Although they're being launched slightly later than competitors LG and Samsung and Sony, Panasonic's 2014 TVs look like they're going to be hugely popular. Plasma TV is dead and buried (sob), but the new and revitalised LED LCD TV lineup has a big focus on excellent picture quality -- including deep black levels and plasma-esque contrast -- and simple, elegant design.
Panasonic has a grand total of 22 new VIERA LED TVs hitting the market either now or in the rest of the year, although most are already on store shelves. Most of the new TVs use Panasonic's IPS panels, which promise wider viewing angles, and the design of Panasonic's TVs is far, far improved from some of the outdated looks of years past. Super-thin bezels and clean, modern metallic or piano black finishes are all the rage this season.
Panasonic has never been the number one go-to company if you want a Smart TV -- its attitude is that, if you want fancy extras, you can get them from a media streamer or Blu-ray player that you connect over HDMI. Most of Panasonic's 2014 TVs have some measure of Smart capability, though, but the implementation is less ostentatious and in-your-face than other big TV brands.
This year, Life+ Screen is Panasonic's term for its Smart TV service. That's a catch-all for its multi-screen home display interface, which can be set to any one of a number of templates and customised to show program guides, social media feeds, or with quick access to various catch-up and on-demand video streaming apps.
Here's a quick overview of the year's VIERA TVs -- how they differ from model to model, what you'll get at any price point, and what is and isn't worth spending your hard-earned dollars on.
Taking over pride of place at the top of the Panasonic VIERA pecking order is the AX800. With a $4399 58-inch and $5999 65-inch, the new AX800 is a 4K local dimming edge-lit LED TV that has all the bells and whistles.
Built-in Wi-Fi and Ethernet means you're easily able to hook up the AX800A and use its Smart features, and the larger screens have enough space for two 4-Watt speakers and 10-Watt subwoofer on the TV's rear. 2000Hz backlight scanning, local LED dimming, and a Studio Master panel worked on by Panasonic's former plasma TV engineers should combine to mean the AX800A is one of this year's best TVs for watching movies. Later this year, from around September onwards, an AX900 will be introduced that looks even better.
Panasonic has an accompanying fleet of 4K-capable Blu-ray players and DVD- and Blu-ray-recording PVRs to accompany its Ultra HD TVs. It's entirely committed to getting the best possible picture quality on these screens, and while it doesn't have the same 4K tie-in as Sony or the licensing budget of Samsung, it's addressing the small things that are equally important; for example, an improvement on Ultra HD TVs and media players from last year is a simple streamlining of JPEG playback -- images from USB or an external media device are displayed natively in 4K, where they were previously downscaled to 1080p then interpolated.
The vast majority of Panasonic's TV lineup this year is still Full HD -- which makes sense given the continued scarcity of native Ultra HD video. The 2014 Panasonic VIERA TV lineup kicks off with the A400A -- a $389 720p HD LED 24-inch, a $549 720p HD LED 32-inch, and a $899 Full HD LED 42-inch. Beyond 100Hz backlight scanning, a 50Hz native panel, and USB playback of a bunch of compressed file formats (including MKV), the A400A is otherwise bare-bones.
Stepping up to the A430A -- a $1349 50-inch and $2199 60-inch -- changes the panel refresh rate to 100Hz native and 200Hz backlight scanning. There's also an entry-level 720p HD LED 32-inch AS610A for $659, which adds Wi-Fi and is the cheapest Smart TV from Panasonic including the Life+ Screen Light interface.
The first big-screen Smart TV in Panasonic's 2014 lineup is the AS640A, available in $1099 42-inch, $1449 50-inch and $2299 60-inch. Add-in features above lesser models are a full Life+ Screen interface and a third HDMI input. The 60-inch screen is the cheapest within Panasonic's range to use an IPS panel, and although it's not out right now it'll be on store shelves before the start of August -- the others are available now. Above the AS640A, the $2199 55-inch AS670A adds 3D playback, ups the backlight scanning speed to 1200Hz and bundles Panasonic's smaller touchscreen remote control alongside the original candybar.
The first properly premium Full HD TV from Panasonic is the AS700A -- $1399 42-inch, $1849 50-inch, $2199 55-inch, and $2799 60-inch. The AS700A has every feature that appears in a lesser VIERA, including 3D and Wi-Fi and Smarts, but the design is significantly refined around the Super-Bright IPS Full HD panel. Moving up further to the AS740A -- $2299 55-inch and $2899 60-inch -- includes ISFcc calibration.
The absolute top-of-the-line Full HD IPS LED TV is the AS800A, available as either a $2799 55-inch or $3299 60-inch. Courtesy of a dual-core processor the AS800A has a lot more Smart features than the rest of the Panasonic range; a built-in camera handles face recognition and automatic power-on when you sit down to watch TV, for example. 1800Hz backlight scanning and a 100Hz native refresh rate should make for excellent picture quality. Like the AS740A, the AS800A has twin TV tuners, so it can record one channel to external USB storage while you're watching another, or stream TV over the 'net to a mobile device using your Internet connection.
We can't wait to take a look at some more of Panasonic's VIERA TVs. Stay tuned and we'll have a review of a few models in the near future.