Toshiba has called on a couple of friends to help it out with its latest high-end TV. The design of the 55VL963B comes from the studio of Jacob Jensen (famous for many of Bang & Olufsen's iconic designs), while the panel has been supplied by LG. The result is a sophisticated-looking TV that's packed with features including passive 3D support and 400Hz motion processing.
Despite the lofty credentials, the set remains quite affordable by 55-inch LED standards. It's on sale now for around £1,600.
User interface and EPG
This TV uses Toshiba's relatively new user interface. Hit the menu button and you're greeted by two arcs of icons stacked on top of each other. You select the type of action you want to perform using the lower arc and are then shifted to the upper arc to choose the action. For example, to adjust the picture, you select Setup in the lower arc and then Picture from the upper arc. You're presented with a pretty standard-looking flat picture tweaking menu. And this is the problem -- there's a jarring discrepancy between the unusual arc approach and the bog-standard menus you end up in.
Toshiba has brightened up the menu system compared to how it looked when it was first introduced on the WL series of TVs, but at times it still feels a little sluggish.
The company has done some work on improving the set's electronic programme guide (EPG). In fact, this TV doesn't have just one EPG, it has two. The first is called the Broadcast Guide, while the second is labelled the Media Guide. You're given a choice of which one you want to use when you first set up the TV, but as the set-up guide doesn't offer any explanation of the difference between the two, most people will just choose the default Broadcast guide.
It turns out that the Broadcast guide is the standard Freeview EPG, while the Media Guide is a content-rich EPG that relies on data downloaded from the Internet. The standard EPG is rather dull in its presentation and annoyingly lacks a video thumbnail window for the currently tuned channel. At least the audio keeps running when you've got the guide open, so you don't completely lose track of the show you're watching.
The Media Guide EPG looks much more sophisticated. The extra content from the web is used to display thumbnail images for each entry in the guide, as well as extra information such as the actors in a show and episodes coming up in a series. It also has a video thumbnail window in the lower left-hand corner, so you can continue watching a show while you search through the guide.
The downside is the guide is quite slow to open up and fully populate with content. It can take as long as 13 seconds to appear, which is likely to be too tardy for most people to use without losing their patience.
Video playback and Internet features
Thankfully, Toshiba has updated the Places smart TV platform that's present on this set. Places used to be an embarrassment for the brand -- it was sluggish to use, buggy and very light on content. It still trails the smart TV platforms on sets from Sony, LG and Samsung, but it's improved enormously from the version that debuted a few months ago on models such as those in the TL series.
The system is now a touch faster, has more content and seems a lot less prone to crashing than previously. As before, the content is divided into sections or 'Places', with dedicated areas for TV streaming services, social media, music and games. Services supported include BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Dailymotion, Acetrax, Woomi, Viewster, Facebook and Twitter.
Unlike most other smart TV platforms, there's no app store, so the pre-loaded apps are the only ones available. This has the knock-on effect of some Places sections looking quite barren. For example, there are only two entries in the music section. The system is also missing big-name apps that are now available on other platforms, including 4oD, which Samsung has recently added to its sets. Netflix and Lovefilm are available from a number of manufacturers but are absent here.
You can use this model to play back digital media flies. Support for USB drives is pretty good. I tried a range of video files in MP4, MKV and DivX formats and they all ran without problems. However, it's pretty poor at streaming videos across a network from a PC or DLNA device. It would only play my MP4 sample files and the fast-forward and rewind controls didn't even work with this clip, which means the streaming support is next to useless. That's poor, as Samsung and LG's TVs now have pretty good media streaming capabilities.
The set includes WiDi support. Of course, you'll need a WiDi-enabled laptop for this to work, but if you have one, it allows the TV to act as a wireless monitor for your laptop, which is very neat and easy to set up.
Design and connections
As with last year's WL863 models, Toshiba has called on the Jacob Jensen Design Studio for design help. While the older WL863 sets looked stylish, I also felt they were overly masculine and slightly dated. The 55VL963B is a big improvement. This is partly because Toshiba has used an LG panel, which has allowed it to follow the lead of LG models such as the 47LM860V by having a supremely narrow bezel (just over 1cm wide), which looks stunning.
The rest of the design is pretty tasty too, with a swopping mirrored panel rounding off the bottom of the TV and a narrow, elegant stand blending in beautifully with the rest of the styling.
That said, the design of the remote isn't up to the same standard. It's better than the previous zapper that Toshiba supplied with last year's TVs, but it's a tad large and doesn't feel comfortable to hold.
Unlike Toshiba's 40RL953B that I reviewed recently, this TV isn't lacking when it comes to connectivity. As I've already mentioned, it has WiDi onboard, so you can wirelessly mirror content from your laptop to the TV. There's also an Ethernet port on the rear and Wi-Fi is built in too.
