Focussing now on the AV receiver/tuner box, it’s a pretty well connected affair. Highlights include four HDMIs (one under a flap on the front), an SDHC card slot capable of playing photo or video files, a PC port, and a satellite LNB input. This is there because, as we’d expect of a premium Panasonic TV, the P46Z1 carries a Freesat as well as a Freeview tuner as standard.
One other jack that warrants closer attention is an Ethernet port. This allows you to jack the TV into Panasonic’s online VieraCast service, or to access files from a networked, DLNA-capable server.
We’ll have a look at what VieraCast has to offer in a moment, but first we’ve got a few more key screen specifications to cover. First of all, as you’d expect the P46Z1 is a Full HD screen. More unusual, though, is its claim of a 2,000,000:1 contrast ratio, delivering what Panasonic likes to call an ‘Infinite Black’.
More unusual still is the fact that the TV carries THX certification, having satisfied THX engineers that it has the black level, resolution, contrast and colour gamut talents necessary to deliver a sufficiently excellent cinematic display. This bodes extremely well for the TV’s performance, of course – though I have found that for better or for worse, my own views on picture quality don’t always completely coincide with those of the THX people!
Still more justification for the P46Z1’s soaring price tag comes with the discovery of Panasonic’s 600Hz Sub-field Drive Intelligent Frame Creation Pro video processing system (try saying that with a mouthful of Mars Bar). This interpolates so many extra image frames in a bid to tackle plasma’s traditional problem with judder that it ups PAL playback from the usual 50 frames per second to a huge 600fps. And we’ve seen it deliver some very impressive results previously, on Panasonic’s P46G10.
Since we haven’t had the opportunity to see the VieraCast online platform in action before, it’s worth devoting a moment or two to seeing how it stacks up against rival systems from the likes of Samsung and Philips.
Actually, it’s not bad at all. It’s effortless to get up and running (though it can’t be accessed wirelessly like Samsung’s online platform), and the opening screen is excellently presented, with graphical links to Panasonic’s preferred content providers as well as quick weather and finance reports appearing around a small version of the TV picture you were watching when you hit the Viera Cast button.
Unfortunately, at the moment there are only three key content providers available via VieraCast – there’s even a space in the bottom left corner for another provider to be added when Panasonic manages to sign one up, reminding you immediately of how the service is still in its infancy.
On the upside, the three main content providers are all pretty respectable: YouTube, the Picasa picture platform, and Eurosport. The YouTube system seems to let you access pretty much every file on its servers, while Eurosport offers a surprisingly diverse, extensive and regularly updated collection of video news options.
The interface for all these services works nicely too, with intuitive access to everything via the remote, good screen organisation, and a respectable text input system. Stuff loads in quickly, too.
As with all the ‘ring-fenced’ online systems I’ve seen so far, it’s important to stress that what you get with VieraCast is probably best seen as a (big!) extension of digital teletext rather than a full-blown internet service. And I did experience the occasional streaming problem with YouTube. But it was impossible to tell if this was down to YouTube’s servers, the online handling of the TV’s tuner/media box, or the wirelessHD system. All in all, though, VieraCast is a good first try by Panasonic, and it can only get better as more content deals get done.