Panasonic grows TV, camera ranges, shrinks phones

A Panasonic-branded 1G-byte SD (Secure Digital) memory card was the smallest of the new products announced Thursday by Matsushita Electric Industrial in a news conference at the Cebit trade show. The largest: a 52-inch PDP (plasma display panel) HDTV (high-definition television). A range of new DVD recorders, digital video cameras, digital still cameras and tiny mobile phones rounded out the presentation.

"The detour via the PC was yesterday. Photos stored on an SD memory card can be seen seconds later on your digital TV screens, or you can import them into a DVD-Recorder for playback on your TV. We call this our 3D value chain, because SD, DVD and HDTV provide more value together than each can on their own," said Joachim Reinhard, chief operating officer of Matsushita Electric Europe (HQ) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, the company behind the Panasonic brand in Europe.

The SD memory card will go on sale in Japan in April, and elsewhere in May. In Europe it is expected to sell for €499, and in the U.S. for US$499. The card has a theoretical maximum data transfer speed of 10M bytes per second, and contains eight of Matsushita's 1G-bit NAND flash memory chips. The company plans to take SD card capacity beyond 1G byte in future -- although only 944M bytes of the 1G-byte total are available to users today: the rest is reserved for copy protection and other functions.

The range of flat-screen displays, branded Viera, includes both LCD (liquid crystal display) and PDP models. The largest, the TH-50PV30, has a 50-inch PDP with a resolution of 1,366 pixels by 768 pixels, and a contrast ratio of 3000:1. It incorporates loudspeakers and a tuner capable of receiving HDTV pictures. The new televisions will appear on the market in April; the company did not announce prices.

A slew of DVD recorders were on display, including the DMR-E95H, a model with a hard disk intended for the European market. The hard disk can store up to 284 hours of video, and write it to DVD-RAM or DVD-R (DVD-rewritable) discs. It can also play back still images from a digital camera, which can be transferred from SD cards, MultiMediaCards or (using a PC Card adapter) PC Cards or Compact Flash cards. If you program the DMR-E95H to record your favorite show, but forget to slip in a blank DVD-R, then the machine will automatically record to the hard disk until you return to make good your mistake.

Another model, the DMR-E75V may make the Motion Picture Association of America uncomfortable: it contains a video cassette recorder (VCR) and DVD recorder and two tuners, so it can either record two programs simultaneously, one to each medium, or can copy directly from tape to disc, or disc to tape. Matsushita is pitching the device as a simple way to copy a videocassette collection onto DVD at the touch of a button. It will go on sale, priced around €849 (US$1,039), in June.

Two DVD camcorders, the VDR-M50 and M70, can each record up to 2 hours of video onto an 80-millimeter DVD-RAM or DVD-R disc. The video can then be edited in the camcorder and played back on a DVD player, without the need for cables. The VDR-M50 has an 18x optical zoom, its brother a 10x zoom. The devices will go on sale in May.

The pick of the bunch of new Panasonic digital still cameras is surely the Lumix DMC-LC1. The camera has a 28-90 millimeter equivalent zoom Leica lens and a 5-megapixel image sensor producing images up to 2,560 pixels by 1,920 pixels in size in JPEG or raw format. In addition to the fully automatic mode usually found on digital cameras, a fully manual mode allows photographers to adjust zoom, focus, aperture and exposure time by hand, in the tradition of Leica Camera AG's classic 35-millimeter film cameras. The DMC-LC1 will go on sale later this month for €1,499.

In case anyone had missed its X700 smart phone in the flurry of new models released at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes last month, Panasonic Mobile Communications trotted it out for a second stroll down the cat-walk. Also on show were the X300, a camera phone with a curiously hinged pop-up display which apparently serves no other function than to make the phone look more like a camcorder, and the tiny A100 range, the first of which weighs 66 grams and measures just 74 millimeters by 44 millimeters by 16 millimeters, according to Jeff Suff, director of Panasonic Mobile. At that size, it's smaller than a credit card, he said -- albeit substantially thicker. The X300 is due on the market in the fourth quarter, the A100 series in the third.

Cebit runs Thursday through Wednesday at the Messegelände in Hanover, Germany.

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