Panasonic 2013 Smart VIERA System Review
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IntroductionAt CES 2013, and just later at their own European Convention, Panasonic was making a big play on how they were going to improve their smart experience, particularly in terms of the interface and accessibility. Whilst their efforts last year were impressive, they did lag behind the likes of LG and Samsung in both breadth of offer and presentation. Clearly, ‘Smart’ is a big focus for all the major manufacturers and Panasonic is looking to make up some lost ground in 2013. The Smart VIERA range covers both LED/LCD and Plasma TVs and whilst some of the features covered here are only available on the higher-end models, most of what follows applies across the range. Much is promised, so let's find out if Panasonic can truly deliver
My Home ScreenWhat better place to start than where you’ll be plonked when first powering up your 2013 Smart VIERA? My Home Screen comes with 4 default views – Full Screen TV, TV Home Screen, Lifestyle Screen & Info Screen – with a further option to create customised screens as one sees fit. The Full Screen TV option simply displays a full video image where the other options provide a windowed video interface with a variety of apps and widgets surrounding it. The TV Home Screen displays a scrollable list of what’s currently on through the DVB tuner, down the side, with the ability to launch YouTube, view your Photo collection or access Viera Connect from the bottom.
The other default Home Screens are just a variation on a theme really; for instance the ‘Info Screen’ is pre-loaded with the Web Browser, the Skype and YouTube Apps with a list of bookmarked pages from the browser running vertically down the right hand side. It’s all fairly arbitrary as each screen can be customised - within the limits of their layout – by means of hitting the blue button on the remote.
If none of the default layouts float your boat, then go ahead and create your own with a choice of 4 designs allowing up to 11 apps/widgets of your choosing to be placed to your own needs. Screens can be further personalised by using different backgrounds and names so you can have one for each member of the family. For instance, in our house the kids use a lot of Netflix and iPlayer but I wouldn’t want them getting in to my social media accounts so I set up a simple screen for them with some kid-friendly games and the aforementioned VoD apps. It’s all very simple but it would perhaps be useful if you could put PIN protection to prevent any inquisitive minds (and fingers) getting at the grown-ups screens. Not that we’ve anything to hide, you understand. It’s even possible to have some of the top-tier range TVs perform facial recognition in order it loads up the correct home screen, per user.
Panasonic has also provided a new, and fairly all-encompassing, Search facility that is accessed via the Red button of the remote. Searches can be made from the ‘general’ internet or, more specifically, for Images, Video and News categories. One can also search the included Map app from here as well as scouring connected storage media – USB drives, SD Card and it all works very well.
On initial set-up there is a voice-guided demo of the intricacies of My Home Screen featuring a computerised voice that does grate but the tutorial gets the points across well and, should you need a reminder, it’s permanently accessible via the Yellow button on the control. We can’t imagine that many readers would need telling twice, however, as My Home Screen masterfully succeeds in its brief of making your most used features instantly accessible and providing a clean, user-friendly interface to engage those suspicious of TV Lands’ new-found love of extracurricular activities. We found it a pleasure to use and, for those not interested, it’s just a matter of selecting Full Screen Video, as default, so it’s an opt-in (or perhaps that’s opt-out) feature.
Apps ScreenWhat once was VIERA Connect has now been swallowed up by the new Apps Screen which, along with My Home Screen, gets its own prominent button on the remote control. We’ll say it quietly but it’s awfully reminiscent of certain Korean manufacturer’s Smart Hubs but we don’t mind at all as it acts as a unifying centre of operations for the full range of smart functionalities. Where My Home Screen is all about paring it down, the Apps Screen is brimming with content with largely the more ‘traditional’ apps such as BBC News, iPlayer, YouTube, Twitter and Skype whilst, by default, the second screen is filled with lots of time and event related widgets – Clock, Calendar, Notes, that sort of thing. Again, like the Home Screens, it’s all fully customisable.
It’s also useful that all of the core operations of the TV can be got at from the Apps screen so one can call up the Main Menu or TV Guide as well as getting at the Web Browser or Media Server. We can’t help thinking that Panasonic might have given the user the option between having the App Screen as an alternative start-up option to My Home Screen but it is still very accessible nonetheless and, again, we’re big fans of the design.
