CES 2014 has come and gone, and with it scads of new TV announcements -- many of them with 4K resolution. Toshiba itself bowed a promising line of 4K sets that include full-array local dimming, a technology that, in my experience, goes much further toward improving picture quality than a few million more tiny pixels.
Toshiba's L9300U series is still for sale, though, at least in the 65-inch size we reviewed (the 58-incher is getting scarce), but you shouldn't buy it. It's more expensive than many other 2013 4K TVs and doesn't perform as well. In fact, despite its high price, the L9300U doesn't even perform as well as some budget 1080p TVs we've tested.
So yes, this review is late and its subject basically obsolete already -- as well as impossible for me to recommend to anyone -- but still instructive. It serves as another piece of evidence that, as we found on previous 4K TVs from Panasonic and Samsung, the extra resolution is well-nigh invisible from a normal seating distance, especially with 1080p sources. It also provided me my first in-depth look (so to speak) at how great passive 3D can look on a 4K TV. I look forward to testing more 4K sets in the near future, including Toshiba's own. I expect most of them to run circles around the L9300U, and cost a good deal less.
Update February 26, 2014: A software update released February 3 and available via the TV's online update feature allows the L9300U to accept 4K sources at 60 frames per second, a component of the HDMI 2.0 specification. We have not tested this capability since we don't yet have access to any such sources, but we have updated the review text to reflect this additional capability.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch Toshiba 65L9300U, but this review also applies to 58-inch screen sizes in the series. Both have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. It does not apply to the 84-inch 84L9300U, however, because according to Toshiba, its innards are too different.
The Toshiba L9300U is a style throwback that lacks the ultramodern panache of many 2013 4K sets marketed by competitors. It reminds me of nothing so much as a slightly dowdier version of Vizio's 2013 M series. That's not such a bad thing -- we praised the M for its atypically-for-Vizio upscale looks -- but somehow it just doesn't seem upscale enough when you're talking about a TV this expensive.
The silver lining around the L9300U's
playbook frame provides relief from the all-black of many HDTVs, but the rounded corners and plasticky feel are a step in the wrong direction in my book. The stand is pretty generic too, with its prominent stalk and open silver-colored foot, although I do like that it allows a swivel.
The remote is worse. The action of the central button array is stiff and emits a loud, old-school "click" with every press. There are simply too many buttons (but none to control aspect ratio), the layout forces a lot of stretching to reach far-flung keys, and the central keys aren't backlit.
The menu system is similarly disappointing for a high-end TV, with soft, ancient-looking icons and text, no explanations, and plenty of cryptic selections and messages. It also seems buggy. At one point a "No signal" pop-up persisted despite an image onscreen, and it took toggling inputs to make it disappear. The first day the TV simply wouldn't connect to Wi-Fi, although on subsequent days it seemed to work fine. A final annoyance: the response for power-off is laggy, so often I would hit it again, causing the TV to turn off then on again. Responses for other commands were also a step slow at times.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Edge-lit with local dimming|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Passive||3D glasses included||4 pair|
|Refresh rate(s)||240Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Includes wireless USB keyboard with touchpad; optional Skype camera (FreeTalk 7291; $130)|
Toshiba obviously aimed to make the L9300U as "kitchen sink" as it could, but the set is still missing some of today's flagship extras: a touch-pad remote, built-in camera, and voice and gesture control, to name a few. But for what matters -- picture-affecting features -- the L9300U ticks the requisite boxes.
Chief is edge-lit LED backlight offers local dimming, which Toshiba calls "DynaLight." The L9300U also has a 240Hz refresh rate according to the company's specs, although according to our testing it behaves more like a 120Hz TV (see below). Toshiba talks up its "CEVO 4K" upconversion technology of 1080p and other lower-resolution sources.
This is also the first 4K TV with passive 3D we've reviewed. Toshiba throws in four pairs of glasses.
Beyond the picture Toshiba does manage to one-up its competitors by including an external wireless keyboard, complete with touch pad. It paired easily with our review sample, and certainly made using the Web browser more satisfying. Other Smart TV systems work with keyboards, but no other maker includes one.
Another cool extra not found on other sets is IR pass-through. A pair of included wired IR blasters can be placed in front of any two components, and commands beamed at the TV will be passed on to them. It's designed for use with devices hidden in cabinets, out of sight of standard IR commands. I didn't test this feature.
