Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified. Click here for more information.
Sony's extensive LCD lineup includes a range of higher-end models, but the KDL-V5100 is not among them. This is Sony's least expensive series of 2009 HDTVs to include 120Hz processing, and it lacks the interactive extras and design complexities of its step-up brethren. It does include nearly all of the picture-related controls on those models, however, and its overall image quality is just as good. Naturally you'll still pay premium compared to bargain brands, but the solid performance and well-rounded, essential features of the V5100 series make it one of Sony's most compelling values.
Series note: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 52-inch Sony KDL-52V5100, but this review also applies to other sizes in the series, including the 40-inch KDL-40V5100, the 46-inch KDL-46V5100, and the 55-inch KDL-55V5100. All four have the same specs and should exhibit very similar picture quality.
Judging from the looks of the KDL-V5100 series, Sony doesn't devote nearly as much effort to the external appearance of its entry-level HDTVs as it does to its higher-end line, such as the KDL-XBR9 series. The V5100 has a relatively chunky, squared-off, glossy-black frame around the screen, below which is a black strip that fades to a mirror finish, providing a minor accent. The area below the screen is further thickened by the horizontal speaker bar with a matte-black finish--a contrast to the hidden speaker popular on many other HDTVs. Sony does include a matching, square black stand, but it doesn't swivel.
We actually prefer the V5100's smaller remote to the many-buttoned clicker included on Sony's higher-end models. The central cursor is plenty prominent and surrounded by four buttons that are difficult to confuse--one of which is the important "wide" key for aspect ratio control. A cluster of keys at the top of the remote can command other gear that's compatible with the HDMI-CEC control-over-HDMI scheme, but the remote can't control other devices via infrared.
The menu system is also a refreshing, relatively simple affair compared to the company's PS3-inspired cross media bar. All of the major categories, from picture to setup, are arranged to the far left and stay visible no matter where you are in the menu. Nesting of multiple menus is kept to a happy minimum by grouping numerous selections on the screen at once. We also liked the one-line descriptions of various menu functions, as well as the separate Tools menu with easy access to oft-used items (although the control for MotionFlow is regrettably absent). On the other hand the Favorites bar, to quickly jump to a last-used input, channel or USB content, seemed somewhat extraneous.
As one of Sony's least expensive HDTV lines, the V5100 series is bereft of the interactive doodads available on the company's step-up sets starting with the W5100 series. The 5100's principal add-on is with 120Hz processing, which enables improved motion resolution (aka less blurring) when you turn on the company's MotionFlow dejudder processing. Unlike Samsung's and Toshiba's video processing schemes, Sony's doesn't allow you to get the antiblurring effects without dejudder. Check out Performance for details.
Other picture controls are relatively extensive for an entry-level model. Sony offers three global adjustable picture modes and a fourth, called Custom, that's independent per input. A Theater key on the remote puts the TV into the Cinema global preset.
In addition to the three color temperature presets, full white balance controls are available to help customize the grayscale. More advanced settings include gamma and a Game Mode to disable video processing, along with dubious extras like Live Color, Clear White and Advanced Contrast Enhancer that we left turned off for our evaluation.
In terms of other features, the KDL-V5100 offers four aspect ratio selections, including one called Full Pixel that correctly scales 1080i and 1080p sources to fit the screen. It lacks extras like picture-in-picture, but we did like the handy product support screen, which includes phone numbers for Sony customer service.
We missed having a one-touch Energy Saver mode to reduce power consumption. The Eco menu does include an On/Off/Auto switch for the backlight, as well as a room lighting sensor control. The Off option is convenient for people who just want the TV audio without a picture, and using it reduces power draw to about 30 watts (half of a standard light bulb).
Connectivity on the KDL-V5100 series is solid, if a bit unusual. Sony chose to mount three of the four HDMI inputs--definitely a healthy number--on the side panel rather than the back. That makes temporary hookups more convenient, but on the flipside some users may be less comfortable with wires protruding from the side instead of the back. Sony did inset that side bay enough to accommodate all but the fattest cables, though.