Posts Tagged ‘Panasonic’

CES 2012: ANOTHER OPENING, ANOTHER SHOW

Over the top? Nahhh, it's CES!

 

There’s still a debate about whether the U.S. economy has turned the corner and is on the rebound. As far as CES 2012 attendees were concerned, that ‘corner’ is way back in the rear-view mirror! According to official CES reports, over 140,000 people flocked to the Las Vegas Convention Center for the world’s second-largest annual gadget orgy (and at least 100,000 of them were constantly waiting on the South Hall cab lines).

 

The show was notable for several things. First, the expanding presence of Chinese CE brands, like TCL, Changhong, Haier, and Hisense. (Never heard of them? You’re not alone.) Second, this show was Microsoft’s curtain call, as they’ve decided to go the route of Apple and stage their own product intros in the future.

 

Third, there was a decided pull-back on 3D (aside from LG, who made it the focus of their booth) and a renewed emphasis on ‘connected’ TVs in all shapes and flavors. And fourth, gesture recognition made a well-deserved comeback this year after being mostly an afterthought in 2011.

 

Overall, the show had less of a “let’s build it because we can” feel, and more of a “let’s actually make a practical gadget that people will want to buy” buzz. Still, there were the usual surprises – some were telegraphed in advance, while others showed up quite unexpectedly.

LG's 55-inch OLED was a thing of beauty.

And Samsung's 55-inch OLED wasn't too shabby, either.

 

Here’s an example. Both LG and Samsung showed 55-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs at the show. LG’s unveiling had been common knowledge, while Samsung’s was only revealed to members of the press under embargo. But both showings attracted constant crowds, as OLEDs in this size are a rare sighting!

 

LG’s 55-incher is supposedly a production model and will come from a new Gen 8 fab in Korea. It uses Kodak’s white OLED technology (purchased by LG a couple of years ago), with discrete red, green, blue, and white filters applied. Samsung’s approach is a bit trickier and employs discrete red, green, and blue OLEDs. Both panels looked terrific, and thank goodness for LG Display’s separate, quieter and far less chaotic suite at the Bellagio, where I could examine the OLED TV more closely.

 

It’s hard to upstage a demo like that, but Sony almost pulled it off by showing 46-inch and 55-inch inorganic LED TVs. What’s an inorganic LED? It’s the same technology that powers those outdoor LED signs you see alongside highway and inside stadiums and arenas. Only Sony figured out a way to stuff 6.2 million small-pitch RGB LEDs into a TV, using an expensive and time-consuming wire bonding process that ensures (for now) that these products won’t come to market any time soon. But these TVs still looked spectacular and livened up what was otherwise a rather sedate Sony booth, compared to 2011 (remember that 92-foot passive 3D screen and the astronaut DJ?)

Sony's 46-inch Crystal LED (left) and a 46-inch Bravia LCD TV (right).

 

Just down the hall, Sharp left no doubts about its product marketing strategy for the next few years by showcasing a new 80-inch professional video display with touchscreen overlay. The Aquos Touch is adapted from Sharp’s 80-inch Aquos TV that launched in the fall of 2011, and complements the 70-inch product already in the line. Given that Sharp’s market share in TVs has inexplicably dwindled to the mid-single figures, this is an interesting approach – but the playing field is wide open. And the pro AV channel is very interested in large, self-contained displays that could replace traditional two-piece projector installations.

 

Sharp also tickled our fancy with several Freestyle “portable” LCD TVs, including models as large as 60 inches. These TVs have been designed to be as light as possible and use a WiFi-based solution to stream HD content, so you can pretty much pick ‘em up and move ‘em wherever there’s an AC outlet. (I guess that includes the garage if you want to watch a football game with your best buds and keep the noise level down…)

 

3D was around, but clearly took a back seat to other demos. Still, Toshiba showed several examples of 1080p and 4K autostereo 3D TVs in their booth. These demos once again required the viewer to stand in specific locations to receive the full autostereo effect, and Toshiba thoughtfully provided small green circles with arrows in them as visual cues – when both were seen, you were positioned in a ‘sweet spot.’ Toshiba has clearly walked away from active 3D and has a few passive 3D sets in their line, but it appears autostereo is their game plan for the near future. (And yes, the 4K TV looked spectacular.)

