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Now that you can choose from a range of 30in and 32in slim TVs, is it time to change your telly?Fancy a flat television? Of course you do: the slimline screen has to be one of the most desirable of modern gadgets, freeing up valuable living room real estate and adding style to any home. But while slim is good, huge isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste, and most of the plasma screens on the market come in a whopping 42in (106cm) screen size. Terrific if, like us, you’re a committed home cinema buff with a sizeable DVD habit, but not necessarily what you want if all you’re after is a replacement for the conventional 28in (71cm) and 32in (81cm) tellies that dominate Australian homes.

Which is why we’ve got this group test together: four slimline screens, all four of which can be hung on the wall or mounted on plinths as you prefer, and all of 32in (81cm) size or less. Now don’t get us wrong; if you want the best DVD experience with your home cinema system, and if your living room will cope, then by all means go for a larger plasma set. But sets like these are big enough for a lot of households, and they cost a fair bit less than most larger TVs, too.

You’ll notice that we’ve mixed plasma and LCD TVs together in the same test. Why not? It’s no different from many of the advertising campaigns currently doing the rounds. Slimline screens are being sold on their allure, not their respective technologies, and to a degree, the issues over the merits of each type of screen matter not a jot. If you want to buy a 32in (81cm) or 30in (76cm) slimline screen tomorrow, you can choose from an LCD or a plasma, and the only real issue of note is this: which one is the best buy for your money? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Lets check them out…

Sony KE-32TS2 | $6999 |

For: Style; picture quality; strong specification; plenty of input sockets

Against: Off-air TV broadcast signals don’t look quite so good, but that’s true of every plasma

Verdict: Still one of our favourite plasmas, this is a very desirable and effective performer

Our sole plasma TV entrant is a peach: Sony’s KE-32TS2 offers a very solid blend of plasma performance for the money. It’s a delight to use; every detail, from the remote handset through to the on-screen graphics, is superbly conceived. It’s a great looker, too – it’ll flatter almost any living room.

Unlike many rival plasma sets, Sony’s smallest is an integrated unit, with the tuner and all the relevant input sockets built into the set’s rear. That makes it deeper than some rivals, which means this is a set best suited to mounting on a table-top stand or its (optional) glass equipment rack, rather than being hung from a wall.

So, let’s talk performance. Fact is, this is a terrific set, with picture quality that firmly eclipses most comparable plasmas. Like every TV here, it’s at its best when fed with a high-quality DVD signal, preferably from a progressive scan DVD player using component video inputs. Colours are rich and vivid, especially with animation, but even fleshtones on The Lord Of The Rings look natural, not something that can be said for every rival.

Black depth is very impressive, too, though you’ll notice some loss of contrast when viewing wide 2.35:1 ‘Cinema- scope’ movies, where the black bars that frame the image top and bottom can cause a reduction in picture dynamics. Otherwise, this is a first-rate image for the money.

There has to be a ‘but’, and it’s this; like every plasma (or LCD, come to mention it) the KE-32TS2 doesn’t look so hot with off-air television signals. There’s some grain in the picture, but using a digibox helps to reduce this to more reasonable viewing levels.

Overall, this is a gem of a slimline set: it looks great, it’s easy to use, it’s well-equipped with sockets, and the picture’s terrific.

Sony KLV-30MR1 | $9999 |

For: Truly gorgeous to look at; well specified in terms of inputs; a decent performer, too

Against: Not quite as good as its plasma sibling in image terms – pricier as well

Verdict: Sony has excelled itself with this set: it’s one of the best LCDs on the market

Is LCD going to triumph over plasma in the long term? Some pundits seem to think so, although we’re reserving judgement for now. Sony seems to feel the same way, because the company has recently launched the KLV-30MR1 LCD TV as a direct competitor to its own, ultra-desirable plasma TV, which we also tested here. Talk about hedging your bets…

It’s an intriguing conundrum. There’s not a great deal to separate the two products in price terms, and the LCD set’s slightly smaller screen isn’t going to cause too many sleepless nights.

