Upgrade review – Panasonic ST60 Plasma TV

This post in the third in a series on home electronics upgrades I’ve considered.

In 2003, Beyoncé put out her first solo album, Arrested Development premiered, Peter Jackson released the third of his Lord of the Rings films, and I last bought a television. It was one of the first HDMI plasma TVs, a Panasonic 42″, and has been a trusty companion over the years. It still works fine; it fits perfectly into the TV cabinet I built around it; and 1080i is pretty good for most things (it doesn’t even have 720p). But the combination of a great experience I had watching the super high quality 1080p episodes of Breaking Bad from iTunes on my Retina iPad, plus $650 burning a hole in my gadget pocket, pushed me over the edge.

v2_TC-in_P50ST60_3-700Why I chose it: I knew I wanted plasma because of its picture quality and viewing angles. I’ve heard lots of positive things about the mid-range Panasonic ST series. In April, CNET published an adulatory review calling 2013’s ST60 its strongest TV recommendation ever. That got my attention. Around the same time, The Wirecutter (which has fast become some of my favorite reading) published its own review recommending the ST60 as the best TV. Even dowdy Consumer Reports got into the game, identifying the ST60 as its top rated “Best Buy”. The confluence of opinions from specialist sources and Consumer Reports is usually a great indicator for me, so I was pretty interested.

When we moved into a new home a few years ago, I built a custom cabinet around my old 42″ plasma. So size mattered — any new TV would have to fit. I got out my measuring tape and headed over to the Panasonic website looking for detailed dimension sheets. The 55″ ST60 appeared to be just the right size with about 1/4″ of room to spare vertically and about 1/2″ on each side.

Things I didn’t care about: The collection of streaming video services (I use my Apple TV for everything). 3D (belongs in the graveyard of mediocre Hollywood ideas, not in my living room). 4k ultra-HD (it’s not worth the huge price premium to me; I’ll wait until there’s content). Lag (I just don’t play enough games). Other silly features of this TV (voice control? electronic touch pens?).

So I headed on over to my go-to dealer for my electronics habit (Amazon.com) and ordered the 55″ Panasonic VIERA ST60 (model TC-P55ST60).

First impressions: Amazon’s delivery service is great. I picked a 3-hour window for delivery when I placed the order, and everything went just according to that plan. As I cut open the box, I was pretty nervous about whether it would fit, wondering in my head what the return procedures were like for such a big purchases. Happily, though, it measured to spec and fit right in our custom cabinet. There wasn’t much room for my fingers (e.g. for pulling it out to pivot it on our built-in swivel stand), but otherwise it was perfect.

I spend a few contented hours that night re-wiring everything in my cabinet. I loved ditching the rat’s nest of component video plus digital audio and replace them all with a few thin HDMI cables from Amazon. I also did a quick calibration, turning off the obvious things like Motion smoother, Sharpness, overscan and running the THX calibration app for iOS.

The video quality was a huge step up from my prior plasma. The blacks are incredibly black. The colors were beautiful, perfectly matched and consistent. 1080p is, believe it or not, a big difference from 1080i and seeing the Apple TV interface as well as the glorious 1080p video from iTunes is great. Even the HD television broadcasts I’ve been used to — like the NBC evenings news — were markedly different, much more vibrant and crisp even to my wife’s eye. Watching some brooding, dark final episodes of Breaking Bad was a treat.

Surprises: The little things about the Panasonic experience were positive. The remote control was usable, with buttons with differentiated sizes and colors and a logic to the whole thing. And while the Panasonic business team managed to sneak in some irritating features like banner ads on the startup screen, the Panasonic product team did a nice job of making it possible to turn them off.

Links: 55″ Panasonic ST60 on Amazon.com

Up next: A new AV Receiver?

Upgrade review – TiVo Roamio DVR

This post in the second in a series on home electronics upgrades I’ve considered.

