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Top Ten Budget TVs of 2012

You don’t have to spend the earth when seeking out your next TV

by Mark Hodgkinson Dec 10, 2012


  • Often all that separates the more budget orientated displays from their more celebrated siblings are a selection of features you may either not want or have access to via other devices. When it comes to what really matters – the quality of the pictures – base performance is frequently very close from top to bottom. With that in mind, we’ve compiled this list to aid your search through the bargain basements this holiday season. All aboard the AVForums Value Express…


    Samsung ES5500

    The UE46ES5500 looks quintessentially Samsung. The slender gloss black bezel is encased by the hallmark transparent surround that sits on a plain, rectangular stand that, alas, doesn’t swivel. The remote control is nice and slender, well planned and easy to operate with just one hand. The Smart Hub features are about as complete a set of apps, games and video on demand content you could ever wish for. Add in USB PVR recording, interaction with smartphones and tablets plus the streaming of an extensive set of media files all housed in a customisable home page, and we probably have the market’s leading Smart offering.

    Once we’d disabled all the unnecessary picture controls and selected the Movie Picture Mode, the Samsung ES5500 offered up a very reasonable picture performance indeed. Naturally, once calibrated further, the images on offer were of an even higher standard and the accurate colours combined with excellent black levels to deliver pictures of real note with generally good video processing. There’s not much the Samsung UE46ES5500 doesn’t do well. From impressive contrast performance to truthful colour representation through solid picture processing and a whole bunch of Smart features, it rarely puts a foot wrong. Motion handling could be better, viewing angles more generous and – dare we say it – Samsung might just have included 3D at this price but once more they have delivered another 5 series TV that belies its lower mid-tier status.


    Panasonic UT50B

    From the front the Panasonic UT50 looks the part; the silver accent to the bottom of the bezel looks stylish and the ‘crystal’ strip surrounding the gloss black top and sides achieves the contemporary look Panasonic have been striving for. It’s unfortunate there are only 2 HDMI ports to the rear, however, and we think it’s probably a cut too far in their attempts to achieve clear product differentials. The Panasonic UT50 is imbued with most of the same Smart features found in the Smart VIERA higher up the food chain. The most noticeable missing item is built-in wi-fi and owners are necessitated to pick up a separate dongle if they wish to connect over a wireless network. For those who are able to hook up a wired LAN connection, connecting to Panasonic’s cloud based VIERA Connect will allow such things as HD video on demand content from the likes of Netflix and BBC iPlayer; Twitter and Facebook Apps plus the varied delights of the VIERA Connect Market.

    If you can accommodate the Panasonic UT50B in the right habitat and you don’t need more than a couple of HDMI inputs, it will pay back its relatively meagre asking price with rich dividends. The UT50 maintains the black levels and contrast performance found in the higher-end Generation 15 Panasonics but only if it’s not facing a light source where its highly reflective panel can, and will, ruin all the good work. If your requirements are for late evening/night time viewing only, then grab yourself a bargain and when all’s said and done there’s no doubting that the raw performance of the Panasonic UT50B is hugely impressive for this sector of the market.


    Sony EX553

    The EX553 is another understated design from Sony and no worse for that but some may be surprised at its relatively thick chassis when the modest screen size is considered. The added depth does however allow a pair of reasonably capable speakers to be included. To get the most from the generous set of connected and Smart features aboard the EX553 will necessitate a trawl through the sluggish XMB, however, but there are dozens of Video on Demand services on offer for those that do. Sony's own Music and Video services are readily accessible with just a single click of the SEN button but we really would have preferred Sony to make all the other features – VoD, PVR, Media Streaming – accessible from the same interface.

    Out-of-the-box performance in the Cinema mode was reasonably pleasing but much improved with calibration, whilst the video processing of the X-Reality engine was as reliable as ever, with both HD and SD content. The EX553 managed an excellent black response with very good - for an edge-lit LCD - screen uniformity. The only real weak point of the Sony EX553, and unusually for a LED TV, is its inability to produce bright pictures meaning that unless you intend this as a ‘watch-in-bed’ TV with the curtains drawn, you’ll never be getting the most out of it. If you do intend the EX553 for the bedroom then its mixture of impressive dynamic range, all round colour fidelity and a whole host of Smart features – all readily accessible through the built in Wi-Fi – make it a very worthy choice.


