UHD, VA panels, OLED and native 4K Blu-ray - that's more like it!
It’s fair to say that after the death of plasma, 2014 was always going to be a challenging year for Panasonic.
The Japanese manufacturer released some good TVs during last period but were late getting some of their key models to market, which probably gave the competition an advantage, especially in terms of pricing. They were also primarily using IPS panels which, from the point of view of the enthusiast, meant that the black levels weren’t as impressive as they could have been, even on the flagship AX902.
Panasonic’s stand at CES this year was a slightly frustrating experience because there were very few actual TV models on show and what we did see were US-centric models. As always, Panasonic will launch the UK models at their European Convention at the end of February. However the manufacturer was keen to give us some exclusive information on the new line-up, much of which will be good news for enthusiasts.
First of all, Panasonic will exclusively be using VA panels on their UK TVs this year, which means that the native blacks will be vastly improved when compared to last year's IPS panels. The effective viewing angles will be tighter but most enthusiasts won’t mind that if they’re getting superior blacks. However the new models won’t just have better blacks, they’ll also have wider colour spaces thanks to Super Chroma Drive. This enables the TVs to hit 98% of DCI, which will become more important as specifications for Ultra HD 4K are finally agreed.
On their higher-end models, Panasonic will also be including increased brightness and the company has plans to release TVs that support High Dynamic Range (HDR). This particular format has become one of the big buzz words here at CES and the demo we saw was the same one that LG were using with scenes from A Million Ways to Die in the West. The potential of the format was immediately apparent when watching content actually mastered in HDR; the blacks are still dark but the highlights can be very bright, giving images an incredible dynamic range and a greater sense of reality.
Of course Panasonic are also heavily supporting Ultra HD 4K and expect sales to be extremely strong with a much larger percentage of the market being UHD TVs. Panasonic are also releasing a number of curved screens, although the majority of their line-up will remain flat. However like LG, the Japanese manufacturer is largely agnostic about curved or flat screens and will let the consumer decide by allowing them to choose between the two. The new models will have an upgraded design that promises to combine a minimalist style with Panasonic's usual high build quality; although thankfully the huge and heavy base stand will be gone from the higher-end models this year.
Panasonic put the enthusiast first and with that in mind, they plan to use VA panels in the UK this year.Whilst the news about Panasonic’s plans to use VA panels in the UK is excellent, those looking for the best black levels are primarily interested in OLED (Organic LED). Thankfully Panasonic are planning to release a curved 65” Ultra HD 4K OLED TV; although we currently don't know exactly when. However rest assured it is coming and the pre-production model we saw at the show certainly looked impressive. The blacks were incredibly deep, the dynamic range was impressive and the colours looked gorgeous. Once you combined those elements with the higher resolution of UHD, the results can be breathtaking.
Panasonic’s My Home Screen smart TV platform has had a complete overhaul and the 2.0 version uses the Firefox operating system. The result is a platform that operates from a single gateway, with a home screen that brings everything together. The new system is designed to be quick and intuitive and if it looks a bit like webOS, well that just shows how much of a game changer LG’s system was last year. Panasonic will also be adding Amazon 4K and YouTube VP9 to their new line-up and whilst they couldn’t confirm it, we can see no reason why they can’t be added to last year’s Ultra HD models as well.
Finally Panasonic became the first manufacturer to announce a native 4K Blu-ray player and whilst the prototype on display was nothing more than a mock-up, the intended specs certainly looked impressive. In reality the final specifications for 4K Blu-ray have yet to be decided by the BDA (Blu-ray Disc Association) but with the Ultra HD Alliance now formed to create a single set of specs, that shouldn’t be far away. In the meantime Panasonic are covering their bases by including Ultra HD, HDR, Rec.2020, 60p and 10-bit video. Panasonic expect the player to be in the stores by Christmas, although they stress the player won’t be cheap but then neither was their flagship Blu-ray player from last year.
It's good to see that Panasonic are once again putting the enthusiast first and clearly listening to feedback. Their plans for 2015 are certainly impressive and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
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