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These days, more TVs are smart than not. They connect to the internet—via an ethernet cable, or over a wireless network—in an attempt to give users access to the same apps, content providers, and web-browsing abilities more traditionally delegated to smaller screens: laptops, tablets, and smartphones. While smart TVs are still a long way off from approximating the speed and inherent intuitive nature of touch-screen devices, they do offer one advantage: size. That advantage is short-lived, however, if the smart platform at hand is too clunky, sluggish, or unintuitive to do what it promises.
Panasonic's smart platform, VieraConnect, has not always held our favor. Last year's iteration left us wanting more from Panasonic—the interface was just too heavy-handed, especially when stacked alongside the speed and elegance of an iPad or an Android smartphone. This year, however, Panasonic has taken a dedicated step toward improving its smart TVs by innovating hardware meant to facilitate the entire functionality of VieraConnect. While there is still one glaring omission to the platform, we're impressed with Panasonic's effort.
Like almost every smart TV, enabling smart features is done during the initial setup process. Let's say you have a new, smart 2013 Panasonic (the actual series makes no difference): Just plugging the TV in and powering it on begins the setup process. After a few time- and cable-related menus, you'll be prompted to connect your smart TV to the internet, asked to choose between a wired (ethernet) or wireless (router) connection. While a wired connection is almost always going to give a better overall signal, today's TVs are fairly svelte when it comes to locating and holding a b/g/n wireless connection.
Once setup is complete, your Panasonic will let you know that you're connected, and can now "enjoy VieraConnect." After a short, creepy tutorial narrated by a robotic woman, you're ready to begin gobbling up all of the content Panasonic has to offer.
One of the coolest things about VieraConnect 2013 is that it allows you to choose, and customize, your own home screen. The Home Screen is square one for any sort of smart interfacing you plan to do, serving as a pit stop for apps, bookmarks, and a picture-in-picture.
The presets available are "Full Screen TV," "Lifestyle Screen," and "Info Screen." We're not sure what relevant, practical difference is between the second two; the Lifestyle screen has a clock, calendar, date, and weather app pre-installed. The Info screen includes an app for social networking (Facebook, Twitter), for Skype, and a list of bookmarks along the right side of the screen (which are empty until you select them via the web browser).
We think customizing your own screen is a much better idea, if you want to really streamline and personalize your VieraConnect experience. The customization process is fairly simple. You can add a new screen by pressing the "yellow" key on the remote; you'll then be prompted to select a design template for the New Screen. The templates are limited, unfortunately.
There are three templates to choose from: A large PiP with six app slots; a large PiP with two app slots and a bookmarks bar; or a small PiP with 11 app slots. Essentially, you have to decide what you're going to be doing more of before you design the home screen. The available templates seem to dictate certain habits: Do you mostly want to watch TV, but want to have a few social apps, or a weather app, to check out while you do? Or are you going to be visiting websites often, and only need a couple of apps? There's no way to really know this if you haven't used a smart TV before. We do, however, wish that Panasonic allowed users to create their own templates. We also wish there wasn't a designated spot for an advertisement on every template.
It's clear from marketing and advertising that Panasonic feels the biggest draw of having different, user-centric Home Screens is to benefit multiple people using the same TV. The advertisements I've seen lean heavily on a sort of nuclear family, designing screens for each member and populating it with individualized apps and bookmarks. This feature becomes even more enjoyable if you have a VT60 or WT60 Panasonic, as both series have a built in, pop-up camera that can be used to automatically sign you into your custom Home Screen via facial recognition (more on that momentarily).
So, let's design a Home Screen, and see what happens...
We'll begin by choosing one of the three templates. As someone who plays a lot of video games, I'm inclined to choose a template with a large PIP. As a tech reviewer whose livelihood exists almost entirely on the internet, I also want to have bookmarks, so I can harshly criticize my colleagues' reviews at the push of a button. Once I've chosen my template, I'm brought to a more comprehensive design screen, where my first task is inputting a name.
I'll be honest: Typing using the standard remote takes a long time. Not so long that it's completely off the table as an option, but just long enough to discourage regular, pleasant use. Panasonic has a second remote—called the TouchPad remote—that makes typing a little easier, but the only way to get a good, fluid entry speed is to use a USB keyboard.
After entering your name, you've the option to move, add, or remove apps; really, the bread and butter of the home screen itself.
At this point, I found myself thinking: That's it? The pre-installed apps are sort of few and far between. Upon attempting to add an app to my Home Screen, I'm presented with a string of options: Media player, DLNA server, VIERA Link, Menu, Photo Frame, Web Browser, Paint, Put Three, Family Reversi, Touch Connect, Mirroring, Social Networking TV, Skype, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, MLB. TV, MLS Match, WSJ Live, CinemaNow, PlayJam, Product Support, AccuWeather, Clock, World Clock, Dates, Calendar, Notes, Video Message, Voice Memo, Timer, Jotter, Event Timer.
