Last week Toshiba launched in a new Qosmio multimedia laptop model in Japan that includes a secondary video processing chip and, for the first time, software to automatically clean-up the quality of Web video. We took it for a test-drive on the Web's top video site, YouTube, to see how well it works.
The system is based on the SpursEngine chip, which was developed by Toshiba as an off-shoot from its work with IBM and Sony on the Cell processor. The Cell, which powers the PlayStation 3, contains a Power PC core and eight "Synergistic Processing Elements" cores that handle parallel processing of graphics while the SpursEngine contains only four of the SPE cores.
The chip also contains a hardware encoder and decoder for MPEG2 and MPEG4 AVC/H.264 video and is designed to be used as a co-processor in a PC for handling of calculation-intensive work such a real-time high-definition graphics processing. In the new Qosmio machines it works alongside an Intel Core2 Duo processor.
Toshiba has developed a plug-in for Internet Explorer that will invoke the SpursEngine whenever Flash video is played through IE. For now it won't work on other browsers but that's due to the lack of a plug-in and no other technical reason, said Toshiba.
When the cursor is brought over a Web video window, like that on YouTube, a SpursEngine logo appears in the top, left corner. Clicking on the logo launches the video full screen with the SpursEngine processing engaged. It's possible to run the system with the left-hand half unprocessed and the right-hand half of the screen processed so a comparison can be made and the improvements seen.
And there are definitely improvements.
Edges are sharper, colors are a little richer and brightness and contrast are adjusted so that black areas of screen appear black and not grey. The system also creates new frames so that fast-moving video appears to flow more smoothly. This is something especially noticeable where a camera pans across a scene.
In tests the processing was able to improve the look of both standard and high-quality YouTube video and worked best on videos that were relatively good to begin with, especially those shot with better quality cameras. No matter how good its processing the SpursEngine won't turn a grainy, low-resolution clip shot on a digital still camera into a high-definition masterpiece but it can make a noticeable difference to lots of content found on the Web.
Over several tests the common result was a better picture - almost as if a layer of something that had been making the video look slightly dull and fuzzy had been removed.
For now the technology is only available on the Qosmio, which is a big, heavy, multimedia machine. The computer has an 18.4-inch widescreen full high-def LCD screen, 2.66GHz Core2 Duo processor, a 640GB hard disk and dual digital TV tuners.
And it's only available in Japan, where it went on sale last Friday at ¥340,000 (US$3,420) for the top-of-the-range model. It should be heading overseas although launch dates are yet to be fixed.