Toshiba Goes Native

Albuquerque, New Mexico, sounds like a strange place for a video manufacturer to hold its annual new-product launch, but Toshiba knew what they were doing. The Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa, about 10 miles north of the city, was a great spot not only for taking in the sun, but for checking out what Toshiba R&D has been up to for the past year. While the east coast press contingent seemed a little overwhelmed by the mountain and desert vistas, 90-degree May temperatures, cloudless blue skies, and 5000-foot thin air, it was all old hat for me, having lived 50 miles further north, in Santa Fe, from 1990 to 2000.

There was plenty new to see. Toshiba announced even more products than usual for this typically prolific company. Most of them were new for this year, with the rollout scheduled to start in early summer and run into the fall. The activity extended across both of the traditional subsets of Toshiba's television line—the standard TheaterWide models and the more upscale Cinema Series—and overflowed into other products as well.

The big news this year is 1080p DLP, based on Texas Instruments' xHD4 DMD (Digital Micromirror Device) chip. Toshiba's DLP rear-projection lineup includes a total of 11 sets, both 1080p and 720p. The 720p sets use the new HD4 DMD. (See the addendum at the end of this report for more on the xHD4 and HD4 chips.)

The 62HMX95 Cinema Series 62-inch DLP RPTV with 1280x720 resolution.

I'll concentrate here on the 1080p models. The Cinema Series includes 56-, 62-, and 72-inch (diagonal) 1080p sets, ranging in price from $3800 (56MX195, September) to $5300 (72MX195, October). If it isn't already obvious, the number at the front of all of Toshiba's model designations is the diagonal screen measurement. The TheaterWide line includes models of the same sizes, at about $300 less.

The sets will include updated features. Toshiba has invented an alphabet soup of acronyms and names to describe these many features, but two in particular are worth a few more words here. We'll have more to say about the other features in late summer or early fall when we receive one of the sets for review.

Perhaps the most exciting new image-enhancing feature in Toshiba's new DLPs is called Xtreme BLAC (Black Level Aperture Control). This, as you may guess, is a dynamic iris that narrows automatically during dark scenes to deepen the blacks. It's the go-to feature this year, showing up on DLP and LCD rear-projection televisions from a number of manufacturers under a variety of different, creative names. Toshiba claims a (peak) contrast ratio of 5000:1 for these sets.

THINC (Toshiba Home Interactive Network Connection), with its RJ-45 port, allows select Toshiba Cinema Series televisions to connect to a desktop or laptop PC for accessing MP3 audio files and JPEG photos. And if you add Toshiba's Symbio HD hard drive recorder (reduced in price to $300 starting in July), you can program this recorder from a remote location via the Web!

There's also Channel Browser, which acts like the Back button on your Web browser and can remember up to the last 31 channels you watched (the last 5 are displayed onscreen when you call the feature up). It's a boon for an inveterate channel-surfer and a bane to those who live with one.

Toshiba also showed a total of 19 new flat-panel (LCD and plasma) televisions, again in both Cinema Series and TheaterWide models. I won't go through them all here (do I hear a collective sigh of relief?). Most of them are integrated sets. Two plasma sizes are offered: 42 and 50 inches. Also new this year is Toshiba's first ED (480p) plasma, the 42DPC85 (no tuner of any kind, $2000, September). The largest LCD set is 37 inches. There are also several LCD flat-panel sets with a built-in DVD player, a combination Toshiba has dubbed LCDVD.

The 50HPX95 Cinema Series 50-inch plasma.

There are also several 16:9 CRT televisions in the line, including the 34HFX95 direct-view (September, $1500) and three rear-projection CRT sets: the integrated 57H94 ($1900, carried over from last year) and two monitors with no tuners of any sort, available in July—51HC85 ($1400) and the 57HC85 ($1600). The latter two sets will appeal to consumers who plan to do all of their television viewing via cable or satellite service.

