While Sony popularised the LCD format with its public move from plasma in the mid-noughties, over the past few years Samsung has taken the lion's share of the attention. However, TVs such as Sony's HX800 have put the Japanese giant back in the game.
Far from the heady highs of models such as the highly anticipated HX925, the EX420 is a more modest affair. It's a 32-inch television, one of a handful of Sony models that have peeked out from beneath the AU$1000 mark. As a "budget" TV, how does it compare against other televisions at the same price?
Sony appears to have stuck with what it's good at this year, as the design of the EX420 is very similar to the EX710 of 2010. It maintains the two-tone look, though it's arguably more stylish in pleasing variations on gun-metal.
The biggest change is in the often-overlooked part of any budget TV — the stand. It may be a little harder to attach than most other televisions, but the effect of the two metal poles poking out from the base is worth the effort.
The remote is similar to most that the company has put out in recent years, which is to say it's easy to access all of the relevant functions. But it is missing the (somewhat strange) back-mounted power button that the company has been so fond of recently.
While we were quite impressed with the feature set of another budget Sony TV — the KDL-22S5700S "bedroom" TV — the EX420 trumps it in both ease of use and breadth.
If you've used a Sony device in the last couple of years then you'll be quite familiar with the Xross Media Bar (XMB) navigation system. With the EX420, Sony has taken this horizontally-scrolling menu and tweaked it for the better. The menu now stretches across the bottom and right-hand side of the screen, which gives ample space to display the source you're watching in a picture window.
The XMB enables you to access Bravia Internet Video content from ABC iView, SBS and Yahoo!7, in addition to other web-portals such as YouTube and Moshcam. Unfortunately, material is a little harder to find than before, as instead of cascading down from the "Video" icon, most channels are hidden within the Bravia Internet Video icon on the Video menu.
Sony shows its age, though, with the specifications; this panel is 1366 x 768 in an age when most 32-inch screens have a full-HD resolution. While the TV boasts the company's latest X-Reality picture engine, it doesn't include "true" 100Hz processing, just a feature called "Intelligent Image Enhancer". The TV does support the cinema-compatible 24p output from Blu-ray disks, though.
Connections are plentiful, with four HDMI ports (version 1.3 with no ARC), two USB ports (that can also be used to connect a Sony wireless dongle), a component, two composite, VGA and two audio-outs — one optical and one analog.
The Sony EX420 is the first 2011 TV we've seen, and so our "best TV of 2011" expectations were high. They needn't have been.
We began our testing with some free-to-air television, and while colour, detail and black levels were quite respectable, the rally car footage from One HD showed up some problems that we would soon become familiar with. Namely: motion blur and ghosting. Fast camera movements tracking cars as they zipped past resembled flicker books rather than the version of car racing we were used to. Enabling "Cinema Drive" didn't do much to smooth out motion, simply adding "haloing" to the picture.
Next came the synthetic DVD and Blu-ray tests, and we found the X-Reality picture engine performs at a similar level to the old Bravia Engine 3. Moire effects are minimised, but the set can be slow to respond to scene changes. The set failed to reduce moire at 30fps on DVD, which is more of an issue if you're watching NTSC content. Meanwhile, at default settings, the TV was effective at reducing blockiness and buzzing mosquito noise.
The TV performed well on proper movie content, delivering high-contrast images with little noise. Black levels are encouraging, and even with the lights off there's a usable amount of contrast there. Only when viewed off-axis do the blacks crush down into purples/blues. In addition, the problem with motion blur that we'd seen earlier resurfaced, and as an example, the tracking shot at the start of Batman Begins was as jolting as the earlier rally footage.
Sound quality was a bit flat, and even the budget Sanyo LCD40XR10F (AU$999) managed a better sonic performance. While the Sony will manage if you just want to watch the news, it wouldn't be our first choice for watching movies or — less likely still — listening to music. The levels are just a little soft for that.
Switching to the wealth of "network services" on offer, we watched a bit of QI from ABC's iView and found that video quality was acceptable. However, the volume was a bit louder than other sources, and just a little bit distorted.
While Sony's newest budget television offers a lot more than the company's previous models, unfortunately it doesn't offer the level of performance we expected at the price. While the picture processing does a decent job with straining video through the TV's pixel mesh it can't do much about the colander itself. We suspect that the panel is an overhang from Sony's panel factories circa '05 and not even 100Hz-like effects can make up for slow pixels. If you could get one of these TVs for under AU$600 it might be a decent buy, but a strong, rivalling TV from bona-fide budget maker Sanyo puts this screen to shame.