 

Next door, Panasonic anted up big time by showing a new line of LED-backlit LCD TVs that will be available in sizes to 55 inches, immediately casting doubts as to the company’s future plans for plasma TVs.  These ET-series sets employ Panasonic’s IPS-Alpha LCD panels and I have to admit, they looked doggone good, particularly at wide viewing angles. Still, the company had plenty of plasma announcements, including faster subfield drive for improved motion rendering and even lower power consumption from the 2011 plasma lineup. For my money, plasma is still the way to go – that is, until OLED prices drop low enough.

4K is a lotta pixels! Wonder where the content will come from...

Are Panasonic's new ET-series LCD TVs the 'writing on the wall' for plasma?

 

LG is head over heels in love with 3D. That’s the only conclusion anyone could make after cruising through their booth, which featured an enormous panoramic Cinema 3D videowall (passive, of course) at the Central Hall entrance. Inside, LG’s 55-inch OLED was shown with 3D and 2D content, and a nearby exhibit showcased an 84-inch 4K 3D LCD monitor. (Sorry, it’s not for sale – yet…) 3D popped up on so many LG products that I expected the ‘smart’ washer and dryers also located in the massive exhibit to be labeled ‘Cinema 3D’ as well. (Technically speaking, you could apply film patterned retarders to the front port of the washer – oh, never mind.)

 

As mentioned earlier, the overwhelming presence of numerous Chinese brands at the show clearly shows which way the wind’s blowing these days. Haier brought back their clever wireless LCD TV demo from two years ago, and this version builds the inductive coupling system into the pedestal. Yes, it is completely wireless, power and all. (Amazing what you can do with a big transformer!) Elsewhere in the Haier booth, you could find a “brain wave TV” demo that was supposed to allow you to “think” of changing channels and raising/lowering volume. (It kinda worked.)

 

Changhong and TCL both exhibited some really sharp-looking LCD TV designs, proving that Japan and Korea don’t have any special magic in this area. All of the companies had 3D sets out for inspection with the majority using passive 3D technology, while several of the models were ‘smart’ TVs with built-in WiFi Internet connections for streaming video. No content partnerships were announced or seen, however. It’s telling that the size of these booths is getting larger with each year, while some of the Japanese TV manufacturers are slowly shrinking.

Look Ma - no HDMI cables, no power cables, no USB cables, no cables period!

I don't know what it means, but the thought is intriguing...

 

Speaking of ‘smart’ TVs, everybody had them – Sharp, LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, Haier, TCL, Hisense, you name it. That included connected Blu-ray players. Samsung’s Apps for TV seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, and Panasonic’s Viera Connect has also added content partners. LG’s ‘smart’ TV featured a demo of the new Google TV interface, which certainly looked a lot more user-friendly that the last implementation and presented a much more logical process for searching and finding video content on the Web.

 

Many of the companies exhibiting at CES used Rovi’s Total Guide EPG (or variations of it) to search out and find Web video content, as well as more traditional sources like cable, satellite, and even broadcast TV. Rovi has ported their guide to every possible platform and in their suite at Caesar’s Palace, showed implementations on set-top boxes, tablets, and a variety of TVs. The company is also into ad insertion and content delivery management systems. In short, they find it, stream it, and monetize it.

 

How about connecting all of this stuff together? Rainbow Fish had a small booth in the rear of the South Hall, but it was worth hunting down. They are selling direct HDMI-to-fiber optic connectivity kits that use multimode fiber and require only a separate USB connection at the TV to supply 5 volt phantom power to the lasers. Everything is built into the plugs, so there’s no need for separate converter boxes.

