Toshiba 32RL958 £399
20th Dec 2012 | 10:00
The ultimate trickle-down TV?
Smart apps have for long been available only on premium TVs, with the likes of BBC iPlayer and YouTube often costing hundreds of pounds extra - usually on TVs with 3D and a high build quality, to boot.
That trend ends here, with Toshiba's 32-inch 32RL958, an Edge LED-backlit LCD TV that's as basic in build and all-round spec as a £399 (around AU$615/US$648) should be, but adding some luscious extras.
As well as Toshiba Places, a growing online portal that supports the core must-have apps - BBC iPlayer, Skype, YouTube, Acetrax film streaming, as well as a new open web browser - the Toshiba 32RL958 boasts Wi-Fi, something that too often is only available on relatively expensive smart TVs.
There's no 3D angle to the Toshiba 32RL958, but it does include Intel Wireless Display (WiDi), which enables the TV to stream from or mirror a PC or laptop with the correct software installed.
Add that to a Full HD resolution, Freeview HD, a 57mm depth and some record-to-USB functions, and we've got what could be the ultimate stocking filler.
Looks-wise the Toshiba 32RL958 is nothing special, but again we think its standard issue gloss-black screen surround will tick most of the boxes for the vast majority of buyers.
On one of the most unpretentious TVs we've seen to date, Toshiba has managed to put together a package of almost all the latest in-demand tech for relatively small spend. Bravo!
In line with most TV manufacturers, Toshiba launched most of its wares back in the spring, but has wisely added a few upgraded - and genuinely better value - TVs in the run-up to Christmas.
Both of its new ranges constitute an effort to get smart TV and/or 3D functions into the mainstream.
As well as this RL958 Series, which comprises our review sample, the 32-inch Toshiba 32RL958, and the 40-inch Toshiba 40RL958, Toshiba has also released the TL968 Series.
Made up of the 40-inch Toshiba 40TL968 and 46-inch Toshiba 46TL968, these sets add Active Shutter 3D, a fourth HDMI slot and a brushed metallic design.
The Toshiba 32RL958 is festooned with ins and outs. A panel on the left-hand side of the TV's rear (as you watch TV) houses two HDMI inputs, one capable of taking an Audio Return Channel, above an digital optical audio output, which is useful if you plan to use the Toshiba 32RL958 with a home cinema sound system.
Lower down is a three-way split between an Ethernet LAN port (though a Wi-Fi module is also onboard), a 15-pin D-sub connection for hooking up a PC or laptop (despite most now nursing HDMI) and a USB slot.
As well as an RF aerial input, the Toshiba 32RL958 also finds room for an RGB Scart, and a full set of component video inputs, including right and left phonos
A side panel close by adds the icing; a second USB input (handy, since the Toshiba 32RL958 can indulge in basic recordings from the Freeview HD tuner, as well as digital media playback), a third HDMI input, a headphones slot and a Conditional Access Module slot for topping up Freeview HD with subscription TV channels.
That side panel also includes some basic TV controls lest we lose the remote, with an input/channel changer and volume controls as well as a standby switch. A cable-free alternative is the Toshiba 32RL958's Intel Wireless Display (or WiDi for short), though unfortunately technical issues prevented us from testing this.
The Toshiba Remote app for smartphones is available, and though it's slated to work with either a Toshiba TV or Blu-ray player, we couldn't get our download on an iPhone to detect the Toshiba 32RL958 on our network.
We're told that MediaGuide - an EPG app that can be installed as the default on the Toshiba 32RL958 at start-up - will soon be available as an app, too.
Aside from a lack of choice, the most irritating aspect of the smart TV platform Toshiba Places is that engaging it immediately shuts off live TV. But that doesn't mean browsing must be done in silence. Instead, adverts for the apps themselves play in a thumbnail. Some of them are even in German. Gosh.
It's strung into six sections; TV Place, Video Place, Music Place, Games Place, Social Place and News Place, with a seventh icon - Favourites - available for collecting together most used apps.
There's not much to get excited about; from 24 apps in total in Toshiba Places, only the BBC iPlayer, a web-connected and thoroughly dynamic MediaGuide (a big advance on the electronic programme guide provided by broadcasters), YouTube, Acetrax movie streaming, Skype and Flickr piqued our interest, though we do have a soft spot for iConcerts, too.
