Toshiba 52HM94 DLP RPTV Page 2

While I'm on the topic, the Toshiba has an Instant Restart mode that keeps the lamp dimly lit and the cooling fans running for several minutes after you turn off the set. If you press the On button during this time, the picture lights right back up. As anyone who has used a slide or film projector knows, all this rigmarole is necessary because rapidly cycling a high-intensity projection lamp on and off greatly shortens its useful life. It is critical to allow the fans to run for a time after the lamp goes out to provide a controlled cool down period. Luckily, the fans on this set are relatively quiet and unobtrusive.

The onscreen menus are colorful and generally easy to navigate. I do wish that the top-level menu icons would light up more obviously when activated; sometimes it's hard to tell if you have made your way back to the top level or are still in a submenu. And just to prove that some things never change, the graphic slider that appears when you adjust an individual video parameter is too large and gets in the way of test patterns.

One feature of the menu system that I do appreciate is the ability to select menu items by pressing a number button on the remote. This is especially welcome when selecting video inputs, as stepping through each option on the lengthy list is both awkward and time consuming.

The remote is a preprogrammed universal model that can operate up to six components. It's a decent enough piece of work, though I frequently found myself wishing for more prominently placed Input and Picture Size buttons. The buttons are illuminated, but because there is no side-mounted "trigger" to activate the illumination by feel alone, you have to turn on the lights to find the button that lets you turn on the lights!

You can store different combinations of video settings for each video input, which is mandatory when dealing with a TV that has so many different input formats.

Inputs and Outputs: Survival of the Fittest
Nowhere is the rapid evolution of TV technology more apparent than on the back-panel input suite. The 52HM94 retains two standard A/V inputs with S-video, composite, and L/R audio on the back plus a third on the front, but these are seeming more and more like an appendix; a holdover from the past that you can live without. There are also two sets of HD-capable component-video inputs, which Toshiba insists on calling ColorStream HD. But these too begin to seem old-fashioned when compared to the set's bidirectional TheaterNet IEEE 1394 jacks or that most highly evolved of all video inputs, HDMI.

Yet, there's something to be said for good old analog technology such as component video: you can take it for granted that just about any two devices equipped with the same plugs will work together. Not so for digital inputs such as IEEE 1394 or HDMI. According to the manual, "Although your TV includes both HDMI and IEEE 1394 connections, it may not operate with another device you have that includes such a connection. For example, the IEEE 1394 ports are not intended to operate with current model Mini DV camcorders, and the HDMI input is not intended for connection to a computer. Copyright protection requirements may also prohibit or limit connectivity."

Frankly, given the rapid and uncertain evolution these digital inputs are undergoing right now, you're pretty much on your own when it comes to using them. You can, in theory, connect other IEEE 1394 devices to the Toshiba and even control them using the TV's TheaterNet onscreen icons. All I can say for sure is that the IEEE 1394 jacks do work with Toshiba's Symbio hard-disk recorder. I can also verify that the Toshiba's HDCP-compatible HDMI input worked with my DVI-equipped Bravo D1 DVD player. (I used an adapter cable to convert from DVI to HDMI.) If you have some other application or combination in mind, good luck and caveat emptor.

The front-panel input suite is actually located on the lower right side, hidden in a tilt-out panel just below the screen. The inputs are at once basic and exotic; in addition to the familiar AV and S-video jacks, there are two slots to accommodate various types of memory cards. That's right: you can slip an SM, SD, MMC, MS, or CF card out of your digital camera and view your pictures (in JPEG format only) on the TV. A JPEG viewer program lets you rotate images and create a slide show. It's great for parties. There's also an MP3 player utility to playback sound files, which might even make sense given the much-better-than-average audio quality of this set's built-in sound system.

For reasons known only to themselves, Toshiba has made a deliberate decision to use light gray bars (blue-gray, actually) to mask the side portions of the screen when watching 4:3 material. I can't tell you how aggravating this was. Masking bars should be black, period, end of discussion. When dealing with widescreen CRT sets, a (weak) argument could be made that the unused screen sides need to be "exercised" to prevent uneven tube wear. But this is a DLP set, and you can't burn an image into it no matter how hard you try.

Performance: Scaling the Evolutionary Ladder
Like those cartoons that illustrate a primitive hominid morphing step by step into a modern Homo sapiens, the video performance of the 52HM94 improves as you move up the video evolutionary ladder.

Starting from the bottom, it's important to understand that digital microdisplay devices do not make noisy analog cable or composite video sources look better. Quite the contrary! Like every DLP set I've seen, the Toshiba seemed to amplify the noise in the signal, giving it an unpleasant pixilated edge in the process. Digital cable and satellite signals looked noticeably cleaner, mostly because they are heavily filtered prior to being compressed at the transmission end.

Switching to the CableCARD yielded a major improvement in the quality of the analog cable channels (everything up to channel 64 in my system). If you watch a lot of regular network programming in real time (or if you can get the TV Guide/Symbio to work), the improvement might even be worth the trouble.