Viera Connect MarketWhilst the 2013 range of Panasonic Smart VIERAs do come pre-loaded with quite a number of apps, there’s more awaiting those that pay a visit to the VIERA Connect Market. You’ll need an account to download anything from here but you can opt out of providing card details if it’s only the free stuff you’re interested in. We’ll be honest and say that most of the stuff that interests us was already on the TV used for the review but some nice extras in the shape of Vimeo and Dailymotion were here. Those that like their VoD a touch more niche might like the Woomi App which acts as its own hub for specialised content from luminaries CVG and Scary Horror Movies and internet radio fans should find some pleasure in services such as Shoutcast and Aupeo. We did have a quick flit around the games section but, whilst most of the games are free, they are generally tat and we were sad to see Lets Golf 2 has been removed. We were looking forward to trying that out through the games controller on the mobile app…
Mobile Apps…Seamless, huh? Like the My Home Screen feature, Panasonic has been banging the drum about its new app for smartphones and tablets. The new VIERA Remote App 2 is compatible with Android devices over 4.0 – so not that many – and Apple iThings running iOS 5 and above. For the purposes of testing we used a Nexus 7 and 4th Gen iPad and although there are a couple of minor variances, operationally they were nigh on identical; save for one fundamental difference – the iOS version is far more stable. We encountered a number of crashes running the Android version but we know Panasonic is working on fixes so hopefully a new version will follow very soon. In terms of the promised functions available, the mobile apps are excellent but, for now, those promises are only really delivered on Apple devices.
New in this year’s app is Swipe and Share 2.0 that not only allows for photo and video content to be shared to the TV but also permits it to be shared back to other tablets and smartphones, acting as a kind of conduit, for files stored on USB stick/HDD or SD Card. It’s also possible to browse the web on your mobile device and swipe what’s being shown on it to the TV, as well as the reverse process; i.e. you can use the browser on the TV and swipe back to the connected phone or tablet. We found the best use case scenarios to be for photos and the likes of YouTube videos – it’s much easier for the whole family to watch when it’s on the big screen rather than crowding around a ‘puny’ 10-inch, or below, screen. It’s worth noting that swipe and share for music files is only for Android – well, when it works, and we’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on why it’s not permitted on Apple devices.
Swipe and Share will also interact with some of the apps installed on your tablet or phone. For instance, we could launch either YouTube or Netflix from the mobile app and choose to watch on the TV. The manufacturers are standing at an interesting crossroads, in some ways, they’re breaking down barriers in terms of allowing mobile devices to use the TV as an extended display whilst also wanting them to use the apps and services within the TVs, themselves. YouTube’s Head of Content, Robert Kyncl, has envisaged a future where the viewers’ first port of call is the tablet or phone, thus making the TV the second screen rather than the reverse, which is the generally accepted status quo, and he could well be right.
Also fresh for 2013 – and perhaps our favourite mobile feature – is the app launcher which does what it says on the tin and launches the TV apps but without the hassle of using the TV remote. It’s with these kind of simple control interactions that touchscreens really excel and the ability to swipe and glide your way rapidly to, and through, the likes of Netflix or BBC iPlayer is very rewarding and, well, just feels right. More mundane duties such as channel hopping and volume selection and, in fact, the entire Menu systems are, of course, available and work very well but it’s for the apps, streaming and internet side of things where VIERA Remote App 2’s worth is most brought to bear. One thing we couldn’t get to work, in either app, was the streaming of content form the digital tuners to remote devices so that’s something else that needs attention.
Another new feature for 2013 is the Smart Calibration function, available on the WT60 and DT60 LED’s and ZT60 and VT60 plasmas that feature isf ccc controls in the user menus, The really great thing about the Smart Calibration interface is that it prevents the menus coming up on screen whilst your making adjustments. Not only are the user menus intrusive when taking measurements, their presence also affects the readings, especially with the blue channel. At the time of writing the flagship models have yet to be released so we’ll be sure to come back and update this section with our impressions once we’ve had some proper hands-on time. In the meantime, you can get an idea of how it looks and works from the video below.
Electronic Programme Guide & Personal Video RecorderLong gone are the days when you just selected one of five channels, these days there is a bewildering array of digital channels to choose from and the line between programme guide and internet platform is beginning to blur. All Panasonic TVs come with a DVB-T2 tuner for Freeview HD and some are also equipped with DVB-S2, satellite tuners. The most recent incarnations of Panasonic’s EPG are a big step up on previous years, as the manufacturer has dropped all the unwanted adverts, leaving a colourful guide that is well laid out, simple to use and easy to read. The EPG allows you to see what is currently on, check what is going to be on up to seven days in advance and select a specific programme or channel. The 2013 EPG now has a video thumbnail image and audio when you are browsing, which will please most.
