They may be called Blu-ray players, but in 2011 they're as much about streaming-media services as they are about high-definition discs. With every manufacturer having a different collection of streaming-media services, we've been taking an in-depth look at each company's content portal for 2011.
Today, we're looking at Panasonic's Viera Cast, which takes after LG's Smart TV in its simplicity. There's no app store or cross-platform search, but it has a solid collection of streaming-media services and an easy-to-use interface.
Panasonic Viera Cast is the same on most 2011 Panasonic Blu-ray players--and home theater systems with built-in Blu-ray players--but considerably different from the Viera Connect content portal offered on Panasonic HDTVs. Additionally, note that the entry-level DMP-BD75 doesn't offer the full Viera Cast suite, instead offering access only to Netflix, CinemaNow, and Vudu.
Panasonic Viera Cast streaming services vs. competitors
Editors' note: The chart doesn't list every streaming-media service available on each content portal; for the sake of simplicity, we chose those we considered most important.
Viera Cast has the fewest streaming-media services, but it includes all of the standard services (Netflix, Pandora, Vudu) and a few standouts, including Amazon Instant and Skype.
Amazon Instant Streaming is our favorite extra, especially for cord-cutters without cable. While competing services like Vudu are a compelling alternative for video-on-demand movies, Amazon Instant offers by far the largest selection of TV shows for pay-per-view watching, including both network and cable shows.
We also appreciate that Amazon Instant is tied into the viewer's Amazon.com account, which means we're able to watch our purchased content in a browser as well. If you're looking to "cut the cord" or just supplement your existing cable subscription, we've found Amazon Instant Streaming to be the best TV content provider. That being said, CinemaNow offers a solid collection of TV content, so it really comes down to which service you prefer.
If you want Amazon Instant, we'd consider Panasonic's main competition to be LG's Smart TV. Sony offers Amazon, too, but its user interface isn't quite as good.
Skype capability requires a $170 camera add-on, but if you can get past that price barrier, the functionality is pretty impressive. Unfortunately we didn't have the compatible Skype camera on hand for this review. The ability to make video calls right from your couch is definitely somewhat of a niche feature (although it seems great for families), but it worked well in the demos we've seen. We're expecting to get a compatible Skype camera shortly and we'll update this post with more hands-on testing.
Viera Cast could be the overall best option if Panasonic offered the same services available from Viera Connect on HDTVs. Viera Connect has several additional excellent apps, including Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, NHL Gamecenter, and NBA Game Time, and the addition of those services would make Viera Cast on Blu-ray the hands-down best streaming-content portal.
VieraCast user interface
While Samsung has fully adopted the app store model with Samsung Apps (and LG has dipped its toe in the water with LG Apps), Panasonic remains committed to a curated content portal. (At least on the Blu-ray side. Viera Connect on HDTVs has an app store.) Though there's definitely a theoretical advantage to having an app store, we haven't found it offering much of advantage so far for 2011 content portals. With each manufacturer offering its own apps, there seems to be less chance of one of them really taking off the way the Apple App Store did.
The Viera Cast user interface is mostly laid out well. The main screen has seven large icons to choose from, including the most popular services like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Vudu. Even better, you can customize the main screen in the setup menu. In our case, that meant swapping in Pandora for CinemaNow on the home screen.
There are even more services available if you click the More button below the center icon, bringing you to the next "layer" of screens. The whole layer concept seems a bit more complicated than it needs to be and we're guessing some nontechies will have some difficulty finding that second screen. However, since you can fit seven services on the main page, most people will never need to navigate beyond the main screen anyway.
For overall user experience, Panasonic's Viera Cast is definitely one of the best this year, coming in right behind LG's Smart TV.
Panasonic's Netflix interface is excellent. It's very similar to the interface offered on the PlayStation 3 at the end of last year, so if you're looking for more information, take a look at our detailed hands-on for PS3. Unlike with older versions of Netflix, you can search for titles as well as browse categories like new arrivals and different genres.
There was significant variation in Netflix interfaces last year on Blu-ray players, but this year they're largely the same, so it's not a major differentiating factor.
Panasonic gets a lot right with Viera Cast, especially regarding the user interface. The main issue is that it's missing a few high-quality services (MLB.TV, Hulu Plus, various music services) that are available on competitors' players, not to mention Panasonic's Viera Connect TV service. If you're not interested in those other services, Viera Cast is a solid option, especially if you'll use the Skype functionality. Otherwise you'll want to check out the competition, and we'd recommend starting with LG's Smart TV.
Got Panasonic Viera Cast questions? Leave a comment below.