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Toshiba UL21 review: A veritable 4K TV bargain

Andy White
4 Jul 2022
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
219
inc VAT

It won’t blow you away with scintillating HDR performance, but the Toshiba UL21 is a good 4K TV for the money

Pros 
Cheap
Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support
Reasonably bright
Cons 
Missing key streaming services
Upscaling isn't great
No Bluetooth or built-in smart assistant
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Toshiba may not have the brand cachet of its fellow Japanese manufacturer Sony nor a reputation to match South Korean TV giants Samsung and LG, but what it does have, thanks to its partnership with the Turkish electronics powerhouse Vestel, are some truly affordable 4K HDR televisions. At just £219 for the 43in model we’re reviewing here, the Toshiba UL21 is one of the cheapest TVs we’ve ever tested.

We reviewed another of Toshiba’s bargain-priced TVs late last year – the ‘flagship’ Toshiba UK31 – and the UL21 undercuts even the UK31’s modest RRP by ditching in-built Amazon Alexa and Toshiba’s TRU Flow picture enhancement technology. As a result, the Toshiba UL21 is as affordable as you could possibly want a 43in TV to be, but is it too cheap? Read on to find out.

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Toshiba UL21 review: Key specifications

Screen sizes available:43in 43UL2163DBC
50in 50UL2163DBC
55in 55UL2163DBC
65in 65UK2163DBC
Panel type:VA-type LCD
Resolution:4K/UHD (3,840 X 2,160)
Refresh rate:60Hz
HDR formats:HDR, HLG, Dolby Vision
Audio enhancement:Dolby Atmos
HDMI inputs:3 x HDMI 2.0
Freeview Play compatibility:Yes
Tuners:Terrestrial, satellite
Gaming features:No
Wireless connectivity:802.11bgn (2.4GHz)
Smart assistants:Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support
Smart platform:Toshiba Smart Portal

Toshiba UL21 review: What you need to know

The UL21 is Toshiba’s entry-level 4K HDR TV, sitting below the UK31 and the UA2B, which is the company’s Android TV option. It’s available in four screen sizes: 43in, 50in, 55in and 65in.

As you’d expect from a television costing less than £300, it uses a basic direct-lit LED LCD panel with a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) resolution. The panel has a 60Hz refresh rate and is of the vertical alignment (VA) variety, meaning viewing angles are narrower than similarly priced in-plane switching (IPS) options but contrast is superior.

Like the UK31, the UL21 uses the Linux-based Toshiba Smart Portal, and supports the HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision HDR formats. Dolby’s spatial audio technology Atmos is also supported, as are a decent range of streaming services and apps, along with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. There’s no integrated microphone, though, so you’ll need a compatible smart speaker or device to control the TV with voice commands.

Toshiba UL21 review: Price and competition

At the time of writing, the 43in Toshiba UL21 was available for just £219, positioning it as one of the more affordable 4K HDR TVs on the market. Stepping up to the 50in model will set you back £279, with prices rising to £319 and £429 for the 55in and 65in models, respectively. In comparison, the 43in UK31 will set you back £229, the 50in model £279, the 55in variant £329 and the 65in option £429.

Toshiba isn’t alone in offering affordable 4K options. Both the TCL RP620K and Hisense Roku are available in the same four sizes and are priced very similarly. The TCL starts at £229 and tops out at £429, while the Hisense costs £229 and £425 for the 43in and 65in screen sizes. Both sets won Recommended awards when we reviewed them, in part down to their incorporation of Roku’s easy-to-use and comprehensive smart platform.

If you’re looking for something from one of the bigger name manufacturers, be prepared to spend a bit more. LG’s entry-level LCD LED TV in 2021, the UP75, can be picked up for £275 and has the company’s exceptional webOS platform in its favour. However, we weren’t taken by its build quality, nor its disappointing contrast ratio and screen uniformity. We’re yet to test the 2022 update – the UQ75 – but that will set you back considerably more at £380.

Samsung’s 43in AU9000 is our favourite TV under £500 but is quite a bit more expensive at £369. If you’re desperate for a cheap Samsung TV and willing to sacrifice a few features, you can pick up the less advanced AU7100 for £279. Like all of Samsung’s TVs, it forgos support for Dolby Vision in favour of rival HDR format, HDR10+.