Smart TV: Toshiba calls its smart TV feature Cloud TV, a slightly desperate-sounding grasp at futurism. In fact it's one of the most archaic smart TV suites I've seen.
The first thing I noticed is that the graphics on the page again seem soft, particularly on a 4K screen this large. Navigating around, each page took inordinately long to respond. And the design makes little sense. The main portal is dominated by the date, an events calendar you'll never use (no, it won't interface with your actual Google or iOS calendar), a seemingly random collection of TV clips, a "messages" section you'll never use, an ad, and a window showing what's currently playing on your selected TV input. A series of tabs on the bottom provides access to still more services.
If Netflix is all you care about, then you might not mind the clunky, slow design because that app gets a dedicated remote button to skip the main interface. Otherwise, the quickest way to get to anything worthwhile is to navigate to a subpage called "my page" (perhaps because you can superficially customize it by deleting and shuffling icons around) and choose an app. Toshiba is missing Amazon Instant, but otherwise the big names are accounted for: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Skype (additional external camera required), Vudu, YouTube, and Facebook (but no Twitter). There's also a third page called "contents" that just repeats much of the content from the other two.
The Web browser is OK as these things go, mainly owing to the included touch-pad-equipped wireless keyboard. Yes, it's clunky and slow to load and I immediately ran into a frustrating time trying to enter a simple URL (ahem, cnet.com, ahem), but at least the touch-pad tracking was decent. Nonetheless I quickly longed for the relative ease of a phone, tablet, or computer-based browser.
Picture settings: Toshiba includes the kind of wide selection you'd expect at this price, with a 10-point grayscale control, full color management, and a few dubious processing settings like "Resolution+," "Fine Texture Restoration," and "Brilliance Restoration" that I left turned off. There are three settings of dejudder, dubbed "ClearScan," as well as a toggle for DynaLight, which engages local dimming.
Connectivity: As mentioned at the top of the review, Toshiba has made public a software update that allows the TV to accept and display 4K signals at 60 frames per second, one of the hallmarks of HDMI 2.0. It is available as a standard downloadable software update, and brings the L9300U up to the same level of connectivity as TVs like the Panasonic WT600.
Unlike most 2014 4K sets announced at CES, the L9300U lacks HEVC decoding, so it won't work directly with upcoming 4K streaming services from Netflix and others. Toshiba told us "HEVC cannot be added internally later."
Meanwhile the set's other connectivity is more than ample, with four HDMI inputs, one component-video, two USB, and an SD card slot. The set also includes that oh-so-rare port these days, a VGA-style analog PC input. It can accept signals up to WXGA+ (1,440x900 pixels).
The Toshiba L9300U might have 4K resolution, but its other picture-quality issues make that extra sharpness, however difficult to discern, moot. It delivered lackluster, grayish black levels far short of even the less expensive 1080p TVs to which I compared it. Uniformity and blooming were below par, as well as off-angle and bright-room performance. Video processing was a mixed bag, while color represented a strong suit.
It's 3D performance is a revelation however, at least to those sick of the compromises inherent in active 3D and passive at 1080p. The combination of 4K and passive 3D provides, as I saw before on the $25K, 84-inch Sony XBR-X900A, the ultimate in 3D picture quality and comfort so far. Of course the Toshiba's other picture-quality problems persist with 3D sources -- I'd still rather watch a 3D movie on another TV with deeper blacks, for example -- but it overcomes the artifacting and line structure issues inherent in 1080p passive 3D sets beautifully.
4K sources testing
Video sources with true 4K resolution are very rare these days, but I was able to test a few for this review. As before I conducted all of these tests from a relatively close seating distance for 65-inch TVs: 77 inches (6.4 feet). The most important 4K test I performed on the L9300U employed the same pair of Redray players I used in the Panasonic WT600 review.
It came filled with a few 4K videos (at 4,096x2,060 pixels, so scaled somewhat by the TVs), the best of which for my tests was the "Red 800" sampler montage. It contained plenty of spectacular shots, including extreme close-ups of eyes and fingernails, desert and arctic landscapes, motorcycles and crossbows, and a variety of other highly detailed images.