From what we saw on the floor of January’s Consumer Electronic Show, 2013 is shaping up to be the year where Smart TV really comes of age.
Not surprisingly the usual Smart TV ‘kingpins’ – LG, Samsung and Sony – are going to be playing a big part in advancing the Smart battleground. However, also bursting onto the Smart TV scene in a much more aggressive way than it ever has before is Panasonic.
The Japanese brand’s Viera Connect online TV service has always been a solid effort, especially where the stability of online and multimedia handling is concerned. But it’s also always looked rather old fashioned, and hasn’t excelled at handling the growing quantities of content Smart TV engines are now starting to deliver.
Which is where Panasonic’s new ‘My Home Screen’ concept comes in. As we’ll see, this is a radical rethink of Panasonic’s Smart TV interface that’s designed expressly to put ease of use and ease of content access to the fore, enabling users to immediately engage fully with everything the latest Smart features have to offer.
The sense that Panasonic has taken its Smart TV functionality to a much higher level than before kicks in almost straight away, as the opening set-up menus include some helpful new high-definition illustrations that immediately create a much more modern impression than Panasonic TVs have delivered before.
The only slight flaw at this early stage is that there’s a flagrant typo in the first page of the set-up menus that renders the last sentence nonsensical. Actually, a few parts of the set-up menus are badly written, which undermines the professional tone established by the high presentational values.
Despite the grammatical flaws, however, the latest Panasonic set-up system proves exceptionally easy to follow – at least when it comes to getting the fundamental basics (including Wi-Fi) working.
Once the auto-tuning part of initial setup is done, you’re rather scarily introduced to a robotic lady’s voice inviting you to take a tour of the new Viera multimedia systems and interfaces. This is a weird moment, for on the one hand it feels futuristic to hear a woman speaking to you, yet on the other the robotic tones sound a bit 1980s… Ultimately, the monotone drone of the voice proves more distracting than useful, so it’s just as well all the words being spoken are written on screen too.
As the robotic voice explains, My Home Screen is essentially a graphics-rich interface that's designed to sit between you and all the available content – TV broadcasts, AV inputs, online sources, networked PCs, USB/SD multimedia devices – in order to make finding what you want easier.
It works by providing you with three preset and themed (‘TV, ‘Info’ and ‘Lifestyle’) home screens to get started with, although you are also free to create extra home screens of your own to suit the content preferences of multiple users in your household.
This is a pretty big step on from the sort of TV operating systems most people will be used to seeing. So it’s great that Panasonic makes you sit through its brief but effective (despite robot lady’s slumber-inducing voice) interface tutorial before you start using the TV for real.
Once the tutorial is over, you get the option to choose which of Panasonic’s three home screen presets you want to establish as your default – the one the TV goes straight to whenever you fire the screen up.
Before we look at each of these prefabricated Home Screens in more detail, it’s pleasing to note how all of them manage to retain a selection of useful content/menu shortcuts running along the top of the screen with one-click access to: Home, Apps, Search, Messages, Tutorial and Settings. These are written shortcuts too, not just icons, so there’s no confusing what they mean. We're also impressed by how each text shortcut has a corresponding button on the impressively designed remote, with each button being clearly drawn in the top on-screen bar. This sort of visual aid is really helpful, especially in the initial stages of using the TV.
Turning now to the set-up of each Home Screen, let’s start with the TV one. Not surprisingly this is dominated by a large window showing the TV picture, with a scrollable bar down the right showing nicely presented Electronic Program Guide (EPG) information for what’s currently showing on all the tuner channels available on your tuner.
A small box to bottom left, meanwhile, provides a portal to Panasonic’s Viera Connect online app centre. More on this in a bit. The middle box at the bottom of the TV home screen allows you to select photos stored on a connected DLNA device, while the final window on this screen lets you quickly leap off to YouTube.