A TV with Internet under the hood

2 Mar

March 2, 2009

By Geoff Meeker

Last week, after putting my TV in for some much-needed service, I was faced with the prospect of going without widescreen for a couple of weeks.

But then I had an idea. Why not ask for a loaner, the latest TV technology, for review purposes? The good folks at West End Electronics agreed, and directed my attention to the Panasonic 46” plasma TV.

The TV connects to the Internet, allowing for limited web surfing, a feature that caught my attention. Another step, perhaps, toward convergence of television and desktop computer?

But first, the TV itself. The 46” Panasonic is certainly a treat for the eyes. I had it for more than two weeks, so there’s been time to get acquainted. It goes without saying that picture quality is wonderful – everything you would expect from a $2200 TV (which was a sale price).

After almost seven years, the colour alignment in my old Sony XBR 50” had deteriorated, creating a slight ghosting effect that compromised image quality. It was startling, therefore, to see, again, how high definition should look – sharp, vivid and bright.

I put the emphasis on ‘bright’. My old TV has a variety of picture modes, essentially ranging from dull to bright. However, its brightest setting doesn’t hold a candle to the ‘games’ picture mode on the Panasonic. Many shooter videogames have dark themes, with action that takes place at night or in caves and darkened buildings, resulting in eyestrain when trying to discern the enemy. In games mode, the scene becomes floodlit – a feature my boys latched onto immediately.

I was less impressed by the Internet connectivity, which costs an additional $200 over a similar model of the same size.  This feature is called Viera Cast, and upon selecting it, you are presented with a tableau of nine smaller screens, including a weather pane, stock reports (from Bloomberg) and the option of entering either youtube.com or picasa.com.

(And, for the record, my TV has been connected for some time to the Internet, for online game play with the xBox, which also enables ‘telephone’ conversation with other players through a headset. However, advanced as these features may be, they aren’t able to surf the Internet at large.)

The Youtube video site needs no introduction, and there is logic in making it available on TV. However, to search for videos, you navigate with the TV’s remote control, which means scrolling through an alpha-numeric grid and entering one letter or number at a time. That gets old really quickly. On a computer keyboard, you can type the same search command in a fraction of the time this takes.

Note to developers: In order for the convergence of TV and Internet to gain real traction, a functional keypad must be incorporated into the remote control. Because this approach is a step backwards.

The Youtube videos play on a smaller screen-within-a-screen, which is probably a necessity, as most lack the resolution to transition to anything larger than a computer monitor.

Picasa is a digital photo editing and archiving site that has some practical applications, and is easier to use than Youtube. You can browse random images at the site, or open your own personal archive of stored images. Off the top, navigation is simpler. You scroll through a grid of thumbnail images, and click to enlarge those you want to see.

The large screen adds value to the exercise as well, doing justice to all those lovely, high resolution photos.

You can even play slideshows of your Picasa image galleries, assuming you have them. This is a feature you won’t appreciate until seeing it in action. Many of us have hundreds of digital shots stored on computers that never get seen, and this is a way of cycling through them on a canvas as big as any wall art.

Imagine a series of (reasonably good) photos from that special vacation, or wild family reunion, playing as a slide show on your widescreen TV. It draws you in quickly, and is guaranteed to become the focal point of any family gathering (though the old rule, of not subjecting party guests to interminable slide shows, should still apply).

But I digress. Whether you like Youtube or Picasa is not really the point. What astonishes me is, these are the only two Internet sites available on Viera Cast. They are hard-wired. There is no web browsing capability, not even for other video or image sites.

Last time I checked, there were 185 million Internet sites out there. Honestly, why go through such effort to connect TV to the Internet, to access just two web sites?

The convergence of television and computer is happening, but it’s moving in baby steps.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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