Toshiba’s RL9 series of LED TVs are designed to offer great value for money without stripping away all the sexy features found on its premium TVs. A web search reveals that you can find this 32in ‘smart’ set for under £350, which is not to be sniffed at given what’s on the spec sheet.
It may not rewrite the rulebook, but with the 32RL953, Toshiba has fashioned a very attractive set that you can place in your living room with full cosmetic confidence.
The slim black bezel is classic Toshiba, but the real eye-catcher is the mirrored strip running along the bottom, which adds a touch of glamour missing from the vast majority of TVs at this price. Build quality is excellent too, and with a depth of just 38mm it’s crying out to be mounted on the wall. If not, the supplied gloss black stand is a tasteful alternative.
On the back you get three HDMI inputs (two outward-facing and one on the side), which seems stingy given that four is the minimum these days, but at least that covers your Blu-ray deck, digital TV box and games console. They’re joined by Scart, component and D-Sub PC input, as well as an Ethernet port to access the set’s network features (more on which later).
Completing the line-up are optical digital audio output, a headphone jack, a Common Interface slot and a USB port, which not only lets you play digital media but also facilitates recording onto USB hard-disk drive – after you’ve downloaded the relevant software update.
There’s no 3D support, so the biggest attraction on the feature list is Toshiba Places, the company’s internet content portal. Among the services on offer are BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Acetrax, plus social networking in the form of Facebook and Twitter and sports news from Livesport.TV. Those are the highlights – there are other apps to explore, but many of these require subscriptions and others are a bit naff, making Sony, Samsung and LG’s smart offerings more appealing, but kudos to Toshiba for making its portal so attractive an fun to use.
The service is available by hooking up the TV to the Internet using the Ethernet connection or by purchasing the optional wireless LAN adapter (WLM-20U2). It’s a shame Wi-Fi isn’t built in but hardly a surprise at this price.
The TV is also DLNA certified and can therefore stream music, video and photos from servers on your home network. With another software update, it also supports Intel Wireless Display technology, which lets you stream videos from compatible laptops. And if you’re feeling really flash you can download the Apple/Android app and control the set using a smartphone or tablet.
Also on board is a Freeview HD tuner with Toshiba’s new MetaGuide web-based EPG to help you find stuff to watch, alongside the regular Freeview EPG.
In terms of picture technology the set uses an edge LED panel with Toshiba’s AMR100 (Active Motion & Resolution) processing, which aims to deliver smooth motion with reduced motion blur when viewing fast-moving material, while maintaining sharp detail resolution.
It’s backed up by Resolution+, a powerful upscaling technology that enhances the sharpness of SD content. And with Active Backlight Control and Auto Brightness Sensor the TV takes the tweaking out of your hands to deliver optimum pictures in any lighting conditions – in theory at least.
If you don’t like all that automation then you can tweak the picture settings yourself and there’s a surprisingly comprehensive range of adjustments. They include all the standard stuff (brightness, colour, contrast, tint and sharpness) and presets, including two Hollywood settings for movies. But in the Advanced Picture Settings menu things get more detailed, covering individual base colours, colour temperature, black/white level and noise reduction.
Finally, the 32RL953’s Media Player supports a healthy range of media formats via USB. Music-wise, it plays MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV, but not FLAC – although audiophile formats aren’t best enjoyed through a TV to be honest. On the video side, it plays DivX, MPEG-1, MP4, AVI, XviD, WMV HD, AVCHD and MKV containing hi-def video, although it failed to decode the DTS track wrapped up with it.
While not up to the super-flashy standards of an LG or Samsung set, the 32RL953’s onscreen presentation is hugely attractive. The main menu is an arc of icons that pops up at the bottom of the screen. Each icon is a full-colour animated graphic, which gives off an air of sophistication, and when you press left or right it scrolls smoothly, displaying the corresponding submenu icons above it. Great stuff.
Here you can enter Toshiba Places, check the EPG, explore connected USB devices and enter the setup menu, which uses a more functional box layout that’s easy to navigate.
Toshiba Places can be accessed through the main menu or by pressing a button on the remote. It boasts a gorgeous interface, with a row of vibrantly coloured icons running through the middle that helpfully splits content into various ‘places’ (TV Place, Video Place, Music Place, Social Place, News Place, Game Place… you get the picture) while a selection of recommended apps runs along the top.