The TV has four HDMI ports and on the rear are full-sized Scart and component connectors, so you don't have to mess around with small break-out cables, as you do on many of today's sets. However, three of the HDMI ports, as well as the component and Scart connectors, point out from the rear, which may prove tricky if you're mounting the TV on a wall.
There are few slimline TVs that really deliver on the audio front. Unfortunately, the 55VL963B is not one of them. Its speakers aren't terrible, it's just that they're no better or worse than those on the majority of today's LED sets.
The main problem is there's just not enough weight at the lower end of the frequency spectrum. Movie soundtracks and music sounds quite thin. To be fair, dialogue doesn't come across too badly and it isn't as screechy at the higher frequencies as some models I've used. This is definitely a set that would benefit from being twinned with a soundbar, a 2.1 system or a full 5.1 audio package though.
2D picture quality
The 55VL963B needs some tweaking to get the best images as the picture presents are fairly weak. For example, the two Hollywood presets, which are the equivalent to the Cinema modes on most other TVs, have the sharpness setting turned down too low, so they appear soft. Colours aren't hugely accurate either and the brightness and backlight settings needed tweaking.
Thankfully, Toshiba provides comprehensive picture controls including a full colour management tool. Once you've tweaked the various picture options, you'll find that it's capable of putting in a picture performance that's fairly strong overall, especially with HD content. Pictures look quite sharp and colours are bold and strong.
The set includes Toshiba's rather good MR400 motion processing system. The panel has a native 100Hz rate and the system, combined with backlight manipulation, is used to get the figure up to the magic 400Hz number. As with all LED and LCD screens, if you leave the motion processing turned off, the set suffers from some motion blur. With it turned on at the middle level, it did a decent job of cleaning up the blur, without overly smoothing motion in movies or introducing flickering on the edges of objects.
However, the TV does suffer some problems. Its upscaling of standard-definition channels just doesn't look as smooth or as clean as it does on TVs from many rival brands. Low-quality channels tend to look very rough and show up a lot of MPEG artefacts, whereas sets from Sony do a better job of papering over these cracks.
Also, as with some of LG's latest TVs, the 55VL963B isn't brilliant at handling shadow detail in darker areas of the picture. There's a tendency to crush the blacks, so scenes with subtle shadows and dark grey hues often get rendered as a wash of black. It doesn't happen all the time, but it's often enough to be noticeable.
Like a lot of today's LED screens, the backlight isn't quite as consistent as I would have liked, as there's some haloing evident around the corners of the display. You can only really see this when you're watching the TV in the evening with the lights in your room turned down. Nevertheless, it's a problem that you just don't get on plasma screens, even though they're often cheaper.
3D picture quality
As the 55VL963B is built around an LG panel, it relies on the passive 3D system. Passive 3D has a number of advantages over active 3D. The biggest is the low cost of the glasses. In fact, this set comes with four in the box, but if you needed to buy more, they only cost around £2 each. You could even use the ones you take home from the cinema. By contrast, active 3D glasses cost between £40 and £100 per pair.
The passive specs that come with this TV are very comfortable to wear. Unlike active glasses, you don't see flickering caused by ambient light sources in your room.
The 3D pictures seen through them are very good. The glasses don't dim the image as much as active specs do, so the 3D retains a lot of its punch. There's almost no crosstalk either, where ghosting appears around objects, so 3D pictures look convincingly solid.
On the downside, if you look closely, you can see some jags on the edges of objects caused by the passive 3D system's lower resolution. Passive 3D splits the screen horizontally, sending every second line to each eyes, so it only has half the horizontal resolution of active 3D systems. It actually looks more like three-quarters the resolution because of the way our brains interpolate the images for each eye, but on this 55-inch display, the loss in resolution is felt a little more than on smaller passive screens.
Toshiba's motion processing doesn't seem to work at all when the set is in 3D mode, so a fair amount of blur creeps in during fast pans or quick action sequences.
I still think that, for the most part, it produces fun 3D images. The cheap price of the glasses will be a major boon for those with larger families or people who want to invite a bunch of mates around to watch the footy in 3D.
There are areas where the 55VL963B really is a star. Its design is extremely handsome and the strong passive 3D performance will be a hit with families. On the downside, there are areas where it's not so convincing. The TV's Places smart platform lags behind the competition and I found pictures lacked punch when it came to dealing with standard-definition channels or darker scenes in movies.
The biggest issue though is one of price. For £1,600, it's competing directly with the likes of Panasonic's L55ET5B and Sony's 55HX753, both of which have slightly better picture performance and stronger online services. Moreover, I found LG's 55LM660T to be a winner at this price. Unless you particularly want or need this set's WiDi support, I think there are better options.