Toshiba 42VL963 £800
8th Nov 2012 | 10:00
Ambitious but oh-so-slow Edge LED telly with passive 3D
With Freeview HD, 3D, Full HD and smart TV apps all wrapped up in an edge-to-edge glass design, Toshiba's 42VL963 might appear, at first, to be an everyman TV that's in prime position for a place in the nation's living rooms.
And though Toshiba, as a brand, has a heritage in putting together irresistibly good-value packages of the latest features, the 42VL963 is a reminder to never buy a television without first having a full hands-on demo.
It may have some usability issues that we'll discover later, but this 42-inch Edge LED TV hides them well.
With the lights on, the 42VL963 is quite the looker, with a single piece of glass covering almost the entire front of the TV.
Behind is a bezel about 10mm wide that surrounds the visible panel, while its depth of 34.7mm is also quite an achievement, though this does taper out slightly at the bottom.
The Toshiba Places smart TV portal – including BBC iPlayer – makes an appearance on the 42VL963, though it's a wired affair here; there's no Wi-Fi on board.
A Freeview HD tuner features, as does one-touch USB recording, while the 42VL963's got plenty of picture-boosting processing features, too.
Movie-centric picture presets are available – 'Hollywood1' and 'Hollywood2' (the latter has a touch more contrast and the back light is turned up a tad) – alongside dedicated settings for a games console and PC.
There are also a couple of far-out choices; ColourMaster, AutoView (where the 42VL963 monitors surrounding light levels and alters the brightness levels itself), Active Backlight Control (which dynamically boosts contrast and black levels) and Active Vision (a frame interpolation tech that lends smoothness to Blu-ray discs in various strengths).
All that said, the reason to choose this particular model over others is the inclusion of a polarised panel for passive 3D – with 3D specs in the box reaching the magic number of four; families rejoice.
The 42VL963 is accompanied by the 47-inch Toshiba 47VL963 and 55-inch Toshiba 55VL963 in the VL Series.
Those after an active shutter 3D alternative should head for Toshiba's otherwise-identical TL9 Series, which stars the 40-inch Toshiba 40TL963 and 46-inch Toshiba 46TL963.
Toshiba is trying hard to make its smart TV platform – called Toshiba Places – a genuinely different experience to other brand's efforts, but it only achieves that in a negative sense.
Somewhat sensibly it attempts to divvy-up apps between 'places'; TV Place, Video Place, Music Place, Social Place and News Place.
Nice idea, with one catch – there's not much inside each section.
TV Place is the location for catch-up TV, though inside is just a BBC iPlayer icon.
Video Place is a little better, counting Acetrax, Blinkbox, Cinetrailer.tv, Viewster, Dailymotion, Woomi and YouTube, while Music Place includes just iConcerts and Aupee! Radio. Social Place comprises an inbox that can link to personal accounts for email, alongside apps for Facebook, Twitter, MyPhotos (Flickr) and My Videos (Dailymotion).
Meanwhile, News Place gathers together Livesport, Euronews, France 24 and MeteoNews. But even old-fashioned Teletext was far better than that sorry lot.
Lastly, the Games Place leads to a small collection of Funspot, Smart Kidz and Brain Trainer games.
It's a nice division of labour in theory, but there's not enough labour – and the breakaway of dedicated icons for YouTube and the BBC iPlayer to the 42VL963's central user interface seems an admission of this.
Toshiba Places is reasonably well laid out, with customised settings for individual members of the family possible (so Dad doesn't tweet about the cricket on daughter's account, presumably) and there are links to the most used apps up-top; when we tested the 42VL963 we found shortcuts to BBC iPlayer, Blinkbox, Acetrax and Livesport.tv across the top.
The hardware is a lot more comprehensive. On the rear of the delectably designed 42VL963 are three HDMI inputs, a Scart, a D-sub 15-pin PC input, component video inputs and accompanying phonos, an optical digital audio output, and an Ethernet LAN slot.
The latter proves crucial since there's no Wi-Fi built into the 42VL963, which will be a deal-breaker for some – and seems stingy on a TV costing this much.
However, generosity abounds on a particularly extensive side-panel, which includes a fourth HDMI slot, two USB slots - one for adding a Toshiba Wi-Fi dongle, and another for thumbdrives or HDDs - either stuffed with digital files for playback, or formatted to record TV programmes from Freeview (or, more usefully given that there's only one tuner, a handy pause-live-TV feature).
For those wanting to add channels to Freeview's roster there's also a Common Interface slot for subscription cards.
