Panasonic Viera PZ850 Series Plasma TVs

Although home-theater PCs and set-top boxes like AppleTV have made it possible to watch content streamed directly from the Internet on a TV for years, the practicality of these devices has lagged well behind. This may soon change for the better, though, as attention from TV manufacturers pushes the Internet further toward merging with your living room TV by skipping the middle man. IPTV features built into the next generation of high-end televisions will give some of them native Web capabilities, eliminating the need for extra equipment and remotes.

The flagship of Panasonic’s 2008 Viera plasma line, the PZ850, is among the first mainstream sets to adopt this technology. Although it boasts improvements to image quality and all the other bells and whistles that come with a new model year, its ability to harvest content from the Web without a PC stands out as its most compelling new trick.

Panasonic Viera PZ850
Image Courtesy of Panasonic

Panasonic has branded its own IPTV technology Viera Cast. The PZ850 connects to the Internet via a standard Ethernet connection, and looks out onto the Web through a portal groomed by Panasonic and its partners. Although it doesn’t offer a full-fledged browsing experience, the first generation of Viera Cast gives users access to YouTube, Picasa, weather updates, and financial information from Bloomberg, with additional features automatically added to the fray as they become available.

So, instead of flipping to the Weather Channel to wait for tomorrow’s forecast, you might pull up the weather on your TV to get that information on demand, the same way you would with a computer. Or, rather than connecting your laptop to the TV to show a favorite YouTube video, you can pull it up directly through the set with no fuss. While this initial smattering of features probably won’t have you snipping the cable connection anytime soon, the flexibility built into the system holds plenty of promise for the future.

As for those other bells and whistles, there are plenty. The next entry in Panasonic’s Viera lexicon, “Viera Link,” makes it possible to use one remote to control multiple devices – without relying on IR signals. Viera Link harnesses an HDMI connection’s built-in capability for transmitting control signals, meaning a remote control press sent to your TV is also piped to every HDMI-connected device. So even if your Blu-ray player is squirreled away in a cabinet somewhere, Viera Link can take control by wire.

The TV also gets a built-in SD card slot to make viewing digital photos as easy as popping them out of your camera and into the TV, in all their 1920 x 1080 HD glory. And if your own shots aren’t exactly masterpieces, the TV’s GalleryPlayer compatibility lets you to buy professional shots on the Web to turn your TV into a replica museum piece.

Fortunately, the added newfound functionality in the PZ850 models doesn’t put them over the top on price. When they go on sale in mid-June, the 46-inch sets will run for $3099.95, and the 50-inchers will go for $3499.95. Of course, the larger 58- and 65-inch models, slated to come out in the fall, will come with much steeper $4299.95 and $7999.95 price tags, respectively. More information on the entire line can be found at Panasonic’s Web site.

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