Samsung is developing a seriously likeable habit of revolutionising various sectors of the AV market with a surprisingly simple winning formula - make a product look nice, make sure it performs well, and then sell it for less money than any of the other big brands.
The 26in LE26R74BDX representing Samsung's latest LCD newbies nails the first part of the bargain by looking drop-dead gorgeous. Seriously, with its devastatingly high-gloss black screen surround and stand, plus a sumptuous light silver 'triangle' section along the bottom, it's hard to imagine how a TV could get much prettier than this.
Stare at this design long enough, though, and you start to notice something a bit odd - there don't appear to be any speakers. They are there, of course, but it turns out they're hidden away under the ledge caused by the fact that the silver triangle angles back under the main screen frame.
Connectivity isn't quite as prodigious as we might have expected, given Samsung's tendency t o push the envelope in such matters. In other words, while you get HDMI and component jacks for high-definition use you only get one o f each, when some new rival machines are now offering two HDMIs as standard. Also, there are only two Scarts - and only one able to take our beloved RGB signals.
On the upside, the set has a D-Sub PC input, all the usual lesser-quality AV suspects and also a welcome digital audio output, which Samsung has added because of the possible day when Freeview broadcasts might start including Dolby Digital 5 .1 audio tracks. We can all hope!
Other tricks associated with the digital tuner include a CAM slot for adding subscription channels, and compatibility with the 7-day electronic programme guide system, right down to being able to filter its listings according to programme type and set timer events directly from it.
You probably won't be shocked to learn that the LE26R74 is completely HD Ready, with its HD connectivity being joined by a native resolution of 1,366 x 768 and compatibility with the key HD formats. Note, though, that in keeping with the vast majority of its rivals, the LE26R74 can't take 1,080p signals.
Next on the LE26R74's features list is Samsung's proprietary Digital Natural Image engine processing system - or DNIe to its friends. As with similar systems found on most rival manufacturers' LCD TVs these days, DNIe incorporates a host of different picture-boosting algorithms, in this case targeted at improving motion handling, colour response, contrast levels, and fine detailing.
Other 'behind-the-scenes' tricks include a dynamic contrast system reckoned to deliver a contrast ratio of 3,000:1, and a new LCD crystal system that distributes the screen's light output over a wider area, reducing contrast and colour problems when viewing off axis.
Elsewhere there's a series of picture presets, digital noise reduction, some picture in picture facilities, and a new Game mode that adjusts the picture's response time and contrast to better suit video gaming.
In action, we're happy to find that the LE26R74's picture standards certainly haven't been allowed to slip from the impressive levels of its LE41 predecessors.
For instance, as with that model, the picture generally has an enjoyable crispness to it that's especially apparent with high definition, but also illuminates goodquality standard definition pictures. With poorer-quality analogue or digital broadcasts, the DNIe can struggle a bit to resolve the extra source noise without causing some softness and smearing, but the same can be said of practically every other LCD TV.
Connected to the general crispness is a very good fine detail response, which has no problems in picking out every last pixel of image data from a pristine high-def source.
The LE26R74 also delivers familiarly impressive colours, full of rich, bold saturations, but pleasingly devoid of the sort of dot crawl that can accompany such vibrancy. There's also plenty of subtlety in the set's colour blending, which means skin tones avoid the waxiness.
Our final tick in the positive column for the LE26R74 comes from its handling of motion, as we detected precious little sign of the smearing associated with LCD screens that have some sort of response time weakness. Indeed, Samsung reckons the 26R74 has an excellent response time of just 8ms.
While the LE27R74 retains the picture quality of its predecessors, though, we couldn't help but feel that Samsung hasn't actually improved things much for its new generation. Black levels, while undoubtedly good, don't look as outstandingly deep as they did last time round thanks to others' improvements in this key area. The picture doesn't stand out as being quite so dynamically coloured as it once did, either.
One final niggle is that the dynamic contrast system the set uses to help Samsung claim the frighteningly optimistic 3,000:1 contrast ratio, can cause the picture's brightness level to 'jump' a little distractingly from time to time.
The LE26R74's audio is mediocre. Those tucked-away speakers really seem to suffer for the TV designers' art, displaying a general lack of aggression, bass and dynamism that produces a clearly defined but ultimately rather underpowered and slightly weak soundstage.
As the time arrives to conclude our thoughts on the LE26R74, it occurs to us that our optimistic dreams of it improving on its predecessors have perhaps made us sound more down on it than is really fair.
So to put the record straight, while we feel Samsung could have tried a little bit harder with the L E26R74, but there's also no denying that it still has enough appeal in the picture-quality, style and value departments to make it another Samsung success. John Archer