If there's one thing Toshiba knows how to do well, it's build a stylish TV for a modest price. Despite selling for a mere £440, the 40RL953B looks as classy as many sets costing double.
It's been a while since I've seen a Toshiba TV deliver a solid overall performance, so can the 40RL953B buck that trend?
User interface and EPG
The 40RL953B may have a budget price tag, but unlike last year's, it uses the same menu system as the high-end models in Toshiba's range. Instead of flat menu screens, you're presented with two arcs of icons at the bottom. The lower arc lets you select the type of action you want to perform and you're then shifted to an upper arc where you select a sub-option.
These menus now look a little more colourful than before and the transitions between them have speeded up too. I still don't feel it's an ideal system though. Once you've selected the sub-option in the arc menu, you're often pitched back into a standard flat menu to complete the task, which is jarring.
Interestingly, the TV includes two separate electronic programme guides (EPG). You can select between these during the initial set-up of the TV, although bizarrely, the installation guide doesn't actually explain what the difference between them is. It turns out that the Broadcast Guide is the Freeview EPG, while the Media Guide uses Internet data. The Broadcast Guide looks quite drab and although audio is kept running when you call it up on screen, there's no video thumbnail window.
The secondary Media Guide is built by a company called Rovi and uses richer programming information downloaded from the Internet. It's laid out in a horizontal grid, but it includes lots of extra data including thumbnail photos for upcoming shows, information on the actors and lists of other episodes in a series. The problem is the set doesn't seem to have enough internal memory to buffer the EPG data, so it has to download it every time you open it up.
This means there's a significant delay between hitting the button on the remote and the guide becoming fully populated with all the programming data. We're taking around 14 seconds here, which I think will be too long for most people. So they're likely to switch back to the standard, more boring broadcast EPG. This is a shame, as the Rovi Guide really is a big improvement over the standard EPG.
Internet features and video playback
In the past, Toshiba's smart TV platform -- known as Places -- has been pretty woeful. Bug-ridden and severely lacking in content, it was definitely the runt of the smart TV pack. Thankfully, Toshiba seems to be getting on top of these issues. Although it still lags behind the competition, both in terms of its user interface and the content available, it's a good sight better than it was.
Places is divided up into sections -- or 'Placea' -- for TV, Video, Social Media, Music, News and Games. Services include BBC iPlayer, Cartoon Network, YouTube, Dailymotion, Woomi, Acetrax, iConcerts, Aupeo, Viewster, Facebook and Twitter. That may sound like a lot, but it's actually quite limited compared to rival systems from Panasonic, Sony and Samsung. There's no app store, so what you see is what you get, and it lacks key services such as Netflix and Lovefilm.
Toshiba has added proper shortcuts for iPlayer and YouTube into the main menu, so you don't actually have to start up Places to get at them. Nevertheless, there are still problems with the Places user interface. For example, on many of the apps, you can't return from the app to the Places menu. You have to exit the app back to TV and then start up Places again, which is nuts.
The set also includes a media player for playing digital files from USB drives or across a network from a PC or DLNA devices such NAS drives. USB playback works pretty well. It handles a range of file formats including Xvid, MKV and MP4. However, it's pretty poor when it comes to streaming video files across a network. It refused to play MKV and Xvid files and instead would only run my MP4 test file. Even then, it wouldn't allow me to fast forward or rewind the video, so its streaming support is next to useless.