Toshiba is clearly aware that if they want to compete with the current top dogs of the TV market, that they need to smarten up their act. Last year’s Smart TV platform was OK but lacking in content and served through a fragmented interface that made finding what was there cumbersome. To tackle this head-on, the Company has completely redesigned the Home Page and launched a new Cloud TV app in the hope of freshening things up. Let’s see how it all works out.
User Interface, EPG & PVR Functions
Last year’s Toshiba TVs were a bit of a mixed bag, in terms of their GUIs, with different models having slightly differing front-ends but Toshiba is seeking to address that in 2013. The new Home Page is a huge improvement on what went before with a modern, tiled appearance, split in to various areas of interest. The Home Page has a large area for trending Twitter TV shows as well as a general Search facility, local weather info and an area for up to four personalised accounts. We discovered that trying to select any of these caused the Home Page to crash so we presume they are reliant on having a USB camera attached to trigger facial recognition
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.
Whilst the stock EPG is an improvement on previous efforts, there’s a much prettier alternative in the shape of Rovi’s Media Guide, which you’ll be asked if you want to use during setup. It’s a shame you have to go through the home portal to access it but since Toshiba would like to start off your experience from there, in any case, it's no great hardship. MediaGuide includes a database of information on actors, TV shows and movies as well as pretty pictures and links to more than 2.5 million TV programme descriptions, 120,000 celebrity profiles, and searchable data on TV shows since 1960. Plus there’s included background information on shows and movies. If, for example, you would like to know in what other movies the actor on screen is featured in, MediaGuide can give the answer and it will even indicate if one of these movies is aired on any of the available channels within the next eight days. MediaGuide also makes suggestions for what users may find interesting, based on editorial reviews, personal preferences, keywords, categories and other parameters.
A now common feature of today's 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 an anti-piracy measure.
HDMI Consumer Electronic Control (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.
There are a number apps for mobile devices, which is good in a way but we’d prefer that all the functions were under one roof. If you’re not on iOS, you’ll need to download the Toshiba Apps Database, as a starting point, to make sure the Toshiba Remote app works and then it’s just a simple case of entering a pairing code once the devices discover one another. The app has configurations for Tablet and Smartphone with both a landscape and portrait screen orientation, respectively. Both are little bit on the cluttered side and it might have been better to spread the controls over the buttons over a couple of screens but they are responsive enough. The button to take you to the Cloud portal could have done with being a bit bigger too but, all in all, it’s quite good.
Whilst the Toshiba Remote App is available for both iOS and Android, the new Cloud TV app is on Apple devices only. It’s much more the ticket for Toshiba’s new interface; offering the Cloud TV Menu service on an iThing and allowing access to the Calendar and Message Services. It will also upload your photos to the Cloud TV Album Service as well as acting as a full remote control for Toshiba TVs. As we suggested above, Toshiba has implemented a multi-screen approach for the controls, with this app, and it’s all the better for it. It just needs porting to Android now but Toshiba have yet to announce any plans. Some might be disappointed that there isn’t a dedicated iPad version, as the scaled up iPhone app does look a little low res but it does all work nicely.
Applications - Hardware
All 2013 Toshiba TVs now feature 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.
Networking and Media playback
It’s from the TV & Video area, also, where one can utilise the DLNA through the new Home Screen. We tested the functionality with a 32L6353B but we had problems getting even mp4 video to play from our Windows 7 PC. The same media support promised via streaming works much better on connected USB storage devices. In addition to the video files support 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.
Toshiba was one of the first manufacturers to support WiDi, or Wireless Display technology, which is a system that allows you to stream video and audio directly between two devices. WiDi does not need to use an existing network, and requires no router and lets you send video and audio from your PC the Toshiba TV. Of course, your PC will need to be WiDi compliant - and ours isn’t - so it’s not something we could test. Funnily enough, many Toshiba laptops are built with this feature.
VoD and Other Apps
Toshiba has concentrated most of its efforts in providing a good range of Video on Demand (VOD) Services, and most of the big hitters are in evidence including YouTube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer that can be accessed from the TV/Video Home Screen. The iPlayer app will be familiar to anyone that has used the equivalent on any number of other products and works very nicely indeed. There’s a search facility, last played items, channel views and categories and favourites to ease navigation. Setting up the Netflix app isn’t as straightforward as it should be, however, and requires that you enter an activation code obtained from the Netflix website to make it work but, no matter whet we tried, we simply couldn’t connect so Toshiba needs to look at that.
Other VoD services include Blinkbox as well as access to the Woomi portal. Woomi is a smart platform within a smart platform with its own selection of VoD content and apps some of which is a tad more risqué than you would expect from a TV manufacturers’ own smart offerings. It’s certainly not all ‘adult’ based, however, and there’s an eclectic mix of ‘art house’ cinema, sport and cartoons too. Other highlights include access to Vimeo, Viewster and iConcerts and if you happen to be of Gallic ancestry, perhaps France 24 might be of interest.
Besides the TV & Video Pages, there are two further tabs accessible from the Home Page – Other Categories and Premium Apps although, in all honesty, they all look much of a muchness as there is currently little more than the VoD services on offer at the moment. There is a Web Browser which is very much on the slow side (at least on the L6353) and only really useable if you’re using the scroll screen from one of the apps. The browser offers a tabbed experience, a user defined home screen and the setting of favourites but we hope it works better with the Toshiba TVs that have faster processors. In fact the same could be said of the entire navigation around the Home Screen which can be very unresponsive.
As well as Web Browsers, Skype functionality has become another must-have on the feature set checklist. Using the Skype on a Toshiba TV does require you to purchase a Freetalk Conference HD Camera (Model 7291), which retails for around £110 so you’ll need to seriously consider just how much you want the functionality through your TV. It’s undoubtedly a ‘nice to have’ function and much easier than trying to gather the family around a laptop but we think the entry-price might be off-putting to many.
- Decent selection of VoD services
- New Home Page is well designed
- Cloud TV app is very good
- Media Guide is slick
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Home page can be sloooow to move around
- No Cloud TV app for Android
- DLNA Media Server is shaky
- Skype Camera is expensive
Toshiba Smart TV System 2013 Review
Whilst we like the approach Toshiba has taken with its new homepage – it’s much prettier than before and better organised, too – it can be very sluggish to move around and the fact that there’s not much besides VoD services, means the various pages look almost identical. Toshiba has also modernised its Programme Guide as well as including the option of using Rovi’s Media Guide for enhanced information and a recommendation engine. It’s a shame you have to go to the Home Page to use it, however, as it was accessible from the remote last year.
Toshiba’s new Cloud TV app is impressive and basically recreates the portal experience on the smaller screen. It’s only available on Apple devices at present, however, and there are no announced plans for Android, or other platforms. All 2013 Toshiba TVs now feature a built-in Wi-Fi adapter, as well as WiDi support to compatible laptops. There’s also the mandatory Web browser and Skype support but the former was very sluggish, on the TV we tested it on, and the latter requires the purchase of an expensive USB camera to function.
The concentration on Video on Demand services through the portal is understandable and most of the big players are present including YouTube and iPlayer but we couldn’t get the Netflix app to work, despite going through a complicated setup procedure. The overall app support is certainly limited compared to the likes of Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Sony but provided a few more key services can be added and the interface is made more responsive, Toshiba’s 2013 Smart TV platform should keep most users happy.
Ease of Use
Media Playback Quality
Applications - Software
Applications - Hardware
Our Review Ethos
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