When Toshiba's Cell TV made its debut in Japan last December, it promised to reinvent the humble television. Powered by the PlayStation 3's Cell Broadband Engine (a collaboration between Sony, Toshiba and IBM), it boasted enough processing power to simultaneously record, decode and play-out eight high-definition TV channels, while outplaying Stephen Hawking at Boggle. It blew our socks off in our sneak peak last year, so the promise of a UK launch in 2010 has had us clawing our hair out in excitement.
But at this year's IFA tech expo, Toshiba rained on our parade. Instead, it unveiled a replacement technology dubbed 'Cevo Engine'. It will debut in the brand's flagship 3D, LED, 55-inch 55ZL1 TV, due early 2011 at a price of around £4,000. We were treated to a very premature look at the 55ZL1 and its associated tech at Toshiba's IFA booth, and these are our first impressions.
Son of a silicon Godzilla
Cosmetically, the 55ZL1 is predictably minimalist. Designed by the Jacob Jensen Design studio, best known for its work with Bang & Olufsen, the set is jet black and iPhone-thin. Indeed, the IFA prototype looks much like Toshiba's WL768 models due on sale shortly -- which is probably the point.
The original Cell telly was gloriously over-engineered. Not only was it too expensive to mass produce, it was also too large. A silicon Godzilla, the Cell processor required a heat sink the size of the Tokyo Tower to run. In its original iteration, this meant a separate tuner box. In Japan, Toshiba stuffed it with 15 tuners, a hard drive and a truck-load of fans, but, commercially, this was always going to be a difficult sell in Europe.
Earlier this year, the brand was playing with the idea of building a Blu-ray player into said tuner box to sweeten the pill. Clearly, that idea was abandoned. Instead, the company went back to the drawing board. The result is a much slicker product that no longer requires a separate box with a brain the size of a planet to run.
Another minimalist design
The design of the 55ZL1 doesn't push any envelopes. Jacob Jensen and Co has opted for a minimalist look that, frankly, isn't hugely different in philosophy and style to Sony's Monolith range. What makes this proposition different is the multi-processor architecture behind the screen. While the original Cell chip was a hammer to crack a nut, Cevo Engine uses an array of processors each assigned to a different task. It's a neat solution from Toshiba's semiconductor division, which elegantly allows it to cope with differing local telly and IPTV environments.
Toshiba isn't giving too much away about the power of the Cevo Engine (so don't ask how many gigaflops), but we're confident the set will throw more processing muscle at tasks like 2D-to-3D conversion than any of its rivals, which can only be a good thing. Our depth-scaling demonstrations looked extremely convincing. Better picture quality from half-resolution side-by-side 3D broadcasts (the kind adopted by Sky) is possible. Toshiba has adapted its Resolution+ processing to upscale half-frame 3D images to something nearer 1080p.
Helpfully, the 55ZL1 will auto-balance shifts in brightness and colour when any 3D mode is engaged. Toshiba calls this intelligent 3D -- we say it's about time. The 55ZL1 is the first European TV to feature the brand's ActiveVision M400HD motion picture enhancement technology. This inserts an additional 150 frames per second for a smoother image, which helps combat crosstalk. Certainly, its 3D performance is extraordinarily involving. Like most of its rivals, the screen supports the Active Shutter format.
The set will feature Toshiba's new online content portal, Toshiba Places. There's little concrete information on what will actually feature here when it goes live, but graphically, at least, it looks inviting.
Brighter, sharper images
One aspect of the original 55X1 Cell TV that hasn't been sacrificed is image quality. The original LED Cell screen had jaw-dropping black levels and ultra-fine detail performance, and those attributes remain on the 55ZL1. A full-array LED backlight divides into 512 segments for precise local dimming. The result is that blacks hold detail in their depths while peak whites burn ferociously bright.
Toshiba has long strived to claim the high-ground in the global TV market, and has invested billions of Yen developing innovative kit over the past decade. It came close with SED, a rival to LCD and plasma, but failed to launch. Cell seemed a winner, but transpired to be too complex and expensive to roll out. So will Toshiba's 55ZL1 Cevo Engine finally do the trick? Watch this space.
Edited by Emma Bayly