I still don't quite understand exactly how French company Sagem went from making faxes and phones to delivering a string of best-buy DLP TVs. But the fact remains that it did.
Happily, the company has not been resting on its laurels. Instead it's been working on a new 50in screen, the HD-D50H G4 T, that ups the spec over its predecessors in three key ways. First, it builds in a Freeview Digital TV tuner. Second, it replaces the old single DVI input with two HDMI inputs. And finally it comes packing a brand-new picture processing system. Which all sounds just fine to me.
The HD-D50H's looks are right up my street too. The glinting, gloss-black frame is remarkably slender, while the decision to put the projector and a builtin subwoofer into a narrower, curved silver 'pedestal', inset from the screen's edges, is inspired.
Connectivity is dominated by the two HDMI inputs. But there's ample support from a D-Sub PC input, a trio of Scarts (all able to take RGB), component video inputs, S-video and composite video options, and a digital audio throughput that proves useful in enhanced syncing of digital audio with the DLP picture.
Since it's the main point of difference between the HD-D50H and previous Sagem Axium sets, let's start this investigation of its features with its built-in digital tuner, which not only offers support for the 7-day Freeview EPG but also presents the listings information in an unusually well organised way. There are six memory slots for setting timer recording events, too, and you can use this timer for recording from the digital tuner when the TV is in stand-by.
Another neat digital embellishment is the radio button. Press this and you get a groovy graphical simulation of a radio, with a selectable list of all the digital radio stations available via Freeview.
Bizarrely, it's not possible to set timer events simply by selecting programmes from the EPG; instead you have to manually input all the time and channel data yourself. Also, there's no facility for sorting programmes based on genre (except for the radio option).
The display's new Crystal Motion processing, meanwhile, works to improve image quality on a number of fronts. First it apparently yields enhanced brightness and contrast. Second, it makes colours more vibrant and natural in tone. Thirdly - and perhaps most significantly - it 'does a Pixel Plus' and upscales standarddefinition images to the native 1280 x 720 HD resolution of the TV's DLP chipset.
Other features include Faroudja DCDi de-interlacing, various picture in picture options, Virtual Dolby 2.1 audio processing, and an eco mode for adjusting the picture in response to the amount of ambient light in your room.
Less praiseworthy is the deeply unhelpful remote, which combines an overcomplicated layout with some seriously unresponsive buttons.
In action the HD-D50H continues the rich vein of form enjoyed by its Axium predecessors. The set's black response is exemplary. Dark picture areas look convincing, with neither greying-over nor blue or green tints to spoil the simple, natural blackness of it all. Dark areas also look impressively free of DLP's common green dot crawl problem, and enjoy some superb greyscale subtlety.
Green dot crawl is not the only noise the HD-D50H suppresses well. Grain and dot crawl, MPEG artefacting from the digital tuner and even dotting noise over horizontal motion (pretty much the only problem with previous Axium sets) are almost completely removed.
The HD-D50H's colour palette is expressive too. Colour-rich scenes, like the martial arts practice against a dramatic sunset in The Last Samurai, benefit enormously from the set's combination of rich saturations and natural colour (provided, at least, that you employ the set's Warm colour temperature setting). Indeed, I believe there's a clear improvement in the colour department over previous Axiums.
The Sagem further earns its wings by successfully making SD pictures - even fairly low quality digital broadcasts - look sharper and more detailed without introducing unpleasant amounts of obvious processing noise, or exaggerating the noise inherent to the source.
Naturally, when it comes to HD, the set really has an opportunity to shine.
Not that its pictures are perfect. Occasionally, for instance, bright contoured edges can look jagged, despite the Faroudja processing. Also, camera pans sometimes judder marginally; bright ambient light can produce a faint pool of brightness in the centre of the screen; and under extreme contrast circumstances you can sometimes spot DLP's characteristic 'rainbow effect', where bands of pure colour appear if your move your eye over the image.
But these are all very minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, and, even if lumped together, can't shake me from my conviction that the HD-D50H's images really are certain to please.
The audio performance isn't quite as inspirational as its pictures, thanks to a slight lack of aggression that leaves things sounding a bit restrained unless you head for some pretty major volume levels. On the other hand, there are no significant cabinet distortions and the tone is generally well rounded and free of harshness.
Overall the HD-D50H is a superior microdisplay PJ. Its pictures clearly improve on the already lauded standards set by Sagem's previous efforts, and it provides a real HD Ready alternative to those who want size without price. Recommended.