Toshiba 52HM94 DLP RPTV

Approximately 500 million years ago, a phenomenon known as the Cambrian Explosion was in full swing here on planet Earth. After billions of years of relative stasis in which life consisted of little beyond bacteria, plankton, and algae, the fossil record of the Cambrian period shows a sudden explosion of diversity. In just 40 million tumultuous years—a geologic eye blink—most of the major groups of animals, or phyla, that exist today appeared for the first time.

The television market is undergoing a similar evolutionary florescence right now. After 50 years of relative stasis in which all television sets were analog and CRT-based, in less than a decade, a host of new digital phyla have burst forth upon the scene. Evolutionary pressure has intensified to unprecedented levels, forcing manufacturers to quickly adapt to a rapidly changing environment—or die.

Toshiba is a survivor. Although the company had originally wanted to market 1080p LCoS-based sets, liquid crystal on silicon chips have proved difficult to produce in economic quantities. Forced by environmental factors to move in a different direction, Toshiba announced a new lineup of ten feature-packed DLP rear-projection TVs at last year's CEDIA show.

Toshiba's DLP lineup, as of May 2005, consists of five fully integrated HDTVs with built-in ATSC/QAM tuners and five HD-ready monitors. Three of the integrated models fall into Toshiba's TheaterWide series, including the 52HM94 that is the subject of this review. The remaining two integrated models are tagged with the Cinema Series moniker.

So what's the difference between the TheaterWide and Cinema Series models? It seems that Toshiba needed to placate the specialty AV retailers, who were losing sales because the mass merchants were able to offer the exact same sets for less. Enter the Cinema Series, which is sold only through specialty retailers. These sets get an "X" in their model number, slightly different cosmetics, and a second HDMI input. Other than that, the two lines are functionally identical.

All of the sets are based on the company's proprietary DLP engine, known as TALEN (Toshiba Advanced Light Engine). The centerpiece is a Texas Instruments HD2+ chip, which produces deeper blacks than the less-evolved HD2 version by filling in the infinitesimal dimples or "vias" that lie in the center of each tiny mirror. The native resolution of the HD2+ is 1280x720 pixels. Other video formats such as 480i, 480p, and 1080i are scaled to 720p.

Instead of licensing a video-processing chip from, say, Faroudja, Toshiba has elected to roll its own. According to a company press release, Toshiba's PixelPure video processing suite includes seven main algorithms: 6.2 Million Pixel Over Sampling for "higher perceived resolution with decreased image distortion"; Real Speed Progressive Scanning that uses "additional sampling points to create smoother diagonal lines"; Dynamic Contrast Enhancer for "higher perceived contrast and increased color saturation and purity"; Super Real Transient and Small Signal Sharpness for "sharp transitions from dark to bright"; Color Transient Improver for "sharp transitions on color changes without bleeding"; and Color Detail Enhancer to maintain fine image detail in color-saturated areas. I'll discuss how well PixelPure works later in this review.

The light source in these sets is a Radiance high-output mercury DC lamp. The user-replaceable lamp module can be switched from its default High Bright mode to a more safe and sane Low Power setting, and I encourage you to do so immediately. Not only will the expensive bulb last longer (Toshiba claims a service life of 6000 hours for High Bright and 8000 hours for Low Power), but you won't have to get Botox treatments to erase the wrinkles caused by squinting into the glare produced when this extremely bright lamp runs full tilt.

CableCARD: Evolutionary Dead End?
In addition to an ATSC tuner for terrestrial digital broadcasts and a QAM tuner for unencrypted digital cable signals, the integrated sets include a CableCARD slot. If your cable company bothers to offer CableCARD service (many do not), you will be able to receive all cable channels—encrypted or unencrypted—without the need for a separate set-top box. Unfortunately, you will also lose access to any program guide or interactive functions such as pay-per-view offered by your cable company, as CableCARD service is strictly one-way.

My cable company, Adelphia, does offer a CableCARD option, but they go out of their way to discourage you from ordering it. The installing technician (they won't let you install it yourself) told me that, more often than not, he returns in a few days to yank out the CableCARD and reinstall the digital box once people realize that they must navigate a couple of hundred channels without an interactive program guide.

One way to make up for the loss of functionality caused by the CableCARD is to build an interactive guide into the TV itself. Toshiba has opted to incorporate the free TV Guide On Screen program guide into its DLP sets. This is a great system—when it works. The program-guide information is embedded within the broadcast signal of certain channels and automatically updates your TV several times a day. Unless, that is, your cable company does not carry the requisite data. Then, like me, you're out of luck.

The manual is full of disclaimers such as: "Over-the-air or cable access to stations carrying the TV Guide On Screen data is required for the TV Guide On Screen system to operate. The data provider may elect to discontinue the service or it may cease to be (or never be) available in your area. In any of these circumstances, the TV Guide on Screen Service will not function." Comforting, no?

Furthermore, the TV Guide On Screen system must function in order to take full advantage of Toshiba's optional Symbio 160HD4 Audio/Video Hard Drive Recorder ($299 as of July 1, 2005). Compatible with all of the integrated DLP models, the TiVo-like Symbio drive connects with a single cable to one of the TV's two TheaterNet IEEE 1394 (FireWire) ports. All control is exerted from the TV remote and an IR/1394 control scheme Toshiba calls TheaterNet. The Symbio's 160 GB drive can store 16 hours of HD or 80 hours of standard-def programming.

The HD demo material that ships on the Symbio drive looked great, and the unit did allow me to pause and rewind live programs streaming in from the CableCARD. However, despite trying every trick in the book, I was never able to get the TV Guide On Screen system to download its program guide, and without it, there's no way to access the Symbio's record functions. As a result, I can't really say how effective this solution is compared to the many available standalone alternatives.

I'm not looking forward to the knowing smirk on the cable tech's face when he returns to yank yet another CableCARD from some wise guy's fancy TV.

Physical Specimen
As the deliverymen schlepped the 52HM94 into my upstairs theater, my 11-year-old daughter took one look and exclaimed, "That's the skinniest TV I've ever seen!" She obviously hasn't seen any plasma panels, but she is right about one thing: this is one very svelte rear-projection TV. Not only is the cabinet less than 16 inches deep, but it has a curved profile that sweeps beyond the screen to embrace slim, vertical speaker wings on each side. Seen from the front, the sharply creased gray bezel fools the eye into thinking that you're looking at a true flat-panel display.

Like most DLP rear-projectors, this set has a low-profile, "table-top" cabinet. In other words, unless you plan to watch while lying on the floor, the set must be placed on a stand. Toshiba does offer a matching stand for the 52HM94, but they neglected to provide one with my review sample. So I rigged up a very nice stand of my own using black, industrial-grade wire shelving. In addition to raising the set to proper viewing height (18 inches off the floor in my theater room), my home-made stand also has casters and a shelf above the TV to hold the center-channel speaker. The lack of support for a center speaker on this type of TV is a real problem that manufacturers could easily address by offering an optional center-speaker shelf. (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Are you listening, Toshiba?)

The set's front-panel controls are found on a sleek glass touchpad mounted just below the screen. These buttons are so hard to see, I didn't even realize they were there until I saw a picture of them in the manual. A pair of LEDs to the right of the invisible touchpad indicate the set's power status. Maybe it's just me, but shouldn't green indicate "On" and red indicate "Off"? It's the other way around on this set. This might seem trivial, but all DLP sets take time to warm up and shut down, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether this TV is on or off.