REVIEW: Panasonic's Smart TV Interface

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Written by John Archer     06/05/2013 | 14:56 | Category name i.e.TVS & LARGE DISPLAY

2013 has already proven to be a big year for TV manufacturers with a move from all the big players towards new developments in their Smart TV lineups.

Japanese brand Panasonic might have been seen as somewhat of an underdog in this race in previous years, but their new Smart TV interface raises the bar by introducing a degree of user personalisation.

There are three key streams to Panasonic's new push for Smart TV glory. First and most instantly appealing is the 'my Home Screen' concept. This allows multiple users in your home to set up their own, individual starting screens, making it easier for them to quickly access the sort of content they prefer. 

Three pre-designed and themed 'home screens' are available per person, or each user can design one from scratch, choosing their own layout and populating it completely with just the apps they want to get quick access to.

The three pre-designed Home Screens are built around TV, Info and Lifestyle themes, each of which favours a particular content type. For instance, the TV Home Screen lets you browse the electronic programme guide listings, including being able to see a small version of what's showing on each channel as you highlight it in the listings. 

The info one, meanwhile, emphasises Web browsing, providing among other things quick access to 10 bookmarked sites, while the Lifestyle Home Screen features digital 'post-it' notes, clocks, calendars and the like.

Accessing your Home Screen roster is as easy as putting your face in front of the TV. For as soon as you say 'My Home Screen' into the mic built into Panasonic's new touch pad remote control or your Android/iOS smart device, a camera pops up on some of Panasonic's new top-end TVs that can recognise your face and immediately call up your own Home Screen options.

We've tended to be a bit suspicious of this sort of personalisation stuff given that TVs seem to be family devices (watched by multiple viewers at once) rather than personal ones. But Panasonic's system is so prettily presented and, best of all, so fast and smooth in its operation that it really does look seductive.

Despite all the unexpected glories of my Home Screen, though, overall we can't help but feel even more attracted by stream two of Panasonic's new Smart TV assault: its greatly enhanced support for 'second screens'. 

New DLNA infrastructure and an excellent-looking new - and free - Panasonic control app for iOS and Android devices enable a host of benefits for people who own smart devices. You can, for instance, control almost every aspect of your TV - including browsing TV listings, setting up your Home Screen options, and even calibrating your picture settings - on your smart device, without interrupting what's been watched on the  main TV.

You can also share video, music or photo content between your portable device/networked storage devices and the TV simply by swiping a finger forward or backward (depending on whether you're throwing content onto the TV, or grabbing video from it) across your smart device.

This year, moreover, if you use two fingers to swipe your smart portable device content to the TV, that content will be stored onto a USB storage device or SD card if you've got one installed in the TV. 

The fact you can use your tablet or phone to watch video from the TV brings us to the final critical element in what really is shaping up to be a seriously impressive Smart TV offering from Panasonic this year: twin tuner support. Many of Panasonic's TVs this year carry two tuners so that one  person can watch one broadcast programme on the main TV while another watches a different programme streamed from the TV to their Smart device. In fact, Panasonic TVs that feature both Freesat and Freeview HD support will ship with FOUR tuners; two Freesat and two Freeview HD. These sets will even let you watch a Freesat programme on the TV while watching a Freeview channel on the tuner, or vice versa. (In the unlikely event that you actually want to do such a thing!)

It's also the twin tuner functionality, of course, which lets you see running video from programmes highlighted on the EPG while using the TV Home Screen menu. 

The twin tuner support further enables you to record one programme to a USB device or SD card while you watch another, or record two different programmes simultaneously. And it marks the re-emergence of the sort of picture in picture dual viewing options that were once fairly common back in the old CRT TV days.

In short, the addition of twin tuners to so many of Panasonic's latest TVs is a stroke of genius that lets you enjoy your TV content in a much more convenient and flexible way. 

Not every element of Panasonic's new Smart operating system looks totally successful. In particular, the new Electronic Touchpen system you can use to interact directly with the screens of some of Panasonic's plasma TVs feels like a misfire; this idea was pointless when LG tried it on a TV a couple of years back, and it looks like it's still pretty pointless now.

Overall, though, the combination of my Home Screen, enhanced support for tablet/phone secondary devices and the introduction of twin tuners results in a Smart experience that represents a quantum leap over previous Panasonic smart TV interfaces. So much so that from what we've seen to date, Panasonic's 2013 Smart TVs could give the previous Smart champs of LG and Samsung something to get really hot under the collar about.

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