in daytime talk shows as they are at enhancing special effects in music videos. Complex scenes can struggle with a smattering of digital noise, though. Movement, especially slow pans or unpredictable sporting actions, occasionally staggers across the display -- but that's a criticism of the technology more than the screen.
Video performance, especially using HDMI, offers an insight into the screen's high-def potential. Images are immaculately clean and intricately detailed while movement glides across the screen with all the grace of a figure skater.
Sound performance is a touch two-dimensional and the various sound modes are best left ignored. The average audio quality won't affect typical viewing, but if you try and amp up the sound, it can descend into distortion and over-pronounced sibilance.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide