- Review Price: £999.99
For my money, nobody crams more features into their TVs than Philips – at least so far as the brand’s premium models are concerned. So every year I half expect to find the Philips think-tank running out of ‘juice’; finally being unable to come up with anything other than an incremental improvement on features already introduced on a previous TV generation.
But with the 32PFL9604, Philips has yet again managed to push its frontier that bit further. In fact, its new talking point is actually something we’ve not seen before on any ‘mainstream’ TV: full Internet access. What’s more, this access can be achieved via a ‘hard’ Ethernet connection, or wirelessly via a built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi application. Excellent.
Numerous other big brands now offer online functions, of course. Sony has its Applicast system, Samsung has its Yahoo Widgets-driven engine, and Panasonic has its new VieraCast offering. But all these only let you into carefully managed, ring-fenced sections of the Web, rather than giving you unfettered access to everything the Internet has to offer.
The Philips approach actually offers both experiences. For after agreeing to a hilariously lengthy terms and conditions document, and telling the TV if you want to apply a lock-out to Adult content (wow, this really IS the Internet!), the first online page you’re presented with shows a selection of six preferred content providers offering services designed to work well with a TV rather than PC interface.
These preferred providers comprise YouTube, the tunim.fm online radio seach/playback engine, the Funspot online games service, MyAlbum.com for sharing and viewing photos, the Netlog service (a sort of stripped down Facebook), and MeteoConsult offering the inevitable interactive weather forecasts.
Having played around with these at length, I have to say that they represent a pretty diverse and genuinely worthwhile series of ring-fenced services overall. In fact, I’d even say I was drawn to the 32PFL9604’s preferred content – especially the tunin.fm digital radio tuner – more than I was by anything currently offered by the previous best online platform, Samsung’s internet@tv service.
I should also stress that the ring-fenced content all works well via the TV’s sleek, well-organised remote. I was very impressed, too, by the AV quality with which the screen presents downloaded AV, with picture and especially sound generally being way better than you’ll be used to from a typical PC setup.
Stuff downloads with decent speed too, and even typing in words to search engines isn’t as tedious as you might expect given that you have to use repeated presses of the remote’s numeric keys to input different letters.
Turning to the built-in browser, things are obviously a lot more complicated. A warning pops up when you first head for the full Internet that some pages aren’t designed to work with TV interfaces, and this proved to be the case with a number of pages I tried to access.
Inputting text for the web browser is done via a pop-up onscreen keyboard, like you get for sending messages from a PS3 or Xbox 360. A few key phrases – www., .co.uk, .com, .net etc – are provided as single key-press selections, but moving round the keys feels rather sluggish. Plus, of course, cycling through all the links on a web page not designed with TV users in mind can be a very time-consuming business. And trying to read Internet text on a 32in TV screen – even a Full HD one – isn’t always very easy on the eye, either. In short, the 32PFL9604’s full Internet access while appreciated will probably ultimately only be used on a very casual basis; it certainly won’t replace a PC for major net users.
Philips has declared that it has no intention of releasing a keyboard/mouse to use with its new Net TVs, as it wants its online experience to be seen as an extension of normal TV functionality rather than turning its TV into a PC. But I really don’t see the harm in offering one as an option for anyone who wants it, and it would make the TV’s open Internet feature a much more satisfying selling point.
Right, that’s Philips big innovation for the 32PFL9604 out of the way. So let’s now go in search of other more minor differences/improvements over Philips TVs of the past.
Aesthetically, the 32PFL9604 is strikingly different from last year’s Philips models. Out goes the glossy black bezel with bold outer transparent ‘shroud’ effect, in comes a new real aluminium and charcoal grey frame, with the TV’s speakers tucked neatly below. While still very striking, though, and arguably in tune with ideas of the sort of build quality we should demand of a premium TV, I have to say that I personally didn’t find the new look nearly as elegant as the old one. But you’re completely at liberty to disagree with me, of course!
The 32PFL9604 is extremely well connected. Five HDMIs are there for digital HD sources – four on the back and an EasyLink (HDMI-CEC) one on the side – but where the TV really comes into its own is with its multimedia support. For the Ethernet port used for Internet access can also be used for DLNA-based connection with a PC, while a USB port permits playback of a remarkably wide variety of file formats. For the geeks among you, the file formats supported by the 32PFL9604 are: AAC LC, MP3, AC3, LPCM, WMA v2 up to v9.2, .alb slideshow files, JPEGs, GIFs, PNGs, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, AVI H.264/MPEG-4 AVC, and WMV9/VC1.
Aside from its online features, probably the most significant new thing about the 32PFL9604 is its 2009 version of Philips’ formidable Perfect Pixel HD video processing engine. While this features subtle tweaks to most if not all of the picture areas it targets, its biggest advance is its new Perfect Contrast element. This can apparently measure more accurately and adjust smaller, localised areas within the image when calculating its optimum brightness and contrast settings, leading to enhanced sharpness and contrast, and – according to Philips – “a perceived brightness higher than the actual peak output of the panel”. To put a figure on this, Philips reckons that the 80,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio claimed for the 32PFL9604 is more than twice as high as that of last year’s equivalent model.
The 2009 version of Perfect Pixel is more powerful than last year’s too, handling five hundred million pixels per second, and the set’s 3D and 2D noise reduction routines are now applied to all sources, rather than just the RF sources as was the case previously.
The colour element of the Perfect Pixel HD Engine, meanwhile, now produces a claimed 2,250 trillion colours from its 17-bit colour section. Plus, of course, there’s the eternally controversial but always important Perfect Natural Motion circuitry, which interpolates extra frames of image data to give motion a sharpness and fluidity that for my money is currently unrivalled by any other brand. However, the big question has to be how much Philips has made inroads into reducing the side effects associated with this feature in previous incarnations.