Next up in my upgrade-a-thon is TiVo. I’m a proud TiVo fanboy and was lucky enough to work at the company for six years back in its heyday. Since we cancelled our pay TV service, we’ve happily used a 2008-era TiVo HD with lifetime service combined with a Mohu Leaf Plus which pulls in the major networks in brilliant true HD (none of the compressed crud that Comcast and AT&T peddle). For years I had entertained an upgrade to a more current TiVo model, but was annoyed at all the little extra pieces I’d have to buy to get the full solution (e.g. wi-fi adapter, streaming adapter). It just seemed cluttery, a far cry from the TiVo team’s legendary commitment to simplicity and elegance.

So the newly announced TiVo Roamio DVR seemed a natural fit. Roamio_LF_w-remoteSupport for over the air antenna. Check. Included wi-fi. Check. Smaller form factor. Nice bonus so check. Supposed to be fast/responsive. Check. Have to buy an annoying $100 add-on to stream. Grrr. I overcame that last one and ordered a Roamio within a few minutes of seeing the announcement.

But then a few things went wrong. I noticed TiVo had charged me $100 for 2-day shipping, which seemed ridiculous given Amazon Prime for a year is only $79. And more importantly I did some thinking about whether this was the highest impact way I could spend $650 dollars of my gadget budget.

I’ve been committed to ditching cable because of the $100/month bills, pathetic DVR software, greedy budling of channels, and mediocre video quality. But I realized that’s not all I dislike about my experiences with Comcast, DIRECTV, and AT&T’s U-Verse. I realized it’s the basic network TV model, with its combination of scheduling limitations, incessant ads, great swaths of mediocre programming, and a slow trickle approach to releasing shows.

Given alternatives like iTunes, Netflix, that model just just doesn’t work for me anymore. In the new era these and other on-demand services have started, I get so many benefits. I never watch crappy TV anymore, because I can focus my TV time on only the good shows (which for my family includes Breaking Bad, Homeland, Friday Night Lights, The Americans). I get to watch a full season of one show if I want, which some call “binge watching” but I call my new normal. And now that I’ve enjoyed some 1080p video, it just feels like a downgrade to go back to the 1080i or 720p of HD broadcast networks. Plus, in particular with iTunes, you get great portability to our family’s trove of iDevices which matters when we’re traveling on airplanes and other offline places.

In a rare moment of gadget discipline, I concluded that my old TiVo, with its lifetime service, was more than enough to get me through the sunset years of the network television era. And I found myself with a credible argument that I had $650 to spend on other gadgets. Uh-oh.

Next up — A new TV

Upgrade review – AirPort Time Capsule

I’m not entirely sure how or why, but I’ve ended up upgrading most of my electronics over the past few weeks. I’ll going to do a short series of blog posts on the different choices I made, why, and some first impressions. First up — a new backup and wireless solution.

90mmThis bout of upgrade mania all started with a full backup drive. I had been using a 2009-era Apple Time Capsule and have been super happy with it. But it’s only got 1TB of storage. Our family has a few Macs, about 10 iDevices, and an SLR which together have generated 400GB of photos and videos in the past few years. I was spending a lot of time tweaking backup settings to deal with the reality that the drive just wasn’t big enough. When Apple released a new Airport Time Capsule this summer, I thought it looked gorgeous and its vertical design might help declutter our office. Plus, I’d decided to switch over my Time Machine backups to encrypted so needed to start over anyhow. It was time, so I ordered a new 3 TB Airport Time Capsule.

Why I chose it: I’ve loved my existing Time Capsule and its Mac integration, reliability, and solid wi-fi. I didn’t consider any other models. I was happy to get the new design, bigger storage, newer /faster 802.11ac wi-fi (which will be much faster than our existing 802.11n which matters for doing backups). Also, I absolutely love the word “beamforming” which Apple uses to describe the antenna’s directional abilities.

First impressions and surprises: After trying a few different physical locations in our home office, I didn’t love the looks as much as I thought. It was ungainly and tall (like I was as a teenager). It occurred to me to put it in my TV cabinet in our living room rather than in the office. It ended up working like a charm, not only eliminating clutter from the office but improving wifi around the house because my living room is a more central location. This approach allowed me to retire an old gigabit ethernet switch, eliminating one device from the clutter that is my entertainment center.

Up next:  to upgrade TiVo, or not to upgrade TiVo?