We experienced a definite sense of déjà vu when Toshiba whipped the covers off its latest flagship TV at this year's IFA trade show. The 55-inch 55ZL2 looks almost identical to last year's 55ZL1 and was unveiled with comparable fanfare. The only difference is that this year's model is even more extravagantly specified.
The big headline grabber is its auto-stereoscopic 3D screen -- the 55ZL2 offers 3D sans spectacles. But that's just the start of it. The 55ZL2 also packs a 3,840x2,160-pixel resolution, so it can deliver four times the clarity of fuzzy 1080p rivals.
Toshiba says the 55ZL2 will launch in Germany before the end of the year, at a price yet to be confirmed. A UK release is expected to follow in early 2012, but we'd take that with a pinch of salt -- Toshiba has an awful track record with product introductions, particularly when it comes to high-end lines in the UK.
There's no video content around that natively has a resolution of 8 million pixels. Many major motion pictures shot digitally aren't even originated at that resolution. This might lead you to think the 55ZL2 is staring into a content gap, but that's not the case.
The fact is you can't realistically produce a large-screen, glasses-free 3D TV without an ultra-high-resolution panel -- the auto-stereoscopic process devours pixels. Also, a so-called '4K2K' resolution, such as the 55ZL2 has, creates new opportunities for upscaling. The 55ZL2 employs Toshiba's CEVO-Engine multi-core processor, alongside the latest iteration of the Resolution+ upscaling technology. We can't wait to see what Blu-ray and broadcast hi-def footage looks like upscaled to a 4K2K resolution.
Auto-stereoscopic 3D delivers a very different viewing experience to active-shutter or passive 3D. This set offers nine 3D views, each created by a directional 'lenticular lenslet' filter. It's this which produces the stereoscopic image. The challenge with this tech is that a dead spot tends to be visible between each view, and every view robs resolution from the panel.
So just how good is the implementation of auto-stereoscopic 3D on the 55ZL2? Surprisingly good, it turns out. Toshiba has found a way around the problem of dead spots by overlapping each stereoscopic view, and enabling the set to automatically adjust if it thinks you're watching at the wrong angle, courtesy of an eye-tracking camera.
The 3D image resolution is good, but it's not 1080p. We'd say it's probably closer to 720p. That means images aren't as clear as those of regular active-shutter 3D TVs, but does that really matter?
We watched a selection of movie and documentary footage, the most effective of which was a trailer for the new Final Fantasy game. The key characteristic of all the 3D footage we saw was that parallax effects appeared quite shallow. Yes, there's depth to images, but it's not immersive.
2D image quality
Perhaps the single most exciting thing about the 55ZL2 is the fact that it's built around a 4K2K panel. This means it delivers quite astonishing fidelity. 2D demo footage looked beautiful on this screen, and images had a smooth, noise-free, photographic clarity.
This set also uses an LED backlight with local dimming clusters, so contrast is high, black levels deep and colour fidelity outstanding. Gradations are effortlessly smooth.
That said, we have some concerns about brightness and power consumption. The micro-pixels used by the 55ZL2 could struggle to match the illumination of a conventional 1080p display. They may well have to work harder and draw more juice. Until we get our hands on a production-ready set, though, we can't know for sure. Intriguingly, Toshiba only allowed the 55ZL2's 3D mode to be viewed in a blacked-out room.
In many ways, the Toshiba 55ZL2 is the future of television, so we have our fingers well and truly crossed that, unlike the 55ZL1, this set will actually make it to the UK. If it does, we'll have a full review up as soon as we can
Edited by Charles Kloet