Review: Panasonic's Smart TV Delivers Great Picture, But Is It Smart Enough?
By Tony Ibrahim | Friday | 22/06/2012
Panasonic has entered the Smart TV war armed with Neo Plasma technology, but have they given their TV enough weapon artillery to take on Samsung and LG?
Panasonic's ST50 is a behemoth. The enormous 60" screen size is framed by inch thick glass-coated bezel and is propped up by an obtrusive stand. The TV looks unflattering whether it's on or off and lacks imaginative design.
The menu doesn't feel cutting edge, with a texture indicative the SmartTV functions were added on top of an existing archaic menu. It's for this reason the ST50's interface is broken down into 4 different menus: Internet, Viera Tools, Media Player and Menu.
Press the internet button and the ST50 will generate a 3x3 grid that displays your applications, games and video on demand (VOD) services. Despite this, there are only 7 vacant app slots as the centre slot is dedicated to TV playback and the one beneath it is reserved for Panasonic's Viera Connect application market.
To free up space, there's five of these grids layered upon one another. Users transition through one at a time by nominating on-screen 'more' and 'back' prompts.
Once acquainted with the layout, rearranging this interface is a painless experience. One of the available icons is dedicated to set up and displays the available apps alongside a cross section of the layered grids.
This is a bare-bone kind of simple, and although it presents clean information, Panasonic has taken no aesthetic pride in throwing it together. Like its exterior, the menu looks banal and makes an exciting new feature dull.
The application market also suffers from the same rigid sensibilities. Its layout is very easy to digest, harbouring a rotisserie of new apps on top, categories in a column on the left and the available apps as thumbnails. However, it has been dictated by function and fails to accommodate artistic flair, lacking the ingredient that makes using it feel special.
Internet browsers on SmartTVs are lacking across the board, but of all the offerings we've seen, Panasonic's browser is the strongest. Functions are kept to a bare minimum (back, forward, favourites, etc) but the basic services have been polished. This is largely owed to Panasonic's Viera Remote application, detailed further on in the review.
Entering in text is a hassle via the remote, more so than usual as the virtual keyboard isn't in the QWERTY format, nor is there an option to configure it so. Worse yet, when wanting to delete URL text, you'll have to continuously press the delete (yellow) button for each character, ignoring a long press.
This hassle is easily hedged by plugging an ordinary USB keyboard in, where the ST50 will keenly recognise text input. Although it wasn't as cooperative with the mouse we plugged in, you can navigate the entire browser via the keyboard.
The browser does recognise flash videos but is temperamental from website-to-website.
Panasonic's Viera Tools generates 7 thumbnails that line the bottom of the screen. These pertain to inter-device connectivity (through DLNA technology) recorded TV content and multimedia. Despite displaying pictures, music and videos, multimedia still has its own redundant menu.
It doesn't matter which menu you access pictures, music or movies from, you're directed to the same banal file manager, fluent in functionality but starved of appeal. Unfortunately the final settings menuâ€”simply titled Menuâ€”is dressed accordingly.
Although the ST50 software is functional, it could be better laid out and more care could've been put into presentation. Whereas Panasonic's rivals have redesigned their interface from the ground up to accommodate Smart TV functionality, Panasonic has tried to add on new, pivotal features to its existing menu structure, and this has made it confusing.
So far the ST50 hasn't been performing too well, but there are areas where this TV shines. Other companies are relying on voice and motion technology to make navigating your TV's menu interactive, and although there's some promise, the technology remains immature.
Instead, Panasonic exploits the receptive touchscreen technology used in smartphones and tablets. An application called 'Viera Remote' is available for download on iOS and Android smartphones/ tablets. The easily connects your smartphone/ tablet to the ST50 and makes sharing content between the devices simple and enjoyable. Through the application, you can 'flick' a picture, video clip or song directly to the TV and carry out all of the functions found on a typical remote.
The app is most useful when browsing the web as it enables you to navigate websites through your smartphone's browser and then flick the page of your liking to the TV. In doing so, users take advantage of their smartphone's refined navigation, QWERTY keyboard and touch screen. Once the page is displayed on the TV, the app automatically alternates to a multi-finger trackpad to streamline navigation.
Click to enlarge
Admittedly, there are still a couple of kinks that need to be ironed out, but compared to the voice, motion and facial recognition alternatives, this harnesses Smart TV potential the most.
Many TVs focus on fine gradations between bright colour tones, but struggle with subtle differences in black. LED/LCD panels are notorious for this kind of treatment because the production of blackâ€”a colour characterised by no lightâ€”struggles to be defined by a panel that is so prominently lit.
However, Panasonic's NeoPlasma panel fluently discerns subtle tones of black, grey and onwards. Dimly lit scenes with shadows and smokeâ€”such as those belonging to film noirâ€”are characterised by more depth as the shading appears true to life.
This detailed understanding of black helps Panasonic articulate colours more naturally. With the wholesome black canvass, there's no need to make colours artificially brighter. Instead, Panasonic focuses on colour enhancement, using the ST50's 12,288 steps of gradation to gradually shift from one colour tone to the next. And when the occasion calls for a raging red or blinding yellow, the ST50 delivers effortlessly.
What's more impressive is Panasonic's VT50â€”its top of the range plasmaâ€”features double the gradation, indicating the great picture quality gets better.
In 2D, rapid motion is handled with the same diligence. Explosive battle scenes and rapid sporting events scarcely show any blur, retaining the picture's integrity, and combined with the expansive colour gamut cultivate an enthralling experience.
Colour is retained at a wide range of viewing angles, also preserving the image's integrity.
It does struggle a little on the 3D front. Popping on the active shutter 3D glassesâ€”which are not included in the packageâ€”sees the natural 2D brightness drop down a notch. Furthermore, rapid 3D scenes exhibit a little more crosstalk than Panasonic's LED rivals.
Sound on the ST50 is a decent affair, clearly communicating dialogue and expression. However, when it comes to playing back music or straining action sequences, the mid-to high notes are cluttered to the point where it borders distortion. We encountered shabby audio at just 60 per cent of volume, and at that level the sound was still lacking in body.
Combining this TVs visual prowess with a home theatre system will result in a truly engrossing cinematic experience.
Panasonic's ST50 is an extraordinary TV. It has the visual pedigree of a market leader, but its exceptional colour palette has come at the expense of allure. A SmartTVs menu should flirt with the user, compelling them to use the TV with their other devices, and Panasonic's software fails to do this. It's also a shame Panasonic didn't redesign the software from scratch, creating a simplistic and aesthetic menu structure that would truly harness all of its features.
In fact, I'd use a home theatre system's multimedia menu and rely on the ST50's screen alone.
It is in stores now for a RRP of $2,799.
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