When Panasonic's exclusive TV deal with freesat expired last year, we expected the freesat-telly floodgates to open. But the only other brand that quickly fitted a freesat tuner into one of its sets was LG. It's taken Sony the best part of a year to put together its own freesat model, the 40-inch, 1080p Bravia KDL-40Z5800 LCD TV. It's available now for around £1,350.
From its exterior, you wouldn't know that the KDL-40Z5800 is particularly special. It's not unattractive -- with its smoky grey colour scheme and strikingly thin frame, it's actually one of Sony's prettiest TVs -- but it doesn't look significantly different to the company's non-freesat Bravia Z5500 range.
The only outward hint that the KDL-40Z5800 carries a freesat tuner comes from its connections, as a screw-on LNB input rests alongside four HDMI ports; a Freeview tuner input; a video-, photo- and music-friendly USB port; and an Ethernet jack for accessing either files on a DLNA-certified PC or Sony's AppliCast online service.
The set's freesat credentials become more obvious when you're asked during the initial set-up if you want to tune the set for DVB-S or freesat. Most will go for the freesat option, but it's interesting that Sony provides a choice. The KDL-40Z5800's freesat chops next become apparent in the small matter of the 140-plus satellite-delivered channels you'll find at your disposal, including two high-definition ones: BBC HD and ITV HD.
The set also sports a solidly presented and reasonably fast electronic programme guide for simpler surfing of your huge new channel selection. In fact, the TV has two EPGs: one for freesat and one for the terrestrial Freeview service, which it also supports. Each service has a few channels that the other doesn't.
Sony has chosen to make its debut freesat TV a pretty high-end affair. It boasts both Bravia Engine 3 video processing and a 200Hz engine. Since Sony sources its LCD panels from Samsung, the KDL-40Z5800's 200Hz system is a real one, rather than one that uses a combination of a scanning backlight and 100Hz processing, such as you get with so-called 200Hz TVs from Philips and LG, among others.
The KDL-40Z5800's cleverly designed on-screen menus offer a number of features and picture tweaks. As well as being able to deactivate or adjust the level of the Motionflow 200Hz engine, you can also activate Sony's Live Colour Creation system to boost colour saturation; tweak the image's gamma, black-level and auto-contrast settings; and fine-tune the set's block- and noise-reduction elements with unique finesse.
So far, so good. The KDL-40Z5800 doesn't fall at the picture-quality hurdle, either. In fact, it's one of Sony's finest performers to date.
Starting with the set's freesat performance, HD material looks terrifically sharp and intense, with extremely rich colour saturation. Even better, the KDL-40Z5800 manages to deliver its freesat HD sharpness without exaggerating the slightly grainy look that's common to most BBC HD broadcasts.
When it comes to standard-definition material, Sony's latest Bravia Engine system does a good job of making pictures look sharp and natural, despite the often fairly low native quality of many freesat broadcasts (yes, we're talking about you, ITV).
The KDL-40Z5800 also impresses with its black levels. While they're not as deep and natural as those we've seen on some LED TVs recently, they're excellent by normal LCD standards, with minimal clouding and plenty of shadow detailing. Plus, there's no sign of the annoying light pools spotted on some of Sony's recent LCD efforts.
Despite its very credible black levels, the KDL-40Z5800's pictures are dynamic, with radiant colours and punchy whites, all helped by the impressive stability that's a trait of 200Hz processing. As well as doing a good job of keeping judder and motion blur at bay, the 200Hz system also generates remarkably few nasty processing glitches, especially if you avoid the 'high' 200Hz setting.
The only aspect of the KDL-40Z5800's pictures that we don't like is the way colour and contrast suffer if you watch the TV from the side. But this is hardly a unique state of affairs in the LCD world.
The KDL-40Z5800 does have a couple of weaknesses unrelated to its pictures, though. Firstly, Sony's AppliCast is currently very low on content compared to the online systems of rival brands. Secondly and more importantly, the KDL-40Z5800's speakers aren't very powerful. They can cope with daytime TV, but sound thin and unconvincing when pushed by a meaty explosion or rich score.
Sony's Bravia KDL-40Z5800 has the picture quality, cool design and high-level features needed to become a real Christmas hit. The only obstacle in its way is its price -- it's conspicuously more expensive than similarly sized rivals from Panasonic and LG. It's a good job, then, that its 200Hz processing works so well.
Edited by Charles Kloet