After a long run of fairly mundane matt-grey flatpanel TVs, Philips seems to be returning to the serious designer ways that served it so well with its CRT TVs a few years back. Recent Philips LCDs have sported an eye-catching black and silver look, plus visually striking Ambilight technology. Philips' new 26in screen, however, the 26PF9946, ushers in a stunning white design.
We're not just talking any old white here. The 26PF9946 is clad in a white so pure and glossy you can see your face in it - an immediate eye-catcher further enhanced by some seriously slick curves. Even the remote control gets in on the act, with a delightful slimline design highlighted by the cheeky inclusion of a transparent circle in the middle.
Sadly, the 26PF9946's connections aren't quite so unrestrainedly glam. The most glaring absentee is the lack of any progressive scan or high definition input. There's no component video option, while the DVI jack isn't configured to cope with our favourite premium picture duo. With progressive scan DVD decks now 10-a-penny, and with Sky announcing high definition broadcasts for 2006, the 26PF9946's inability to handle either format could make it a non-starter for some.
On the plus side, the set can at least handle PC as well as video feeds. It also has a built-in FM radio tuner - ideal for people using the set as a second TV in a kitchen, bedroom or study.
For such an affordable LCD TV, the 26PF9946 contains a decent welter of features within its clean and approachable onscreen menus. Highlights include Philips' sophisticated Active Control circuitry for continually tweaking the picture's appearance in response to the qualities of the source signal, contrast booster and a PC/Video picture-in-picture facility.
Where the 26PF9946 really scores, though, is with its picture quality. For such an affordable screen, its images are simply excellent. Their clearest advantage over the cut-price competition comes in the key area of contrast. While the quoted 400:1 contrast ratio doesn't sound great on paper, in reality the black-level response leaves relatively little trace of the dreaded grey mist problem over dark picture parts.
This talent helps the 26PF9946's colours positively glow with health and vitality, while maintaining a natural tone and immaculately rendered, perfectly contained edges. This sharpness joins with an impeccable fine detail response to help serve up textured, layered images that again belie the 26PF9946's price.
Of course, the contrast, while good for the money, is no match for one or two costlier 26in LCD screens, such as Toshiba's excellent new 26WL46. And the 26PF9946's scaling and response time capabilities get caught out with analogue tuner feeds, leading to noticeable increases in noise and smearing, as well as slightly less natural colours. However, provided you've got a DVD player and/or Sky Digital/Freeview box connected to the 26PF9946, this shouldn't be an issue for 90 per cent of the time.
The 26PF9946's speakers round things off nicely, proving capable of a surprisingly fulsome soundstage replete with punchy (if not exactly profound) bass and sparkling treble effects - talents cunningly calculated to make it sound as at home with pop music on the built-in radio tuner as it is with movies.
Phillips' 26PF9946 is a hugely likeable proposition. The lack of progressive and hi-def compatibility will put off some, but if you're inclined not to consider these important on a screen that's only 26in across - especially if you're thinking of it as a second TV - then you simply can't afford to ignore the 26PF9946. John Archer