HDMI to fiber is here. Need a 300-foot extension? No problem!

DO try this at home. At least, 3M says so.

 

A few booths away, 3M was hawking a new ‘unbreakable’ HDMI cable design. Its super-flat and you can fold it, bend it, twist it – in short, pretty much abuse it any way you want. But you won’t screw up the signal, as 3M’s presentation showed. There are two types of cables – one for consumer applications, and one for computers (notebooks, I guess) and 3M offers plenty of options for color-coding the cable ends. They won’t be sold directly, but through OEM partners. Marry these with the drop-forged HDMI plugs I saw at a nearby booth, and you’ve got a ‘super’ HDMI connection.

 

Don’t want to plug anything in? Silicon Image has rejuvenated the Wireless HD standard with its acquisition of SiBeam, and was demonstrating 60 GHz wireless HDMI connectivity from tablets and notebook computers to large TVs. Wireless HD is a close range HDMI connectivity standard that is not WiFi based, and the chipsets and associated connections can now be manufactured in sizes small enough to build into a tablet. So, who will be the first to add it to their tablet? (My vote is for the next-generation iPad.)

 

Some signs just can't be explained. Your guess is as good as mine...

Over in the Hilton, the WHDI Consortium had their demos of 5 GHz wireless HDMI interfaces running on professional camcorders, tablets, notebooks (including wireless DisplayPort and wireless VGA, for some unknown reason), and TVs. Asus showed a production notebook computer with WHDI connectivity built-in, and HP is now selling a WHDI connectivity kit for computers and TVs. Atlona won a Best of CES award for its WHDI-based LinkCast wireless HDMI package. Can WHDI compete with Wireless HD? We’ll see as 2012 unfolds.

Fish need camcorders?

 

Have you ever dropped your cell phone in a pool, or in the toilet? HzO had a demonstration of their proprietary waterproofing system for handheld CE devices that showcased an iPhone merrily playing away a selection of iTunes while dunked in a fish tank for several hours. Other phones that had been ‘treated’ also took a dive. Waterproofing was a big thing at CES, as I spotted several tanks full of phones, camcorders, and still cameras.

 

I mentioned gesture recognition earlier. PrimeSense, the company behind Microsoft’s Kinect Xbox motion recognition system, had an impressive demo of gesture recognition in the South Hall, and has licensed an add-on MS package to Asus called Xtion. A dancer in the booth kept things hopping with a ‘60s psychedelic imaging sequence that triggered all kinds of ‘trippy’ graphics and was fun to watch for a few minutes.

 

Over in the Samsung booth, crowds lined up for the most impressive MS demo. Samsung’s implementation also incorporates voice and facial recognition, taking and storing a picture of each user with a top-mounted camera. The command “Hi, TV!” activates a menu bar along the bottom of the screen, and the user can then command channel and volume changes on the TV as well as navigate menus and delve into Samsung’s ‘smart’ TV system. Hand gestures are also used to raise and lower volume and navigate up/down through channels.

 

Variations of gesture recognition were also seen in the LG and Haier booths, as well as by specialty manufacturers. Some systems require the use of a wand to control the TV; others simply rely on broad gestures – Haier’s demo had a fellow actually boxing in sync with the video game, and I was afraid he was going to deck himself at some point!

Seriously? A USB emergency in the field? Victorinox' has 16GB to go.

 

Impressive car. Now, how exactly do you drive it? From the cloud? (Don't laugh...)

Other cool products at the show included Sharp’s 8K-resolution LCD TV, Victorinox’ 16 GB USB Swiss Army Knife (I kid you not), Belkin’s four-port ScreenCast wireless HDMI transmitter/receiver, Duracell’s cordless smart phone charging system (yes, it really works), Ford’s cloud-connected EVO concept car with personal health sensor monitoring, LG Display’s Art TV concept design, JVC’s new 4K camcorder for $4,000, BenQ’s new LCD monitors for gamers with instant picture setting changes, and Silicon Images’ demo of 3D mobile high-definition link (MHL) connectivity that resulted in the first TV screen I’ve ever seen with “airplane mode” on it.

