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When Toshiba launched the 26WL46 last year, it was targeted as a serious replacement for a CRT television. The company succeeded in creating an LCD with a uniquely CRT-like picture (and notably with deep contrast), but most importantly for the market in question, the sub-£2,000 price tag was relatively low at the time. But that was a year ago, and in the fast-moving TV world people now expect high-definition compatibility, even on mid-range models such as this.
Enter this upgrade, the 27WL56. Thanks to Toshiba's dedication to HDMI, the company is happy to oblige high-definition fanatics with all-digital AV connectivity. Even more remarkable than the HD upgrade is the drop in price -- the new model adds an inch of screen and is less than half the price of its predecessor.
The 26WL46 was all about curves, with a round base and a speaker grille that bent backwards. With the 27WL56, it's hip to be square. The overriding impression is one of simplicity, with very little livery or colour differentiation between TV or remote.
The connectivity is no different. It's standard issue, aside from the new-fangled HDMI connection. However, it's a shame that in going all-out to include the latest digital AV technology, more traditional connectors have been neglected. There are no component inputs, for example, and S-video is also notable by its absence. Instead, Toshiba has deemed it preferable to offer a composite input and output -- the worst quality connections available, so poor that a modern LCD should treat this as an insult.
The location of the inputs is also a strange design choice. HDMI and VGA are located on the rear, underneath a removable panel. This leaves masses of space for the rest of the inputs, but instead all AV connectivity is housed under a separate panel on the side. This location limits the number of inputs that can be allocated, the possible cause of the dearth of component and S-video inputs. Another strange anomaly is that there's no standard PC audio input sitting alongside the VGA socket. Toshiba has instead allocated standard stereo inputs of the AV variety, on the side of the TV, so you'll need to use some sort of adaptor if you intend to use this as a PC display. The solitary RGB Scart is also a problem -- we may all be excited about HDMI connectivity, but it will be a good few years before we ditch our standard Freeview boxes, DVD players and games consoles.
The remote control is simple to use and is clearly built for people with bigger hands. It earns our approval with large and well spaced buttons -- a simple design issue, but one that's often forgotten by manufacturers. It also automatically controls Toshiba DVD and VCRs, and our quick search online revealed that many stores are bundling the Toshiba SD-150E DVD player with the TV.
With an HDMI input, this Toshiba can wear its 'HD-Ready' badge with pride -- still something of a rarity at this screen size. When Sky launches its high-definition service in 2006 (probably towards the end of the year), you can bet that HDMI will become commonplace, so kudos to Toshiba for being ahead of the pack.
Many TVs at this size feature the same LCD panel as the larger screens, but they are often stripped of any picture-processing technology. Each individual manufacturer has its own way of improving standard-definition pictures for use on a high-definition digital screen, and Toshiba's is called Active Vision. Active Vision is a suite of picture-processing enhancements that has had a fairly long heritage in Toshiba's flat-panel LCDs. On paper, it has the ability to boost detail, enhance the range of colours and ensure movement doesn't disintegrate into a horrible, juddery mess. In reality, it seems to be best at boosting the contrast of the picture, offering real differentiation in dark areas of the picture. You can also turn on Black Stretch in the menu to assist this area of performance.
There are plenty more hidden treasures to be found if you dare to enter the menu system. You can adjust the backlight to quite a high level, and you might need to turn it down a notch if you like to watch movies in the dark. The MPEG Noise Reduction is useful if you watch a lot of Freeview, because it can help smooth out some of the last remnants of blockiness (which is a hulking great LCD bugbear for us). Finally, there's a sleep timer, and the television can format a PC image automatically -- a VGA signal often needs adjusting.
Things aren't quite so expansive on the audio side. You can change the bass, treble and balance levels, but there are no presets for movie or music listening. SRS Wow mode can be activated, which might help if you don't have a surround-sound system (we preferred the sound au naturel, to be honest). It's also good that you can assign the audio sockets on the side to be used with different inputs, not just PC/HDMI.
Unlike Philips' similar-sized 26PF5520D, Toshiba's LCD doesn't have integrated Freeview. iDTVs are very popular at the moment, with Philips' coming in at under £1,000 and also featuring high definition. Philips' TV comes without any advanced picture processing modes though, so if picture quality is paramount, you're better off with the Toshiba and a set-top box.
Thanks to a combination of Active Vision picture processing and a wealth of tweakable options, Toshiba's LCD is a great picture performer. High-end picture quality through HDMI (provided by our reference Denon DVD-2910 player) appeared grainy round the edges, and you might want to turn off MPEG Noise Reduction to compensate.
If anything, picture quality from Freeview is the most impressive feature, specifically for how well the TV copes with Freeview's relatively poor bitrates. We watched Big Brother, which is filmed on low-resolution cameras, and whereas most televisions would struggle with the water sprinklers, the Toshiba managed to show ample detail between the droplets and the background. The picture is solid, so the only problem is the lack of component inputs -- you'll have to upgrade to an HDMI DVD player if you want the best-quality pictures from your movies.
On the audio side, the speakers can sound a little weak. You can boost the bass in the menu slightly, and turn on SRS Wow for your movies, but we'd suggest supplementary speakers where possible.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additonal editing by Nick Hide