I spent two days this week at the Panasonic Convention, held in London’s Excel Centre. The Convention is an annual event where Panasonic shows off its new European product ranges to both press and dealers, and happens in a different city each year.
Amsterdam in 2009 saw the launch of the VieraCast service, and last year’s event in Munich featured the first FreeviewHD sets. So, what’s in store this year? Rather than do lots of articles, I’m just going to do a roundup here, with some of what I think are the most interesting points from the two days.
• VieraCast renamed VieraConnect, adds new features
• iPlayer very likely to come to VieraCast platform
• Commitment to Freesat appears scaled back
• New Freeview HD recorder with 3D BluRay support
• Freeview programme guide still uses much-loathed Guide+
• New TV sets don’t have CI+ software, but are capable of supporting it
So, let’s take each of those one at a time:
VieraCast becomes VieraConnect
Panasonic’s VieraCast system, which provides YouTube, EuroSport clips and a few other things for people in the UK has been rebranded as VieraConnect, and will have a better range of services on it in future – the UK has been particularly poorly served by VieraCast, in my view.
Additions to the service include an app store (and a free SDK for developers will be available later this year), and new categories, including more social networking with a facebook client, and even games.
However, not all content will be available on previous sets; last year we saw some services, like AceTrax movies and Skype, that wouldn’t work on 2009 models as they lacked either support for cameras, or DRM. And it looks like games probably won’t work on older sets. Where possible, they’ll make things backwards compatible, but don’t expect to get everything that’s coming on an older product.
iPlayer very likely
After a fair bit of prodding with questions, one of the Panasonic team told us that he’s seen iPlayer running on VieraCast (rather than via the Freesat/MHEG model used at present, and which I thought Panasonic would rely on). It’s technically possible, and “very likely” to be arriving. The impression given is that the issues delaying this are not technical ones, but ones related to the necessary agreements that will have to be signed. So, if there are lawyers involved, don’t hold your breath – they take longer than engineers to get things done. But it’s now looking pretty likely.
Whether this will come to all VieraCast/Connect sets, I don’t yet know; that will depend on the DRM situation. I would hope that they’ll simply stream it in the same way the various other services do at the moment, but if they decide that DRM is essential then that will effectively rule out 2009 model year sets, which lack the necessary chips (which is why they don’t get things like AceTrax).
The impression from the comments yesterday is that they’re also talking to other broadcasters, about their catch-up services too.
Not so committed to Freesat?
One brief comment in passing was that the GT and VT series sets have Freesat tuners built in; these are towards the higher end of the range, THX certified, 3D plasmas.
All sets have FreeviewHD built in to them (and should, though I have yet to confirm, transcode surround sound, as it’s mandatory from April this year), but if it’s correct that only two ranges have Freesat tuners, that’s a considerable scaling back in the support for the platform, which used to extend right down to the lower end sets.
The press announcement for the new ranges doesn’t mention Freesat at all, so I shall seek further clarification on this. A further interesting point to note is that there were no new Freesat recorders this year – last year’s model was being displayed instead.
New FreeviewHD + boxes
One of the most interesting boxes I saw was the new Freeview+ HD recorder, the DMR-BWT700 (there’s also an 800, which wasn’t on display, but presumably just has a larger hard drive; the press release doesn’t give sizes).
Update: the 800 indeed has a larger hard drive, at 500GB, compared to 320Gb for the DMR-BWT700.
These are twin tuner FreeviewHD BluRay recorders with 3D support. There’s full DLNA support too, including as a server, which means that if you have a Panasonic TV in another room, you’ll be able to watch recordings over the home network (and, according to the staff I asked, you’ll need a Panasonic TV, as there’s no support for DTCP-IP).
They also feature VieraCast, with Skype support, wireless LAN, and can convert 2D films to 3D on the fly.
GuidePlus is still there
The Freeview programme guide on this year’s Panasonic sets still features Guide Plus, the almost universally loathed EPG that forces advertisements in your face and generates more comments than just about everything else whenever I review one of their TVs.
The impression from Panasonic staff is that they know it’s unpopular, and frankly they don’t seem to happy about having to have it either, but it looks as if their hands are tied. If I can find out who’s responsible for inflicting this rubbish on otherwise decent TV sets, I’ll let you know, as it’s long past time they stopped messing about with it.
Want Sky Sports?
As with all digital TVs, there’s a common interface slot on the new VieraCast models. But, of course, that’s not enough if you want to watch Sky Sports via Freeview any more, as TopUpTV will be using CI+ modules. (See here for more details).
So I asked if the new sets support CI+ and was told that they’re capable of it, but it’s not enabled yet; that’s something that Panasonic will be keeping an eye on and they update the sets if necessary, which will depend on the perceived demand for Sky Sports via a CAM, I guess.
That’s the main news, from my perspective, from the Convention. As and when I get products to play with, keep an eye out for information here or at RegHardware.