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Probably the most useful aspect of Toshiba Places for families is the chance to set up individual accounts, primarily to customise the Social Place. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and DailyMotion sign-ins can be remembered automatically (and the lot password-protected), while there's a link to an email account inbox, too.
Toshiba is also one of the only smart TV platforms without an online shopping hub for apps and services, which tend to act as a handy 'app graveyard' for apps you don't want cluttering up your TV.
Integrating smart TV functions into the TV itself is a good way of streamlining, but it happens less here than it should - or used to.
On previous Toshiba TVs, the Toshiba Places icon on the carousel had shortcut links to both BBC iPlayer and YouTube.
But on the Toshiba 32RL958 it's necessary to fire up Toshiba Places and trawl through folders. For that and other reasons, Toshiba Places remains a distinctly second-rung smart TV platform.
At least the MediaGuide can be set as the default EPG, and hence accessible direct from the remote without having to touch Toshiba Places.
It's hardly a lost cause - it works quickly enough on the Toshiba 32RL958 and does have its moments - but as a platform it also comes across as being rather too sure of itself.
Select 'Exit' while in Toshiba Places and the TV asks if we're sure, the default answer being a big fat 'no'. Three button presses to stop doing something is just too much.
In terms of advanced picture tech, the Toshiba 32RL958 is distinctly lacking; an Edge LED-backlit LCD panel is armed with AMR100 (100Hz tech), AutoView and an Ambient Light Sensor, but its Full HD resolution doesn't get much help beyond that.
That said, the Toshiba 32RL958's Advanced Picture Settings comprise a number of automatic modes for brightness and backlight, as well as colour temperature and Toshiba's regularly impressive detail enhancement circuitry called Resolution+.
Expert settings add white balance, gamma calibration and a helpful built-in test pattern.
The Toshiba 32RL958 puts in a very respectable performance considering the TV's low price. For kick-off it's armed with some excellent picture presets. Hollywood Day is the most contrast-heavy, though Hollywood Pro and Hollywood Night also impress.
Steer clear of AutoView, which senses ambient light conditions then appears to brighten the picture beyond what's needed, with noticeable jumps in brightness.
There is a QuickView menu from which it's possible to choose between these presets, but sadly not change the parameters within them; to do that you'll have to dive into the full-blown picture settings menu.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Toshiba 32RL958 is the television's handling of Freeview channels. We engaged Superman 2 on Five, and were blown away at how clean this ageing 1980s classic appeared.
It's true that there are plenty of TVs more adept with detail, but perhaps this is the Toshiba 32RL958's main weapon against digital blocking, low bittrate broadcasts, and poorly defined edges, because all are conspicuous by their absence.
Colour, too, is solid and reasonably nuanced, though we did notice a slight lack of black and almost no shadow detail. No surprise about that on a LCD TV of this price, but nor is it a huge issue on a TV of this small size.
When switching to BBC HD for a showing of Coast, detail jumps considerably, though not as much as on rival 32-inch TVs with Full HD resolutions.
It's here that we start to see evidence of what we suspected would be the Toshiba 32RL958's main picture foible; motion blur. As the presenter stands on a fishing boat, her bright blue hat bristles and shudders against a white sky as the boat rocks.
Worse is to come; a panning shot across a wooden fence sees every single slat pulse and expand - it's really quite nasty, though some extreme examples of motion issues are rare.
And despite all that, during normal TV watching the Toshiba 32RL958 remains hugely enjoyable. With a Blu-ray disc of Hugo playing, we noticed a general lack of contrast and a low-ish black level, as well as some light leakage from the LEDs along the top of the screen.
Some sequences in Hugo look a little flat, with wisps of smoke lacking depth and the cogs of the clocks turning with noticeable judder, but elsewhere the image is always precise, colourful and has just about enough contrast.
It's not the ultimate flatscreen TV, but you'll have a job finding a 32-inch television this versatile that offers such a clean picture from disparate sources.
Usability, sound and value
Although the Freeview HD tuner inside the Toshiba 32RL958 provides crisp, stable TV channels, the default electronic programme guide is poor. Providing two and a half hours of TV schedules for 13 channels at once, this busy and ultra-comprehensive EPG uses fonts that are too small, and works too slowly.
Nor does it include a thumbnail of the live TV channel you're watching, though it does keep the audio playing, and if not used for around a minute the EPG sensibly disappears from the screen.