Toshiba UL21 review: Design, connection and controls

The UL21’s plastic frame gives away the fact it’s a budget option, but it isn’t a terrible looking TV by any means. The 43in model measures 967 x 78 x 565mm (WDH) without its feet, which slot in at either end of the panel and add a further 154mm to the set’s depth, while elevating it by 50mm.

The bezels along the top and down the sides of the panel aren’t too thick, but there’s a larger chunk of plastic running along the bottom edge of the screen into which the feet slot. Those feet are one of the big differentiating factors between the UL21 and more expensive UK31, which uses a centre stand instead.

Connection ports are found in two distinct areas on the back of the UL21. On the left-hand side as you look at the TV are two side-facing HDMI 2.0 ports, one of which is of the ARC variety, along with two USB-A ports, a TV antenna input and a common interface slot. Facing out of the rear centre of the television are a third HDMI 2.0 port, a LAN port, S/PDIF optical out and 3.5mm jack. In terms of wireless connectivity, the UL21 has in-built 2.4GHz Wi-Fi but no Bluetooth.

It’s worth noting that I was unable to fit an Amazon Fire TV 4K Max into either of the side-facing HDMI ports. The streaming stick can be slotted into the rear-facing port, but this will of course prohibit wall mounting, which can be done using a 100 x 100mm VESA bracket.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the remote control that comes with the UL21 but it does the job perfectly well. It’s large and sensibly laid out, with quick access buttons to Prime Video, Netflix and Freeview Play. The rubbery number, channel and volume buttons are of a pleasingly tactile nature, but the plastic navigation buttons in the centre of the remote feel rather cheap.

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Toshiba UL21 review: Smart TV platform

The UL21 uses the Toshiba Smart Portal operating system. It’s relatively basic compared to leading platforms like webOS and Google TV, but the interface is straightforward and easy to navigate.

Hitting the Home button on the remote pulls up a launcher bar from which you can select from the various options within the Smart Portal. The Search and Sources options are self explanatory, while TV provides access to Freeview Play, the EPG, installed channels, recordings and lets you customise your home screen. There’s also an extensive Settings menu that enables you to download software updates, connect to wireless networks and make adjustments across the UL21’s selection of picture and sound modes.

Your final option on the launcher bar is Home, which is where you’ll find a list of installed apps displayed in two rows along the bottom of the screen. Netflix, Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Freeview Play, My5, YouTube, Britbox, Twitch, Rakuten TV, TikTok and Deezer are pre-installed but Apple TV+, Now, BT Sport and Disney+ are sadly not available. That’s a quartet of popular streaming services, and their absence limits the UL21’s appeal.

The UL21 has both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa support, but there’s no in-built microphone so you’ll need to control the TV via a compatible smart speaker or device.

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Toshiba UL21 review: Image quality

There are five different picture modes available when viewing SDR content – Natural, Cinema, Game, Sports and Dynamic – and you can tweak the contrast, brightness, sharpness and colour of each in the settings menu. You’re also able to toggle on and off various picture enhancement technologies including Toshiba’s TRU Blue, and adjust colour temperature.

Screen uniformity is pretty decent thanks to the use of a direct-lit rather than edge-lit panel but coverage of the Rec.709 colour gamut could be better, with the UL21 only able to reproduce 92.8% of the colour space. Colour accuracy is impressive, however, with all five of the modes achieving average DeltaE error scores below the visible threshold of three. Cinema mode proved the most accurate of the quintet, returning an average DeltaE of 2.59, though Natural mode will likely be the one most people gravitate towards as colours appear more vivid.

Gamma is consistent across the various modes and tracked at an average of around 2.1, reflecting the fact that the UL21 looks its best in brighter rather than darker environments, making it a good choice for most modern living rooms. Greyscale tracking is solid too, with the most accurate Cinema mode achieving a DeltaE error score of under four. Red is most prominent in the RGB balance at just about every brightness point but not to the extent that a reddish tint is visible when looking at the screen.

Overall, the viewing experience when watching non-HDR 4K content is a pretty good one. Images have a natural quality to them and Toshiba’s TRU Micro Dimming technology helps deliver a reasonable amount of detail in both the darkest and lightest areas of pictures. Sports fans will be better off with the slightly more expensive UK31, however, as it incorporates Toshiba’s TRU Flow technology, which adds frame interpolation for smoother motion handling.

