Plasma may be gone but Panasonic are making some bold claims about LED LCD, can they deliver?
Now that we have had some time to come to terms with Panasonic’s decision to pull out of the plasma market, we can begin to move on.
CES 2014 has given us a chance to look at the kind of TVs with which the Japanese manufacturer hopes will replace every enthusiast’s favourite technology. However, given the bold claims from Panasonic that their new Ultra HD flagship LED LCD TV could produce better images than plasma, we wondered if they might be slightly unrealistic in their expectations.
Panasonic claims are based on their new Studio Master Colour panel and direct LED backlight.
It would seem that Panasonic’s faith in their new flagship 900 Series Ultra HD TV is based on two key factors. The first is their new Studio Master Colour panel which can accept a 4K pure direct input at YUV 4:4:4 and has a native colour space that is 98% of DCI. The reason for the latter isn’t because Panasonic expect some future 4K format that uses the DCI colour space but because the wider colour space allows the TV to remain accurate at lower saturation levels when calibrating to Rec.709.
The second factor is that the new TV will use a full array direct backlight and sophisticated local dimming to produce black levels and shadow detail that is intended to be the equal of plasma. To prove this point, Panasonic gave us an exclusive demo of their new panel in a blacked out room with the prototype sandwiched between the ZT65 and last year’s WT600. Panasonic used the scene from the last Harry Potter film where the attack on Hogwarts begins and this is a notoriously difficult sequence for any local dimming system. The new model was clearly superior to the WT600 in terms of backlight uniformity, black levels and shadow detail but it also held its own against the ZT65.
That isn’t to say that the performance fully justifies Panasonic’s claims because we didn’t know exactly how the ZT65 was setup; it looked a little washed out, and to our eyes the plasma still had the edge in terms of shadow detail and gradation. However the higher native resolution of the Ultra HD TVs panel did mean the image had slightly more perceived detail as a result of the upscaling and sharpening. The image was thankfully free of any banding and the motion handling looked good for a LCD TV, although the plasma still had the edge. In the end a lot will depend on pricing but the demonstration was a sad reminder of just how good we used to have it!
The 900 Series looked impressive next to the ZT65 but it's a sad reminder of how good plasma was.
Aside from Panasonic’s new Ultra HD TV and increased number of larger screen sizes for this year, the other interesting product on display was their 4K OLED TV. Unsurprisingly Panasonic had opted for a curved screen, although to demonstrate the flexible nature of the panel itself they had both concave and convex curves. The curvaceous screens aside, the images produced by the OLED technology were as impressive as we have come to expect. Panasonic was keen to stress that the TV is 100% their own technology and completely manufactured in their factory in Japan. Whilst the 55-inch models on display are purely conceptual, Panasonic did say that they would bring a 4K OLED screen to market just as soon as it was ready.
Panasonic had a curved 55" 4K OLED on display but it's currently only conceptual.
The other big theme at the Panasonic stand is the latest iteration of their Smart TV platform, which in the US at least is being called Life+, although the name for Europe has yet to be decided. The system retains the basic MyHomePage layout but Panasonic have added more screens. They've also added MyStream which is a sophisticated recommendation service that offers you the chance to like certain recommendations using the star button the remote, which helps the system learn more about your viewing habits. You can also recommend suggested content for other members of your family.MyStream is a new recommendation feature that can be personalised for all the family.The system allows each member of the family to have their own preferences and thanks to facial recognition, the system can change the recommendations depending on who is watching. There is voice assist and a new remote that allows for voice interaction and the system can recognise different voices to once again tailor recommendations to each member of the family.
There is also a useful feature that allows you to control the TV when you’re out of the house using the remote app and your smart device, which means wherever you are in the world you can still watch content from your TV’s tuner or other Internet services.
Finally, Panasonic has added an Info Bar and sensor to their TVs, so that if you walk by the sensor when the TV is in standby the Info Bar comes up at the bottom of the screen and the camera pops up for facial recognition. If you want you can access various features on the Info Bar or, if you ignore it, the Info Bar will disappear again. One of the features on the info bar is video messages, which shows if you have one waiting to watch. You can record video messages using the appropriate app on your smart device and then leave the message on the TV to be read the next time someone turns it on.
It’s going to be a tough year for Panasonic as they expand into the highly competitive LED LCD TV market which is dominated by the two Koreans, as well as the growing Ultra HD TV sector which already has a large number of players. It seems to us that for Panasonic to succeed, the sooner they can launch their 4K OLED TV, the better.
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