Another measured attempt by Sony, this time in the increasingly rare, but popular with consumers, 37-inch size. It sits slap bang in the middle of the company's impressive, and popular, Essential EX range.
Forget 3D – it's not on offer here. Just shy of £600 gets you a reasonably well-specified TV. In the design stakes, it's not going to win any awards, but we do like the metallic strip across the bottom of an otherwise standard gloss black finish. It borrows the look of a PC monitor, perhaps, but it's a fairly muted design that doesn't unnecessarily attract attention.
Crucially for such a cheap telly, the 37EX524 uses an Edge LED-backlit LCD panel, which isn't something we expect to find at this level of the market. Its use also ensures a panel depth of just 42mm.
Apps left, right and centre
What is becoming expected on new TVs, at any level of the market, are online apps, and in that regard Sony doesn't disappoint. The 37EX524 includes widgets for Twitter and Facebook, as well as Skype - if you buy a pricey CMU-BR100 headset - but the real fun is over at the central Bravia Internet Video service. BBC iPlayer is the must-have, but it's joined by Sky News, Lovefilm, Demand 5 (exclusively), Eurosport and YouTube. Sony continues to add more video-based services, most notably its own, evolving the Qriocity music and movie streaming services). There is still some clutter though; the likes of Livestrong, Blip.tv and Singing Fool add needless clutter and diminish the service, in our opinion. Less would be more - and there's already a lot to love here.
Not so the open Opera web browser, which is hampered by the use of tiny fonts and slowness, so much so that it provides a compelling reason the TV and internet browser have never truly converged. Sony's media remote app for both iPhone and Android is, in many ways, awesome, but despite making URL entry and general operation of the browser significantly easier, it can’t work miracles; the replacement of a cursor by a system where you have to scroll slowly between each live link on a page is interminable – and it also frequently freezes.
By default these features are supplied through wired Ethernet LAN - there's no built-in Wi-Fi - though it's worth trailing a cable, or buying an optional UWA-BR100 USB Wi-Fi dongle, for both that online hub, and for the 37EX524's excellent streaming skills. Only three file flavours can be played either from a networked Windows PC or Mac (running UPnP software like TwonkyMedia); AVI, AVC HD and MOV. From as USB stick you'd think it would be an identical scenario, but no; supported files comprise AVI, some MPEG2/4-based files, AVC HD and WMV, though not MKV.
TrackID is a nice feature that we’ve loved before. Munch like the Shazam app, you hit the button during live TV, and Track ID will take a sample of any music playing, and go off into the internet to find something that matches. Unlike Shazam, though, this one has only a 50% success rate at gathering the artist/track information.
Record from Freeview HD, with no PVR
USB HDD recording from Freeview HD is a nice extra, though hardly a replacement for a proper time-shifting PVR. Though, if you do start recording something, you are then completely free to head down the pub. Surely this simple feature’s raison d’etre? Because the 37EX524's 'presence sensor' will switch the TV off after a pre-determined time.
In our test the 37EX524 – a budget TV, remember – managed decent blacks, plenty of shadow detail and a pleasant colour performance, with just enough detail in blur-free images. All that makes it the ideal living room TV, though there is one major caveat; the difference between 720p and 1080p hi-def footage isn't as apparent as it is on other sets. However, the way it plays down detail can also be an advantage since its Freeview HD tuner's standard definition channels are less of a letdown if you've just been watching a Blu-ray disc, for instance. On that note, kudos to Sony for producing a truly great electronic programme guide for the Freeview tuner. Unlike the rest of the revamped Xross Media Bar user interface, which is slow to trawl through if you’re after something specific, the Freeview HD usability is top notch.
So while we wouldn't recommend the 37EX524 to anyone after ultimate hi-def perfection, we're also sure that such people will expect to pay more, and probably aim for a much bigger TV. Not that HD looks bad – arguably the 37EX524's unusual skills with shadow detail and ultimate black - borne from the slight lack of brightness that is the cause of underwhelming 1080p material - lends a Blu-ray disc a dimension that you won't find on to other sets. In short, fans of dark, brooding fare like Batman Begins or even Avatar will prefer the 37EX524's picture, while titles like Despicable Me and Ice Age 3 will likely benefit from the punchier, brighter panels found in Samsung LED-backlit TV.
There is another drawback. It might be the perfect size for a gaming TV in a bedroom, but size isn't everything; during our tests we encountered a lot of blur during a session of Pro Evolution Soccer from an Xbox360. It's no surprise; this is a standard 50Hz panel with no extra processing.
Great for movies though lacking the brightness of rival brands' Edge LED-backlit offerings, Sony's 37-incher piles on the features. A lush Freeview HD treatment, awesome online goodies, and a nice price are set against some onscreen blur, and a lack of ultimate HD detail, but this budget TV nevertheless punches above its weight.