Facing a saturated market and a flat sales curve for its core desktop PCs, Dell has recently begun to emphasize other, more profitable product lines. Foremost among these is the company’s flat-panel HDTV lineup, which has grown to include four LCD models and two plasma panels in screen sizes ranging from 23 to 50 inches.
The company’s largest LCD panel is the 37-inch W3706MC. Like most Dell products, this widescreen HDTV is solidly built, attractively styled, fully featured, and—thanks to Dell’s lean-andmean direct-to-consumer approach— reasonably priced.
Although the W3706MC ostensibly lists for $1999, Dell’s Web site frequently offers “Instant Discount” promotions on this and many other products. Just to make life a little more interesting, the discount amount can change at a moment’s notice. On the day I wrote this review, Dell.com was offering a $100 discount on W3706MC; last week, I saw a $200 discount on the same model. In any event, even the list price is quite aggressive for a name-brand 37-inch LCD TV that incorporates such an extensive feature set.
The W3706MC supports all the common SD and HD video formats (480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i), which are deinterlaced and/or scaled to the panel’s native resolution of 1366x768 pixels by a Pixelworks DNX processor. In addition to built-in analog (NTSC) and combo analog/digital (NTSC/ ATSC) tuners, the Dell has an impressive video-input complement. The only thing missing is a CableCARD slot, though given the well-publicized drawbacks of this one-way interface (no program guide, no pay-per-view, etc.), I doubt many folks will care.
This is the first TV I’ve reviewed that ships with its speakers detached. It’s also the first TV I’ve ever seen that includes weighted stands to convert the speakers into fully finished, freestanding columns that can be spaced far enough apart to create a decent stereo spread. And instead of the usual cheesy spring-clip connectors and skimpy wire with bare ends, Dell equips the TV and speakers with miniature binding posts and provides cables terminated with color-coded mini-banana plugs. This is the kind of attention to detail that sets Dell products apart from the competition.
Overall, the “floating” onscreen menus are colorful and attractive. However, the menu backgrounds are a bit too transparent, and the underlying program material often makes it difficult to read the menu functions.
There is no way to directly access or sequentially select the set’s manifold video inputs from the remote; you have to choose them from an onscreen menu, which slows things down by adding steps to the process. You can specify whether the Input Select menu shows all the inputs or only the active ones, but the latter option has two big drawbacks: First, instead of disappearing from the menu, inactive inputs continue to appear in grayed-out text. This creates a gap-toothed appearance that makes the menu much more difficult to read and navigate. Second, every time you press the Input button on the remote, the set pauses for several seconds while it scans the inputs. The delayed response gets old in a hurry. In the end, I switched the menu to show all the inputs and left it at that.
The gloss-black remote looks good and feels solid in the hand. Most of the buttons illuminate in “Dell blue,” though the lighting times out a bit too quickly. The only real faux pas here is the circular volume/ channel rocker located in the center of the remote, which fools everyone by mimicking the look and placement of a cursor pad. Instead, the cursor controls consist of a separate quadrant and Enter buttons awkwardly located near the top of the remote.
The W3706MC’s black level is about average for an LCD flat-panel, which isn’t saying much. Unfortunately, the Dell’s backlight level is not adjustable, which limits the darkest possible black to a not-very-dark gray. Most LCD TVs have at least two backlight settings to accommodate bright or dark situations.
Dark scenes such as opening chapters of The Bourne Identity were washed out and lacking in shadow detail. Details such as lapels and pockets on a dark jacket merged into undifferentiated dark blobs. This is not a trivial issue, as the inability to portray shadow details robs the picture of impact and punch and—considering how many movies have critical action that takes place in dark, dramatically lit environments—can even make the plot harder to follow.
On the other hand, the W3706MC delivers one of the brightest pictures I’ve ever seen. Video Editor Scott Wilkinson and I measured well over 100fL before the brightest whites began to crush, which is pretty amazing. If you want to be able to watch sports or other regular TV fare in a brightly lit room, this is the TV for you.