Sony is banking on its W8 flatscreen range to cut a swathe through the connected TV competition this year.
While there are higher-spec Full HD models in the brand's own 2014 line-up, specifically the distinctive wedge-shaped W85 and W95 models, this trio of 42, 50 and 55-inch models (KDL-42W829, KDL-50W829 and KDL-55W829 respectively) represent the sweet spot in terms of price, performance and features.
They'll need to be good, because this mass market middle ground looks to be hotly contested, with Panasonic's Freetime flatscreens, LG's Web OS models and the latest from Samsung all determined to dominate the sub-£1000 TV market.
The design of the Sony KDL-50W829 is minimalist but chic. A wistfully thin brushed black metal bezel makes this 50-incher seem rather smaller than its screen acreage would suggest. It also looks surprisingly upmarket for a set that retails for less than a grand.
Connectivity is solid too. There are four HDMIs - with Audio Return Channel and MHL mobile hook-up catered for - plus two USB ports, a Scart socket, plus component/phono AV inputs.
Networking is possible via Ethernet or integrated Wi-Fi to hook up smart TV features for catch-up and the like. For the best performance we would advise hardwiring a LAN connection, but wireless is a simple fix if that's not practical. There are both singular Freeview HD and generic HD satellite tuners on board too.
Sony has rethought its connected user interface in the W8. Streaming media services from the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) are now grouped together on a single screen. It's less elegant than last years' more integrated menu approach, but the end result is functional enough.
While Sony doesn't yet offer a full complement of catch-up services, there is an enviable selection of streaming channels on tap, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, Mubi, and a slew of others you'll rarely feel inclined to view. A graphical launch page of content encourages grazing.
Navigation around the new UI is a little sluggish, a hidden consequence of the aggressive price point perhaps? But it's not so slow to turn us off.
The star of Sony's new interface is actually the brand's new One Flick system. This is a combination Search and Recommendation engine, which presents curated thumbnails across the bottom of the screen. The set automatically filters content for TV, radio, YouTube and Sony's own Video Unlimited movie streaming service, but more powerfully allows you to create bespoke search bars based around keywords.
Also new for 2014 is Social View, a Twitter application that pushes tweets across the bottom of the screen. These can relate to the show you're watching at the time, or custom searches. Cosmetically you can opt for a smaller image with wordage running underneath, or a full screen images with a tweeting overlay. Shoehorning social media onto a communal TV may seem unnecessarily gimmicky, however Sony reports that a majority of users like Twitter functionality. We're yet to find out who those users are.
Also kicking off this year is a Football mode, given high prominence on the remote control, to attract World Cup upgraders. This basically applies digital signal processing (DSP) to make the ambient crowd noise from stadiums more expansive and immersive. It's effective, if a little fatiguing. Best switched off when watching Eastenders to avoid death by Danny Dyer.
The KDL-50W829 is DLNA certified, offering media playback from local USB and across the network. Our sample proved flaky on the latter, but we'll put this down to early firmware jitters. File support seems fine, with MKV, WMV and AVIs all catered for no problems.
Where the Sony W8 really scores high is with its image performance. This set blows its price tag out of the water thanks to superb picture definition, outstanding colour fidelity and best-in-class motion resolution.
There's been a change in panel supplier from last year's W8 model, which has translated to a mild improvement when it comes to off-axis viewing. There's less contrast drop off or colour fade and deeper blacks as a result. It looks great.
Sony's X-Reality Pro picture processor also does an astonishing job of fine tuning image detail, regardless of the source. Blu-rays really sparkle with detail and broadcast HD bristles, as the Sony chipset references a massive silicon database for the best possible definition.
Put simply the W8 is a panel that works well with all types of content. Motionflow XR processing does a stellar job retaining detail without creating unwanted processing artefacts (a failing often seen as smudgy noise around movie objects). Several Motionflow modes deliver Full 1080p resolution at 65ppf (pixels per frame), making them ideal for sports.
Film fans who don't care for this rather slippery high-frame-rate presentation have Cinema modes which swap moving detail for a more theatrical vibe. There's also a highly effective Game mode, making this screen a recommended partner for any next-gen console.
Another consequence of the new panel supplier is the return of Full HD Active Shutter 3D. This works well enough. Two pairs of lightweight shuttering glasses are included, delivering stereoscopic images of pronounced depth. If, that is, 3D is of any concern to your viewing habits.
Sonically the Sony KDL-50W829 is something of a surprise. While it lacks any great volume, the stereo noise it makes is reasonably fulsome thanks to a 2x 8w digital amp and some clever downward firing bass reflex speakers.
Adding some vocal definition is a new audio processor, dubbed Clearaudio+. Sony also offers an optional wireless subwoofer to go with the set, although at £250 this will have limited appeal - better to go for a full sound system upgrade in our view.
It’s difficult not to be a little in awe of the Sony W8. From the KDL-50W829's contemporary design to its astonishingly accomplished picture, the screen barely puts a pixel wrong. The brand’s new One-Flick search and recommendation tools are extremely powerful too.
Our only real moans are the slow user interface and smart additions such as Twitter which, in the case of the latter, doesn't seem like a premier telly feature. Still, that's easily turned off just like the various motion-smoothing modes to set up the W8 exactly as you want it.
Once you've got the W8 set up just as you want it it's a cracker for whatever you throw at it: sport, gaming, movies, broadcast - it's got you covered. For a 50-inch 1080p internet connected TV priced at under £1,000 the Sony W8 outperforms its price tag and then some.
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