As more manufacturers are launching more and more TVs with built-in digital tuners (IDTVs), prices are really starting to come down. Sony latest IDTV, the 28in KD-28DL11U, is a case in point, retailing for just £550 on the high street, or as little as £420 if you shop online.
Given its low price, the 28DL11U is far from ugly. Despite sharing the plasticky silver finish of countless other budget models, the unusual backward angling of the speaker-bearing side panels adds a touch of panache, bringing the robustly rectangular screen frame into starker relief.
Connectivity is slightly disappointing even by £550 IDTV standards, thanks to the lack of a four-pin S-video jack. There's only a pair of Scarts too, leaving the only 'novelty' as a CAM slot for upgrading the set for Pay TV services.
Features are naturally fairly few and far between, and mostly have something to do with the digital tuner. The Electronic Programme Guide is particularly intriguing - for good and bad reasons.
On the plus side, it compiles its data for the full Freeview seven-day guide faster than most models, offers unusual category-searching flexibility, and lets you set timer events simply, by selecting them from its lists.
On the down side, unlike many Sony EPGs, it doesn't retain a small version of the picture while you scan the programme lists, and, unlike Panasonic's TX-28DTX1, doesn't feature any day-advance facility, so if you want to find out what's showing seven days from today, you have to scroll through the whole EPG listing an hour at a time.
Little tricks worth a mention include a radio mode that reduces screen brightness and contrast when the selected channel is a digital radio service, and a system for building a favourite channels list.
The picture is decent, but does show signs of cost-cutting. On the plus side, there's a pleasingly natural flavour to digital tuner fare, with the set reining in the sort of blocking artefacts that often characterise digital broadcasts. Even the customary shimmering over harsh edges seems less of an issue than usual.
The picture also avoids the grain of many budget TVs, while a close study of Sky News reveals that colours are both natural in tone and practically bleedless.
However, colours look a tad muted compared to some IDTV rivals - including Panasonic's TX-28DTX1. This seems down in part to a slightly unconvincing contrast performance, which creates blacks that look less solid and profound than we'd ideally like to see.
Also, while there's no actual colour bleed to report, edges of strong colours can look a touch furry - a factor which certainly plays a part in KD-28DL11U's slight shortage of fine picture details. The Panasonic TX-28DTX1 doesn't have the sharpest picture in the world, but it's still less soft than the Sony's.
Our final issue with the KD-28DL11U relative to the TX-28DTX1 is that the flickering effects of its basic 50Hz picture engine look slightly more obvious.
The KD-28DL11U's sound is slightly more impressive than its picture. The speakers permit a decent amount of breathing room for a rambunctious action scene to expand into, serving up fair amounts of bass response and treble effects, while ensuring that dialogue remains smooth, clear and surprisingly rich.
The KD-28DL11U is a perfectly decent IDTV and represents a bargain if you can find it for around the £420 price mark mentioned earlier. That said, unless you're an impatient soul likely to lap up the set's relative alacrity with digital goodies like the EPG and digital teletext, the superior picture quality of Panasonic's TX-28DTX1 probably makes that model a slightly better bet overall. John Archer