 

I’d be remiss by not commenting on one legendary company’s presence at the show. As many readers know, Kodak has been in a death spiral for the past decade as its core film business fades away and digital imaging takes over. The company recently received a warning from the New York Stock Exchange that it might be delisted (last time I checked, shares were selling at about 61 cents) and it is about to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to auction off its patents in digital imaging.

 

So what the heck was the Great Yellow Father showing in that enormous booth in the upper South Hall? Why, its line of color inkjet printers, of course! Supposedly, color inkjets will be the salvation of Kodak, or at least that’s what the current management (ex-HP) tells us. Only problem is, Kodak’s market share in inkjet printers for 2011 was less than 5%, and they’re fast running out of cash for day-to-day operations.

OK, what's wrong with THIS picture?

 

Somehow, Kodak’s long-time competitor Fuji managed to support both film-based and digital imaging and not drive over a cliff. At CES, they showed a new 16-megapixel digital camera system with interchangeable lenses, upgraded their line of point-and-shoots, expanded the FinePix digital camera offerings, and continue to market a clever 3D digital camera. (Maybe Kodak ought to hire some of the Fuji guys…)

 

I’ll have more coverage of CES 2012 during my annual Super Tuesday Technology Trends presentation at InfoComm 2012 this coming June in Las Vegas. See you there!

Life (and Death) Go On In The Projector World

Three news items in the past few days are all focused on front projectors (pardon the pun). And each of these news items has a decided air of uncertainty around it, which of course reflects the sluggish economy and a looming paradigm shift away from projected images to self-contained, larger-than-life display technologies.

 

The first item is courtesy of Engadget, who reports that Sony is getting ready to bring a $28,000 4K-resolution projector to the home cinema market. They won’t be the first (Meridian previously offered the JVC 4K D-ILA platform for about $200K), but they will be the cheapest.

 

This announcement, which will no doubt be one of Sony’s big PR blasts at CES 2012, raises a few questions. First, who needs 4K resolution? That represents four times the detail on a full 1920×1080 image, and there isn’t any content available to consumers (yet) that is authored at that resolution.

 

Sure, HDMI v1.4 supports 4K. And you could certainly master a 4K Blu-ray disc, although at current disc capacities, you’d be limited to about 30 – 45 minutes of content with aggressive MPEG4 compression. But for now, 2K (or, more accurately, 2,073,600) pixels represents the upper limit for home viewing.

 

That gives rise to the second question: How will Sony scale 2K content to fit the 4K imaging devices, which are almost certain to be SXRD LCoS chips? It’s not just a line-doubling job. No, scaling 2K to 4K is akin to scaling standard definition video to the 720p HDTV format. And what will 720p broadcasts look like on this projector?

 

Third, how big a screen would you need to actually see the difference between 4K and 2K source material? I’m thinking that the typical 92-inch 16:9 screen at 12 feet isn’t going to cut it.

 

The second news item comes from Quixel Research, who reports that USA sales of 3D projectors for home use increased by 121% between Q2 and Q3 of 2011. That number represents 16% of all home theater projector sales, which sounds pretty impressive.

 

Ahh, but the devil is in the details, as usual. Sales revenue for 3D home projectors grew by only 14% in the same time period, a trend Quixel attributes to a “recent onslaught of low-cost 3D models” in the channel. Not so impressive, and even less so when you learn that the overall home theater projector market saw a 7% decrease in volume from Q2 to Q3 2011, even though the category saw a 2% increase year-to-year.

