Toshiba's 32WL56 is a future-proofed LCD that nearly gets everything right. It's rather bland to look at and it doesn't have integrated Freeview, but its connectivity is excellent and picture quality top-notch for a sub-£1,000 TV
The world of televisions is going through a huge change of late, and the transition has been plagued with confusion for potential buyers. What is high definition? Will my TV be redundant within the next few years? Is LCD better than plasma? Now though, the big picture is finally coming together (if you'll excuse the pun). High-definition compatibility is becoming standard, as is HDMI connectivity -- both guaranteeing your new TV won't be consigned to the scrapheap any time soon. (And if you're still not sure, check out our guide to buying an HD TV.) We're even seeing more Freeview-enabled TVs than the old analogue variety these days. Most importantly, flat screens just keep on dropping in price, and this Toshiba is the closest competitor to the current budget king, the Samsung LE32R41BD.
Toshiba's 32WL56, then, is a future-proofed LCD that nearly gets everything right. The problems are only niggles, but enough for it to lose out on this occasion to models from Samsung and Sony. Unlike those two televisions, the Toshiba is part of a dying breed of non-Freeview-enabled TVs, and component video has to be fed in via VGA -- something that was equally annoying on Philips' 26PF5520D. Toshiba's Active Vision picture processing provides a crisp picture from all sources, although it's not the deepest contrast we've seen, and the set is particularly good at providing quality digital TV pictures from a set-top box. If you want the very best picture quality you'll have to outlay another £100 on a modern HDMI-enabled DVD player, such as the Samsung DVD-HD850, or wait for the opportunity to invest in a high-definition disc player. An impressive, if not market-leading, LCD TV.
The Toshiba 32WL56 is one of the plainest, most mundane designs in the LCD world. Whereas manufacturers like Panasonic, Sony and Samsung have taken the desirable aesthetics of a flat screen and added their own trademark flourishes, Toshiba's square angular design and dull grey finish sour first impressions. Sitting on the desk for over a week during testing, we had no one ask about the TV -- even ViewSonic's LCD received this compliment ten minutes after being set up.
If the television lacks distinction on the physical front, connectivity is much more impressive. There are an assortment of connections on the rear and side from composite to HDMI, plus a VGA socket in case you want to hook up a PC. Conspicuous by their absence are component video inputs -- a prerequisite for flat-screen TVs. Dig around in the box and you'll find a component-VGA adaptor, but this means you can't have a media centre PC and a component DVD player connected at the same time. Nonetheless, Toshiba's offering of HDMI brings it bang up to date with all of its competitors' latest LCDs, and it means that you can buy a new DVD player (from Samsung, Denon or indeed Toshiba themselves) with HDMI output and video upscaling capability and get the best possible picture quality.
There are two Scart inputs, only one of which is RGB-enabled. This is a real shame -- the de facto connectivity standard is still RGB Scart, despite the arrival of HDMI, so if you want to connect a Freeview or Sky box and a games console, for instance, then you're forced to lose quality from one of them. In fact, if this TV is going to be an upgrade from a CRT, then you might want to invest in some new equipment and cables as well. If you can afford the £100 for an HDMI-equipped DVD player then it's worth the investment, as is a component video cable for your chosen games console.
Toshiba's remote control is typically well designed, adhering to the age-old design rule of simplicity over flashiness. The buttons are all spaced out equally and it feels the perfect size when sitting in your hand. The central collection of buttons is well managed too -- direction buttons move you around the menu system and also change channels and volume. You can also take control of other Toshiba equipment if you're a big fan of the manufacturer, with buttons to operate a DVD player and VCR located at the bottom of the remote.
The TV doesn't feature an integrated digital tuner, which is our main problem with its functionality. Otherwise, it ticks all the right boxes for the demanding user, even though it's a relatively cheap television. The television boasts high-definition compatibility, with the ability to display 480p, 576p, 720p and 1080i video. 480p and 576p are terms for NTSC (American and Japanese) and PAL (European) video, and if you're using a progressive-scan DVD player then you'll see a much more stable image from the TV.
720p and 1080i are the two high-definition standards that look to be supported by Sky, and as the higher number suggests, the difference is more lines of resolution. 720p can be played back line for line, whereas 1080i has to be scaled down to fit the panel's 1366x768-pixel resolution. If your craving for high definition is reaching its peak, then you can invest in an 'upscaling' DVD player, which will take standard 480 or 576 video and upscale it to high-definition resolutions. It won't increase the detail from the original DVD (as it can only reproduce what's there), but it should make DVDs appear more natural over standard players. You should invest in one of these if you want to get the best from your shiny new TV.
Active Vision is intended to boost picture performance -- even high-definition content can need a little cleaning up when it's shown on a 32-inch screen. Active Vision can handle the cleaning up of high definition material at the pixel level, and it also promises to make motion smoother. 360° motion estimation is a fancy name for the way Active Vision processes moving people and objects, so that they look smooth when they come out on the panel. Any jitter on fine detail and text is eliminated by altering the sequence of line scanning down the screen. Conversely, if you're watching an action film and nearly the entire two hours is made up of camera pans, the Active Vision engine will sense this change and temporarily disable Active Motion processing. Clever stuff.
The options menu won't give Sony any nightmares -- it's plain and uninspiring. If you don't get bored by flicking through it all, you'll find a few more useful options, including Black Stretch and MPEG Noise Reduction. We found the contrast levels to be the weakest part of the Toshiba's performance overall (see below), but you can use Black Stretch to automatically make the darkest parts of the picture as black as the LCD panel is capable. MPEG noise is a common flaw of compressed video (both DVDs and digital TV), so you can use the reduction setting on the 32WL56 to help keep the reigns on this common digital artefact. There's also SRS WOW enhancement for the speakers, which you can use if you feel the television's audio needs more oomph.
With the help of Active Vision LCD picture processing, Toshiba has developed an LCD panel that can compete with the big boys, if not touch the greatness set by Panasonic, Sony and Sharp. The picture is as crisp as we've seen and DVD movies scream by with nary a judder in sight. It treats poor quality sources particularly well, with standard Freeview showing plenty of detail, if still blocky in background areas.
The screen's contrast is slightly low compared to the competition, and you can really see this manifested on screen with a poor amount of shadow detail and a lack of clarity in darker movies. It also means that all images have a certain flatness, and where colours have jumped off the screens of Panasonic and Sony LCDs, the picture itself wasn't quite as alive this time. There's no better test for this than an Xbox and a copy of Burnout Revenge, and as the streets whooshed by we didn't feel that we were inhabiting a living, breathing world.
An HDMI input also means that you can pump in some high-definition video. We're currently loving the selection of movie trailers on offer at Apple's revamped Web site -- they're a great test of any LCD. You can be assured that once Blu-ray and HD DVD arrive, you'll want to make the investment. Picture quality overall was best when using the HDMI, VGA or component inputs, but we were impressed with the picture quality from Scart, which was comparatively one of the best we've seen with a DVD player or Freeview.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide