Continuing our look at the various Smart TV features built in to many of the displays on the market today, it’s the turn of Toshiba to come under the spotlight. We were greatly impressed by the efforts of both Panasonic and Samsung recently, with the latter scoring a much coveted AVForums Reference award. It would be fair to say that in our Television reviews Toshiba’s attempts to get smart have been viewed as a little lacklustre in comparison to some of the other big boys but it has to be appreciated that these things take time and it requires a great deal of investment to provide coherent and valuable services. With money tight for most, if not all, of the manufacturers we saw a beacon of sense shining from the sea of confusion last year, with the announcement that LG and TP Vision (Philips) were to form a Smart TV alliance. It was hoped this would ease the burden of development costs and simplify the jobs of the app developers who have to port their work on to the numerous platforms. It was welcome news when it was announced that Toshiba were to join the fold and other manufacturers, including Loewe and Sharp, are also looking to get on board. All that said, the Smart TV Alliance is intended for the near future and something we’re likely to hear much more about in 2013 so, for now, we’ll be looking at Toshiba’s standalone endeavours; we know it will be going places soon but how does it stack up right now?
User Interface, EPG & PVR Functions
Although the majority of applications and services are consistent throughout the ranges of Toshiba TVs, it’s been our experience that the interfaces can be quite different. This is probably as a result of Toshiba outsourcing production of their more budget TVs to a third party (Vestel) although we’ve had no official confirmation of such. Despite the fact the appearances may differ slightly, the sub-menu headers remain the same but we have to say we slightly prefer the UI of the less expensive models that give a better sense of connectivity between the various features.
The Toshiba Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) has never been the prettiest but it has had a bit of a make-over recently providing far more pleasant viewing. It’s probably the most expansive, amongst the manufacturers, being as it provides 13 channels to view per page, spanning a two and half hour time frame; although that’s customisable to de-clutter the view. There’s also a very useful search facility that allows the viewing of content by genre such as Film, Kids, Sports and News making the experience that much more efficient and pleasurable. We’d like the option of displaying a video window whilst browsing programmes but at least the audio stream is maintained.
A now common feature of todays’ TVs is the ability to record programming to USB connected memory devices and Toshiba don’t disappoint by furnishing everything above the mid-range with this capability. Compared to a Sky, TiVo or any number of Freesat and Freeview PVR’s it’s quite a limited experience but the single tuner recording and pause, rewind and fast forward facilities will be enough for some. It’s probably worth noting that any recordings made will be tied in to sole playback on the TV they were recorded on as anti-piracy measure.
This particular feature is currently restricted to the flagship ZL2 and higher-end UL, WL and YL Series’ but we don’t think owners of the lesser ranges ought to be too jealous. The technology works via the in-built cameras equipped in the TVs’ bezel and is able to store personalised settings and preferences for up to 4 users that will switch, for example, favourite picture modes and Channel Lists upon recognition; when it works. Unfortunately we have found the camera’s not of sufficient quality to adjust for varying lighting conditions and we have even struggled to get ourselves recognised, at all, during set-up. When we did finally manage to get a couple of users registered we found the displays would regularly lose focus and any time anybody moved from in front of the TV, and returned, we would routinely asked if we wanted to select a saved setting and they became very confused by multiple viewers. If your household is one with – how should we say it – lively members that aren’t too good at keeping still – OK, we mean if you have kids – the facial recognition feature will become more of annoyance than a convenience with the frequent on-screen questioning. Even those houses running at a more sedentary pace aren’t immune to the idiosyncrasies as a power save feature will kick in and thoughtfully switch off the TV in the absence of any viewers. Alas, it will still do that when you’re sat in front of it, if you’ve been sat still for a while.
Every manufacturer has their own implementation of HDMI Consumer Electronic Control (HDMI CEC) prorocol, with Toshiba labelling it Regza-Link. It would probably help user understanding if they all termed it the same thing but this is consumer electronics and rarely does such good sense prevail. HDMI CEC is designed to allow the user to command and control other CEC-enabled devices that are connected through HDMI by using only one of their remote controls; for example one could use the transport controls on the TV remote to control a Blu-ray player, which is quite convenient and potentially cuts down on the number of handsets lying around. In reality we almost always find each manufacturer has a slightly different idea to the others on how it should work and we find that important controls are frequently missing or not where we would expect and thus we find ourselves searching for the original control. There’s no doubt that, for instance, a Toshiba TV controller works well with a Toshiba Blu-ray player but when you begin introducing kit from other manufacturers, it can all seem like more trouble than it’s really worth.
