You might think that making a full-price LCD TV these days that doesn't earn the HD Ready badge would be commercial suicide. But apparently not. For Sharp's P50 range fell precisely into that camp, and yet it seems to have sold sufficiently well to persuade Sharp to deliver a sequel: the P70, as represented today by the 26in LC-26P70E.
As you might guess with a company as respected for its LCD TVs as Sharp, the story with the P50 and P70 ranges isn't as simple as it first appears. For the sets are actually proud not to be HD Ready. Why? Because Sharp has built them to work at their best with 576-line PAL signals of the sort found in standard-definition DVDs and TV broadcasts.
Sharp has achieved this by using LCD panels with 540 lines of horizontal resolution, rather than the 768 or 1,080 lines required by the industry's HD Ready specs and favoured by most other decent-sized LCD TVs. The argument goes that the new P70 sets can thus 'map' a standard-definition picture directly to their native pixel count without having to rescale it, avoiding the artefacts and noise such rescaling inevitably throws up.
While the 26P70E is certainly focused on standard definition, though, that doesn't mean it can't handle high definition at all. It will in fact take 720p or 1080i HD feeds - though obviously it has to downscale them to fit its native 540 lines. The very thought of this may well send HD fans into fits. But Sharp claims that by virtue of 540 having such a simple mathematical connection with both 720 and 1080, the downscaling process involves relatively simple algorithms that shouldn't cause as many scaling-related problems. Though of course, at the end of the day you'll still only be left with 540 lines of hard picture information...
The more eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that the Sharp screen offers 540 lines whereas PAL broadcasts contain 576 visible lines. So to maintain the integrity of its 'no scaling' argument, Sharp just chops off 36 lines of the picture to hit the 540-line target. Alarmingly brutal though this sounds, in reality you likely won't notice that any lines have gone because many 'normal' TVs 'overscan' the edges of the picture anyway, to hide peripheral raggedness or content not intended for public consumption.
So much for the 26P70E's controversial raison d'etre. Let's now start getting into the TV itself.
It's certainly a looker. The silver and black colour scheme is hardly original, but Sharp's take on it is tidier than most. The build quality seems exceptional for an £850 26in LCD TV too.
Connectivity initially seems problematic in that while there's a single HDMI socket, there are no component video jacks for analogue high-definition/progressive scan feeds. However, it turns out that there's a VGA PC input that can be used via a provided component-to- VGA cable to receive the usual component stuff.
The digital tuner is pleasingly backed up by a CI slot for adding access cards for digital terrestrial subscription TV services. And while there are only two Scarts, both are RGB-capable.
The Sharp's attractive onscreen menus, meanwhile, host a healthy selection of features. The digital tuner, for instance, is backed up by a 7-day EPG, complete with direct timer event setting.
The selection of picture tweaks include adjustments for the backlight output; noise reduction; a black level expander; a film mode for improving the look of motion with film as opposed to video sources; and separate interlaced and progressive options.
There's also something called 'Quick Shoot', which intriguingly claims to boost the LCD TV's response time with fast moving footage (though potentially at the expense of more image noise).
So how does the 26P70E's unusual specification serve its picture quality? With standard-definition sources the answer is 'very well' Every standard-definition source we throw at it looks absolutely superb. This is particularly striking with digital tuner and Sky Digital broadcasts, as the TV avoids the smearing/video noise/colour tone problems seen with such footage on the majority of rival sets.
Colours with standard (and high) definition are outstanding too, combining rich and vivid saturations with the sort of natural tones most LCD rivals can only dream about. The set's black levels help the colours out by being both likeably deep and adept with subtle greyscale effects.
Then there's the TV's motion handling, which is superb - especially with the Quick Shoot option activated. Flicking this feature on and off with some scrolling text running across the screen instantly reveals how much clearer the moving parts of the picture look with Quick Shoot on. And we didn't see any appreciable increases in video noise while using it.
Add to all this edges that look entirely free of aliasing or overemphasis and you really do have a benchmark level standard-definition performance. And no, we didn't find ourselves missing those 36 lines!
Perhaps inevitably, though, standard definition's gain is high definition's loss. For high-definition feeds definitely look a notch below those of the best rival LCD TVs. For starters, the scaling process introduces noticeably more grain and dot crawl noise than we're accustomed to seeing with HD material. Also, while HD pictures look crisper than we might have expected, they don't look particularly detailed - something that's arguably inevitable given that the screen is literally ripping out hundreds of lines of picture information in adapting HD to fit its 540-line resolution.
The Sharp's impressive colour toning, black levels and motion handling still mean that actually its HD performance is fair. But there's no point pretending that it's an HD world beater.
Sonically the 26P70E is pretty solid. Dialogue sounds reasonably clear and rich, and the soundstage spreads wide. Trebles, too, sound unusually well rounded and free of harshness. The only problem is that bass can sound muffled and short of genuine extension.
How much appeal the 26P70E has depends absolutely on who you are. If you can't afford or don't really care about high definition, this is as fine a TV with standard definition as we've seen. But while its HD pictures are OK for the very casual HD user, they certainly won't satisfy the growing legions of HD obsessives we know are out there...