    Panasonic XT50B

    It’s a sign of the times that the XT50B is one of very few non-1080p displays we’ve been sent in 2012. More unusual still, the Panasonic XT50 is an HD Ready (720p) only TV with 3D capabilities making it a very rare beast. The styling is unobtrusive rather than jaw-dropping but the bezel is still relatively slender which makes the TV contemporary in appearance. There’s no skimping on the feature-set with the XT50 packed with all the same features present in the Panasonics higher up the pecking order, including a Web Browser, a suite of Video on Demand services and apps aplenty from the VIERA Connect Market.

    In its True Cinema picture mode the XT50 produced pictures with a very good degree of colour accuracy and added to the solid contrast performance of the Panasonic plasma panels, was capable of delivering very enjoyable images. The ’keener eyed’ will be able to spot the resolution downgrade of the 720p panel, particularly with close-up scenes but for those that watch a fairly even mixture of High and Standard Definition content, the lower resolution might prove a real blessing as it’s more able to conceal the limitations of SD than a typical 1080p display. The 3D presentation was similarly subject to a touch of resolution curtailment but the general smoothness of motion and believable colour palette mostly compensated for the scaling artefacts, although it did struggle with side by side broadcast content. The Panasonic XT50 is undoubtedly an unusual proposition but provides a decent halfway house for those still in transition to the HD world.


    Finlux S9100-T

    It’s obvious where Finlux has looked for design ideas with the S 9100-T but who could blame them, particularly when even the big boys aren’t above a bit of mimicry. We certainly can’t accuse Finlux of skimping on the accessories front, either, as included in the box are a wireless dongle, 8 pairs of 3D glasses and two remote controls; one of which is a pocket-sized basic model with the other of more conventional dimensions and functionality. Both get the job done and feel well conceived. The same could be said for the Finlux Menu systems, that are bright, snappy and easy to navigate. Finlux hasn’t made a great deal of progress with their online content but the two most popular Video on Demand services – BBC iPlayer and YouTube – both feature as well as Twitter, Facebook and Picasa.


    Toshiba VL963B

    We were very happy with the styling of the Toshiba VL963B, its almost all-black approach and micro bezel reveals a discreet simplicity that makes it both simultaneously unobtrusive and chic. Connections wise we hope Samsungand Panasonic are paying attention, as Toshiba have managed to fit 4 HDMI ports in to what is, to all intents and purposes, a fairly inexpensive TV. General menu presentation is good although the lack of calibration controls may be an obstacle down the line.

    With the VL963B being equipped with an LG IPS panel we were hardly expecting it to set the world alight with its contrast performance and it is rather average in that department but the solid panel uniformity and effective ambient light rejection means it fares well in brighter conditions although the glossy screen is very reflective. Perhaps the VL963 strongest suit comes in the way in which it effortlessly handles 3D. With a bright yet convincing colour palette and an almost crosstalk, and totally flicker free presentation it's difficult not to get drawn in but, of course, the immersion factor would be improved dramatically with the 55 inch version. Those looking for a chic, modern TV and like a spot of 3D action will find the Toshiba VL963 a tempting proposition. The 963 will fit the bill even more if they view their 2D action with the lights up where the lack of contrast punch will be hardly noticeable and we're happy to recommend a demo.


    Sony HX753

    There’s nothing fancy about the Sony 55HX753’s. It hasn’t got a distinctive stand, it’s not particularly thin and nor is the bezel of the micro variety but it does nothing to offend and the silver trim on the outer edges of the chassis gives it a hint of topicality. The remote control fits in to that category as well and is none the worse for it. Thankfully there’s less reason than ever to use the clunky XMB menus as almost everything you will need can be accessed from the OPTIONS button – for settings – and the SEN button for ‘smart’ content. That said, Sony really need to organise their features in a more consolidated way so it’s all easy to access from the same place.

    Out-of-the-box colour accuracy was impressive and once we’d calibrated the greyscale, images were very convincing. The 3D presentation is a big step up from what we saw from most of the 2011 Sony’s with little in the way of crosstalk to spoil the immersion. With some careful setup the Sony KDL-55HX753 is capable of producing very pleasing pictures that rival those of the more costly HX853 we recently reviewed. The excellent colours, more than capable video processing and very decent intra-scene contrast are enough to ensure the HX753 is another solid candidate from Sony’s 2012 Bravia line-up.


