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Panasonic CES 2014 TVs: All LED, one 4K, and little excitement

Panasonic is no longer making plasma displays, and judging from its lackluster lineup of new LED LCD models, the company seems destined for a rough 2014 in the TV marketplace.

The AX800U series, Panasonic's only 4K introduction at CES, doesn't do much to distinguish itself on paper.

LAS VEGAS -- Poor Panasonic.

After enjoying an amazing run of good CNET reviews last year, thanks in large part to its stronger-than-ever plasma lineup, financial reality came calling and in December Panasonic shuttered its last plasma factory (PDF).

At the same time, the joint venture with Sony to develop OLED TVs, which had plenty of great buzz at CES last year, dried up.

The result is what you're about to read: one of the least inspiring lineups of TVs I've seen so far at CES 2014. Even TCL and Hisense, with their Roku TVs, manage to elicit more anticipation than this offering.

Maybe I'm being too harsh -- we have yet to review or even see any of these sets in person, after all, and Panasonic did manage to create one surprisingly competent LED LCD last year in the E60 series -- but on paper there's not much that qualifies as new or exciting.

Move over, Viera Cast
The company's biggest talking point for TVs at the show is its latest Smart TV interface design. Dubbed Life+ Screens, it seems destined to make Google+ seem like a raging success. Said to learn individual or family viewing preferences with the aid of a (cough, TiVo thumbs-up, cough) "My Button" on the remote control, it "uses program metadata together with advanced algorithms to present more appropriate recommendations."

The system apparently presents the results in "My Stream," an "individualized channel of content seamlessly personalized just for you, including content from different sources. This means that recommended films and shows from cable, terrestrial broadcast, and VOD are all presented within the same interface." Samsung and LG both offered similar services last year, and in my reviews I found they were hardly game changers.

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The same goes for Panasonic's voice navigation and search, facial recognition via camera and a smartphone, and PC cloud sharing. Maybe the system is better than those others and truly useful -- I won't know until I test it -- but it's nothing to get excited about so far. Indeed, it seems needlessly complex and even a bit intrusive, making a simplistic alternative like Roku TV seem all the more appealing.

The new face of Panasonic TVs
That brings us to the actual TVs themselves. All but one series are standard 1080p-resolution LED LCDs. I've listed the exception, the lone new 4K model, at the top, and moved down the line from there.

Pricing hasn't been announced, although the company says many of these sets are available now for preorder on the Panasonic site.

  • TC-AX800U series: 4K, edge-lit local dimming
    We recently reviewed the TC-L65WT600, this TV's predecessor. Although it was a pretty good TV, it was way too expensive and fell short of the competition from Samsung. There don't seem to be any major improvements this time around -- the one obvious difference, Studio Master Color, doesn't provide any real benefit. The 800U is still the only 4K set I know about with DisplayPort, and of course it still gets HDMI 2.0. If nothing else, we're hoping the company dropped the price.
    Sizes: 65 and 58 inches
    First availability: Now (58-inch)/spring (65-inch)
  • TC-55AS680U: 1080p, 240Hz refresh rate
    The company's best 1080p TV series comes in just one size so far, and its biggest picture quality extra is a faster refresh rate. No local dimming is mentioned.
    Size: 55 inches
    First availability: TBD
  • TC-AS650U series: 1080p, 3D, Touch Pad remote
    This series represents the least expensive 3D-capable line. Its range is sizes is larger, and the main extra feature is a touch-pad remote also found on step-down models.
    Sizes: 60, 55, and 50 inches
    First availability: Now
  • TC-60AS660U series: 1080p, Home Theater System Bundle; Touch Pad Remote
    It seems Panasonic is bundling a home theater system with this single-size series. We'll try to get more information at the show. Otherwise, it appears very similar to the A650U.
    Size: 60 inches
    First availability: TBD
  • TC-AS530U series: 1080p, Cheapest Smart TV
    The entry-level Smart TV doesn't have the My Stream action of the step-up models, but could prove a good value if the price is right.
    Sizes: 60, 55, 50, 39 inches
    First availability: Now
  • TC-A400U series: Entry-level 1080p
    The final series is a dumb TV, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Again, if priced right it could be worthwhile.
    Sizes: 50, 39, 32 inches
    First availability: Now

Of course, my initial disappointment with these TVs is based mainly on their ho-hum attributes in a press release, especially compared with the extensive announcements by other TV makers. Maybe they'll prove me wrong. We'll see once we have the chance to review a couple this year.