Sony KDL-26EX553 £429
5th Oct 2012 | 10:02
A small, smart and serious TV for a bedroom or kitchen
By adding the likes of BBC iPlayer, LED backlighting and nifty ultra-slim designs, the last few years have seen some mightily impressive bigscreen TVs for the living room, but what about the bedrooms and kitchen?
We've been longing for a do-it-all smart TV that can stream from a PC just as easily as playing a Blu-ray or handling music, and the 26-inch Sony KDL-26EX553 - with a full price of £429 (around AU677/US$694) - is very nearly that product.
There's no built-in DVD or Blu-ray player, and nor is there enough sonic power to act as a bedroom stereo, but this Edge LED-backlit television is otherwise ripe for a night's entertainment.
A key component in its arsenal is a suite of Wi-Fi-fueled Sony Entertainment Network smart TV apps, including BBC iPlayer. And many will also love its design; an 'easel' type that sees two small silver pegs jutting out from underneath a screen that sits back a few degrees.
The effect is subtle, though any notion of luxe good looks won't last much beyond a feel of the rather industrial gloss black plastic used in the bezel.
That won't matter too much in the bedroom, and if it does, consider the white version, because the Sony KDL-26EX553 is the most advanced 26-inch TV around.
Two HDMI inputs should be enough for most simple setups (we're thinking a games console and a Blu-ray player) since there's a Freeview HD tuner inside, while its USB port enables both simple recordings and digital file playback.
There's also a hook-up for a PC, albeit the old 15-pin D-sub VGA option.
One technical shortcoming of the Sony KDL-26EX553 is its HD-ready resolution, but we're not at all bothered by this.
We do realise that Full HD starts to become a factor at the 26-inch size, and also that many PC monitors a lot smaller than this TV have such a resolution, but we prefer HD-ready on a Sony TV.
The excellent up-rezzing circuitry in Sony's X-Reality has long impressed us, and here it chums up with the HD-ready panel to help make dodgy YouTube videos or downloaded AVI files look almost as clean as a Blu-ray disc.
In our test we managed to play AVI, MPEG, MPEG4, AVC and WMV videos from a USB flashdrive - and in excellent quality - though that does leave MKV and MOV files unsupported, which is a real shame.
The 26-inch Sony KDL-26EX553 is joined by smaller brother the 22-inch Sony KDL-22EX553, which also boasts a HD-ready resolution and has a full price of £349 (around AU$550/US$565).
Although the Sony KDL-26EX553 has core quality, its apps are its ace-cards. A king among fools is BBC iPlayer, as usual, though it does have its brethren, BBC Sport and BBC News, for company, as well as YouTube, Demand 5, Sky News and, err, Muzu.tv.
In terms of movies, you get Lovefilm, Netflix and Sony's own Video Unlimited. Not a bad haul, though there are many, many other apps that aren't worth listing.
The user interface generally works well, though Sony's services - Video and Music Unlimited, as well as newcomer PlayMemories (a cloud photo storage service) - are siphoned off on their own, away from other apps.
There are also a couple of different ways that apps are displayed (Twitter and Facebook are separate, too), which might confuse some.
One final gripe is that installing firmware updates - a very regular occurrence on smart TVs - is a rather manual experience; the GUI informs us of the update and what we should do/where we should go to install it, when it should be completely automatic and invisible.
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We really rate the Sony KDL-26EX553 on the pictures front; pictures from Andrew Marr's History of the World on BBC HD are perfectly judged in terms of colour, and certainly had enough detail at this size. The purity of black areas of the image is also noticeable, even at wide viewing angles, and though there's scant fine shadow detailing on show, that's really not critical on a 26-inch TV.
Switch to a DVD of The Last Emperor and the Sony KDL-26EX553 does a fine job of upscaling, though its smooth ways even better suit the likes of YouTube, where some archive footage of Pele's best goals appeared clean and highly watchable.
Wall-E on Blu-ray looks simply fabulous, with strong colours and just enough detail, and though we did notice the odd blur during fast camera pans, this was cured by engaging the mild Film Mode - the oft-irritating frame interpolation feature that, for once, gets rid of blur and judder but doesn't introduce nasty side-effects.
The Sony KDL-26EX553 never produces an in-yer-face, ultra-bright image, but the nuanced, refined and slightly muted treatment of all sources makes this a surprisingly cinematic and versatile performer.
Audio is merely average for a small TV, but since it's so ambitious elsewhere, its weedy sound comes as a disappointment.
Dialogue is very sharp - it's clearly been optimised for this type of audio - but other effects very obviously come from underneath the screen.
Though one of few smart TVs at the 26-inch size, it's nevertheless the Sony KDL-26EX553's picture quality, not its apps, that most impress us.
Still, any TV this size with Wi-Fi, Freeview HD and some semblance of (albeit not perfect) digital file support and networking was always going to impress.
In terms of picture quality, the Sony KDL-26EX553 is a great all-rounder, with contrast and colours its key strengths. The HD-ready resolution proves a help, not a hindrance, at this size, helping to make disparate sources clean and watchable.
We like the wide choice of apps available, too. Meanwhile, the Media Remote app is effective, as is the hard button version, while the 'easel' design looks great - at least from afar.
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The chance to indulge in USB playback, apps and home networking on the small screen is welcome and long overdue - surely in the bedroom is where one is most likely to have the time and patience to scroll through apps, or watch digital video files - though without MKV support, it's a chance missed.
Audio is relatively poor, ruling out the KDL-26EX553 as an all-in-one solution for music, too (even though it hosts radio channels on Freeview and plays MP3s via USB and networking), and it hasn't got the wow factor in terms of build quality that have graced previous Sony efforts of this size.
Smart TVs for a second room are rare, and this 26-inch effort from Sony canters to victory by sporting a good array of apps and a great all-round picture that's helped by its 'kind to YouTube rubbish' HD-ready resolution.
If Sony hadn't skimped on sound and build quality it could have been on to a real winner, but we'd still recommend the Sony KDL-26EX553 as one of the most capable 'second screens' around.