 

The culprit? Look no further than plummeting prices on bigger and bigger TV screens. For less than $3,000, you can buy a Sharp Aquos 70-inch LED LCD TV with all the trimmings. And their newest model measures 80 inches diagonally, and will retail for less than $5,000. Who needs a projector when you’ve got a self-contained TV screen that large? (Betcha Sharp shows a 90-inch+ LCD TV at CES!)

 

My belief is that 3D front projection make a whole lot more sense at home than small 3D TVs (less than 55 inches). Most people sit too far away from 3D TVs to get the full effect, and they rarely pay attention to controlling ambient light spilling on the screen.

 

But 3D front projection turns that equation around. It’s easy to get a big 3D image and not spend a ton of money to do it, and screens tend to be placed in rooms where lights can be lowered or shut off altogether, just like in a movie theater.

 

The problem is that projector manufacturers have slashed prices too low, too quickly. Got $2,000 in your pocket? You have quite a selection of stereoscopic DLP and 3LCD front projectors to choose from; of which a few models are tagged around $1,500. That’s a lot less than a 70-inch LED LCD TV costs – for now. But margins are very thin on such products.

 

The last item comes by way of AV Interactive, the top pro AV publication in the United Kingdom. According to their Web site, Sanyo will cease to exist as a brand name by the end of the 1st quarter of 2012 (also the end of the fiscal year for Japanese companies).

 

How the AVI staff found this out is interesting: They got hold of a letter circulated by Panasonic to ‘business partners’ informing them of the decision. (I assume ‘business partners’ means dealers and distributors.)

 

Readers from the pro AV industry will of course recognize Sanyo as one of the top projector brands, fronting an amazingly-large lineup that ranges from ultraportables to 10,000-lumens behemoths for auditoriums and theaters. They’ve also done pioneering work with short-throw projection as well as LED-powered light engines.

 

For those readers who missed the headlines, Panasonic acquired Sanyo in December of 2008 for about $4.6 billon, primarily to scoop up the latter’s industry-leading battery and renewable energy technologies. Solar cell technologies were also in the mix. I found out about the acquisition while having dinner with several Sanyo executives in Osaka that night, which of course made for some very interesting conversations.

 

At the time, I assumed that the Sanyo and Panasonic projector business units could co-exist nicely. Panasonic does very well in high-brightness DLP projectors, while Sanyo projectors are ubiquitous in hotels, classrooms, conference rooms, and even home theaters. But it appears that’s not going to be the case, as Panasonic will instead pull a ‘borg’ move and completely assimilate its prized acquisition.

 

Ironically, the two companies have family ties that go all the way back to the period just after World War II. Sanyo was born when Toshio Iue, a former Matsushita employee and the brother-in-law of Konosuke Matsushita (the founder of Panasonic), began manufacturing bicycle generator lamps in an unused Matsushita plant in 1947.

 

What will happen to all of the Sanyo and Panasonic projector business unit employees is uncertain at this writing; although it’s likely there will be substantial staff reductions. No word yet on whether Panasonic will continue to offer Sanyo-designed appliances (possibly), LCD TVs (unlikely), and cameras and camcorders (also unlikely).

 

What we will see from Panasonic is a wider portfolio of rechargeable batteries and energy-efficient devices. That may be the only legacy of Sanyo to survive after April 1 of next year. Too bad, because I love my Sanyo Xacti 1080p pistol camera and my brother loves his Sanyo 32-inch LCD TV. And I’m sure many readers love their PLV-series Sanyo home theater projectors, too.

 

Tempus fugit…

Ho-Ho-Ho! Is Turning Into Uh-Oh-Oh!

The results are in, and they aren’t pretty.

 

Both Sony and Panasonic posted substantial losses for the current fiscal quarter and are looking at lots of red ink next March, when their current fiscal year ends. Sony forecast a $2.2 billion loss for its TV operations in the fiscal year that ends next March. Overall, the company is looking at a $1.1 billion net loss for the current financial year, which reverses an earlier prediction of a $730 million profit.

