Panasonic has renamed and completely revamped its smart TV platform for 2014, replacing the VIERA Connect system with a new system called Life+Screen that puts a major emphasis on personalization and customization. I reviewed Life+Screen as it appears in the TC-55AS650U LED/LCD TV.
VIERA Connect had the core services we expect to see in a smart TV platform, and its layout was a model of simplicity - just a few pages filled with large icons for popular streaming apps and Web services - but it lacked some of the advanced functionality, customization, and content recommendation tools offered by competitors like Samsung and LG. So Panasonic went back to the drawing board to re-envision the whole smart TV experience.
For those who just want the smart TV basics, pressing the remote's Apps button brings up a full-screen interface with a grid of popular apps, including Netflix, YouTube, VUDU, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Skype (requires the addition of a USB Web camera), and more. The icons are smaller than in the old VIERA Connect design, allowing up to 21 to fit on a single page for faster, more intuitive navigation than VIERA Connect delivered (the default layout includes two pages for apps). Through the Settings icon in the top right corner, you can rearrange and uninstall apps as desired.
Along the top of the Apps page are icons for the Apps Market (to browse and add new apps), Shopping (to purchase Panasonic accessories like headphones and digital phones), and VIERA Link (to set up HDMI-CEC).
Here you'll also find icons for the Panasonic Media player and DLNA server access, to stream media content from network-connected DLNA servers/computers and attached USB drives and SD card slots. I found the Media player to be very easy to navigate and very quick in its load times and response to remote commands. I had no trouble streaming from my Seagate NAS drive. A Web browser is also available through the Apps page that supports Flash and has reasonably fast load times, but navigation is always more cumbersome on a TV than it would be on a computer or mobile device.
For those who want to dig deeper into the Life+Screen experience, Panasonic allows every user in the house to set up their own account and log in via voice recognition or facial recognition (if you've attached a camera). Each user can customize their own Apps page, as well as their own Home Screen, which is the screen that comes up when you first power on the TV or hit the remote's "Home" button. You can choose from two preset Home Screen layouts called Lifestyle Screen and Info Screen, both of which feature a large window for the current video source, surrounded by customizable windows where you can place your favorite apps for quick access. I personally prefer to have the TV start up and go straight to the video source playing full-screen, which is thankfully the third preset Home Screen option. The Apps page includes a "Screen Market" where you can browse more Home Screen designs to further customize the experience.
One of the marquee new additions to Panasonic's Apps lineup is called "my Stream," and it's a place to go for content recommendations that, again, can be personalized for each user. At first, my Stream primarily offers links to YouTube videos. You can input your local cable/satellite provider info and get recommendations for content that's now playing in your area. Unfortunately, Panasonic did not take the next step of integrating control of your cable/satellite set-top box into the "my Stream" platform so that, if you see something of interest, you could just click on it and watch. Also, my Stream does not appear to be linked to any of the streaming VOD services like VUDU or Netflix; so, when you search for a movie title, you get related YouTube links but not a list of available apps where the movie can be played. my Stream works with the voice recognition on the Panasonic Touch Pad remote and through the Panasonic TV Remote 2 control app, so you can just speak the name of a title or genre to pull up recommendations. Hitting the remote's Star button on a selected title will teach the system what you like so that it can better tailor recommendations to your taste.
The other big addition to the smart TV platform is called My Home Cloud, which basically sets up a cloud storage system that you can access directly through the TV. If you've taken photos or videos on your mobile device, you can upload them to your cloud storage to be viewed through the TV. The reverse also works; you can upload content to the TV, like photos and notes, and access them via the mobile device. You can also create a Facebook-like social network with other Life+Screen users to chat about shows or share photos/videos. Within the Panasonic TV Remote 2 control app on your iOS/Android device, you'll see a section called "my Home Cloud" from which you can send and receive content. On the TV itself, located at the top of your Home Screen, a "Message" area will alert you when photos, notes, videos, etc., have been shared with you.
In terns of control options, the higher-end 2014 Panasonic TVs (like the TC-55AS650U that I reviewed) come with both the standard IR remote and the Touch Pad Controller with voice control. Both of these options worked reasonably well to navigate the Life+Screen experience. The Touch Pad Controller's voice control and touchpad make it quicker to search for content and navigate Web pages, but it's also missing some buttons you may want for media playback and other functions. The best option, in my opinion, is the Panasonic TV Remote 2 control app, which contains pages that mimic the full layout of both the IR and Touch Pad remotes. It also has a virtual keyboard for faster text entry, it integrates voice control through your phone's microphone, and it provides access to the Home Cloud service to share and back up your media content.
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