Update: Our full review of the Panasonic VT30 is now live. Our first impressions follow.
It's fair to say that Panasonic's Viera VT20 models were our favourite 3D TVs of 2010. But, while the 3D images produced by these plasma TVs were the best available at the time, they still weren't perfect. Panasonic's new Viera VT30 line of TVs aims to fix the flaws of the preceding range.
The images produced by plasma TVs aren't as bright as those of LCD sets. Adding 3D glasses into the mix reduces the colour and brightness of the picture even further, which can be a real problem. But Panasonic says the VT30 range produces brighter pictures than its predecessors, so we have our fingers crossed that the new TVs can more closely match the brilliance of LCD and LED-illuminated sets.
It's important not to forget that plasma TVs have one massive advantage over their LCD rivals too -- a complete lack of undesirable ghosting, or crosstalk, around 3D images. Ghosting ruins 3D content by giving the impression that you're seeing two of everything -- it looks like your TV isn't tuned into an analogue channel properly.
It sounds like the 3D performance of the VT30 range should be impressive, but Panasonic's new TVs are still disappointing in some areas. For example, the new Viera Connect Web service, which has replaced Viera Cast, still isn't a match for equivalent services on Sony and Samsung TVs.
There's still no iPlayer support, for example. The company has assured us that its iPlayer app is written and working, but said it needs to have a contract with the BBC before it can be launched. We're sure this is true, but it's still a year late. Other companies have already integrated iPlayer, with few problems.
Panasonic gets it right with the likes of Skype integration, though, allowing you to make free video calls to friends. The necessary camera is an optional extra, but we can see this kind of feature having an exciting future on TVs, especially if you have young kids to show off to distant relatives. It's all very Back to the Future.
Panasonic is also pushing its TV apps. Some will be available for free and some will have a small price. So far, we've seen demos for exercise games, health-monitoring apps, and even a proper driving game, which looks graphically impressive but requires an external controller.
Sturdy but staid
We're slightly disappointed by the design. Panasonic hardware is functional, easy to use, and pleasant enough to look at, but it doesn't excite us like gear from other companies does. Samsung, for example, keeps producing TVs that look really remarkable, and even Sony -- a company whose TVs haven't always impressed us technically -- is making screens that look impressive.
It's worth pointing out that Panasonic hasn't substantially redesigned its 3D glasses either. We find them incredibly uncomfortable to wear, due to their weight and chunky design. They deliver a good 3D experience, but wearing them for a long time isn't something we're keen on.
Panasonic continues to improve on its panel technology. This year sees the arrival of the company's NeoPlasma technology, which, like NeoPDP before it, aims to further increase black levels and improve the overall image quality.
The rumours are that Panasonic is slowly integrating -- a little too slowly for some -- Pioneer's old plasma technology into its screens. That's good news, as Pioneer's Kuro plasma sets were brilliant. As part of the changes, the plasma cells will behave differently when they aren't fully switched on. Plasma cells are never really turned off during dark scenes, but always retain a small charge so that they can quickly spring back into full action. By decreasing this charge, the VT30 range's black levels should be even better than before.
If you're a keen tweaker, you'll be interested to hear that the VT30 range offers Imaging Science Foundation calibration modes. Recently, Panasonic has also demonstrated a third-party system that automatically calibrates your TV via its Ethernet socket, using a laptop and a little device that sticks to your screen and monitors your TV's colour and brightness. The idea is that you can calibrate your TV yourself, which will be cheaper than paying an engineer to do it for you.
Free PVR adds value
Panasonic is adding a personal-video-recorder function to some of its new TVs. Attaching a USB hard drive to the television will allow you to record a TV show and save it for later. You won't get as many options as you would with a dedicated PVR, but this feature will do in emergencies. The company will also allow its TVs to record to SD cards. That's a good thing, as the capacities of such cards are increasing.
The Panasonic Viera VT30 TVs are likely to be the audiovisual highlights of the year. The VT20 tellies were amazing in their own right, so a few tweaks here and there should enable the VT30 range to win our hearts. The question is whether they can stand up to the increasingly strong competition offered by Samsung. After all, the first new Samsung TV we've seen this year, the UE46D7000, won one of our coveted Editors' Choice awards.
Edited by Charles Kloet