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CES 2013: Day 1 Round-up

Building Better Worlds

by Steve Withers Jan 9, 2013

  • What Panasonic CEO Kazuhiro Tsuga actually said at his keynote address this morning was, "engineering a better world" but I'm not going to miss the chance to slip an Alien reference in.
    Unlike Weyland-Yutani, the Japanese manufacturer isn't making androids and bio-mechanical xenomorphs - at least not yet - but they did want to emphasise that they are primarily an engineering company that's driven to make the world a better place. Panasonic’s recently appointed CEO spent a lot of his keynote speech highlighting both their engineering prowess and their desire to create real value, not just for their customers but for all people. Panasonic feel that they can do this by listening to people's wants and needs, developing lasting relationships that create a future built on more than one product.

    However Tsuga-san was quick to remind us that despite that previous statement, "when people think of Panasonic, they think of TVs". That's certainly true here on AVForums, where any mention of Panasonic is always guaranteed to generate plenty of comments. With Tsuga-san's keynote address in mind, Panasonic held back one announcement from yesterday's press conference to give their CEO an ace up his sleeve - and what a card he dealt as he announced their 56" 4K OLED TV. It shouldn't really have come as a surprise, especially given development partner Sony's announcement of their 56" 4K OLED yesterday, but it was a relief to hear the news after Panasonic were suspiciously quiet about both technologies yesterday.

    It would appear the two Japanese manufacturers feel that, given it will take time for 4K content to be created and effectively delivered, it makes more sense to spend that time leapfrogging the two separate technologies and combining them into the product that consumers ultimately want. That's fairly bold talk from the two Japanese companies, especially given the problems their Korean rivals have had just producing 1080 OLED panels but Panasonic feels they have the solution in their new printing technology. The prototype panel on display weighs just 27lbs and is a mere 1/4 inch thick but the images on the screen were nothing short of jaw dropping. As you would expect from an OLED the images were bright and colourful, with incredibly deep blacks but the added resolution resulted in a breath-taking glimpse of where TV technology is heading over the next few years.

    So that was a glimpse of the future but what about this year? Well there were a number of rumours circulating prior to CES suggesting that Panasonic were abandoning R&D on plasma and might even exit the market entirely. Some commentators were even suggesting that with the advent of OLED and 4K, that plasma is dead. Well after speaking with senior Panasonic management and taking a look around their stand today, it’s safe to say that there’s plenty of life in the old dog yet and the reports of plasma’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, it’s true that as a mature technology plasma won’t be subject to much further R&D, especially as finite resources are concentrated on OLED and 4K but, until OLED reaches mass market penetration, Panasonic remain committed to plasma as the premium display format.

    As announced at yesterday's press conference Panasonic’s plasma line-up for 2013 will consist of the ST60, the VT60 and the new flagship model - the ZT60. How does the ZT60 differ from last year’s top-of-the-line VT50? Well the simple answer is that is uses a new panel design that incorporates the glass front into the panel itself, rather than having a gap between the panel and the glass front. This allows Panasonic to remove this layer of air and mould the ambient light filter directly to the front of the panel. As a result there is far better light rejection, delivering even deeper blacks than those found on last year’s VT50. In fact Panasonic had a dark room set up with a ZT60 next to a VT50 and the blacks were noticeably better. On some scenes with blacks in them, you simply couldn’t tell where the ZT60 ended and the black wall behind began, which is reminiscent of Pioneer’s famous ‘gold ring’ Kuro demo.

    The new panel is also brighter which is good news as one of the few criticisms of the VT50 was that in its professional modes especially, it was rather dim for day time viewing. In addition Panasonic have improved the colour reproduction, allowing the ZT60 to deliver 98% of the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) colour space. Whilst this isn’t as important in terms of image accuracy because Rec.709 is a much smaller colour space, it is important in terms of the red performance. Panasonic Plasmas have always been slightly undersaturated in red and the wider colour space should allow calibrators to set red exactly to its Rec.709 co-ordinates.

    Interestingly, despite being the flagship model, the ZT60 doesn’t include the built-in camera that has been introduced onto the VT60. Panasonic’s explanation for this is that the ZT60 is designed to deliver the best possible picture quality and they didn’t want to distract from this with unnecessary features. Another reason is that the new panel is difficult to produce and so there is a corresponding cost associated with that. In order to keep the price of the ZT60 at a realistic level, Panasonic has dropped some features to achieve that. Panasonic are calling the ZT60 the “new reference” and given that the VT50 was the first consumer display to be awarded an AVForums Reference Status badge since the Pioneer Kuro, it could well be.

    Of course, the VT60 will also be available and even without the new panel it should still offer a superb level of performance, along with a number of new features. The improvements in terms of picture quality appear to be very iterative, with the majority of changes relating to cosmetics and functionality. The VT60, along with the ZT60, includes a brushed metal stand with a v-shaped support but it also includes the addition of a built-in camera for use in Skype calls. You also get Panasonic’s new My Home smart interface, ‘Swipe & Share’ 2.0, voice control and facial recognition thanks to the built-in camera. Finally the ST60 has had a facelift and whilst some minor improvements have been made to the image quality, the differences again relate more to functionality. Whilst there will be no GT60 in the US, Panasonic didn’t rule out the possibility of that model appearing in Europe. As always, we will get the full details of Panasonic’s UK line-up, including the models, sizes and prices, at their annual conference in February

    The other big rumour that was circulating prior to CES was that all Panasonic’s 3D LED LCD TVs would use passive glasses, as it turns out, this one was true. Although there was some confusion yesterday, when the press release referred to their LED LCD TVs having Full HD 3D, which suggested active shutter. However after speaking with Panasonic, they confirmed that all their 3D LED LD TVs would use passive glasses and that this year they were using a “different panel”. Given how heavily Panasonic promoted active shutter in the past, it’s surprising to see them do an about face and whilst it is partly a financial decision, Panasonic also admitted that passive meets consumer demands better.

    Given that the TVs use passive 3D, this would suggest that these third party panels are provided by LG but the panel is only part of the TV and both the engine and backlight are made by Panasonic. The real question is can Panasonic improve the backlight uniformity of their LED LCD TVs? Unfortunately all the demo material being used had bright white backgrounds making it impossible to tell just how uniform the backlight actually was. Just like last year, the 2013 Panasonic line-up will include the flagship WT60, the DT60 and the ET60. Aside from a different panel and passive 3D, the new TVs offer a similar level of performance to last year and include cosmetic improvements, the My Home smart interface and in the case of the WT60, a built-in camera.

    Whilst it’s pleasing to see Panasonic are still concentrating on picture quality and performance, they are no less prone to plugging smart functionality than the rest of the competition. Panasonic’s new My Home smart interface provides the user with the option to customise the layout to suit their needs. The addition of facial recognition on those higher end models with built-in cameras means that you can also create customised My Home pages for each member of the family. Panasonic has tried to make the smart interface as easy and friendly to use and whilst some features such as last year’s ‘Swipe & Share’ are excellent, the actual graphical interface was looking rather dated and needed an overhaul.

    Whether or not Panasonic achieve their goal of engineering a better world remains to be seen but it’s certainly clear they’re succeeding in engineering a better TV.

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