There are 34 in total... but most of them do not necessarily benefit from being on a TV. If I want to check the date, time, or weather, I have my smartphone. The Paint app only works in conjunction with the Panasonic Touch Pen, which we won't be getting in to test for a few more weeks. I can tell you right now that the games found in PlayJam are terrible—just dinky little flash games that will entertain younger children, but serve no other purpose. Some of these "apps" are already mapped to the remote control as single-use buttons: The menu and SD/USB buttons already give you access to locally stored content and picture settings.
I'll add the Web Browser app, so I can populate bookmarks, and the Social Networking TV app, as an example. The next step is choosing a Background, and inputting Facial recognition data. The Background selection lets you choose from a few pre-loaded backgrounds, or to use an image uploaded from your DLNA setup, assuming there are devices interacting with your Panasonic smart TV. Really, though, there are very few quality, usable apps pre-installed.
To add Bookmarks to my screen, I need to go into the Web Browser. After I clicked on the browser app, it launched almost immediately, populating the left side of the screen with my bookmarks (of which there were none yet), and featuring a slightly smaller PIP in the top left of the screen. Adding a few bookmarks takes time without a USB keyboard; had I tried to type in the website URLs using the TouchPad remote, I think I'd have gone crazy. Overall, the best way to navigate the browser is to use the TouchPad remote, which acts as a very fluid, intuitive mouse, especially compared to the standard remote. Websites load quickly, and overall, navigation here is pretty simple.
The browser here, even with the Touch Pad and USB keyboard, is not entirely preferable to browsing on a laptop or tablet... but it's much, much better than it was in years' past. Previous Panasonic web browsers have been almost unwieldy in their load times and navigation scheme, but—with the right tools—the 2013 iteration is feasible, even if it's still a little over par. However, seeing as it's fairly unwieldy while using just the standard remote, we can't praise it too heavily.
If you want your Home Screen to sport a little more flexibility, Panasonic's Viera Market is the place to start. The Market is a collection of free/paid apps, games, video, and music services—it's also a one-stop shop spot for Panasonic products.
Truthfully, the selection here isn't that much better than what's pre-installed—though some of the pay-to-play games are of notably higher quality by comparison (keywords: by comparison). Notable music apps include Pandora and Rhapsody, which really only serve a purpose if your Panasonic's speakers are the best audio source in your living room (which, hey, they could be). The video store's most notable apps are Hulu Plus and the anime provider Crunchyroll; a lot of the others aren't worth pursuing, or are simple advertisements for programming, disguised as something useful.
Within the category of social media, VieraConnect offers three options: Skype, Facebook, and Twitter. Skype is its own app, and is really only convenient in conjunction with one of the 2013 series featuring a built-in camera: the VT60 plasma series, or WT60 LCD series. While most smart Panasonics will function in conjunction with a USB webcam, most webcams are not designed to fill a 50- or 60-inch screen; it's likely that whoever you're talking to is going to look pretty noisy and distorted unless they themselves have a very high-quality webcam. Still, we appreciate having the opportunity to video chat with friends. We're just not sure the Skype app really takes advantage of the real estate a TV affords.
However, the Twitter and Facebook apps (which are combined into a single app called Social Networking TV) do line up nicely beside a large PIP, meaning they're easy to scroll through while watching. The narrow column doesn't allow much space for text, however. This works fine for Twitter purposes.
It doesn't really work for Facebook. Longer posts end up squished together beside your PIP—so watching TV or a movie while browsing your Facebook feed is easy, but getting through a single post can take a while. As far as I can tell, the Facebook app only translates smaller pictures and status posts. You won't be able to search for friends or play games—nothing like on a browser. However, if you want to "Like" or comment on a friend's status, that is possible. Is this a necessary addition to the TV experience, or more messy multitasking gone awry? I suppose that depends on how much you like Facebook... but Josh feels "this is a mess that should be avoided."
Compared to last year's VieraConnect, 2013's iteration has seen a lot of improvements; but they really only come in the form of hardware. Namely, Panasonic's Touch Pad remote, and the VT60/WT60's pop-up camera. The speech recognition, face tracking, and cursor pad of these hardware innovations make VieraConnect a much more viable option for streaming, apps integrated with TV watching, and cow-towing to family diversity, in all its splendor. However, in that same breath, we feel Panasonic missed one key innovation: cable integration. The best smart platform innovation we've seen this year is the ability to use an IR blaster to integrate cable programming into your TV's database search function; it's really the best way to make a TV "smart."
While VieraConnect has been vastly improved, those improvements feel lackluster: they were all sort of done already last year. The worst part is, without the extra hardware—which only comes standard with a couple of 2013 series—VieraConnect just doesn't impress. Adding more "meh" apps and flash games isn't going to make things better—you can't just throw quantity at a thing until it becomes quality.
The bottom line is: VieraConnect is decent. It doesn't wow us, but we're pretty hard to impress when it comes to smart features. If you've never owned or used a smart TV, you'll definitely enjoy Panasonic's 2013 smart platform... just don't expect it to change your life the way your first smartphone did. Without the integrated camera and Touch Pad remote (which you can buy separately, but should come packaged in our opinion), VieraConnect just doesn't make Panasonic's TVs that much better. Neither does it detract from them, but we'd like to see such stellar picture quality bundled with something really awesome.
My custom Home Screen came out decently, at least.
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