If you're busy thinking up ways in which to get your hands on a PlayStation 3 or are just content with putting up with the Christmas bustle and going for an Xbox 360, you'd be advised not to forget adding a television which has high definition capabilities.
When Microsoft launched their second generation console, the Xbox 360; it took a few days before comparisons between picture quality on standard and high definition (HD) sets to appear on the Web. It was clear that if you wanted the experience these consoles were designed for you needed a HD capable television. Samsung offer up the R74 series as a gaming orientated television based on LCD technology. Available in 26", 32", 37" and 40" flavours, it features a "Game Mode" which aims to provide a better experience when hooked up to any console.
It's a gas
Sales of LCD televisions are set to overtake Plasma in the next four months for the first time according to industry analysts Meko. This is not surprising as LCDs are now technologically superior thanks to massive investment from Korean firms such as Samsung and LG. Plasma on the other hand only has Pioneer and Panasonic as its big name backers.
Plasma does have some serious downsides when it comes to gaming. While firms such as Pioneer, who specialize in plasma screens, have reduced the effects of screen burn, they haven't eliminated it completely. Screen burn occurs when a stagnant image is present on the screen for an amount of time. The image is then "burnt" onto the screen. When temporary, it is known as image retention. However it can be permanent, causing indelible damage to the screen.
Screen burn can be a major problem as in games part of the screen may remain unchanged for long periods of time. For example, the hud in Call of Duty 3 or Gears of War can remain on screen, unchanged for a very long time. LCDs however do not suffer from screen burn.
It would be wrong to say LCD televisions are the perfect solution, however finding HD CRT sets are very hard and few would be willing to make the cosmetic sacrifice. LCD screens traditionally suffered from poor response times, which meant that a 'motion blur' would appear on any fast moving object. Not what you want when you require a clear shot at your enemy. Thanks to improved LCD panels and new technologies this is no longer an issue. Samsung quote around 8ms response time for the R74 and the screen shows no blur in any of the games we tried, including the frantic must-have shoot-em-up, Gears of War.
The bigger picture
Samsung style their LCD televisions using tracing paper. The glossy black frame with silver colour plastic bottom border housing the main power switch can be found on most of their models. It's not bad to look at and the swivel base is excellent. Neatly tucked away speakers mean that you aren't faced with ugly grill edifices.
I've been using the 26" version of the R74 for the last month. This has a resolution of 1336x768, meaning it can support up to 720P. This is perfectly adequate for Xbox 360 and Sky HD owners. The 26" model has a quoted contrast ratio of 3000:1 while the three larger models have 5000:1. You shouldn't be deterred by the lower figure as the picture quality out of the box was very good.
Quoted viewing angle for the R74 series is high at 178 degrees. In reality I could stand almost anywhere in my living room and see a decent picture with colours fairly accurate against the reference of sitting directly in front.
The integrated Freeview tuner provides a good picture but if you want to push this screen, feed a DVD player through either the component or HDMI inputs. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Sony's AR21 notebook which featured a Blu-Ray player. When Tears of the Sun ran the quality was stunning, better in my view than my Pioneer plasma screen.
Channel hopping on Freeview is not all that smooth thanks to lag between pressing the channel up/down button and the channel actually changing. Sometimes clicks were ignored and sometimes over compensated for.
Apart from "Game Mode" there are a few other preset display modes available. All are customizable and the dedicated movie mode is very good. Overall, settings are easy to adjust thanks to a good menu system aided by a well designed remote control which even includes Braille for common buttons.
The integrated speakers are hopeless. Having 5 watts per channel it's just not powerful enough and you can feel that the sound is being impeded by having the speakers recessed under the glossy black frame. Enabling SRS surround sound seems to have little positive effect on the quality or three dimensional feel of the output.
The R74 has all the standard connectivity options, with two SCART sockets (one RGB and one including audio), component (including stereo audio input), HDMI, D-Sub with 2-channel audio along with s-video and composite. Optical audio out through SP/DIF is also there.
Even on standard settings the R74 is a good television to hook up your Xbox 360 up to. Picture quality is excellent, especially when playing the excellent Gears or War. There's no motion lag, colours are fairly neutral and the overall experience is very pleasurable. So what happens when you turn on "Game mode"?
When enabled, the most obvious characteristic is a change in brightness. It drops quite considerably. This isn't a bad thing, especially if you are playing in a darkened environment. Colours remain just as good as they were before. Samsung say that Game Mode enables faster response times. This maybe so but 8ms is perfectly fine in the first place. After hours of playing on either mode and forcing a change over mid-game, I couldn't see a visual difference in response time.
Game mode supposedly makes audio three-dimensional. To be honest with such tinny speakers, no matter what's done it's very hard to make it sound anything more than flat. If you are going to use the R74 for serious gaming, get a real speaker system, you'll appreciate it.
So does "Game Mode" really make a massive difference to your gaming experience? Frankly, the R74 is a good screen in standard or dynamic mode. Game mode reduces light bleed and makes relatively minor changes to the picture. It's a slight improvement but I wouldn't base my purchasing decision solely on it.
Samsung's R74 is a lovely television, regardless of whether it's used for gaming, watching DVDs or just Freeview. The 26" unit I had the pleasure of sitting with for the past month is a great set, well designed and easy to live with.
Picture quality out of the box is good. Spend five minutes tweaking to your own taste and you should be fairly happy; I certainly was. The picture preset modes are good and better still offer the basis for further fiddling.
Using this television with your games console is a pleasure. I had no problems playing my PS2 and Xbox 360 on the R74. Game mode is a slight improvement on an already good setup however once I enabled it, it stayed on.
The only disappointment is the under powered speakers. That still doesn't spoil the fact that the R74 is a well designed, premium quality, high performance television.