If you need proof that a year is a long, long time in AV, look no further than the Toshiba 55ZL2 55in TV. For in the past 12-18 months this in many ways remarkable set has managed to deliver a phenomenal improvement to what Toshiba clearly initially thought was going to be its headline feature, while simultaneously finding the world's interest unexpectedly shifting to what was clearly considered to be a distinctly secondary feature. To explain...
At its inception, the Toshiba 55ZL2 was all about one thing: glasses-free 3D. Back in the heady days of 2010 and early 2011, 3D was pretty much all anyone in the AV world was talking about. Despite the fact that consumers remained stubbornly, um, 'non-committal' about the addition of an extra dimension to their TV viewing.
Almost every bit of consumer research undertaken around this time suggested that the main thing stopping Joe Public from sharing the AV industry's love of 3D was the need to wear glasses. So it was no surprise to see various brands suddenly rolling out demonstration TVs capable of producing 3D without the need for glasses.
Toshiba names the day
Only one brand, though, actually committed to a launch date for its first glasses-free 3D. That brand was Toshiba, which claimed it would have a glasses-free 3D TV available to buy before the end of April 2012. And true to its word, arriving in the UK just before May struck is the 55ZL2.
Given the amount of technical issues involved in getting around using glasses for 3D viewing, Toshiba's speed in getting the technology to market is startling. Yet it's still arguably not happened quite fast enough. For 3D is apparently already plummeting down the list of reasons to buy a new TV. Which brings us to the 55ZL2's rather handy plan B.
Toshiba realised early on that if you wanted to deliver a really satisfactory glasses-free 3D experience, you couldn't get away with just using a normal Full HD-resolution panel. There wouldn't be enough pixels to go round. So the brand took the expensive decision to build its glasses-free 3D debutante with a native 'quad HD' (or near 4k) resolution of 3840x2160 pixels. And ironically it’s this ultra-high resolution that's suddenly catching people's eye more than the glasses-free 3D.
It’s a royal shame, then, that at the time of writing, the 55ZL2's focus on 3D, and the inclusion of 4K merely as a way of delivering that 3D, appears to have meant that Toshiba hasn't thought seriously enough about how to enable consumers to actually make the most of the 55ZL2's 4k capabilities.
During our tests we just couldn't see any way for the 55ZL2 to take in native 4k video sources via any of its standard inputs. Photos are fine; these played back - and looked downright, mind-blowingly spectacular - straight through the set’s USB ports. But when it comes to video, even hooking up via HDMI, the 4k-outputting PC we received with Sony's VW1000 failed to get us any 4K action on the 55ZL2. The PC would only register that a 1920x1080 devices was attached to it, not a 4K one. So it wouldn't give us the option to set its output resolution to 4k.
It's possible, we guess, that should some new 4K disc delivery standard be created the Toshiba 55ZL2 might be compatible with that. But all the advice we’ve received from Toshiba is that the HDMIs will never be able to take 4K video, no matter what the source.
All of which probably has you wondering how the heck we managed to test the 55ZL2's 4K video capabilities for this review. The answer is that Toshiba sent us one of the specially designed 4K server boxes it has developed for dealers who want to show consumers in-store 4K demos. These servers connect to the TV using a chunky digital serial port rather than any standard commercial connection, and seemingly do nothing other than just play the few minutes of 4k showreel they contain. There doesn't seem any way for consumers to get one of these servers for themselves and put other 4K content on it.