Toshiba's 'ultrapremium' Cell TV breaks out of features prison

Toshiba's Cell TV offers more features than any TV announced so far, including a new fast processor, a built-in hard drive and Blu-ray player, extensive Interactive options, and more.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
5 min read

And yes, it will be expensive. Toshiba

Today Toshiba announced the U.S. release of a new line of TVs based on the Cell processor that first appeared in the Sony PlayStation 3. The specifics differ somewhat from the Cell TV shown at Ceatac last October, but the gist is the same: more extras and options than any TV we've ever seen.

Toshiba claims the processor operates up to 10 times faster than an Intel Core 2 Duo chip found in desktop PCs, and the television itself shares lots of characteristics with a high-powered computer. The Cell TV has a built-in 1TB hard drive and 802.11n built-in wireless, enabling it to serve media files like video, music, and pictures to other devices on a home network, as well as display and play them back itself. There's also an integrated BD player that not only obviates the need to connect an external BD unit, but can rip unprotected files from BD and DVD discs (like home videos) to the hard drive. The TV can also stream content from PCs in the home via DLNA.

A slide from Toshiba's Cell TV announcement encapsulates its connected features. Toshiba

Toshiba is touting a full suite of interactive services, and "target content partners" include Netflix, Vudu, CinemaNow, and Pandora. Select content can also be "downloaded to the HDD for purchase." And the company is building in video phone capabilities, too, allowing home video teleconferencing. It's not the Skype service offered by LG and Panasonic, but it should operate in a similar way.

But what about actual TV performance? The ZX900 is an LED-based LCD TV with local dimming, but the company says it has improved the technology over its previous local dimmer, the SV670 series. The new system, dubbed KIRA2, is twice as bright and includes 512 dimmable zones, which should help with the blooming we complained about when we reviewed the SV670. The impoved panel is only available on the flagship ZX900 "Genesis" series; the step-down "Illusion" series will have the same panel as the SV670.

In addition, the ZX900 is 3D compatible. It can accept numerous 3D input formats, including MPEG4-AVC, RealD, and more, and according to Toshiba the Cell processor also enables the set to convert any 2D content to 3D. We're particularly curious how this upconversion looks, but we'll have to wait until we get our hands on a review sample to find out.

The company also mentions a bunch of other benefits enabled by the processor, including standard-def and high-def processing that "ensures precise image accuracy by sampling multiple frames and restoring the native presampling signal curve" (don't ask us what that means), video noise reduction said to improve the look of low-resolution Internet video sources, and an augmented AutoView system that incorporates an ambient light sensor to automatically set brightness, contrast, gamma, sharpness, color saturation, and color temperature. We're wary of any video processing that makes high-quality images look different from the original, but perhaps the new processing will improve low-quality sources.

Speaking of extra video processing, the ZX900 also has a 480Hz refresh rate. It combines the scanning backlight used by previous Toshiba models and the motion-estimation motion compensation process used by Samsung and Sony (more info). Either way, we really doubt this higher refresh rate will have much of a discernible impact on picture quality.

It's also worth mentioning that the ZX900 has a separate media box, where the processor is actually housed, that allows you to connect source components, such as a cable or satellite box, wirelessly. The component plugs into the box and the box communicates with the TV. The TV also includes a sound bar, albeit a thinner-looking one than on the Mitsubishi models.

Toshiba didn't price the Cell TV, but its designation of "ultrapremium" should give a good indication of the price (ultrahigh; the Japanese version costs more than $11 grand). The company's reps told us to expect a shipping date of around September 2010, although in our experience products like this tend to ship later rather than earlier. We'll update this post with more information when we have it.

Update January 8, 2010: We got a chance to check out pre-production versions of the TV at Toshiba's booth today, in particular the 2D-to-3D conversion and the new KIRA 2 local dimming panel. The converted material we saw was prerecorded, not converted in real-time as it will have to be on a production Cell TV, but overall the 3D effect was obvious and, in some cases, pretty impressive. In others it looked weird and either too flat or too 3-dimensional, and the foregrounds in particular were often too forward in perspective. As for the local dimming panel, it certainly had brighter whites and deeper blacks than the SV670 comparison panel next to it, although in some scenes those whites looked way too bright, almost searing in the dark demo room. Of course, any demo with pre-production units in a controlled environment shouldn't be taken as a true indicator of real-world performance.

Toshiba ZX900 series features:

  • Fast Cell TV processor
  • Full array LED backlight with local dimming
  • 3D compatible
  • 2D to 3D conversion system
  • 480Hz refresh rate
  • Built-in 1TB hard disk
  • Built-in Blu-ray player
  • 802.11 Wi-Fi capability
  • Video phone capability
  • Interactive capability with possible content partners including Netflix, Vudu, CinemaNow and Pandora
  • Wireless transmission between TV and base station
  • Detachable sound bar
  • RF remote control

We asked Toshiba to elaborate on specific models and were told that the Cell TV series would be available in two distinct series, dubbed Genesis and Illusion, and that Genesis will carry the ZX900 model number. Toshiba will get back to us with model numbers for the three screen sizes in the Illusion series, so we'll update those when we get them. Aside from cosmetics and screen size, the main difference between the two series will be local dimming panel technology; the Illusion models will not get the new KIRA 2 panel, and so should cost significantly less.

Toshiba ZX900 Genesis series:

  • Toshiba Genesis 65ZX900: 65-inch, price TBD, availability September 2010
  • Toshiba Genesis 55ZX900: 55-inch, price TBD, availability September 2010

Toshiba Illusion series (model number TBD):

  • 62-inch, price TBD, availability "2010"
  • 55-inch, price TBD, availability "2010"
  • 46-inch, price TBD, availability "2010"