    Panasonic ET5B

    There’s no denying Panasonic have been somewhat ‘inspired’ by a certain Korean manufacturer in a lot of this year’s designs but it’s not a wholesale rip-off job in the case of the ET5 and, although the crystal strip running around the perimeters of the bezel is markedly reminiscent of a Samsung TV, we prefer the matte brushed metal looks of the Panasonic ET5.

    If you’re not one of those that likes to watch with the lights down low, the Panasonic ET5 will make a fine choice. In fact, if you’re requirements are for a 3DTV in a family room, we can think of few better. The ET5 is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from an IPS based LED TV, the black levels and contrast won’t leave you agog, motion clarity can be bettered and there are some mild, but nagging, uniformity issues. That’s the bad. The positives are bright and accurate images, generous viewing angles, an absolute wealth of features and the 3D performance, which is gloriously bright, crosstalk and flicker free. There’s Wi-Fi built in as well, which makes accessing all the connected features the ET5 possesses that much easier with the highlights being the new Web Browser, lots of Video on Demand Services and capable DLNA streaming of media files. It’s not going to knock the socks off the videophiles amongst us but the Panasonic ET5 still delivers on a lot of fronts.


    Samsung EH5300

    Unlike some of its more esteemed companions in the Samsung range, the UE46EH5300 is very unlikely to be bestowed with any design awards being as it’s the proverbial black box and unusually thickset for a LED TV. No matter, to us, and our only criticism really stems from the fact the base-stand doesn’t swivel. Connections are certainly adequate and the same can be said for the layout and content of the Menu systems. Features are abundant, with heaps of Video on Demand services to choose from, media streaming possibilities and a web browser among the highlights.

    Once we’d shifted out of the factory default Standard picture mode, the EH5300 transformed in to a display capable of very accurate colour representation. In fact, once calibrated, this plucky mid-range TV put many a display costing far more to shame in terms of its colour tracking and Samsung deserve great credit for that. Video processing was generally strong, with good scaling and deinterlacing performance although the lack of proper cadence detection means your DVD collection could be seen in better light. To add to the extremely convincing colour palette, contrast and dynamic range performance was incredibly strong with barely a whiff of a uniformity issue to spoil the party.

    High definition images were packed with detail and although motion handling could have been better, we’d expect most to be extremely pleased by the images the EH5300 is capable of outputting. The good news doesn’t stop there, either, and – attention gamers – this particular TV returned the lowest input lag figures we’ve obtained since using our new testing equipment and methodology. The EH5300 is truly a TV that should satisfy the most demanding of competitive gamer out there. The Samsung UE-EH5300 is an outstanding all-rounder available for a price that shouldn’t make you wince. It is most certainly up there with the best LED TV’s we’ve seen this year and based on current internet prices, it's a sure-fire Best Buy.


    Sharp LC-60LE636E

    There's no question that the Sharp LC-60LE636 offers fantastic value for money, with a 60" screen size and an all-round solid performance for less than £1,000. Certain concessions have been made of course but none of these directly impact on performance and if you're not interested in 3D - and most people aren't - then the 60LE636 offers some genuinely impressive big screen entertainment. The 60LE636 also includes a reasonable set of features including Sharp's Aquos Net+ smart TV platform, DLNA compliance, media playback and basic PVR features when attached to an external HDD. However compared to much of the competition, Sharp's smart capabilities are somewhat limited.

    The out-of-the-box performance of the 60LE636 was quite good, with reasonable accuracy in both greyscale and colour gamut. Thanks to the inclusion of a full set of calibration controls we could get an excellent degree of image accuracy. Whilst not quite reference, the measurements were very close and any errors were too small to be perceived by the viewer. The video processing was also excellent, passing all of our tests and delivering very watchable images from standard definition, despite the large screen size.

    When it came to high definition content, the 60LE636 stepped up a gear delivering a wonderfully detailed and enjoyable big screen experience. The contrast ratio and dynamic range were also very good, delivering images that had plenty of punch. Ultimately the Sharp LC-60LE636 offers big screen entertainment and excellent all-round performance at an incredibly attractive price. There really is very little to compete with the 60LE636 at this screen size and definitely not at this price, so if you're in the market for a big TV put it at the top of your list.

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