Many Panasonic TVs offer a choice of recording options for even greater storage flexibility and ease. You can just hook up an external hard disk drive or slot in an SD Memory Card to store your favourite TV shows or films. Alternatively, if you connect a HDD via USB you can utilise the Recording functions and access even more features. This facility requires a USB 3.0 storage device with a minimum of 160GB capacity up to a maximum of 3TB but once attached you will have access to a host of convenient features such as Timer Recording, Direct TV Recording and Pause Live TV. All of these functions have been integrated as conveniently as possible with dedicated buttons on the VIERA TV remote. This means that by adding a HDD via USB you can turn your Panasonic TV into a PVR, providing you with the opportunity to record programmes and play them back later. The big news here for 2013 is that Panasonic has included dual tuners for some of the high-end TVs, meaning you can record something whilst watching another channel which makes it a truly viable alternative to a traditional PVR.
ConnectivityAll of the 2013 Smart VIERAs come with Wi-Fi built-in, which is great as it opens up the connected possibilities to a much wider audience. The test TV at the time of writing seemed to have a good range and was compatible with IEEE802.11b/g/n routers. Some of the top-tier TVs also carry Bluetooth compatibility which allows you to connect with audio devices or a keyboard. These models include the Advance Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP), which means they can connect with any Bluetooth device that also uses this profile such as headphones, compact speaker systems The TVs can also connect with keyboards that are compliant with the Human Interface Profile (HID). As with all Bluetooth devices there is a limited range of about 10m but this can vary depending on the devices and the environment.
Web BrowsingThis year, Panasonic’s Smart VIERA TVs include a full Web Browser which allows you to visit all your favourites websites via your TV. The interface is specially designed for the TV and offers you not only quick access to your favourite sites, but also supports the latest remote features – like the VIERA Touch Pad controller, VIERA Remote app 2 or a keyboard for easy typing. When you launch the browser you’ll be greeted with a nice clean interface that looks suitably tailored to the display's panel. We found that web pages loaded reasonably quickly, but we’d expect more speed from those models with dual core processing.
Using the Touch Pad controller or remote app, it was easy to navigate around. We also found the browser’s bookmark launcher to be quite useful because, when you call up the Web Browser you immediately have the possibility to navigate through up to 27 bookmarked website thumbnails using your TV remote control. This approach added convenience and faster access to our favourite sites, as we didn't have to type in a new Web address every time. It’s worth noting that the browser in the ET60 didn’t support Flash – it is moribund, after all – but that might change with the more powerful flagship models. We’ll update with this information as soon as possible.
Control Options, Accessibility and Smart PenPanasonic has caved in and included voice commands in to its new Touch Pad controller. Again, this is a top-end option and we’ve yet to establish efficacy but we’ve yet to take to any of these systems we’ve tried from other manufacturers. Something so far unique to Panasonic TV is a voice guidance feature for the hearing impaired. Panasonic appreciate that whilst most people take using a television guide or on screen channel information for granted, for those that are visually challenged it can obviously be difficult to find out information about their favourite programmes, check what is on later or to set a programme for recording.
For this reason, Panasonic has been working with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to provide the Voice Guidance feature that works by announcing on-screen information with synthetic speech and provides clear instructions on how to navigate around the TV menu. This talking feature allows people to choose the level of guidance that suits them, whether beginner or expert, and can be adjusted in terms of speed and volume. This is the first time this feature has been used outside Japan, so Panasonic are to be congratulated for offering it to the visually impaired here in the UK.
A further improvement to the accessibility of the 2013 Smart Viera’s comes in the guise of the ehelp feature which is, as the name would suggest, an electronic user guide embedded in to the TV. Ehelp is accessed from the Main Menu under, you guessed it ‘Help’. It’s very well presented and logically set out so that all those new - and mystifying to some - advanced options are well documented and explained. We expect the end of the paper user manual is just about nigh with more and more manufacturers taking this route.