Apart from a mysterious, gray-skinned, big-eyed alien who ambled by, wheeling a suspicious-looking, sealed box labeled "SED" (you had to be there), there was no product announcement concerning this exciting, upcoming technology. For those who may not have seen our CES 2005 report on the subject, SED is a new type of display, developed by Toshiba and Canon, that holds out the promise of CRT-like blacks in a hang-on-the-wall flat-panel display. At the Albuquerque event, Toshiba did suggest that the first production SED set, likely to be a 50-inch model, will arrive in 2006 at premium pricing, followed in 2007 by more competitively priced sets. The company also astonished the crowd by predicting that by 2008, SEDs could account for 30% or more of the flat-panel market.

Toshiba's Digital AV group announced a whole new line of DVD recorders and players. While the company's DVD offerings have shrunk dramatically since the early days of the format, they did announce a low-priced, single-disc, universal player (SD-6980, $200, July) offering not only an HDMI output with 720p and 1080i upconversion, but DVD-Audio and SACD playback as well. Perhaps more interesting, though also more expensive at $700 (August), is the RD-XS54, a DVD recorder (DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD-RW) with a 250GB hard disk, an upconverted HDMI output, and an Ethernet port for networking.

The RD-XS54 DVD recorder.

The big splash, of course, was the latest news on HD DVD. Despite ongoing discussions regarding a possible consolidation of the warring HD DVD and Blu-ray camps, Toshiba is pushing ahead. They confirmed their plans to have an HD DVD player on the market before the end of the year (about $1000), together with a substantial number of discs from several studios. An HD DVD recorder is unlikely before 2007. The final HD DVD specification is nearly complete, with no major disagreements remaining that might slow up the schedule (including the all-important Digital Rights Management). For those hoping for 1080p from HD DVD, don't hold your breath—Toshiba confirmed that the data is recorded on HD DVD in 1080i, and there are no plans to change that. The players have already been designed for 1080i discs, and it would take a redesign to enable them to handle 1080p discs, even if there were plans to produce them.

The company presented a side-by-side demonstration with 480i DVD upconverted to 720p vs. a 1080i HD DVD source of the same material, both displayed on identical 52-inch 1280x720 Toshiba DLP sets. (They were current models; two of the new 1920x1080 sets, which are not yet in full production, were not available.) The HD version clearly had superior resolution. In another demonstration, Toshiba showed the interactive features possible with HD DVD, including Internet access for additional content and the ability to call up an audio-video commentary even while the program material is playing. Clearly, HD DVD has more to offer than just pretty pictures (an observation that could clearly be made about Blu-ray, as well).

Addendum and Comment
As I've discussed before, expect to see nearly all manufacturers attempting to top each other this fall in their promotion of 1080p. In particular, you'll hear claims that 1080p has twice the resolution of 720p. That's true, but it can be misleading. None of the rear-projection 1080p sets announced so far will accept a 1080p signal, even if one were available. They will only accept HD in 1080i and 720p.

There are a lot of variables involved in what we'll see from a 1080i source viewed on a 1080p set, including the amount of motion in the program, whether the material originated on film or video, and how the set converts a 1080i input to 1080p. The added pixels of a 1080p display over 720p sets are welcome, and Toshiba's sets did look impressive, but keep your hype-antennas active during the coming months, nevertheless.

Another factor that may or may not be a limitation is the design and operation of TI's new DMD chips, which Toshiba calls the HD4 (1280x720) and xHD4 (1920x1080). TI has abandoned the "HD" nomenclature, so it's somewhat annoying—and more than a little confusing—that Toshiba and others insist on continuing to use it. According to TI, what Toshiba is calling the xHD4 is officially designated the 1080p, while the chip that Toshiba calls the HD4 is actually known as the 720p.

According to TI, the "HD4" (720p) has 1280x720 micromirrors, just like the HD2+. However, the "xHD4" (1080p) has fewer than 1920x1080 micromirrors; they won't say exactly how many micromirrors it has. It produces a 1920x1080 picture by shifting the light reflected from the micromirrors back and forth by half a pixel width using a large mirror or refractive glass pane that oscillates 120 times per second. You could argue that the image produced by the chip is less than full resolution each time it flashes, but when you combine two sequential flashes, a full frame of the image does appear on the screen each 1/60 of a second, and the human eye's persistence of vision does the rest. This "Wobbulation" technology, originally developed by Hewlett Packard, is used in all the upcoming 1080p DLP rear-projection sets from DLP-committed manufacturers.