Lastly, the side-panel includes a headphones slot, though for some reason it's very far up the TV, almost at the top.
Those USB slots aren't needed to recharge 3D glasses since the 42VL963 uses the passive, polarised 3D tech, and puts four pairs of the cheap RealD 3D specs in the box.
What is a genuinely great idea from Toshiba is a choice of electronic programme guides for Freeview HD content.
The choice – which you have to make blindly upon start-up – is between BroadcastGuide and MediaGuide. The former is the usual EPG, while the latter is a ROVI-powered, web-fed guide that's a tad more dynamic, more colourful, and has an (albeit tiny) live TV thumbnail, too – though it is slower.
The 42VL963 initially performs out of its skin.
With the Freeview HD tuner up and running, a blast of How We Won The War from BBC1 appears strong on colour, contrast and clarity.
There's little of the flicker and fizz around lo-res graphics that we're used to on LCD TVs, and a boldness to images that continues on our test DVD Children of Men.
Switch to the HD version and it's a more nuanced, more pristine story.
There's plenty of detail, too, in our Blu-ray test disc Hugo, with real texture and depth to the wisps of smoke in the Paris train station. Even dust in the air is visible during close-ups.
Colour is somewhat muted, but natural looking (using ColourMaster didn't visibly enhance or effect the picture), and though that's backed-up by some convincing black levels, there's not much in the way of shadow detail.
Consequently, a lot of detail in dark backgrounds is obscured, such as the walls of Hugo's bedroom, and more noticeably his hair and clothes, which take on a flat look.
Contrast can be boosted somewhat by using the Active Backlight Control feature. It reacts to ambient light conditions and dims the back light accordingly, substantially boosting the quality of black.
However, it resets light levels constantly and quickly becomes annoying, though it's acceptably subtle on its 'low' power setting.
Motion, too, is handled reasonably well, though only if Active Vision is used – without it the 42VL963 delivers blurry moving objects. It's best left on its middle strength setting; this way it rids Blu-ray discs of judder and blur with only the odd twitch around moving objects.
That issue is exacerbated if Active Vision is left on full power, while its mildest setting is too weak to be of any use.
The opening sequence of Hugo is thus rendered well, with Active Vision ensuring a smooth panorama across Paris, well defined, yet fluid falling snowflakes, and a comfortable swooping camera shot through the train station.
A scan across a complicated clock-face is far, far more comfortable with Active Vision engaged than without, though some will notice the slightly video-like feel it lends to proceedings.
Still, although it does do a good job with such motion scenes, there is a slight wobble within the frame.
Game mode is a little stark, though the pitch in Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 appeared vibrant and detailed during our test, but with noticeable motion blur; we instead settled on the less garish 'Hollywood 1' preset, with Active Vision its middle setting.
Annoyingly, the 42VL963 insists on showing us a safety message each time we engage 3D mode on our Blu-ray player. Honestly!
Hugo in 3D mode suddenly loses its detail – compared to when we watched the same sequences in 2D – and the horizontal structure of the image is highly visible, too, though the depth that opens up is quite something.
Unfortunately there is a touch of judder that can't be cured using Active Vision (it's not available in 3D mode), which is a shame since we've seen similar tech add a nice polish to some passive 3DTVs of late.
The 3D effect isn't always a success, with 3D characters sometimes seeming divorced from rather flat-looking backgrounds, and after about an hour of Hugo we did get slightly immune to the 3D effects.
Still, without any crosstalk and with bright, colourful 3D pictures throughout, we'd judge the 42VL963 a success in this department; a nice, fuss-free 3D feature fit for occasional use.
However, the 2D-3D conversion mode – accessible via a shortcut on the remote and apparently able to work from any video source, even live TV – is a failure.
We tried to convert an episode of Neighbours, some ProEvolution Soccer 2012, and Prometheus on Blu-ray on-the-fly, but all we noticed was the appearance of those horizontal lines, or a loss of detail. Or both.
Lastly, although the LED panel behind the 42VL963 is clearly of decent quality, we did notice some light leakage in the corners of the screen, though only those watching in a blackout will notice.
Usability, sound and value
Despite putting in a largely likable picture performance, the 42VL963's appeal is seriously hampered by its overly fussy user interface and lacklustre remote control.
The latter looks classy, with a gloss black panel and large buttons lain on a curved silver base.
However, it's badly weighted to the top – where the battery compartment lies in its undercarriage – and it's not very responsive at all.