 

This is Sony’s eighth straight year of losses for its flagship TV lines and rumors are flying that its S-LCD partnership with Samsung may be deep-sixed. Earlier, Sony announced it would split its television business into three divisions, consisting of (a) outsourcing, (b) the current LCD TV business, and (c) next-generation TVs (read: OLEDs), starting November 1.

 

But that may not be enough to stem the tide. Some prominent Asian market analysts think Sony should bite the bullet and just pull the plug on TVs altogether, concentrating on their gaming console, smart phone, VAIO computer, and camcorder operations.

 

The easier path to income may be for Sony to license its name to a Chinese TV manufacturer and collect royalties, much the same as Philips has done with Funai in North America.

 

Panasonic is looking at as much as $5.4 billion in losses by year’s end. The culprits are the high value of the yen against the dollar and euro, and the merger and re-sizing of the combined Sanyo – Panasonic operations.

 

Two TV manufacturing plants in Japan will be taken offline, while plasma TV production capacity will be cut by 48%. Further procurement will move to Singapore from Osaka, and plans to relocate plasma fabs to mainland China will also be put into limbo. The company expects to cut its payroll to 350,000 employees worldwide.

 

What does all of this mean to you? Expect to see deep discounts on TVs starting around Black Friday. There will be some amazing deals on large (55 inch and up) LCD and plasma TVs. Even the 3D products are going to come down in price, continuing a trend of diminishing premiums for 3D functionality.

 

So if you are in the market for a new LCD or plasma TV, this could be the perfect year to upgrade. Watch your online price trackers and be ready to move when you see a good price. Right now, you can find ‘basic’ LCD and plasma TVs for about $10-$12 per diagonal inch, up to 55 inches – use that as a baseline when you are wheeling and dealing. Who knows? You may do even better!

Hey, This Is Really Hard!

A story in the October 27 edition of the Wall Street Journal states that television may no longer be the ‘king of the hill’ when it comes to watching programming.

 

Food for thought: Apple’s high-end 10.1” iPad costs more than a 42-inch LCD or plasma TV (even a 42-inch LED-backlit LCD TV). And based on a presentation in my Display Technologies session at the just-concluded SMPTE Fall Technology Conference, more and more sales of ‘displays’ are going to switch to smaller, portable devices like the iPad, and away from conventional TVs.

 

Neither Internet-connected TVs nor 3D have helped revive TV sales, which slowed considerably after the 2008 recession. According to DisplaySearch, more than half of all new TVs shipped by 2015 will have Internet connections, just as more and more TVs will include 3D as a feature and not a premium upgrade.

 

The WSJ article quotes TV industry executives as speculating Apple, Google, and Amazon might enter the TV arena with products of their own. Apple’s TV prototype is already circulating through factories in China, according to several published reports. And Amazon already has experience in mass distribution of content over its Kindle platform.

 

Profits are hard to come by in the TV business. Three of the top four Japanese TV manufacturers said they lost money on TV operations during Q2 ’11, with Sharp being the exception – although Sharp’s LCD fabrication business was its biggest loss leader in the same time period. I have previously documented Sharp’s rapidly-diminishing market share in U.S. TV sales, which has been accompanied by a worldwide decline to about 8% of the market for the latest reporting period.

 

Over in Korea, similar red ink was seen at Samsung and LG’s LCD fabs, according to the article. In contrast, the TV marketing and sales operations were profitable. The challenge that all manufacturers face is continually declining values even with larger and larger shipment volumes, and the fear that TVs will soon fall into the low-priced commodity trap of computer monitors.

 

Sony’s continuing struggle to make a profit in LCD TVs for the past eight years shows that even a strong brand can’t carry the day anymore. The real threat is between smaller, portable wireless tablets that can do an amazing job with video playback.