TRU Resolution is included in the UL21 package but I wasn’t hugely impressed by its ability to upscale lower resolution content. Upscaling of 1080p content is reasonable enough, but drop below that and things start to go awry, with images that lack detail and sharpness. Of course there’s only so much a TV this cheap can do when it comes to upscaling, and the likelihood is that a significant proportion of the content you’ll be watching is in 4K anyway, so its shortcomings in this area aren’t fatal.

Toshiba UL21 review: HDR performance

The Toshiba UL21 supports three HDR formats: HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision, and you get the same selection of modes as you do when watching SDR content - Natural, Cinema, Game, Sports, Dynamic - plus Dolby Vision Bright and Dolby Vision Dark when watching compatible content.

As is the case for SDR content, the Cinema mode is the most colour accurate of the five non-Dolby options, but not the brightest. I measured peak brightness in that mode at 334cd/m² on a 10% white window, while Natural mode returned a peak figure of 376cd/m² in the same conditions. Both are good scores, though they don’t translate to jaw-dropping HDR images, which is to be expected given how affordable the UL21 is.

The UL21’s panel isn’t equipped with wide gamut coverage so isn’t able to effectively cover the Rec.2020 gamut and you’re not going to feel the benefit of a broader range of colours being reproduced with greater saturation like you would with the Samsung AU9000.

Colour accuracy is not as impressive when viewing HDR either, particularly when colours become more saturated. Blues are reproduced rather well but intense greens, reds and cyan have a tendency to look unnatural. Whites also suffer from clipping in bright scenes. While viewing a popular test image of mountains and moving clouds, the clouds looked undefined and it was a similar story in darker scenes, with the UL21 unable to articulate fine details with clarity.

Things look a fair bit better when watching Dolby Vision HDR content, however. The animated Netflix series Dead End: Paranormal Park looked vibrant and eye-catching in Dolby Vision Bright mode, despite the lack of pop you’d get from TVs sporting brighter panels. Bridgerton and Stranger Things both benefited from Dolby Vision’s dynamic metadata, with images crisper and more detailed than those seen while watching HDR10 content.

To test the Toshiba UL21 we used Portrait Displays Calman colour calibration software.

Toshiba UL21 review: Sound quality

Audio comes courtesy of two downward-firing 10W (RMS) speakers and sound quality is about what you’d expect from a cheap TV, which is to say, not great. The lack of bass leaves the audio sounding rather tinny, and this becomes particularly jarring at higher volumes.

Voice clarity isn’t too shabby, however, and Dolby Atmos adds a bit of extra body and scale to soundtracks that support it, though it’s only able to do so much with the stereo speakers. As is the case with most budget televisions, the UL21 will benefit tremendously from a decent soundbar. Most of the options on our best soundbar list cost more than the TV itself so probably aren’t the perfect match, but there are plenty of options on our roundup of the best budget soundbars that fit the brief very nicely.

Toshiba UL21 review: Gaming

Let’s not beat around the bush, if you’re a serious gamer and own a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, the Toshiba UL21 isn’t going to meet your gaming requirements. Its panel is limited to a refresh rate of 60Hz and there are no HDMI 2.1 ports, so you can forget about next-gen features like Variable Refresh Rate and 4K@120Hz. This shouldn't be held against Toshiba though, as these simply aren’t features that have made their way into cheap televisions yet.

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The UL21 does support Auto Low Latency Mode, however, and it’s also free of any risk of the burn-in that can affect OLED TVs. If you’re still stuck with an older console like the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One X or are looking for a cheap TV to use when your Nintendo Switch or Switch OLED is docked, it'll perform just fine. But if you have any plans to pick up one of Sony or Microsoft’s new gaming systems, you’ll want to start saving for a TV capable of doing them justice.

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Toshiba UL21 review: Verdict

The Toshiba UL21 is inexpensive, reasonably bright, delivers colour accurate SDR images, and HDR performance is bolstered by Dolby Vision support. If you can find it for the right price, it’s a solid buy.

The big issue for the UL21 is that the step-up Toshiba UK31 is currently available for just £10 more than its sibling and comes with Alexa built-in. It also includes Toshiba’s TRU Flow motion handling, which is especially useful if you watch a lot of sport.

So, unless you prefer the stand on the UL21, you’re probably better off paying that little bit extra for the UK31 – had that TV been available for the price it is now when we reviewed it last year, it would have got the same four-star rating as I’ve awarded the UL21. But both lose out to the Hisense Roku and TCL RP620K by virtue of those televisions’ superb Roku operating system, which won’t see you miss out on Apple TV+, Disney+, Now or BT Sport.

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