We detailed Panasonic's full plasma lineup earlier this year, but having just returned from a press event devoted to the flagship TH-PZ850U series, it feels incumbent to reiterate some of the cool new features of these expensive sets.
The coolest? A demo at the event proved that the 850Us can stream YouTube videos, right on the TV screen with no PC required. The TV's "Viera Cast" interface allows you to search YouTube by keyword, sort videos by popularity, or access your own list of favorite videos, for example. During the demo we were treated to a video of a laughing baby, the (no-surprise) current champ of the popularity list. According to Panasonic, the entire catalog of YouTube videos is available on the TV, although it may take a day or two for a new one on the site to appear on Viera Cast. The TV can also access Picasa, Google's photo sharing site, so you can view digital photos stored at your (or someone else's) Picasa account directly on the big screen.
The 850U series will also ship with a stock ticker widget that will allow you to track favorite stocks, courtesy of Bloomberg, as well as local and national weather information provided by The Weather Channel. The only other Internet-connected HDTV we've reviewed is Samsung's LN52A650, which offers stocks and video along with a text-based news feed. The IPTV functionality of Viera Cast was altogether more impressive since it can actually stream video and access online photos. For its part, Panasonic is not planning to add an RSS-style feed as seen on the Samsung models.
I asked whether the Panasonic 850U was compatible with NetFlix's Watch Now service for example, which as of Tuesday is available on a Roku set-top box, and Panasonic's rep said that, as a streaming video service similar to YouTube, it was. Of course, the company did not confirm any additional partners at this time, but promised more to come. The ability to add new services to Viera Cast is a big draw, highlighted by the enticing "coming soon" sections in the main interface.
I also asked whether the 850U models, which connect to the Internet via an Ethernet jack, can work with a wireless network, and was told that while there's no "official" wireless solution available from the company, a number of third-party adapters will work.
Other features of the 850U series include an expanded color gamut over the 800U series. According to the company, the Digital Cinema Color Re-Mastering technology can reproduce the same color points used in digital cinema, which are wider than those used in the HDTV standard (aka Rec 709). When we asked the company why its flagship models didn't receive the same THX Display Certification found on the step-down TH-PZ800U series, we were told that rigorous adherence to the HDTV color standard was a prerequisite for THX. We're certain that's not the whole story--THX certification also costs money, and the 850U series is expensive enough already.
The 46-inch TH-45PZ850U ($3,099) and the 50-inch TH-50PZ850U ($3,499) will be available in June, while the 58-inch TH-58PZ850U and the 65-inch TH-65PZ850U (prices for both to be determined) will ship in the fall of this year. We expect to have a review of the 50-inch 850U model by the beginning of June, when we'll flesh out the details and evaluate the flesh tones of laughing babies for ourselves.