Select a Place and the available apps line up along the middle. Inside TV Place you’ll find BBC iPlayer, Cartoon Network, HIT Entertainment and Box Office 365; Video Place contains YouTube, Acetrax, Woomi, Viewster and Dailymotion; while Music Place is the least populated of all the places, offering just iConcerts and AUPEO! Inside Social Place, you can access your Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Dailymotion accounts, as well as check your inbox for messages from other Toshiba Places users. Game Place offers just one app – Funspot.
This slick, funky layout makes Toshiba Places a likeable feature despite the limited array of content, and is a real bonus on a TV this affordable – it’s just a shame you have to fork out extra to access it wirelessly.
The built-in EPG is terrific, mainly thanks to a programme grid that displays a whopping 13 channels at once. That’s at the expense of a live TV screen in the corner, but it’s no great loss as the set keeps the sound playing underneath. It’s a fairly straightforward layout, using the classic left-to-right timeline arrangement, with a row of colour-coded options along the bottom providing direct access to key functions. It is, however, too sluggish to operate, something Toshiba should work on for the next generation.
The remote is a curious device. For starters, it’s huge and unusually bulky toward the top end, which isn’t particularly ergonomic, while the button layout is incredibly cluttered. The direction pad, for example, features up, down, left right keys, encircled by a second ring of keys with four more direction buttons – these are for moving from page to page (on the EPG for example), which is initially confusing. The colour-coded buttons at the bottom are tiny too and some of the labels are cryptic. In its favour though, the silver and black colour scheme is attractive.
In terms of picture quality, the 32RL953 is a bit of a mixed bag, but let’s start with the positives. It’s at its best with a Blu-ray picture fed into the HDMI input – the image looks wonderfully crisp and punchy, with the finest textures and patterns resolved with razor sharp clarity.
Its black level is also much better than you might expect for the money, which ensures that dark scenes and objects look solid and believable. That, in turn, gives everything a pleasing level of depth, from vivid colours to small textures and details. So when watching a movie like The Dark Knight or Hellboy II, which err on the gloomier side of movie-making, you can lose yourself in the action without everything looking pale or misty.
The contrast level could be better though, as some of the finer shadow details are lost during dark scenes, and there’s isn’t a great deal of deftness when it comes to subtle colour shading and gradation, which can make people look like exhibits at Madame Tussauds. Straightforward colours, like patches of blue, red or green, look strong and natural, but when the palette gets more complex the set starts to struggle.
But the biggest problem is motion blur – there’s a significant loss of resolution when an object moves even slightly. It's most noticeable on human faces when they move their head, as skin detail all but disappears and contributes to that waxy look we mentioned above. It seems AMR100 isn’t quite as effective as its creators believe.
These problems are exacerbated with pictures from the built-in tuner, particularly on standard-definition channels. The image looks soft and blurred, with grainy noise fidgeting busily across the picture, particularly around moving objects. The BBC’s Wimbledon coverage suffers greatly due to the set’s inability to hold detail resolution when objects move, and the iffy colour palette makes the green grass and Sue Barker’s awful blue dress look garish.
Things improve when you switch to the hi-def simulcast, though not by the huge margin I was expecting. The image is brighter, punchier and sharper, while colours are more natural. Yet that motion blur rears its ugly head again and overall the images lack the wow factor we’ve come to expect from BBC HD.
So not a complete success then but let’s put these complaints into context – as an eminently affordable 32in TV you wouldn’t expect it to be flawless, and the pictures are much more assured than most sub £500 sets.
If you’re planning to watch blockbuster movies through the set’s speakers then forget it – the 32RL953 can’t cope with busy, aggressive action at louder volumes, making mid and high frequencies sound harsh and screechy, and there’s very little bass on board to balance it out.
But if your aural diet is likely to consist only of comedy panel shows, news and sitcoms, then you’re onto a winner, as the set handles speech confidently and clearly, keeping it free from distortion and excessive sibilance.
Despite its obvious picture limitations, the 32RL953 feels like good value for money thanks to the quantity and quality of features on board. Toshiba Places is a neatly integrated, great-looking web portal with some high-profile apps, while the operating system is pretty and it supports a decent range of formats via USB.
On the flip side, some picture shortcomings, primarily from the Freeview tuner, coupled with some operational blips and the lack of Wi-Fi out the box might put a few people off, but otherwise the 32RL953 is a likeable LED TV.