I have to say that when I first heard about Sharp's new range of LCD TVs optimised for the UK PAL TV standard, I thought Sharp was taking the Michael. Turning an entry-level screen's usually low, non HD Ready native resolution into a perceived strength seems an act of spin-doctoring that any government would be proud of. But having spent some quality time with the 32in 'PAL-optimised' 32P50E, I'm starting to think the brand's claims might have some validity after all...
Aesthetically, the 32P50E looks very nice, combining a dominant metallic silver with rich black trim to good effect; the result is that the screen looks more slender and space-saving than most.
Connections are better than you might expect of a TV unable to wear the industry's official HD Ready logo. They include HD-capable HDMI and component video inputs. Elsewhere there are disappointments, with just two Scarts and no PC jack. But at least the HDMI and component options ensure the 32P50E's compatibility with all the current and next-generation digital and HD sources.
So just where does the screen sit in the increasingly complex hierarchy of screen resolutions and standards? With a native resolution of just 540 lines, this alone is sufficient to deny the set HD Ready status (EICTA's specification demands at least 720 lines).
However, Sharp's argument is that because this pixel structure is a near perfect match for 625 line PAL (the bulk of the surplus lines are not actually used for picture information and the remainder are simply ignored) it can show our regular TV pictures without any of the mess-inducing scaling required by panels of greater or lesser resolution. It just maps 540 lines of the PAL picture directly onto the 540 lines of the 32P50E's screen - no fuss, no scaling, no mess.
Of course, one might wonder why Sharp didn't make its PAL-optimised panel with 576 lines rather than 540. The answer is that 540 is exactly half of 1080, meaning panel production is rather more straightforward - and there's the mathematical benefit of scaling down a high-definition 1080i/720p image.
In other words, Sharp claims you can have your cake and eat it with the 32P50E. I'll come to how it tastes soon enough...
What's on offer
Other features on the 32P50E are more straightforward. There's an ambient light sensor which allows the TV to automatically regulate its own picture settings to suit your viewing conditions; a backlight adjustment; a black level expander; a film mode for improving motion with movie-type sources; manual interlaced or progressive adjustment; a virtual surround audio model and digital noise reduction.
In a bid to quickly get a handle on the validity of Sharp's PAL claims, I started my evaluations with standard PAL material, including a variety of TV fare and regular, RGB Scart-delivered DVDs. And with every single thing I watched, my initial scepticism diminished.
I can't say that I missed the 36 PAL lines chopped off to hit the TV's 540 resolution requirement. Indeed, I found PAL footage looking impeccably crisp, despite the restricted resolution. Oodles of sandy detail from a well-textured DVD like Troy appeared present and correct - without any obvious grain or crawl.
Colours were exemplary. After calibration, the set came very near to the EBU's 6500 Kelvin colour temperature ideal.
The finest aspect of the model's PAL pictures, though, were their lack of visible noise. Noise, smearing, grain, colour discrepancies and false contouring... all things usually associated with the £1200 32in LCD market were practically eradicated here. Which, of course, is entirely in keeping with Sharp's 'scalingfree' claims. Well, who'd have thought it?
Even more surprisingly, HD footage looked good too. Upscaling a PAL image to 720p from my Denon DVD-3910 proved largely pointless, but a genuine HD D-Theater tape of Alien was pleasingly detailed and noise-free. Even the slight blockiness that blights HDMI/DVI feeds on so many other LCD TVs seemed all but dismissed.
However, there is a caveat in all this cleverness: the 32P50E simply doesn't achieve the same acute levels of fine detailing with high-definition as true HD Ready sets. For instance, as this Sharp displayed the establishing shots round the Nostromo at the start of Alien, the picture lacked the depth and texture that I know exists within my D-VHS recording.
There are a couple of other little niggles to report too. Fast motion, such as a rapid camera pan or running footballer, can suffer modest image smearing. Black levels, while good by the standards of a £1200 32in LCD TV, also drop into grey from time to time (though the TV's 'movie' preset helps).
Sonically, the set is functional. AV fans will doubtless partner the set with a dedicated surround system.
In many ways, the 32P50E is a surprising proposition. Contrary to expectations, its PAL optimisation claims hold water. Standard-definition displays rank amongst the best in its class. However, while its HD playback is clean and natural, the shortfall in detail versus a proper HD Ready panel will put some enthusiasts off. Overall, though, this can be considered an above-average LCD screen. Let's hope we see a digital tuner version before too long. John Archer