Toshiba 37UL863 review

Personal TV is here. Sort of. If you're the type of person who endlessly fiddles with a TV's settings mid-movie to howls of abuse from your co-habitees - largely to undo others' ruinous work, obviously - Toshiba's 37UL863 might just be the TV for you.

Using face detection tech from a built-in camera, this lounge-friendly 37-inch LED TV saves preset picture parameters and other customised info, instantly loading them whenever you slump in front of it. Customised settings can include login details and various tweaks in Toshiba Places, a newly refreshed online hub of ‘smart’ TV that offers several, err, places for video, photos and social media accounts.

We’ll come on to the success or otherwise of these two features, but know that the 37UL863B's other features together make-up a thoroughly advanced TV.

HD and edge LED

Edge LED-backlighting is key to its success, though just as important is its Freeview HD tuner which should be de rigueur in 2011, though missed off some of Toshiba's other offerings this year. And, for free-to-air satellite fans, Freesat HD - an increasingly hard to find add-on, and one that’s strangely not trumped-up in the 37UL863B’s marketing.

Freeview HD is treated sumptuously, with a thoroughly comprehensive electronic programme guide giving broadcast information across multiple channels at once while the current channel continues underneath. It’s helpful, too; the set even produces a message that reads thus: ‘A higher quality version of this service may be available. Do you wish to change channel to this service?’, which is a slightly wordy way of saying ‘Fancy watching a HD version?’. Of course we do, though an upscaled version of Cash in the Attic wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for.

USB recording

We quickly found the USB recording option, which makes it possible to record live broadcasts - as well as set timers for recordings - straight to a hard disk linked to the 37UL863B via USB. Doing so doesn't exactly create a PVR-like environment, but it does also bring "+" features like pause/rewind live TV.

Better still, all this trickery is operated by a surprisingly sleek remote control. Longer and more slender than most, it features an aluminium slider that clicks into place to cover the pause/FF/RW and number buttons, making operating the top controls - principally the directional buttons and the channel and volume rockers - much easier. It can be slid down to rest on the bottom, exposing the number keys, but can’t cover the top buttons. It’s a nice feature, though it’s made more useful by the remote’s long design, something that without the slider would be difficult to operate with one hand.

For those who refuse to use anything without a touch-sensitive screen, the Toshiba TV Remote App is available for smartphones. We attempted to use it an iPhone 3GS, but it wouldn’t link up with a TV despite it being on our network. Perhaps it needs an iOS5 refresh?

Sockets and inputs

The 37UL863B’s ins and outs are rather generous, with four HDMI inputs and two USB slots - one of each placed on a side panel – and with component video in tow, too. Audio is via analogue phonos (two sets) or optical digital audio, with a headphones jack also on the side panel. Also there is a common interface slot for adding subscription TV to the Freeview tuner, and a composite video input.

Probably the most important connections though, are its Ethernet LAN and built-in Wi-Fi. Smart TV is an area that Toshiba has lagged behind in for the past couple of years, but it's got its act together just in time; more than a quarter of all TVs sold this year can connect to a network. Still, the refreshed Toshiba Places won't please everyone.

Toshiba's smart TV

It’s easy enough to use, though a touch too busy in look - and suffers from the opposite problem regarding content. We weren’t able to get through to BBC iPlayer or YouTube from the dedicated VOD screen, though these two icons are also on the TV’s main user interface and both worked fine when accessed from there.

Besides, there’s little to get excited about in Places, which comprises the kind of ‘extra’ features no one really wants. Viewster, Box Office 365, Dailymotion, Aureo, Meteonews. It’s all a tad underwhelming.

The same could be said of the personal TV function, which as well as not being that useful unless you’ve got a load of different logins in Places, doesn't recognise faces all that well. It’s a good idea though, and one we expect to see returning next year in an improved second-gen guise.

Networking and USB playback is a disparate experience in that the file formats handled aren’t the same, though we did manage MKV from a USB thumbdrive and AVI via DLNA from a netbook.

Picture and sound quality

The 37UL863B proves a great all-rounder with both Freeview and Blu-ray, and offers a nice smaller option for living rooms keener on restrained, plasma-like richness rather than the eye-popping brightness of most LCD TVs. Here, the colours look natural and brightness is toned-down nicely. ‘Cinematic’ is probably how best to describe its images, something that prompts us to recommend this to film fans, despite its immaculate behaviour with Freeview, too.

Don't buy the 37UL863B expecting reference-level picture from Blu-ray, because you’ll be slightly disappointed by the occasional motion blur, light spillage from the LED-driven backlight, so-so contrast, and lack of detail in black areas of the image. But in terms of price, size and tech, the 37UL863B is on the money.

Sadly, that’s more than can be said for the speakers despite a ‘spatial’ surround sound mode that is at least a diversion from a lacklustre audio performance.

Verdict

Armed with Wi-Fi, an almost plasma-like richness and BBC iPlayer, the 37UL863B will do a sterling job in living rooms looking to upsize and get online - and on a budget.

Nicely priced and with a slinky remote in tow, this 37-inch Edge LED doesn’t ever approach ultimate picture perfection, but remains a good value attempt at a TV with extras. It’s also one of the few TVs around with a Freesat HD tuner, which is here on top of Freeview HD.