 

On my flight home last night from SMPTE, I counted two dozen iPads in use playing back cached video or DVDs, plus numerous notebook computers. Each and every one of those products is now climbing the hill, ready to topple the king…

Sneak Peek: Panasonic’s TH-42BT300U Reference-Grade Plasma Monitor

It’s been almost six years in the making, but Panasonic has finally come out with a reference-grade plasma monitor. First announced at the 2011 HPA Technology Retreat and shown publicly at NAB 2011, the TH-42BT300U (and its 50-inch brother, the TH-50BT300U) is an industrial monitor that doubles as a reference display for post-production and a host of critical imaging applications.

 

Panasonic is one of three companies still manufacturing plasma displays in quantity, the others being Samsung and LG. But Panasonic has made significant investment in PDP fabrication and also branched out into larger sizes (85”, 103”, and 151”).

Panasonic's TH-42BT300U (left) blew away the TH-42PF20U (right) at Panasonic's NAB suite in the 'crow's nest'

AN INDUSTRY IN TRANSITION

 

As the days of the time-tested Sony BVM-series and PVM-series CRT monitors ran short, many studios and post houses started to experiment with using LCD and plasma TVs and monitors to replace them. Problem was, these consumer TVs didn’t offer anywhere near the consistency and accuracy of the BVMs. They were often way too bright, had S-curve gamma performance, high black levels, and wildly inaccurate color coordinates and gamuts.

 

Sony even tried to replace its BVMs and PVMs with a line of LCD monitors, known as Trimaster. These expensive displays ($25K for a 23-inch monitor) were certainly accurate, but could not overcome many of the physical and optical limitations of LCD technology.

 

Their biggest drawback was price. Customers just could not rationalize spending that much money for a small LCD monitor, particularly when they could buy a 50-inch industrial plasma for less than $5,000. And the pictures they got out of the industrial plasma monitors looked pretty darned good! (But not accurate.)

 

I started testing Panasonic’s 42-inch industrial monitors back in 2008 to see if they could be ‘tuned up’ for improved performance, using the existing set of controls. The answer was, they could indeed be calibrated, as long as they were not running in ‘dynamic’ picture mode, and all ‘enhancements’ to images were shut off.

 

In fact, the model I tested – the TH-42PF11U – performed so well that many post houses started putting them everywhere in their facilities. The price point (less than $2,000) couldn’t be beat, and Panasonic offered both SDI and HD-SDI modular input cards, along with dual HDMI inputs. After a seminar at B&H photo in 2009 to explain how to tune up the TH-42PF11U, I recall a Panasonic area rep as saying the company was back-ordered on this particular monitor to the tune of almost 800 units.

 

YOU CAN ALWAYS MAKE IT BETTER

 

As well as the TH-42PF11U performed, it lacked some critical settings and adjustments. First of all, the monitor’s color gamut never changed in any mode. It covered most of the digital cinema P3 gamut, but far exceeded the BT.709 HDTV gamut. And you couldn’t adjust it.

 

Second, there were only a handful of pre-set gamma curves, like 2.0, 2.2, and 2.6. While these did turn out to be close to ideal, there were problems getting the blue channel to track correctly from black to white and produce a stable value of gray at any brightness level.

 

Finally, there were no memory settings available to save a bunch of different calibrations. Depending on the source material and the final master file, a post house could be working with EBU or HDTV color spaces, or even a digital intermediate that might emulate the P3 DCI space. How could all of those settings be saved?

 

The TH-42PF11U was replaced by the TH-42PF20U, which was more of a digital sign display and had major black level issues. So that wasn’t the solution. It took one more year of waiting for the 300-series to make their debut, and the wait was well worth it.

Yeah, you're right - these new monitors don't look very 'sexy.' But it's what's inside the counts.