The Toshiba's performance with component-video from DVD was mixed. I was taken aback when I began to compare 480i DVD signals—which lean heavily on Toshiba's PixelPure processing—to 480p signals, which require less processing. (Both formats must be scaled to 720p by the TV prior to display.)

When fed a 480i signal, PixelPure produced an unpleasantly jerky picture on scenes with smooth motion such as the difficult opening pans in Star Trek: Insurrection and Shakespeare In Love. The image was noticeably grainy, as well. Switching the DVD player to 480p improved things considerably, smoothing out the motion and reducing the grain. This is exactly the opposite of what occurred when I tried the same thing in my review of the V, Inc. Visio RP56, which has a Faroudja DCDi video processor. I can only conclude that the processor in my aging Sony DVP-NS700P progressive-scan DVD player produces a better picture than the Toshiba's PixelPure processor, at least with component-video sources.

Fortunately for Toshiba, the 52HM94 looks nothing short of superb when fed a standard definition digital video signal upconverted to 720p by my Bravo D1 DVD player. Animated flicks such as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles are simply breathtaking—if told they were looking at HD, most civilians would believe it. Every disc I trotted out, from Austin Powers to Moulin Rouge, looked sensational, with glorious color, fine detail, smooth motion, and no apparent noise. Even the infamous bouncing ball of the Snell & Wilcox Zone Plate test pattern on the Video Essentials DVD looked cleaner than I've ever seen it on anything short of a megabucks front projector.

Reaching the top of the ladder—at least as it stands today—we come to HDTV. I live in what we fondly call a "radio-free zone"; cell phones fall silent here, and only a couple of local FM radio stations come in clearly. Over-the-air TV reception via antenna is impractical here without a serious tower, so like most Americans, we rely on cable or satellite for our regular and HD programming.

I've lived with both satellite and cable-based HD in my home. Currently, I subscribe to Adelphia cable and use a Motorola Moxie hard-disk recorder as my HD source. The Moxie box can deliver a 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i signal to the TV via component video, scaling the signal up or down as required.

When dealing with HD via cable or satellite, it's important to realize that your provider is going to crank the compression dial all the way to 11 in order to squeeze a few HD signals into their finite bandwidth. As a result, you're going to see compression artifacts, and lots of 'em. Scenes with complex textures and fast motion often "tile" or break up into pixilated squares. Nevertheless, even bad HDTV is better than good analog cable, so you learn to live with it.

The Toshiba did a fine job displaying HD programming under the circumstances, though based on my experience with DVD, I expect it would look a whole lot better if the Moxie box had a functional DVI output. (It does have such an output connector, but Adelphia has not implemented it due to "copy protection concerns.") Not surprisingly, the best HD images with this rig come from the CableCARD, which does, after all, provide the most direct connection from source to display.

I wish I could tell you how HD looked when recorded directly from the CableCARD to the Toshiba Symbio DVR via FireWire, because the HD demo material shipped on the disk sure looked sensational. It's the kind of stuff you see at trade shows, mostly slow-moving nature scenes and the like, but there is some sports footage with plenty of fast motion. Viewing this HD material proves that the 52HM94 can compete head-to-head with other 720p displays in terms of HD performance.

It's clear that the television market is currently experiencing a period of intensive change. Any set you buy today will, of necessity, force some compromises. The goal is to select a model that meets your needs without wasting money on technologies that look good on paper, but turn out to be evolutionary dead ends.

Unless you have a rooftop antenna and can take advantage of the 52HM94's built-in ATSC tuner, I recommend opting for one of the HD monitors in the TheaterWide series, such as the 52HM84. You'll save money and you won't give up a thing.

Similarly, unless you know for sure that you have access to the TV Guide On Screen program guide service via antenna or cable, you'll be better served by a standalone DVR rather than Toshiba's Symbio.

Any of the Toshiba DLP models would be a great choice for use in a brightly lit environment. The sets are capable of prodigious light output, even in the Low Power mode, they have a very effective anti-reflective screen, and they cannot be damaged by burn-in.

If you do go with the 52HM94 or any of its smaller or larger siblings, I highly recommend that you also purchase a DVD player equipped with a DVI or HDMI output. The improvement this makes in the picture quality cannot be overstated.

Considering that Toshiba is shooting at a moving target, the company has done a fine job with its current line of DLP sets. Will better products crawl forth from the ooze in years to come? No doubt! But if your home theater is still occupied by an analog dinosaur, it's time to evolve before life passes you by.

Highs and Lows

• Stunning video performance with DVD via HDMI
• Deep blacks, realistic greens, few artifacts
• Flexible video-input suite
• Ideal for brightly lit rooms, with light output to spare, no burn-in issues, and an effective anti-glare screen

• Gray side masking bars (should be black!)
• Jerky motion and grainy image when displaying 480i/p via component
• Symbio PVR requires TV Guide On Screen to function
• Pushes red, forcing a reduction in color level to compensate