Toshiba 40RL953 £549.99
1st May 2012 | 11:00
This mid-range Freeview HD screen is no triumph for Toshiba
After successfully playing smart TV catchup with some of its more innovative rivals and increasing its television sales by over 30 per cent last year, Toshiba is now aiming to consolidate its position as a dominant force at the value end of the TV market.
The Toshiba 40RL953 is a no-nonsense 40-inch screen that eschews the distraction of 3D and some of the premium features of Toshiba's higher spec TVs, including its CEVO picture processor.
Not that this is a basic model, with plenty of picture processing tweaks, a contemporary-looking operating system and the latest incarnation of the Toshiba Places online portal among the Toshiba 40RL953's main attractions.
Having turned its back on the 37-inch screen for the RL953 series, Toshiba's only alternative to the 40RL953 in terms of screen size is the 32-inch Toshiba 32RL953.
If you've got your heart set on a 40-inch screen then there are three other Toshiba TVs to tempt you, all priced fairly closely together and with subtle spec differences. The step-up £549 Toshiba 40TL868B adds active 3D playback, and is also available in 46-inch size.
Then there is the basic Toshiba 40BL702B, which sells for £429 and lacks a Freeview HD tuner and Blu-ray 24p playback mode.
The most similar Toshiba 40-inch model to the 40RL953 is the £500 Toshiba 40RL858B, which has a silver grey frame, higher brightness and contrast, a 100Hz panel and a less contemporary-looking operating system.
If you want the delights of local LED dimming and more sophisticated CEVO engine processing you need to set your sights on bigger screens (all with 3D) such as the 42-inch Toshiba 42WL863B, 46-inch Toshiba 46WL863B and 42-inch Toshiba 42YL863B.
Smart TV may still be in its infancy as far as the mass market is concerned but there's no doubt that (unlike 3D) its popularity will continue to grow steadily. Toshiba has invested in honing its Toshiba Places portal, which is now attractive, more user-friendly, and not short of useful features.
Elsewhere, the Toshiba 40RL953 is well served in the looks department, appearing modern and understated. It has a clean-looking 1cm-wide black bezel, dark LCD screen and unusual mirrored lip along the bottom frame that subtly sets the TV off from the base.
The connections roster happily has plenty of legacy analogue support, an Ethernet LAN port, CI slot and reasonably includes three HDMIs, but the provision of just one USB could be problematic.
Mounting the Toshiba 40RL953 could also be tricky, given that most sockets are rear-facing rather than side-facing. With no built-in Wi-Fi, the sole USB has to be used to house the Toshiba WLM-20U2 WLAN Adaptor in order to access a wireless network, making access to USB flash drives an issue.
The least appealing aspect of the Toshiba 40RL953's hardware, though, is its throwback of a remote control. Neither its looks nor feel are commensurate with the cutting-edge model it serves.
The remote is tapered uncomfortably to one end and the rubbery buttons are generally small, flat and poorly labelled. You may well wish to explore the Toshiba remote control app for Android and Apple devices, or invest in a magnifying glass.
The Freeview HD-equipped Toshiba 40RL953 consists of a Full HD Edge LED-lit panel with 50Hz processing and 178-degree viewing angle.
Picture optimisation comes courtesy of AMR 100 processing, a Blu-ray-friendly 1080p/24fps cinema mode, Toshiba's acclaimed resolution+ mode that sharpens details of standard definition sources and a well-stuffed toolbox of image adjustment tweaks that pleasingly includes colour management.
When you fire up the screen for the first time, it asks you to choose between Broadcast and Media for the guide type, by which it means Freeview's EPG or the online Rovi Guide.
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Rovi provides a much richer visual experience, including channel logos and still images relating to highlighted selections. You also get a live AV feed of the current broadcast as opposed to the audio-only continuity provided by the dour-looking Freeview EPG, something which enables the latter to cram in 13 channels at a time.
The revamped Toshiba Places portal comprises a fairly decent selection of video on demand providers, including Acetrax, Box Office 365, Cartoon Network, Viewster and the de rigeur BBC iPlayer and YouTube.
Other places fall under music, social, news and game categories, but fall short of an app store or web browser.
Multimedia format compatibility is exceptionally good with DLNA certification (subject to the fickle nature of DLNA connections), and the screen is happy to play ball with AVCHD, AVI, DIVX, XVID, M4V, MKV, MOV and WMV video files.
It can also show JPEG stills and M4A, AAC, MP3 and even WAV audio files.
Most of Toshiba's latest LCD TVs have shown just how good a handle the company has on picture technology. Unfortunately, the Toshiba 40RL953 isn't one of them.