Another addition to the 2013 portfolio is the optional Touch Pen controller but it only works for the plasma TVs. The Touch Pen allows for the annotation of images displayed on the screen and for leaving messages to other users. The images can then, of course, be shared to smartphone or tablet and we do hope it’s used in more imaginative ways than drawing moustaches on portraits of friends and family or, even worse, in lewd ways. Yes, Mr Withers, that was directed at you.
SkypeTwo of Panasonic’s top-end TVs come equipped with a built-in camera this year – the WT60 LED and VT60 Plasma. Panasonic’s absolute Flagship, the ZT60 does not carry the camera, interestingly, but like all the other 2013 Smart Viera range, it can be upgraded to allow for Skype video calling by purchase of an optional camera and microphone attachment. We like the idea of Skype for the living room and the app affords the ability to watch a live broadcast and Skype video at the same time, so you can, for example, watch a live sporting event with your friends, even if they’re in a different country.
Media PlayerPanasonic has continued to bolster file support for its media player over the years and the Smart Viera’s are one of a rare breed to support FLAC. Of course, if you’re playing the music out of the speakers built-in to the TV, then lossless encoding is almost the least of your worries but it’s nice to see such thinking from Panasonic. Our favoured DLNA media server installed on our Windows 7 PC – PS3 Media Server – has never played nicely with a range of Panasonic TVs but we found solace in the arms of Servio. With it we had no issues in streaming a multitude of video files including AVCHD, AVI, MKV and MP4. ASF, FLV, 3GPP, PS, MOV and TS containers are also supported. To complement the aforementioned FLAC support MP3, AAC and WMA/WMA Pro music codecs are supported. For photograph viewing, the 2013 Smart Viera’s are able to display jpg, jpeg and, for the 3D sets, the mpo format. The same files supported over DLNA streaming are able to be played through a USB connected device so, all in all, it’s a very capable little player.
- My Home Screen is brilliant
- Entire GUI looks clean
- Excellent connectivity
- Remote app is excellent (on iOS)
- Good selection of VoD services
- Comprehensive media playback
- Android app is very unstable
Panasonic 2013 Smart VIERA System Review
Panasonic has largely achieved the goals it set itself for the 2013 Smart VIERA platform. It’s exquisitely, informatively and approachably fashioned so that even novice users can get a grasp of what the world of Smart TV has to offer. It also succeeds on the connectivity and accessibility fronts by breaking down barriers between mobile devices and the TV with the new VIERA Remote App 2; swipe and share will always be cool, no matter how far we progress with technology, and Panasonic is showing an ever-increasing grasp of what the second screen experience is all about. The option of being able to launch the likes of iPlayer or Netflix from your tablet or smartphone is almost irresistibly slick.
More practical and forward thinking has gone in to the inclusion of a smart calibration feature that keeps the annoying user menus off screen. It’s a shame the Android version is currently unstable but we know Panasonic are looking at fixes.
Opening up Panasonic’s smart assault, in fitting style, is the new My Home Screen feature that provides a slick, user-friendly gateway to the apps and connected features on offer; of which there are oodles. Best of all, if you don’t like one of the pre-loaded layouts, it’s entirely customisable according to one's needs and desires. My Home Screen is a triumph, as is the new Apps screen that - although a borrowed idea - succeeds unreservedly in unifying the entire cornucopia of treasures. Again it’s tailored with accessibility in mind and allows for a degree of personalisation.
The inclusion of a built-in camera on a couple of the flagship TVs further opens up the Skype video calling potential but those that don’t buy a camera-equipped model needn’t fret as there’s the option of purchasing an add-on camera and mic attachment. Further bolstering of the services comes in the inclusion of dual Freeview and Freesat tuners (for some models) which mean the PVR functions become a lot less limited than once they were: watch one record another – just like a ‘real’ PVR. That this year’s Smart VIERA range all come equipped with built-in Wi-Fi is another positive and opens up both internet and streaming options for a wider audience. The browser works well enough, especially in conjunction with the mobile app, and the media player displays a good degree of versatility by being able to play - previously exotic for a TV – MKV, FLAC and MPO files in addition to the more run of the mill media support.
Panasonic has assuredly nailed it with the 2013 Smart VIERA Platform. There are some teething problems with the new Android app but, other than that, we’ve almost no other grounds for complaint. It’s everything they promised – polished, highly accessible and articulately connected. Highly Recommended.
Ease of Use10
Media Playback Quality9
Applications - Software9
Applications - Hardware9
Voice and Motion Controls7
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