As for the remaining features, all that’s left to say is that it’s got 100Hz processing, while the Ambilight Spectra 2 engine on the TV, which can be seen throwing out pools of coloured light from the TV’s left and right sides, is also improved from last year. It now has four independent colour zones on each of the screen’s sides so that the light output can match the image content more accurately.
If you’re head’s spinning from all the features we’ve just gone through – even though these are only really the tip of the iceberg of the flexibility available from the TV’s enormous onscreen menus – then now is probably a good time to say that the 32PFL9604 benefits from a revamped operating system that does a fair job of guiding you through setup when you first turn the TV on, and also scores points by carrying a nicely presented ‘instant access’ menu screen for getting to all of the TV’s numerous source options.
Turning at last to the 32PFL9604’s picture quality, I’ve got great news: it’s a genuinely huge improvement over anything I’ve seen from any 32in Philips TV before. No mean feat considering that Philips has already been responsible for some of the best 32in LCD TVs in the business.
There are two main reasons for my enthusiasm: contrast and motion handling.
Regarding the former, the set’s black level response is vastly better than anything I’ve seen before from Philips at this size point. In fact, the extent to which the TV avoids the blue or grey misting effect over even a really dark scene like any of those out on the street during ”30 Days of Night” is arguably the best I’ve seen from anyone. Certainly only top-line models from Sony and Samsung can really claim to get close.
I should also stress that these impressive black levels aren’t achieved at the expense of shadow detailing, either. In other words, dark parts of the picture look three-dimensional and textured, just like bright parts, rather than looking hollow and flat.
Also striking is how little the 32PFL9604 has to reduce the overall brightness of its pictures in order to make its deep black levels possible. This helps dark scenes retain a level of dynamism that I really believe is unique at this size point of the market.
When it comes to the TV’s motion handling, what’s happened is that Philips has managed to deliver a marked reduction in the amount of artefacts that accompany the HD Natural Motion element of the Perfect Pixel HD engine. So now you can enjoy the mesmerising fluidity the system introduces – which really is in a different league to anything offered along similar lines by any rival brand – without having to tolerate nearly as many of the distracting side effects that have made the feature such a staple talking point in techie forums across the globe.
The system certainly isn’t flawless; there can still be a noticeable flicker around really fast moving elements, such as the arms and legs of a sprinter, and occasionally a swift burst of horizontal motion – especially if it’s taking place within a camera pan – can produce a little shimmering halo effect around the moving object. Also you’d be crazy to use the Natural Motion option on anything other than its Minimum setting, and I personally wouldn’t use the 100Hz option if you’re watching an action film or sporting event. But provided you take these relatively simple precautions, the benefits of the latest Natural Motion circuitry far outweigh the negatives.
Still not convinced? Well, then you can turn off the Natural Motion function entirely. And rather excellently, if you do this, you’ll still find that motion looks impressively crisp anyway – just not as judder-free.
The key black level and motion enhancements are happily joined on the 32PFL9604 by plenty of evidence of Philips’ traditional strengths. And so, for instance, colours are spectacularly vivid, exploding off the screen with a vigour but also tonal authenticity that’s very rare when you get below the 40in screen size.
Then, of course, there’s the phenomenal sharpness that’s been a key feature of Philips’ TV game for a number of years now. HD images look absolutely pristine, as exceptional levels of fine detail and texture are presented without a trace of harshness. But if anything it’s actually the 32PFL9604’s standard definition pictures that are the most remarkable. Not because they look better than HD pictures; clearly they don’t. But because they look more like HD pictures than they do on any other TV I can recall bar, possibly, Toshiba’s latest Resolution+ TVs. What’s more, it seems as if Philips has managed to add all of the extra detailing while at the same time completely suppressing the old dot crawl and edge-stressing problems that used to accompany Philips’ detail-boosting processing talents.
As ever, I’m bound to point out that the 32PFL9604’s pictures need regular visits to the TV’s onscreen menus to keep them looking their best with different types of source, especially where motion is concerned. And I still feel there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the presets the TV uses. For instance, when the TV detects a Blu-ray source and you’ve got the Cinema picture preset selected, is it too much to ask for a TV as apparently clever as this one to turn off all of its noise reduction routines automatically, rather than leaving them set to the softening ‘Medium’ level until you intervene and manually change things?
But the improvements Philips has made to its motion-handling processing do at least make trips to the TV’s onscreen menus less frequent than before, while the results of your efforts in picture quality terms are even more impressive.
Not content with outgunning its 32in rivals with its picture quality, the 32PFL9604 also blasts most if not all of them out of the water with its audio. A couple of unusually large mid-bass drivers sit boldly on the TV’s rear, while two high-efficiency dome tweeters are integrated into the TV’s front, and separating the speakers out in this way pays off handsomely. The volumes the TV manages to achieve without succumbing to a trace of distortion or muffling are prodigious, as is the amount of bass the set can produce without overwhelming the mid-range.
Trebles occasionally sound fractionally harsh at really loud volumes, but for most of the time they’re very impressive for their clarity and the way they help develop a sense of space in a busy audio sequence.
Philips hasn’t had the best time in the press recently, with tales of plummeting sales and earnings. But if the 32PFL9604 is anything to go by, it looks like the brand will at least have another clutch of positive reviews to help keep its pecker up through 2009. For this is yet another high quality, expansively featured and genuinely innovative TV that deserves to find a healthy following despite its relatively high price.
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Score in detail
Image Quality 9
Sound Quality 9