Like all screens it has its strengths and weaknesses, so we'll start with the bad stuff first and work our way up to a positive crescendo. First of all, pictures from the Freeview tuner are slightly soft, even on HD channels.
Colour fidelity is generally accurate, but skin tones have a slightly waxy patina, so Noel Edmonds on Deal or No Deal looks like an escapee from Madam Tussaud's.
You can play around with the sharpness and colour settings to improve matters, but it's a lot simpler (and more expensive) to switch to Sky.
There are two intermittent problems that can't be fixed. Firstly, while objects generally move smoothly across the screen, every now and then the screen betrays its basic 50Hz nature when something on Freeview or Sky will trigger a short jerky movement, be it a sudden head turn or an accelerating car. Frankly, you could live with it, and some people might not even notice it.
But the other issue is a genuine fault that we've never seen before and is hopefully specific to our review sample: when watching HDMI feeds (Sky HD and a Sony Blu-ray deck), every now and then a black line appears fleetingly across the screen.
Our Blu-ray of No Country For Old Men also throws up the screen's poor motion resolution, as a tracking shot of the pebbly road lacks the strong definition of the static camera.
Our final gripe concerning the picture is the lack of shadow detail, which is a consequence of the Toshiba 40RL953's excellent contrast and punchy black levels.
Further positives include good brightness, smooth Blu-ray playback and one of the most well contained LED backlights around, with very little clouding of the LED clusters on solid black content such as Mad Men's credits.
Off-axis viewing holds up well, thanks to the IPS panel, which is just as well given that the screen is fixed and can't swivel on its stand.
The Toshiba 40RL953 is not the screen to satisfy anyone of an impatient nature. It takes an age to come to life when switched on and is tardy at changing channels. It's also inconsistent in terms of its operating system.
The layout is reasonably logical, but aside from the icon-based main menu screen, the sub-menus are functional looking, even those for the USB media player.
Things improve a lot when you press the Toshiba Places button, which looks contemporary and has its content divided into manageable folders. The Video places folder looks well stocked, but some of the others are rather meagre. For example, Music only has iConcerts and Aupeo, while the Game folder is home to nothing other than four Funspot titles.
There is, however, no shortage of buyable, rentable and free video content, with thousands of titles at your disposal. Presumably there are some foreign language gems hidden among the likes of Autopsy, A Love Story and Stupid Teenagers Must Die in Viewster's straight to online vault.
Acetrax is more mainstream but has around 80 HD titles to rent (for £4.99 a pop) among its plethora of pay as you go selections. One operational problem with Places is that the back button simply doesn't work (faulty review sample maybe?) so we had to exit Places entirely and then drill back in when exploring.
USB media playback proved highly impressive, but we inexplicably lost connection with our Twonky DLNA server a couple of times and found the Toshiba 40RL953 a lot less willing to play ball with our range of video and audio files when taking this route.
There are 2 x 10W of audio output complemented by perfunctory levels of control including voice enhancement, dynamic bass boost and bass and treble adjustment.
Tinkering with the various options does help yield the best possible results, but the Toshiba 40RL953 is no argument against buying a separate soundbar or home cinema system.
Based on its specification, the Toshiba 40RL953 does not seem like poor value. But once you take into account the performance problems and operational foibles, you do have to say that the price looks a lot less of a good deal.
In the wake of the highly impressive Toshiba 46YL853 and more than decent Toshiba 40RL858, we had high hopes for the Toshiba 40RL953.
We expected to find an attractive, affordable 40-inch TV with decent performance and broad multimedia capability, but the Toshiba 40RL953 proved instead that sometimes in life you don't get what you wish for.
Some aspects of the screen are certainly as good as, if not better than, other 40-inch TVs. It's a peach to look at, has excellent USB file compatibility, is a cinch to use and delivers solid, enjoyable Blu-ray and Sky pictures once you've played around with the versatile image adjustment tools.
The HDMI problem of intermittent black lines across the screen (which we put down to a faulty sample) and occasional image jerkiness are letdowns. The Freeview tuner's pictures are a tad soft, with waxy-looking skin, while shadow detail and motion resolution are both poor. The remote control is porcine ugly and unenjoyable to handle.
The Toshiba 40RL953 is a mixed bag. It's tasty looking and is capable of delivering fairly decent images, but is inconsistent and too fussy about which sources it needs to do so.
Likewise, there are some good things to say about its connected TV portal, but lack of content options means Toshiba Places is not the ultimate of smart TV places.
The Toshiba 40RL858 is a fairly similar proposition to the Toshiba 40RL953, only it's currently a little more affordable. We found its performance more consistent with our expectations of the mid-value market.
The attractive LG 42LV450U is also cheaper than the Toshiba 40RL953 and has good quality images, but suffers from the lack of a Freeview HD tuner and absence of smart TV features.