Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified..
When we say the Toshiba AV502U series can produce relatively deep black levels, the key word is "relatively." It's perhaps more accurate to say that its shade of black outdoes most other less-expensive, lower resolution small-screened LCDs we've seen by a narrow margin. It does fall short of the competition in terms of maintaining accurate color at every brightness level, however, and it will look best if you avoid feeding it any 1080i sources. Speaking of looks, the AV502U is also among the most boring-looking TVs we've seen when it's turned off, and that's saying something. Those caveats aside, this little LCD does do slightly better blacks for less, and that might be enough for bargain hunters.
Editors' note, November 30, 2009: After about a week of use, and after the publication of this review, the power supply on our 32-inch 32AV502U review sample failed, rendering the TV inoperative. We called Toshiba and a service representative replaced the defective power supply, fixing the TV. The issue is covered under the standard manufacturers' warranty and we have no reason to suspect it indicates a larger problem with the product series, but this is the first time we've experienced such a failure with a TV review sample. Aside from this note, the Toshiba AV502U review had not been modified from its initial publication.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 32-inch Toshiba 32AV502U, but this review also applies to the 26-inch Toshiba 26AV502U and the 37-inch Toshiba 37AV502U. The three screen sizes share identical specs and should exhibit very similar picture quality.
Unobtrusive bordering on unremarkable, the standard-gloss-black AV502U series lacks the rounded edges and softer curves seen on many smaller LCDs. The frame around the screen is a bit thicker, too, expanding the Toshiba's overall dimensions slightly in comparison. The still thicker frame below is interrupted by a pair of perforated, matte-black strips that hide the speakers and flank the company logo. The matching stand doesn't swivel.
The menu system contains more than its share of options and nested submenus. The arrangement of the picture menu in particular is a bit haphazard and doesn't welcome newbies, more so because the system lacks text explanations of selected items.
Continuing the AV502U's option-heavy theme is a remote festooned with no fewer than 46 buttons. Techies will appreciate easy access to functions like aspect ratio and the sleep timer, but all users will find the tangle of text and icons a jungle to navigate, especially since so many of the keys are similarly sized and shaped and placed too close to one another. Many of the buttons are reserved for operating other gear; the AV502U's remote can handle three pieces in addition to the TV itself. The buttons glow in the dark, an uncommon touch at this price level.
Like most entry-level LCD TVs the Toshiba has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, or 720p, as opposed to the 1080p resolution found on step-up models. Of course, at this screen size, the benefits of 1080p are negligible, except with computer sources, so we don't consider this feature omission a big deal.
More picture adjustments are available than we'd expect at this price level. One of our favorites is the ability to adjust color temperature beyond the standard four presets, although we'd like to see more than just blue and green sliders for doing so. We also appreciated the static gamma control, which also contributes to a more accurate picture.
On the downside, there's only one adjustable picture mode. It's called Preference, and anytime you make changes to a picture parameter like Contrast or Backlight, the mode automatically changes, if it's in one of the other four preset modes, back to Preference. We did appreciate that Preference is independent per input, however. There's also a Game mode designed to minimize lag between a controller and the onscreen action, although that's not usually an issue on TVs with minimal video processing to begin with.
Other advanced picture settings include two versions of noise reduction; a dynamic contrast control to adjust the picture according to onscreen content; a DynaLight setting to do the same with the backlight; and a Cinema mode for 2:3 pull-down detection.
The Toshiba's connectivity is average for the entry-level breed. The rear panel has two HDMI inputs, two component-video inputs, one VGA-style PC input, one AV input with S-Video, an RF input for antenna or cable, and an optical digital audio output. On the side there's an additional AV input with composite video only.