The real surprise, though, is that the KLV-30MR1 is good enough to stand up to its sibling in performance terms. With progressive scan DVD signals, the Sony generates bright colours and boasts excellent detail rendition.

However, it’s not quite as good as the KE-32TS2. Movement across the screen can appear less than smooth, and the faster the motion you’re viewing, the more you become aware of some noise in the background.

Contrast is also not quite ‘right’: it’s better than most LCDs, but not quite as rich as you’d like. Naturally, off-air signals also suffer from more distracting noise on the screen, but as we’ve said, that’s true of most plasma screens, too.

 
Sharp LC-30HV4E | $8799 |

For: Good detail and brightness; slim design; comprehensive array of inputs

Against: Colours can be artificial; contrast could be better; there is some picture noise, especially off-air

Verdict: A sleek and appealing LCD set, but you can get better performance elsewhere

Sharp is so enamoured of the LCD and plasma display concept that the company has taken the decision to cease conventional TV manufacturing altogether. Clearly, the company thinks that this slimline screen game has got a future!

The LC-30HV4E looks relatively plain next to the sleek Sony and radical Toshiba, but it’s well finished and thoughtfully equipped, boasting an external tuner box that houses an extensive array of sockets. Sockets include three Scarts, two RGB-compatible, a component in and a PC in. The set also boasts progressive scan PAL and NTSC. Set-up is straightforward, and if the remote handset is on the bulky side, at least it’s well laid out and clear.

Performance is a blend of strengths and weaknesses. In common with many LCD sets, the Sharp can produce bright, vivid colours, although it’s not quite as spectacular as the Sony KLV-30MR1 in this regard. The Sharp LC-30HV4E’s detail definition is impressive too, with the set delivering crisp, accurate lines with animated DVDs.

However, standard DVD imagery can look a little artificial – skin tones can look somewhat unreal, while the overall contrast could be better. This is especially apparent on The Lord Of The Rings, where some dark scenes can be difficult to follow. Fast motion is handled reasonably well, with respectably low levels of picture noise and image ‘smearing’, but just the same, the image doesn’t appear to be as three-dimensional or convincing as you’d find with the very best plasma or LCD alternatives.

Still, we can understand why the Sharp’s slimline appeal could win you over. It’s not a bad performer by any means: we just feel that there are some superior television rivals available.

Toshiba 26WL36P | $6499 |

For: Good picture in most regards; stylish design; excellent specification in terms of inputs

Against: Contrast could be better; still some smearing to the image on fast motion

Verdict: A very effective LCD set: looks great, and is largely a success in picture terms

This new Toshiba is a very commendable LCD effort. It looks the business, that much is obvious, and the dark frame around the screen is more than just a styling point; it’s been placed there to intensify the contrast of images on the screen, especially with 1.85:1-ratio DVD transfers.

Technically, Toshiba’s paid special attention to the ‘response speed’ of the LCD panel, with the aim of minimising motion ‘smearing’, the traditional bugbear of these TVs. It works, too: the 26WL36P is one of the smoothest LCDs we’ve seen, handling rapid motions across the screen with impressive consistency. It’s still not perfect, though – Sony’s KE-32TS2 plasma is a more natural performer. In most other image regards, the Toshiba is a solid performer. Black levels and contrast are respectable without being remarkable: you get a good sense of depth and detail in the darker scenes of The Lord Of The Rings, but some of the subtle tonal differences between grey and black are less clear than is ideal. Off-air signals suffer from the usual grain and noise that blights many LCD and plasma TVs.

Other stuff? This being a Toshiba, it’s very well sorted from the home cinema point of view. It’s the only set here to give you two component video inputs, for starters, and both forms of progressive scan video are supported.

 

And the winner is…

Sony KE-32TS2 | $6999 |

Now let’s get this part clear once again: we’ve got no axe to grind about LCD TVs. You shouldn’t read anything into the fact that a plasma TV won this particular test, save for this: if you want a slimline TV in this size class, the KE-32TS2 is the best way to spend your seven thousand. End of story.

