April 3, 2009 LG's latest Audio/Visual offerings are moving down the path of connectivity and convergence, and delivering some very nice user interfaces. At the Australian round of the F1 Grand Prix, the Korean company introduced its PS80 big-screen plasma "Time Machine" TV, with built-in hard drive and digital video recording, its YouTube-capable super-fast BD370 Blu-ray player, its HB954WA 1000w home theater 5.1 system, tuned by Mark Levinson and featuring wireless rear speakers, and the LH50, an ultra-quick 200hz LED-backlit LCD TV that intelligently adjusts picture controls according to the ambient light conditions in the room.
LG's new "Technology Design Centre" made its debut at the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix on the weekend, as part of the company's global sponsorship of the F1 championship. The centre provided a stage for the introduction of LG's 2009 A/V range of plasma and LCD screens, Blu-Ray and home theater packages.
The PS80 is an impressive, 50 inch 1080p high end plasma with dual HDTV tuners and a built-in 250GB Seagate hard drive that starts recording as soon as the unit's switched on. So you've got the ability to pause, rewind and go slo-mo on live TV, as well as the ability to watch one channel and record on another, built into the TV. The PS80 can also schedule recordings straight off the weekly digital Electronic Program Guide - making it a snap to program.
USB connectivity gives you the ability to move content on and off the TV just as easily by connecting an external HDD or flash drive, so the 23-hour HD capacity of the built-in drive isn't a limitation. HD content streaming straight off a USB key seems to work fine as well, with no appreciable delay. The Time Machine video recording feature is currently only available on LG's plasmas, but will be coming to LCDs next year.
Incidentally, everything that's recorded on the Time Machine TVs is encoded in a proprietary LG format due to copyright sensitivity, so until devious minds invent a converter, recorded content is only usable on LG devices.
Australian buyers won't be able to take advantage of the PS80's killer feature for the U.S. - Netflix streaming direct to the TV - but fledgeling wireless Internet connectivity remains, with the ability to stream videos from YouTube - which thankfully now has some better-definition content that might not look so awful on a 50" hi-def plasma screen.
It's not a marquee feature, but it's worth noting that LG have spent some serious time making the PS80's menu system and user interface very simple, quick and easy to use. Scrolling through your recorded video content is a good example - there's a new thumbnail image taken every minute, so you can find where you want to drop into your program very easily.
Beyond that, the borderless flat panel design is both pretty and functional - you can clean it from edge to edge without all the dust getting stuck in the corners. In all, a very impressive high-end big-screen plasma that will sell in Australia for AUD$3,499
Again, the focus here is on usability despite some pretty cool features. LG has put considerable time into building a Blu-ray player that is quick to load. Where a PlayStation 3 can take around 30 seconds to get to the first images on a BluRay disc, and older machines can take as long as a couple of minutes, the BD370 is up and running in 18 seconds - a time which starts from power-up, so by the time you open the tray and load a disc, the wait simply isn't an issue.
Feature-wise, the BD370 is a powerhouse. It plays Blu-ray, BD-ROM, BD-R, BD-RE, DVD±R, DVD±RW - and a number of net-friendly compressed formats like MPEG4 and DIVX. It streams video happily through USB, and connects wirelessly to the Web to give you YouTube access (and Netflix in the States) plus a range of other downloadable content through BD-Live, even if not a lot of current discs have downloadable content yet. Either way, Internet connectivity is clearly going to be the basis of some excellent new functionality in the home theatre world.
Sound-wise it can decode CD, CD-R, CD-RW, DTS-HD, DTS-HD Master Audio, MP3, WMA, Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD - but if you've got a great receiver, you can send the audio straight through without decoding and let the receiver do it - a nice touch. Visually it can upscale your old DVDs to take advantage of your hi-def screen.
At AUD$449 it's a budget Blu-ray player, but its commendable image quality, ease of use and big stack of features make it a strong proposition.
For an all-round home theater package, LG have put together the HB954WA, which takes most of the BD370's feature set and adds a 1000-watt 5.1 channel surround sound system.
The sound is BIG - it held its own against the Formula 5000 V8 racecars screaming around the Albert Park GP circuit just a stone's throw away, so fillings will probably fall out of your teeth in the action scenes if you dare to crank it in a confined space. While the noisy outdoor demonstration wasn't a great place to show off its subtleties, the whole system has been tuned by renowned audio guru Mark Levinson - who has come on board as LG's Chief Sound Advisor, so we've got no doubt it's a great sounding system.
The rear speakers have been mercifully fitted with wireless connections to the main unit - they still need their own power source, but you no longer need to work out how to snake audio cables all around the room to set the thing up. It's an excellent idea and one we'll surely be seeing more of.
Beyond that, the HB954WA has a nifty iPod/iPhone dock, to reflect the fact that most people now carry their music in their pocket. Of course, it's a crying shame to send compressed MP3 files through a nice audio system, but such is the way of the future.
Add that to a fully featured Blu-ray player with Internet and USB connectivity, and it's a compelling and stylish setup for AUD$1599. It will be available sometime this month.
LG is having a proper stab at knocking Samsung off the #1 spot for LCD manufacturers this year, and as such has launched its 1080p LH50 range, featuring Trumotion 200Hz motion smoothing. The S-IPS panel delivers strong colour and contrast through a wide range of viewing angles, and the LED scanning backlight makes for a lightning-quick 2.2 millisecond response time, so fast moving action is displayed with extreme clarity without the need to add in estimated or motion compensated data.
The LH50 range doesn't get the built in hard drive, twin tuner and recording capabilities of the PS80, but it does retain the Internet connectivity, which in Australia is mainly restricted to YouTube video watching. The interface for watching YouTube videos is nice to look at and easy to use - a reflection of LG's general attention to interface design in recent times.
One feature we particularly liked was the 'Smart Energy Saving Plus' system; a sensor takes in information about the ambient light conditions in the room, and automatically adjusts the TV to suit. It's not just the brightness, either, everything from contrast to tint is adjusted - so the TV is super-bright and vibrant in a sunny room, but adjusts itself down in a darker room to save energy while still looking great in the conditions.
The LH50 range starts with a 32-inch version at AU$1799, and includes 37", 42", 47" versions and a 55" version for AU$4,499.
The overall LG A/V catalogue for 2009 is looking very healthy - and the move towards wireless Internet connectivity will start to open more doors for the TV as a fuller entertainment unit in the digital age. We're looking forward to seeing where this convergence of TV and web-streaming content can lead.
Gizmag's Loz Blain was a guest of LG at the 2009 Australian Formula One Grand Prix.
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