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Toshiba 55VL963B review: Toshiba 55VL963B

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The Good Gorgeous design; Integrated WiDi; Good passive 3D support.

The Bad Places smart TV system lags behind the competition; Struggles with detail in darker scenes; Standard-definition pictures look a tad rough.

The Bottom Line The 55-inch Toshiba 55VL963B has a stylish design and WiDi support will be a boon for some. However, standard-definition pictures and the Places smart TV platform lag behind the competition and there are weaknesses in picture performance. Sony's 55HX753 and LG's 55LM660T are better options for a similar price.

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7.5 Overall

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Toshiba has called on a couple of friends to help it out with its latest high-end TV. The design of the 55VL963B comes from the studio of Jacob Jensen (famous for many of Bang & Olufsen's iconic designs), while the panel has been supplied by LG. The result is a sophisticated-looking TV that's packed with features including passive 3D support and 400Hz motion processing.

Despite the lofty credentials, the set remains quite affordable by 55-inch LED standards. It's on sale now for around £1,600.

User interface and EPG

This TV uses Toshiba's relatively new user interface. Hit the menu button and you're greeted by two arcs of icons stacked on top of each other. You select the type of action you want to perform using the lower arc and are then shifted to the upper arc to choose the action. For example, to adjust the picture, you select Setup in the lower arc and then Picture from the upper arc. You're presented with a pretty standard-looking flat picture tweaking menu. And this is the problem -- there's a jarring discrepancy between the unusual arc approach and the bog-standard menus you end up in.

Toshiba has brightened up the menu system compared to how it looked when it was first introduced on the WL series of TVs, but at times it still feels a little sluggish.

The company has done some work on improving the set's electronic programme guide (EPG). In fact, this TV doesn't have just one EPG, it has two. The first is called the Broadcast Guide, while the second is labelled the Media Guide. You're given a choice of which one you want to use when you first set up the TV, but as the set-up guide doesn't offer any explanation of the difference between the two, most people will just choose the default Broadcast guide.

Toshiba 55VL963B Media Guide
The Media Guide downloads extra info about TV shows from the Internet to flesh out the electronic programme guide.

It turns out that the Broadcast guide is the standard Freeview EPG, while the Media Guide is a content-rich EPG that relies on data downloaded from the Internet. The standard EPG is rather dull in its presentation and annoyingly lacks a video thumbnail window for the currently tuned channel. At least the audio keeps running when you've got the guide open, so you don't completely lose track of the show you're watching.

The Media Guide EPG looks much more sophisticated. The extra content from the web is used to display thumbnail images for each entry in the guide, as well as extra information such as the actors in a show and episodes coming up in a series. It also has a video thumbnail window in the lower left-hand corner, so you can continue watching a show while you search through the guide.

The downside is the guide is quite slow to open up and fully populate with content. It can take as long as 13 seconds to appear, which is likely to be too tardy for most people to use without losing their patience.

Video playback and Internet features

Thankfully, Toshiba has updated the Places smart TV platform that's present on this set. Places used to be an embarrassment for the brand -- it was sluggish to use, buggy and very light on content. It still trails the smart TV platforms on sets from Sony, LG and Samsung, but it's improved enormously from the version that debuted a few months ago on models such as those in the TL series.

The system is now a touch faster, has more content and seems a lot less prone to crashing than previously. As before, the content is divided into sections or 'Places', with dedicated areas for TV streaming services, social media, music and games. Services supported include BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Dailymotion, Acetrax, Woomi, Viewster, Facebook and Twitter.

Unlike most other smart TV platforms, there's no app store, so the pre-loaded apps are the only ones available. This has the knock-on effect of some Places sections looking quite barren. For example, there are only two entries in the music section. The system is also missing big-name apps that are now available on other platforms, including 4oD, which Samsung has recently added to its sets. Netflix and Lovefilm are available from a number of manufacturers but are absent here.

Toshiba 55VL963B smart TV
The Places smart TV platform has been improved, but it's still weak when placed next to the competition's superior selection of apps.

You can use this model to play back digital media flies. Support for USB drives is pretty good. I tried a range of video files in MP4, MKV and DivX formats and they all ran without problems. However, it's pretty poor at streaming videos across a network from a PC or DLNA device. It would only play my MP4 sample files and the fast-forward and rewind controls didn't even work with this clip, which means the streaming support is next to useless. That's poor, as Samsung and LG's TVs now have pretty good media streaming capabilities.

The set includes WiDi support. Of course, you'll need a WiDi-enabled laptop for this to work, but if you have one, it allows the TV to act as a wireless monitor for your laptop, which is very neat and easy to set up.

Design and connections

As with last year's WL863 models, Toshiba has called on the Jacob Jensen Design Studio for design help. While the older WL863 sets looked stylish, I also felt they were overly masculine and slightly dated. The 55VL963B is a big improvement. This is partly because Toshiba has used an LG panel, which has allowed it to follow the lead of LG models such as the 47LM860V by having a supremely narrow bezel (just over 1cm wide), which looks stunning.

The rest of the design is pretty tasty too, with a swopping mirrored panel rounding off the bottom of the TV and a narrow, elegant stand blending in beautifully with the rest of the styling.

Toshiba 55VL963B angled
I'm very impressed by the stylish Jacob Jensen design, which is an improvement on the studio's overly masculine past efforts for Toshiba.

That said, the design of the remote isn't up to the same standard. It's better than the previous zapper that Toshiba supplied with last year's TVs, but it's a tad large and doesn't feel comfortable to hold.

Unlike Toshiba's 40RL953B that I reviewed recently, this TV isn't lacking when it comes to connectivity. As I've already mentioned, it has WiDi onboard, so you can wirelessly mirror content from your laptop to the TV. There's also an Ethernet port on the rear and Wi-Fi is built in too.

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