Despite some reports to the contrary, Panasonic has confirmed to us that it is continuing R&D on plasma display technology. That's good news for AV purists, as the company's past plasma TVs have outclassed LED sets when it comes to producing really lush, cinematic pictures. There's little doubt, though, that companies are pushing at the limits of what they can do in terms of improving plasma displays and will start to shift their focus towards OLED technology for high-end TVs in the next few years.
The TX-P55VT65, which is priced at around £2,400, shows that there are still plenty of reasons why you should choose a plasma screen right now if you consider picture quality as the most important feature of a TV.
User interface and EPG
After tinkering around at the edges for years and only making minor changes to it TV interface, this year Panasonic has gone the whole hog and done a complete redesign for its 2013 models.
The new system is based around a smart TV homescreen similar to those LG and Samsung have been using for a couple of years now. Panasonic's system is arguably better because as well as allowing you to choose between a number of pre-built homescreens, you can also create you own custom design from four supplied templates.
The settings menu is still essentially separate from the smart TV system, but it's relatively easy to use as the menus are quite flat and jumping between picture or audio settings as you tweak them is very quick. Panasonic also gives you a lot of control over the set's pictures, and unlike with its previous models, you can now adjust the panel luminance through three steps for low, medium and high.
The programming guide has been updated too. The main difference is the welcome addition of a video window, so you can now continue watching the programme you're tuned to in this window while checking out what shows are coming up later in the day.
The VT65 has twin tuners on board for both Freeview HD and Freesat HD and there's a channel explorer in the smart TV system that makes the most of this. The channel explorer lets you flick up and down through all the available channels. What's special on this model is that a live feed pops up in a picture-in-picture box to tell you what's currently showing on the other channel, giving you two separate live channel feeds on the screen at the same time.
Digital media and Internet features
The VT65 comes with Panasonic's redesigned smart TV system. It's much better than the old VieraConnect system and is based around a homescreen that pops up when you start up the TV or hit the dedicated home button on the remote.
There are a number of different preset homescreens you can use. One acts as a sort of home notice board with a calendar and jotter app, while another has a channel explorer that lets you quickly see what's on now and next across all the channels on Freeview or Freesat. You can also just have the TV start up in fullscreen TV mode if you'd prefer, although annoyingly it pops up an advert for Myspace every time you start the TV if you select this option. That's a bit low rent, given that this is a high-end TV. You can turn this off, but it's not obvious how to do it. What you actually have to do is go into the setup menu and then switch the VieraConnect Banner to off.
The best thing about Panasonic's approach is that it lets you design your own customised homescreen from four templates. This is great because you can just group together all the video-on-demand apps you use most often onto a single page and have them instantly accessible when you hit the home button on the remote.
The set comes pre-loaded with a pretty decent selection of smart TV apps including iPlayer, Netflix, Acetrax and YouTube. There are also loads more video-on-demand, news and information apps, as well as games that you can download from the on-board app store. The TV still lags behind Samsung when it comes to catch-up TV services, lacking ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 -- all of which are available on Samsung's smart TV platform.
It does have a full Web browser, though, and this supports Flash so you can use it to play video on websites. It doesn't work on every site though -- some videos stutter badly and the Web browser is prone to lock ups too. Panasonic includes a second touch remote control with the TV that makes the Web browser a good deal easier to use. The remote also works with the rest of the TV's menus, but for these it's less successful and actually a tad awkward to use. It's not as intuitive as LG's motion remote, for example.
This model is the only one in Panasonic's plasma TV lineup to come with a camera built in. The camera pops up out of its holder when you launch an application it can be used with, such as Skype, but you have to manually push it back down to hide it away again. The camera can be set up for face recognition, so different users can have it automatically call up their personal homescreens.
Unlike on Samsung's TVs, there's no gesture control, but the facial recognition feature works decently if there's plenty of light in the room. It's pretty poor at properly recognising faces when lighting levels are lower -- something that also affects Toshiba's face recognition system on its YL and WL models. I can see most people turning it off and never using it again after trying it out for a day or two. It's a bit gimmicky and not very useful.
More useful are the two tuners for both Freeview and Freesat. Combine these with the TV's ability to record shows directly to drives plugged into one of its USB ports, and you need no longer need to shell out for a PVR. You can watch one channel while recording another, pause live TV and schedule recordings just as you would with a normal Freeview or Freesat PVR. All you need to do is add a USB drive to get the whole thing working, and they're far less expensive than a full blown PVR.
Like the GT60, this set comes with a wireless Bluetooth pen that you can use to draw on the screen. It works with a number of simple, mostly child-friendly games from the on-board app store, but you can also tap and hold the pen on the screen to capture an image of it that you can then draw over the top of, just like a Sky Sport presenter. It works well, but outside of a boardroom I can't really see it being of much benefit. You're likely to use it a few times and then leave the pen tucked away in a drawer somewhere to be forgotten about.
The VT65 also has quite a good on-board media player, though, that can be used either for playing back files from USB drives or for streaming digital media over a network from a PC or networked hard drive. It supports a pretty broad range of file formats including MKV and Xvid files, and it's also reasonably quick when navigating through a big bunch of folders on larger hard drives.
Design and connections
The VT65 is a great looking TV, but perhaps not one that takes your breath away in the way as some of today's LED sets. This is mainly because it doesn't have a super slim bezel. Instead Panasonic has take the decision to actually widen the bezel slightly at the sides in order to add front facing speakers -- although these are all but invisible to the eye unless you inspect it up close.