Panasonic Viera UHD TV review: good hardware, fragmented software
Great picture quality let down by bipolar software, leaving this TV wanting for smarts
- Big screen with UHD resolution
- Wide colour gamut
- Smartphone support for Apple and Android devices
- Thematically inconsistent software
- Limited application support with near no local apps
- Strong back-lighting
- Underwhelming audio
The Panasonic XC700A is a mixed affair. It is well priced for a large screen television and has commendable picture quality. But, as a smart television, its software is crippled by a split-personality and a rather bare application store.
Price$ 3,699.00 (AUD)
How we buy technology has changed. We no longer pay for just a smartphone or a television. Now it’s all about the ecosystem, that cultivated environment where app developers make exciting, intuitive and inviting software. It’s the software we use to check the weather, stream our favourite shows and interact with friends through social networks. Creating this environment is no easy task. In the technology space, it is the equivalent of creating an atmosphere in which life can be sustained.
Note: Check out the review of Panasonic's latest TV, the Panasonic DX900U UHD 4K smart TV: Best all-round TV ever?
Some television manufacturers have what it takes to go it alone by designing both the software and the hardware. Market leader Samsung is giving it a decent crack with Tizen, while LG has made a solid case with its WebOS platform. Other companies rely on third parties. Sony, for instance, is the first to use Android TV in Australia; a wise move considering most people already belong to that ecosystem. Panasonic has taken the road less travelled by partnering with Firefox. It’s an unusual partnership that rings like Nokia’s perilous move to skip Android in favour of Windows Phone.
Firefox is the operating system found on Panasonic’s 2015 televisions, including the CX700A, a 60-inch smart television powered by a quad-core processor. It sits at the premium end of the range and is available as a 50-, 55- and 65-inch set.
Setting up the television is easy. An animated wizard walks you through the process and breaks down how the menu works. It is one ribbon in which channels, apps and devices can be pinned. It is elegant in its simplicity and makes a good first impression. A secondary wizard showcases the best features exclusive to a Panasonic television. The two wizards are distinctively different in design and set the overall tone for the software.
Firefox OS on this television runs skin deep. Parts of it alternate to Panasonic’s existing software, such as the file manager, and these two design languages clash. The colourful and rounded tempo set by Firefox is opposed by the grey and angular theme of Panasonic’s aging interface. They feel like off-cuts forced together and work in different ways.
Televisions represent an opportunity for manufacturers. Whereas the smartphone market is dominated by two big players, the smart TV space is largely decentralised: it is anyone’s game. Tomorrow’s owners will use apps on their televisions as the screen at the centre of a home will do much more than play back content.
Firefox’s application store leaves a lot to be desired. The infrastructure is there, with it being well laid out and intuitively curated. The apps that are featured are formatted specifically for a large screen and work well on a television. Only too few apps are available, and local Australian apps are virtually non-existent. There are no local news applications and the only one Australian sporting app (AFL Game Analyser). Video-on-demand applications are available, though they are few in number, with Netflix, SBS On Demand, ABC iView and YouTube.
The software’s saving grace is its support with smartphones. Panasonic has gone the extra mile by creating smartphone apps for devices running Android and iOS. The application is versatile, not only offering remote control functionality, but also the ability to cast content to the TV, and going as far as casting content from the TV to a smartphone. The latter is an attractive perk because it means you can still watch a movie recorded on the television’s PVR when it is in use by someone else.
Smartphones play another important role. The Panasonic television comes with a version of Firefox’s browser designed specifically for large screens. Letting the browser down is a clumsy way of entering text. The TV will take a keyboard; however, the functions typical to Windows and OS X don’t translate verbatim to Firefox OS, and this leads to a learning curve.
The easiest way to enter text is using the application. There’s no need to learn the idiosyncrasies of another keyboard because almost everyone is versed in either iOS or Android.
There is an easier way still to view a webpage on this smart TV. Find the page on a smartphone first and then cast it across by using the app. In fact, anyone considering this television should download the application before hand.
This Panasonic television comes with two remotes — one conventional and another fluent in trackpad-style gestures — and yet neither one of them is as easy to use as the smartphone application.
Having two separate remotes grows tedious. One is always lost behind a couch cushion and it is almost always the one you need. It is also a juggling act as you alternate between them depending on what it is you’re trying to do. Panasonic is not alone in bundling two remotes with its smart television; it’s a practice used by Samsung and Sony. The only brand missing from the list is LG, which has a single remote fit for all occasions.
Further redeeming this television is the quality of its picture. It is an LED-backlit LCD television measuring an expansive 60-inches and sporting an ultra high definition resolution of 3840 x 2160.
But there’s little content supportive of the nascent UHD resolution. Panasonic, much like its competition, has developed an upscaling engine designed to make ordinary content look good on the pixel rich panel. The upscaling engine works by analysing a scene and then matching it against a database of images. The data gleaned from matched images is then used to elevate the quality of the content to levels closer to UHD resolution.
How well the upscaling engine works depends on the original resolution. A Blu-ray movie (1920x1080p) will look better than a movie being played on broadcast television (768x576i) because there is more data for the upscaling engine to use.
Panasonic is a hardware company and the overall picture quality of this television drives this point home. It is characterised by a wide colour gamut and excellent levels of contrast.
Find UHD content and it’ll best flex this television’s performance. The panel has 8.3 million pixels — four times of today’s Full HD standard — and every one of them is put to work. TimeScapes, one of the first available UHD movies, is played back in clarity and with colours that are bold.
One scene in the movie has the camera staring upwards at long trees stretching far into the sky. The backlighting of the canopy is bright, and because the camera is deep in a thicket, shadows are cast sporadically. In near no space, this TV presents all shades of bold greens, blinding whites and deep blacks. Detail remains in tact throughout, enough so for the grain of the bark, the veins of leaves and the body of clouds to be discerned.
Scenes with large slabs of black are less convincing. Black is a colour distinguished by the absence of light. Panasonic dims select parts of this television in an effort to create deeper shades of blacks, but it’s not enough. Watch a movie in the dark and the ‘black’ letterbox lines bordering the screen will illuminate the room. This is a problem faced by most LED-backlit televisions, and it is one we have long lived with, but now OLED televisions are on sale at prices that are competitive.
The upscaling technology at work is more competent than what’s on offer from most rivals. Blu-ray movies suffer little from image noise and retain most of the detail as a result. This was the case with Star Trek into darkness and Interstellar, though the black colour of space was brighter than usual.
It is a big jump going from a high resolution content source to the lesser DVD (576p) format. Fewer colours and a narrower contrast range tells that the upscaling engine is working harder — and is maybe even struggling. Most parts of a movie will be played back fine. Then a scene will come along, those that are dark and common in film noir, and it’ll make the movie look generations older. There’s such a scene in the movie Se7en, roughly nine minutes in, when the two detectives are investigating the famous ‘Gluttony’ murder, and the picture is borderline monochromatic.
Content from Netflix was more attractive, with the application choosing to soften details rather than present image noise. We watched a 480p stream of Top Gear over a 13Mbps connection (practical download speed) and it was formatted to the 60-inch screen well enough for it to be enjoyable.
Anyone considering this television should factor in the cost of a soundbar or surround sound system. It has a 20 Watt speaker system that will playback dialogue clearly, but it fails to match the spectacle of the 60-inch screen. Buying one without the other would be a waste.
The Panasonic XC700A is a mixed affair. It is well priced for a large screen television and has commendable picture quality. But, as a smart television, its software is crippled by a split-personality and a rather bare application store. This is a television made by an almost exclusive hardware company, only the hardware in question is waning in relevance.
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