A YEAR IS a long time in consumer electronics. This is a good thing for Panasonic, which 12 months ago looked in danger of lagging behind its rivals. Plasma production had ceased and its own screen lineup had the sparkle of a putting green, consisting of exclusively fl at LED/LCD models, all but two of them Full HD. It seemed as if Panasonic was literally falling behind the curve.
Fast forward to 2015 and the Japanese brand is invigorated and refreshed when it comes to TVs, having embraced 4K and (more or less) kept abreast of other image-optimising developments. At the company’s recent European Convention in Frankfurt the star of the show was a reference-grade 4K Studio Master processor which will feature in a raft of ‘pro-grade’ 4K screens, some of them even curved. Support acts included a slew of 4K-capable cameras and camcorders, multiroom audio, affordable Blu-ray players and a slick new TV operating system developed by browser guru Firefox.
Announcing the 4K Studio Master Processor, Yuki Kusumi, head of Panasonic Home Entertainment, said it had been developed as a result of Panasonic’s ‘know-how with professional-grade colour management and other visual technologies built up through our B2B pro-AV business.’ He also claimed that Panasonic can now deliver to viewers what it believes to be ‘the very definition of picture quality: accuracy to the director’s intentions.’ combining with using of the best auto darkening welding helmet. This laudable idiomatic claim, if true, would be as much due to the company attaining unprecedented standards of brightness, colour and contrast reproduction as it would be to the detail afforded by the 8 million or so pixels of a 4K screen. As CES 2015 proved, there are a number of contentious matters clouding the TV screen industry that are possibly just as likely to scare off TV buyers than entice them.
At its conference, Panasonic set out its stall concerning these buzzwords with in-depth demonstrations of High Dynamic Range playback and its new Quantum Dot-beating (in terms of spectral range) Accurate Colour Drive. Every new generation of LCD has come with higher brightness levels, and when standards for producing and displaying HDR content arrive, Panasonic showed it at least has the Nits and the processing power required to handle them. A 4K HDR demo of Netfl ix’s Marco Polo on a pre-production sample of its new 65in fl agship 65CX800 screen did seem eye-scorchingly over-zealous but Panasonic’s Brand Development Specialist Gary Bidgway told HCC that the demo was principally to show how bright its 1,000 Nit screen can go.
The proof, as always, will be in the eventual pudding. A more convincing demonstration was of the screen’s colour handling. Panasonic claims that its new Wide Colour Phosphor panel design can achieve 98 per cent of the DCI colour spectrum, six per cent more than Quantum Dot and other systems. It creates colours from 8,000 registry points on a 3D Lookup Table. Most of the new Viera screens have this level of fidelity, but only the flagship model has the control required to accurately deliver the optimum colour reproduction. The THX-certifi ed 65CX800 ticks some other vital 4K boxes in the guise of HDMI 2.0 inputs (four on the 65-incher and its 55in sibling), HEVC decoding for compatibility with Netfl ix and Amazon Instant Video, plus VP9 decoding, which is favoured by YouTube.
The directly-lit LED panel used on the 65CX800 showed slight evidence of backlight clouding, which it seems is impossible to eradicate in LCD panels despite the use of the latest version of Local Dimming Pro. A prototype 4K OLED screen nearby, however, showed devastatingly good black levels and contrast. A full production model is expected to be announced at the IFA technology show in September. When asked if it would have the necessary brightness to be HDR-compatible, Bidgway replied: ‘I would hope so.’
Going all out for UHD
From just two 4K screens a year ago, Panasonic now has 24 models lined up for the UK this year and the plethora of Ultra HD screens (see below) conveyed the message that Full HD will soon feel like the televisual equivalent of dial-up internet. Panasonic has also joined the curved club. There will be three levels of curved screen, with sizes of 55in and 65in on offer.
Interestingly, the company isn’t making bold claims about an improved viewing experience: ‘Curved screens don’t enhance picture quality, they are just a design choice,’ Bidgway told me. Some will find that hard to disagree with. Perhaps more exciting is the new Firefox OS that Panasonic has adopted for its Smart TVs. This was demonstrated impressively.
In a nutshell, it offers a graphical-based user interface that is much simpler and cleaner than anything Panasonic has done before. Switch the TV on and three large ‘decks’ appear as discs. These are namely Live TV, Apps and Devices but the user can easily personalise the deck array, adding maybe BBC iPlayer or an external source. The adoption of Firefox puts Panasonic on a more equal footing with the likes of LG, Sony and Samsung, which have respectively adopted the similarly more user-friendly operating systems WebOS, Android and Tizen.
Panasonic couldn’t help but show one feature that will only be available on Smart TVs on the continent. Dubbed In-House TV streaming, this allows streaming of live shows from the main TV’s second tuner to a tablet, smartphone or other TV. Also, I was told that Panasonic’s TV Anywhere feature (an option in the UK), which provides for remote viewing of TV tuner pictures anywhere with a ‘net connection (great for when you’re on holiday) will not be carrying any BBC services, due to licensing issues.
As compensation though, the corp was able to announce that it will be the fi rst manufacturer to sell screens in the UK kitted out with Freeview Play. This will also be available as a software download in May should anyone buy a new screen before then. Freeview Play is similar to YouView in that it allows retrospective EPG browsing (up to seven days) with selected shows available to download from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 (with Channel 5 incoming).
Video content will be delivered by broadband but a good terrestrial aerial signal will still be required to receive the EPG, warned Panasonic. Freeview Play is emblematic of the gradual shift in viewing habits away from watching live broadcasts and even PVR recordings. Joris Evers, European Communication VP for Netflix, was on hand at Panasonic’s convention to tell us that ‘there is no doubt that the future of TV is internet TV’. He confidently predicted that by 2030 internet TV will have replaced traditional broadcast platforms. Crystal ball gazing is all very well (who’ll remember his prophecy in 15 years?) but the growth in on-demand consumption is inarguable. And Panasonic looks well placed to be part of the picture