Remote Control Apps
If HDMI CEC hasn’t really set the World alight in terms of uptake and implementation, across the board, then the next big thing – or should that be – current big thing is for the manufacturers to provide control apps for mobile devices, i.e. smartphones and tablets. The Toshiba Remote app is available for iOS and Android with the former requiring version 3.1.3, or above, and the latter requiring Gingerbread (2.3) or beyond with both operating either through the user’s home network or, for more recent TVs, via the WiFi Direct/WiDi DLNA protocols, meaning there’s no need to negotiate the router or access point and, hopefully, a more fluid experience. The app offers the choice of providing a simplified remote control interface with the basic functions or a full fat version that replicates all the controls from the handset. We found that the interface was very nicely set-out, with most of the frequently used buttons appropriately placed toward the centre of the screen and the ability to use the touch-screen as a pointer/scroll-pad a real plus. At least that was our findings last time we had a Toshiba in for review but we’ve found the latest update for Android has brought about a crashing issue that looks to need urgent attention. We believe the iOS version is working perfectly, however although as a non-Apple device owning household, we can’t fully confirm.
Applications - Hardware
Dependent on model purchased, your TV may have a built-in Wi-Fi adapter that supports the IEE 802.11 a/b/g/n standards. Those that want to stream high definition video to their televisions may still be best off seeking a wired connection or, alternatively, one of the domestic powerline solutions that are capable of carrying high bandwidths more reliably.
Toshiba were the World’s first manufacturer to offer for Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), a new - proposed - industry standard for a mobile audio/video interface that directly connects smartphones and tablets to HDTVs. The MHL standard features a single cable with a low pin-count interface able to support up to 1080p high-definition (HD) video and digital audio while simultaneously charging the connected device. At the moment the mobile devices that are MHL enabled are pretty much the top of the range from the likes of HTC, LG, Sony and Samsung themselves but support seems to be growing. Even if your Toshiba TV isn’t one of those to support MHL, there are 3rd party MHL>HDMI adapters on the market, should you crave the functionality.
We’ve had mixed results with Toshiba’s auto-calibration hardware and software, which is designed to make the process of tuning the TV's picture to more closely match the industry standards for content production a piece of cake. We think it’s more owing to the software than the capabilities of the TPA-1 light analyser. The process is flawed in its implementation but we were able to obtain a decent greyscale with the CEVO processor powered TVs rather than those in the mid-range. We applaud Toshiba for taking on the task but some work is needed for it to be a genuinely useful tool.
Networking and Media playback
DLNA support is almost a given in anything approaching a mid-range TV these days and Toshiba has made a very creditable job in its implementation with the displays we’ve tested recently. For testing purposes we have a number of media servers installed to our Windows 7 PC and all the Toshiba’s have had no problems in detecting any, including Servio, PS3 Media Server, XBMC and Windows own built-in player. Once connected, file support seems excellent and we encountered no issues streaming MPEG2, AVCHD, MKV and MP4 video files. There’s also support for DivX HD but you’ll need to go online to activate the license for playback. Of course we can't vouch for everyone’s collection and, no doubt, there will be instances where there are compatibility issues – almost certainly due to the audio encodings used – but support seems very robust for a television.
The same generous media support found via streaming playback is also promised for connected USB storage devices and our findings are consistent to that claim. In addition to the video files supported already mentioned, there’s music support for MP3 and Linear PCM and in terms of your photo’s, it’s either JPEG or 3D MPO files up to resolutions of 4096 x 4096 pixels. As well as being DLNA Certified Media Players, the Toshiba TVs can also act as Media Renderers to devices such as smartphones and tablets meaning, via the appropriate software on your PC, it’s easy to share your photos and videos on the big screen.
Apps and Toshiba Places
We find it sensible that Toshiba has provided dedicated icons for YouTube and BBC iPlayer that sit either side of the Toshiba Places item in the Connected TV sub-menu. Video on Demand (VoD) is the undoubted hit in the Smart TV revolution and YouTube and iPlayer the most accessed amongst those, according to manufacturers’ surveys. The iPlayer app will be familiar to anyone that has used the equivalent on their PS3, Wii or any number of other products and woks very nicely indeed. There’s a search facility, last played items, channel views and categories and favourites to ease navigation. Similarly the YouTube app is packaged very nicely although, at the time of writing, it was taking an eternity to load and had frequent buffering issues.