Numerous times during the review did we have to wait for commands to be accepted by the TV or, more usually, discover that the TV just didn't allow quick commands.
Whatever we tried, the 42VL963 was always either two steps behind, or half asleep. Even switching between picture presets involve a second or two of blank screen.
Sadly, the 'quick menu' button on the remote brings up some pretty unusual settings, such as picture size and headphone sound levels. It's hardly streamlining.
The remote also lacks a 'back' button of suitable size and placement, since it turns out to be the primary button for getting out of menus, returning to main menus and swapping between MP3 songs and videos.
Toshiba has designed a potentially useful carousel behind the Menu button that puts major functions together; Connected TV (which leads to links to YouTube, BBC iPlayer and the Toshiba Places pages), Media Player (USB or network-sourced media), Function (just a sleep timer) and Setup (Picture, Sound, System Setup and Preferences).
Toshiba Places is slow to navigate, though apps load quickly. However, when exiting Toshiba Places, we got an irritating 'Are you sure?' delaying message, with the default set to 'No'; three button presses to get back to live TV.
Digital file support via its USB slots is rather less irritating.
Amid a rather functional, but not unpleasant, USB Media Player interface that puts all folders and files in a simple grid on a black background, we managed first to play MP3, M4A and WMA music.
Video formats included AVC HD, AVI, MKV, MOV, MP4, MPEG and WMV HD (though not WMV), although for some reason a preview pane pops up when you hover over a specific file, though shows nothing.
Once again, the remote's buttons are too small and unresponsive to smoothly navigate within and between digital files; the left and right chapter skip buttons are also positioned at the base of the remote, which makes it tricky to use if holding the remote in one hand.
After taking four button presses to fire up the equally drab, slow Network Media Player interface instead, in our test the 42VL963 successfully streamed the same music file formats, albeit with a second or three's delay, but only AVI video files. Still, it's a decent effort.
The 42VL963's twin 10W speakers are a smidgen above average.
Hidden in the Advanced menus is a surprisingly effective voice-enhancement mode, while the Audyssey ABX function – available on a low or high setting – adds some finesse to treble highs, though little in the way of much-needed bass.
Overall, the soundstage is wider and more detailed than most, though it's not particularly proficient with music.
The 42VL963's lack of Wi-Fi puts it a step behind most of its competitors at this price, though it's arguably the lack of a dual-core processor and a decent remote control that puts the 42VL963 down the pecking order, despite its thoroughly respectable pictures.
The provision of four pairs of 3D glasses – and plenty of ins and outs – do claw back some ground for the 42VL963, but not enough to prevent us from making this obvious conclusion; there are better value all-rounders available – and more user-friendly ones, at that.
With a wired LAN-only Toshiba Places platform a tad short on apps, and an obstinate user interface, it would be easy to dismiss this 42-inch Edge LED, but it's picture is just too versatile to ignore.
Judged purely on picture quality, the 42VL963 is as good an all-rounder as we've seen at this price; 2D and 3D are both handled well, and even standard definition sources look tight.
Active Vision works well at removing judder from Blu-ray, and there's enough in the way of contrast and black level to provide a good basis for an above-average picture.
It's also good to see dedicated shortcuts to both BBC iPlayer and YouTube on the central carousel since it stops us having to bother firing up Toshiba Places.
And with the lights on, the 42VL963 is one of the best-looking TVs around at this price.
Toshiba Places lacks Wi-Fi, is slow, and is devoid of must-have video content. Nor is the 42VL963 a great TV to live with; saddled with an overly fussy and slow user interface, there's a worrying delay between a poorly-designed remote control and the 42VL963, so much so that we genuinely thought we'd picked up the wrong remote control on several occasions.
Great value 2D, 3D and upscaled SD images are interrupted by a lacklustre Toshiba Places and an all-round slow user interface that's frustrating to use.
Toshiba Places is hardly the smart TV platform of our dreams, and nor does the 42VL963 seem able to handle app data quickly enough.
Despite its core quality and luscious design, the 42VL963 is saddled with a poor remote control and can be frustrating to live with.
Hovering around the same price as this Toshiba is another passive 3DTV, the Panasonic TX-L42ET5B, which boasts a better smart TV platform and a far more effective remote control.
Panasonic also makes an active shutter 3D variant, the Panasonic TX-L42ET50B which includes a polished chrome floating bezel.
LG also makes a huge variety of passive 3DTVs, including the LM660T Series and LM670T Series, though its larger 50-inch 50PM670T active shutter 3D plasma goes for the same price as this 42-inch Toshiba.