But we will say this: we’re sure that LCD sets are getting better. Some of the early examples were – being blunt – awful, but the latest generation of sets deliver images that are vastly superior to their forebears. We could also add that we were in no doubt that this would happen: Panasonic proved that it’s possible to make a great LCD TV, as our high ratings for the TX-15LT2 (soon to be replaced) so ably illustrated. However, when compared directly to an equivalent plasma, we don’t think that even the new, improved LCD sets are quite there yet. Fast motion still seems a problem area, and so does contrast. In the most direct LCD-to-plasma comparison possible, comparing a 30in (76cm) Sony with a 32in (81cm) Sony, it’s the latter that triumphs, delivering better overall contrast and lower ‘noise’ than its newer sibling.

One thing is certain: we’ll see more slimline sets in the coming months.

 

Plasma Screens – A closer look

· Like LCDs, plasma televisions are slim and flat, and can be hung on the wall. Although light, they tend to weigh more than LCD sets. However, with smaller plasmas the difference isn’t as wide as it with larger screens

· A plasma display is a matrix of tiny gas plasma cells, each of which is controlled individually as a pixel. Like LCD sets, this is done using a lattice arrangement of electrodes to create a grid of pixels on the screen, each of which can be individually addressed. This is done by passing a precise electrical voltage through each ‘address’ electrode as necessary, which causes a gas plasma discharge of ions and electrons.

· These ions and electrons collide at high speed with neon and xenon atoms in the gas, which ‘excites’ them. As the ‘excited’ atoms begin to return to their original state, energy is dissipated in the form of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This is an ’emissive’ form of light generation, as opposed to the ‘transmissive’ system used by LCD televisions.

· Early plasmas generated a considerable amount of heat and had to be fan-cooled. Most still are, although they run far quieter than older designs. · Plasmas consume a fair amount of power: the luminous efficiency, or the amount of light for a given quantity of supplied electric power, is comparatively poor.

· Plasmas don’t suffer the difficulties concerning viewing angle that can afflict LCD sets, and are also comparatively easier to make. This is why plasma prices are beginning to fall so rapidly.

· However, most plasmas suffer from a lack of contrast compared with conventional TVs. This is because a constant low voltage has to be applied to ‘prime’ each plasma cell, to help ensure a rapid response time to each incoming video signal. So even in the ‘off’ state, each pixel is emitting some light, which reduces contrast.

LCD Screens- a closer look… 

· LCD stands for liquid crystal display. In basic terms, an LCD panel is composed of thousands of minute elements, called pixels, which together compose the image you see on the screen.

· The more pixels on your LCD panel, the greater its potential detail (or resolution). Basic LCD displays can have several hundreds of thousands of pixels; better designs will offer millions.

· LCD televisions are made using several layers, like a sandwich. The most common is the Thin Film Transistor (TFT) LCD set, where liquid crystal is pushed into the space between two glass plates. Simply put, the TFTs generate pixels, while a colour filter glass generates colour. By varying the amount of electrical charge applied to the liquid crystals, it’s possible to change the amount of light and colour displayed on the screen. Naturally, this is a very precise art!

· The first element of the LCD TFT sandwich is a backlight, usually neon, which shines through the subsequent layers of the sandwich to produce an image. This is called a ‘transmissive’ system of light reproduction, and is distinct from plasma, which is ’emissive’ (it generates its own light). To some extent, this is why many LCD sets suffer from poor contrast next to their conventional TV cousins.

· Some LCDs can suffer from an image persistence, which can leave a shadow of an image that has been on the screen for some time (say, a DVD menu). · However, LCD TVs also offer some considerable advantages over their conventional rivals. LCD sets consume less power (around 30 percent less), flicker is not an issue, and screen geometry is always perfect: you don’t get any distortion of the image.

· Most importantly, LCD sets are very light indeed. This makes them very easy to mount; plasmas are light, but LCD sets are even lighter still.

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