THE HIGHLIGHTS…

 

Those of us who had been nagging Panasonic to step up their game got almost everything we wanted in the 300-series. No, we didn’t get 10 steps of individual red, green, blue, and white gamma adjustments, although you almost don’t need them now. But we did get multiple memories with custom labeling, and we finally got a color gamut adjustment, with one custom setting for fine-tuning x,y coordinates for primaries.

 

The TH-42BT300U isn’t quite as bright as its predecessors. That’s because it has additional first surface filtering, a trick stolen from Pioneer’s Kuro playbook. As a result, these monitors are not ‘blazingly’ bright, unless you operate them in Dynamic mode. But that’s OK, as Panasonic found that many editors and colorists were operating the 11-series monitors at much lower brightness levels than the 120-130 nits (over 30 ft-L) I was calibrating at.

 

Now, you’ll see about 75-80 nits out of the TH-42BT300U in Cinema mode, and 85-95 nits in Standard mode. Both modes can be calibrated nicely to a specific color temperature, but gamma performance is most accurate in Cinema mode.

 

Speaking of gamma; you’ll find numerous presets including 1.8, 2.0, 2.2, 2.35, 2.5, and 2.6. And they’re all right on the money – in my calibration tests, a 2.35 gamma resulted in an actual curve measuring 2.35. Close enough for government work!

 

Better yet, the TH-42BT300U tracks a tighter grayscale than its grandfather, and the TH-4211PFU was no slouch in that department. Out of the box, the BT.709 color gamut setting was pretty close to ideal, but I was able to get it even closer using the Custom adjustments for red, green, and blue offsets.

 

…AND THE PROOF

 

Here are some performance charts I generated with ColorFacts 7.5 for your edification. First off is a gamma curve, plotted with the gamma set to 2.35 and peak white at about 75 nits (about 22 foot-Lamberts, for those of you who prefer your measurements in the olde English style).

Next up is a color temperature histogram plot. The dashed line is the target of 6500 Kelvin. Note that the accuracy of my sensor head (an X-rite Eye One Pro) is a little off below 10 IRE).

How does that line track so cleanly? The next chart shows you why. It’s an RGB levels histogram, plotted from 0 to 100 IRE. The mix of red, green, and blue is pretty consistent – not perfect, but adequate for most critical work.

And our next chart shows just how closely the color gamut of the TH-42BT300U tracks the BT.709 color space. Out of the box, the green coordinate was slightly over-saturated and shifted toward yellow. Some quick adjustments in the Edit menu fixed that in a hurry.

For those readers who want to know how much of the P3 color space is covered by the TH-42BT300U, look at the next chart. Note that the green saturation isn’t quite enough to do the trick, but you can calibrate a nice grayscale track for the DCI target color temperature (all those small white dots show where the plotted temperatures feel for each grayscale value).

The last CIE chart shows the native full-gamut color capabilities of the TH-42BT300U (white outline), compared to the BT.709 HDTV color space (black outline).

And to wrap things up, here are some quickie contrast measurements:

After calibration, in Cinema Warm BT.709 mode with 2.35 gamma:

ANSI contrast = 771:1
Peak contrast = 1527:1

Average white level, checkerboard pattern: 68.85 nits
Average black level, checkerboard pattern: .089 nits

Maximum color temperature shift across a 100 IRE screen, measured at nine points: 76 degrees Kelvin

(That last number is mind-boggling for an industrial display monitor of any type!)

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

My hat’s off to Panasonic, although I am one of those who has been nagging them for years to come out with a reference plasma monitor. I’d like to think a lot of the testing I did on the 11-series and 12-series provided much of the momentum that led to the 300-series displays. Even so, the company figured out it had a diamond in the rough and started polishing.

 

What’s up in the next generation? Let’s hope multi-point gamma correction finally makes it into the menu, along with improved color saturation in the green channel so it can cover more of the P3 space. Regardless, the TH-42BT300U delivers a level of performance that is an absolute bargain for the asking price, which as I understand it will be less than $5,000. (Much less, in fact!)