Still, it's best to opt for the alternative, a web-connected MediaGuide that gets its schedules - as well as thumbnails and programme information - from the web instead of from the broadcasters.
Quicker and easier to use and more helpful, it's available as a separate app in Toshiba Places, though it's possible to select it as the default way of accessing TV schedules when you first install the Toshiba 32RL958. If you've got Wi-Fi, it seems silly not to.
Toshiba Places works quickly enough, though we must say that its logo - the folded corner of a page - is a little esoteric and doesn't come across well on the remote control's shortcut button.
Otherwise, the responsive remote itself is excellent; well weighted, sleek and shiny, the buttons are mostly large, and soft to the touch. It operates the five-pronged carousel of the user interface well, though it's a GUI that's not perfect.
One of those five labels, Function, merely includes a couple of timers that you'll not use, while the TV Programmes icon has a rather pointless Genre Search tab. The Library and Programme Timers also lend an extensive feel to the Toshiba 32RL958's USB recording functionality.
Playable over either a home network or from a USB flash drive, the Toshiba 32RL958 supports AVC HD, AVI, MKV, MP4, MPEG, WMV and WMV HD files, MP3, WMA and M4A music, and both JPEG and BMP photos. Stream from a networked PC or Mac and for video it's AVI files only.
There's little difference between the TV's two main audio modes - Dual 1 and Dual 2 - but either way the Toshiba 32RL958 puts in a decent, if underwhelming performance with sound.
Voice Enhancement tends to add a slightly harsh hiss to vocals while adding some volume to background music, too.
Bass is relatively impressive for a small TV, and the soundstage is surprisingly wide; it's not going to beat a home cinema, but it's fine for everyday TV watching.
Priced at £399 (around AU$615/US$648), we'd judge the Toshiba 32RL958 terrific value.
A Freeview HD tuner at this low level of the market was unheard of less than 12 months ago, while smart TV was for high-end TVs only.
The trickle-down effect of technology is a constant trend, but the Toshiba 32RL958 has received more than most - and the provision of Wi-Fi is the icing on the connected cake.
Add some excellent media streaming and USB support, USB recording and a trio of HDMI inputs - wrapped in a reasonably standard, inoffensive design - and we're struggling to find many reasons to spend more money.
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For less than £400 (around AU$615/US$648) our hopes of seeing something genuinely impressive were pretty small, but the Toshiba 32RL958 pulls a rabbit out of the hat; nicely upscaled standard definition pictures are the highlight on a 32-inch TV with living room-friendly features galore.
It's great to see smart TV apps - especially the BBC iPlayer - on a TV this affordable, while having it all fuelled by Wi-Fi is great news, too. Add Full HD, Freeview HD and a trio of HDMI inputs and the hardware - including the gloss black styling and streamlined remote control - is impressive.
However, what we liked most about the Toshiba 32RL958 was its ability to upscale digital TV programmes, and its skill with digital video files from a USB flash drive. All SD sources look immaculate - and HD doesn't look bad, either.
Motion blur is a definite problem with the Toshiba 32RL958. Panning shots in particular are poorly displayed, while the Toshiba 32RL958 has a lack of contrast and black level, too.
We're also not convinced by Toshiba Places, which lacks apps and isn't as polished a user interface as it could be, while it would be nice to see more than AVI video files handled over a network.
As versatile a TV as we've seen, Toshiba's diminutive 32RL958 is one of the best value 32-inch televisions around. Freeview HD channels are handled exquisitely, with the relatively small Edge LED-backlit LCD panel offering clean standard definition and HD images that have plenty of detail.
It's also great to see Wi-Fi and some semblance of smart TV apps - including BBC iPlayer and YouTube - on a TV of this low price. It won't do much of a job in a home cinema, where its size and lack of black level and contrast will soon become apparent, but as a living room TV there are few better options for such little spend.
If you're after a more polished-looking - and even unique - design, then the Sony KDL-32HX753 is worth a look, and comes with a slight upgrade in terms of both picture quality and smart TV apps, too - as well as adding 3D.
Something from Samsung is probably worth considering too - try the 32ES6300, which adds 3D, too - as does the Panasonic TX-L32E5B. The latter has a wider viewing angle, a better smart TV platform and supports lossless FLAC music files over a network, but lacks Wi-Fi.