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Samsung has produced its cheapest 40 inch LCD TV yet. Will it answer the prayers of cash-strapped wannabe LCD owners? The SmartHouse Team finds out.

While LCD technology appears to be heading for world domination when it comes to screen sizes of 32 inches or below, in terms of both price and quality, plasma still crowds out the larger screen sizes. But 40 inch (and bigger) LCD panels are definitely becoming a viable category. Samsung’s LA40R51B falls squarely into it.

Description
There can certainly be no doubt that aesthetically the LA40R51 shines. The glossy black screen frame is an elegant match for the gently triangular, metallic silver speaker-bearing subsection.
I’m not sure the set’s pretty enough to tempt a neighbour to risk prison by trying to steal one – as transpires in the recent Samsung TV ad campaign – but it certainly delivers a big design boost to any room it appears in.

At first glance all looks fine and dandy on the connections front, too. As you might expect of a ‘flagship’ TV, it carries the key HD Ready duo of an HDMI input and a set of component jacks. But we couldn’t help feel slightly disappointed to find no CAM slot that might have indicated the presence of a built-in digital tuner.

The panel has a native 1366 x 768 resolution, which wraps ups its HD Ready status, and claims a brightness level of 500cd/m2, and a contrast ratio of 3000:1. Please note, though, the best contrast is only achievable if you use the TV’s dynamic contrast option – without it Samsung measures the figure at a much less dramatic 800:1. In our lab tests, we actually measured contrast at 615:1 (post-calibration).

As with practically all Samsung flat-panel TVs these days, the LA40R51B carries the company’s Digital Natural Image driver. This is an umbrella term for six separate picture improvement processes that aim to boost detail levels, colour vibrancy/tone, motion handling and contrast.
More general features include a standard noise reduction system, a healthy suite of picture-in-picture adjustments, a further contrast booster, and a facility for adjusting individual colour elements within the colour palette. After spending some time calibrating the LA40R51B’s more or less effortless onscreen menus, we were ready to settle down and see what the set could deliver. And, for the most part, we liked what we saw.

Performance
Particularly note-worthy is the amount of fine detail on display when watching high-definition material. Full justice is done, for instance, to the endlessly detailed shots of the HMS Superior amid the spray and rippling waves during a run-through of Master And Commander: the Far Side of the World. What’s more, this impeccable fine detail response holds up even when there’s substantial movement in the picture, thanks to good suppression of the usual smearing issues associated with LCD technology.

LCD screens can also struggle to deliver convincing colour tones, often being too warm to correctly manage colour temperature. The 40R51B fares better than most though, ensuring bright, fully saturated colours at one extreme and low-lit skin tones at the other (always a stern test of an LCD’s colour regime); hues look at least believable even if they are not quite 100 percent natural.
Yet another area where I’ve known LCD to struggle is with black level response. And this proves to be the LA40R51B’s weakest link, especially compared with similarly-sized plasma screens. There’s certainly enough greyness over parts of the picture that should be black to leave seriously dark scenes – like the cramped beneath-decks conditions in Master And Commander – looking flat and featureless versus the same sequence on a highly-rated plasma TV.
We should add, though, that while black levels aren’t up to those on plasma sets, the LA40R51B holds its own in this area compared to most of its larger-screen LCD rivals.

Overall, the LA40R51B performs better with HD footage than we’d expected it to, given its budget price point. Routing progressive and upscaled DVD footage in via the HDMI jack shows precious little sign of the MPEG noise that can characterise digital feeds on some screens.

The inevitable caveat is that the LA40R51B becomes quite a bit less appealing to watch with standard-definition sources. As with the smaller sets in Samsung’s current range, the extra noise inherent to such sources – especially courtesy of the analogue tuner – seems to cause the DNIe driver electronics problems, resulting in increased smearing, less sharpness, and even a slight drop off in colour tone. And these problems are harder to ignore on this 40 incher than they are on Samsung’s smaller models.

The natty triangular design of the LA40R51B’s speaker section doesn’t seem to have compromised the audio performance. A bit more frequency range would have been nice, especially at the bass end, but the soundstage is detailed enough, and it’s only with the more raucous movie moments that any weaknesses become apparent.

Conclusion
The LA40R51B partially wins its battle to convince me that LCD has a part to play in the more performance-centric world of bigger fixed pixel displays. Its $5999 price certainly proves that LCD can compete with plasma when it comes to cost. However, while the LA40R51B continues the gradual improvement in large LCD picture performance generally, it falls short of delivering the quality we’ve seen from some of its rivals.

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