Not perfect by any means, but the Philips 23iF9946 is a neat and nifty product all the same
Silky smooth wireless streaming
Classy picture quality
Media browsing menus could be zippier
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Of all the major consumer electronics manufacturers, Philips seems keenest on pushing the digital home envelope. Well, shoving it may be a more appropriate term. The Dutch company appears positively frenzied in its efforts to deliver us all into a convergence-crazed land of milk and honey (or at least a land of Wi-Fi and Video-on-Demand).
The chief weapon in Philips' arsenal is its Streamium range, which first appeared last year. Using networking (wired and wireless modes are supported) and specially designed software, these products enable you to stream audio and video content directly from your computer's hard disk. If you have a broadband connection, you can also access online content, such as movie trailers and radio stations from Philips' partner companies.
Last year's flagship Streamium product was a home cinema system called the MX6000i. While this generally worked well, it certainly didn't get our blood pumping. Its wireless streaming firmware was a touch shaky, in fact, leading to several stutters and skips during video playback.
Stream me up
So it was with no small degree of suspicion that we set up this 23in Streamium LCD television - a device that essentially runs on the same streaming platform. Our misgivings proved to be misplaced, though, as Philips has evidently updated its firmware. The new version looks exactly the same (and we still think it's unwieldy and sluggish to navigate), but we experienced not one single Wi-Fi mishap during video streaming. For this, Philips, we salute you.
The device is compatible with a commendably long list of digital media formats. Those who get their kicks by downloading television shows and movies (legally, of course) are well catered for, thanks to both DivX and XviD being covered, while music fans should be equally happy (unless they're iTunes users with a large library of AAC format tracks. This format isn't covered at the moment).
Philips' Media Manager software needs to be installed on any PCs you wish to use as servers for the TV (Macs aren't supported). It's reasonably painless to use, though, and nestles quietly in the Windows system tray when running. You simply assign the folders you want covered, Media Manager quickly scans them for the appropriate files and Bob's your uncle - you're up and ready to start streaming.
Video streaming, as we've said, works well, but streaming audio brings up the issue of quality. Specifically, do you really want to be listening to your favourite ditties through a pair of television speakers? If you happen to have a pair of fully functioning lugholes, the answer is probably no.
We're not all black polo neck-wearing, beard-stroking audio purists here (only some of us), but we know when something doesn't sound as good as it could. Thankfully, there's an easy solution: connect the TV to an amp or hi-fi using its 3.5mm audio output. The results are far more satisfactory, and you should have more control over sound output.
Aside from its streaming capabilities, the 23iF9946 is also a fine example of a compact LCD TV. It has a nice high-resolution panel (but note that it isn't HDTV-compatible) and some useful connectivity in its Scart and VGA inputs. Hook up a DVD player or games console, or even a computer, and you'll get a very impressive picture in return. There's fine detail, low levels of motion blur and excellent black reproduction - all you could ask for in a 23in flat panel television.
Philips has included some useful features, too, including Virtual Dolby Surround to boost the sound field, and built-in deinterlacing to give a smoother, flicker-free picture. Heck, there's even an FM radio tuner.
None more white
The design is also worth a mention, with Philips apparently taking some cues from Apple's iPod. There's plenty of shiny white plastic on show, from the remote control (which also features a completely redundant peephole) to the television itself. It may not appeal to everyone, but we found it a refreshing change from the ranks of silver and black LCD TVs currently on sale.
While we're immensely impressed with the Streamium television, we're going to stop short of awarding it a full five stars. This isn't because it's pricey (which it is, but check online and you'll find it available for far less than the guide price listed here), but mainly because we still feel that the streaming aspect could use a little work. It's certainly much better than it was on the MX6000i, but it's not yet as easy to quickly access as we'd like.
That said, Philips has probably done as good a job as it could with this product. If you're in need of a small widescreen TV and have a lot of media content sitting on your PC hard disk, you really should give the 23iF9946 some consideration.
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