Both apps work from within the aforementioned portal, Toshiba Places, which houses 6 separate categories (OK, Places) to access content – TV, Video, Music, Social, News and Game. We actually like the simple interface afforded by Places and the categorisation therein and the system makes it easy for those of a social networking bent to share content via Facebook and Twitter or, via a Toshiba places account, direct with other owners. The TV place allows access to the EPG and BBC iPlayer and could probably be amalgamated with the Video Place but we guess it might come in to its own if and when other catch-up services become available.
It’s indicative of the general lack of content that the Video Place only contains five items, one of which is the already discussed YouTube app that is accompanied by acetrax, Dailymotion, Viewster and Woomi. Acetrax doesn’t have a bad selection of movies but you’ll need a subscription to get at them. Viewster has some freebies but they’re of the straight to video variety and the Dailymotion has some entertainment value. Woomi looks interesting and as well as provides portal of its own to content from Blinkx, filmtrailer and The Sailing Channel, to name a few, but it’s another layer to unfurl and another account to open if you want the most from it.
The Music Place is even more sparse in content with just on-demand radio service AUPEO and video from iConcerts which, as the name would suggest, has a number of concerts available to view although, again, a subscription is required. AUEPEO is pretty decent and works on a Spotify style personalised interface and recommendation engine and, what’s more’ we were never asked to subscribe to take advantage of the ‘stations’ on offer. The Social places is integrated with Twitter, Facebook and flickr as well as your Toshiba Places account where you can access your mail and favoured items.
In the News Place is sports news service, LIVESPORT.TV, Euronews, weather service METEOTV as well as France 24, which is great if you speak fluent French and/or have an interest in what’s going on over the channel. We’ll refrain from comment here other than to say their news readers are very glamorous! Under the Games heading are Brain Trainer and SMART KIDZ, with both hardly needing further explanation but Brain Trainer largely rests upon the foundations of Hangman and SMART KIDZ has various diversions for the little ones of the household. There’s also funspot app which has televisual versions of Chess, Sudoku, a bejewelled ‘tribute’ called Rockswap and something a puzzle solving affair going by the name Dracula’s Coffin where the player is asked to negotiate a series of rooms by freeing young Dracula’s coffin from a number of crates and it’s quite challenging in the latter stages. The things we do for you!
All in all, when we compare the offerings of Toshiba Places to the online content from the likes of Samsung, Panasonic, LG and Sony, there’s no doubt Places feels a little desolate and the usability would be helped ten fold were it not necessary to completely exit out of the portal when leaving most of the various apps. There’s lots of work needed to increase the offer but at least with the Smart TV Alliance in the offing, the seeds of optimism are there.
- Excellent media playback capabilities
- Nice, clean interface
- MHL and WiFi Direct
- Smart TV Alliance is promising for the future
- Lack of content
- Android app isn't functioning properly
- Face Recognition is poor
- Auto Cal doesn't work as it should
Toshiba Smart TV System 2012 Review
Toshiba’s Smart Platform is certainly one of the most limited amongst the major manufacturers, in terms of available apps, but it does offer enough in the way of diversions to merit some praise. There’s a definite lack of presence in the Video ‘Place’ (read category) with notable absences including Netflix and LOVEFiLM but as the majority of users would rather use YouTube and BBC iPlayer through their Smart TVs, the major bases are covered. The presentation of the Places portal is refreshingly simple, although perhaps one less ‘Place’ might help the feel even further.
There are some gimmicky features and some that just don’t work as they should; stand to attention ‘Face Recognition’ and ‘Auto-Calibration’ but at least the latter shows promise even if the former shows little to none. The previously useful Android Remote Control app appears to have been broken for some after a recent update – us included – but at least Apple users have a very nice working version. Connectivity options get ever more impressive as you move up the ranges and the inclusion of MHL and WiFi direct will impress those with swanky tablets and smartphones. Media playback, either streamed or via USB Storage is as impressive as we’ve seen from a TV and the various models tested have played pretty much every video file thrown at them. The 3D TVs are also capable of showing mpo files, whether you’ll have a 3D camera to take advantage is another matter.
Our biggest criticism of Toshiba’s Smart TV system is the lack of content through the online Places platform which makes the overall offering solid rather than spectacular. The undoubted highlights are excellent video media file support together a very intuitive user interface. With the Smart TV Alliance promising to bear fruit in the near future we’re optimistic that the future is bright for Toshiba’s platform but, for now, the Place just feels a little empty.
Ease of Use
Media Playback Quality
Applications - Software
Applications - Hardware
Our Review Ethos
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