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Panasonic Gives Your Phone an Upgrade on Your Next Flight

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Jan 8, 2016, 5:41 PM   by Rich Brome   @rbrome

Panasonic's latest seatback systems for planes are more phone-oriented than ever, providing a dedicated spot for your phone, Qi wireless charging, USB 3.0 SuperSpeed for charging and media, and even an HDMI input. The multiple USB ports can not only charge your phone but also let you access your videos, photos, and music on the seat's 13-inch full-HD touch screen, which is actually based on an Android tablet. Panasonic showed off a couple of different designs at CES this week, and we checked them out.

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Panasonic may not be enjoying much success making phones for the U.S. these days, but they are doing some neats things for your phone, at least in the air. Panasonic Avionics has been making IFEC (in-flight entertainment and communication) systems for a while now. But now that regulations allow you to use your phones as much as you like in flight mode, plane cabins are being redesigned around passengers' phones. Panasonic is on it.

Seats with responsive touch screens and USB charging ports are now standard on long-haul flights and increasingly common on domestic planes. Some even have a special pocket or slot designed for small items like a phone.

Pansonic IFE  

Panasonic is taking it further with a major area of the seat back that is very specifically for a phone. It includes wireless charging using the Qi standard. Phones like the newer Samsung Galaxy S series and Droid Turbos support this standard out of the box. The phone is held in place with an elastic band.

In addition to the standard USB port, there's a second USB port that's USB 3.0 SuperSpeed. This is great for playing an HD movie stored on your phone on the huge 13" full-HD seat-back touch screen, something the system supports. There's even an HDMI port, so if your phone has MHL or SlimPort, you can hook your phone up to the screen that way, with the appropriate USB-to-HDMI adaptor cable. Both USB ports can of course charge your phone, if you have an iPhone or some other phone without wireless charging. There's even a third USB charging port next to the full power outlet below the seat. You're pretty much guaranteed to arrive at your destination with all of your devices fully charged.

Speaking of below the seat, you'll notice there are no equipment boxes to rob you of legroom. That's one huge advantage of Panasonic systems compared to competing solutions. There are a bunch of new American Airlines planes with great IFEC systems, except the massive equipment boxes leave you with almost no space under the seat in front of you. If you usually fly with a laptop containing a laptop (like me), you're screwed. These Panasonic systems won't do that do you.

The seart-back screen is actually based on Android. It's essentially a 13" Android tablet. Panasonic has also taken the extra step of certifying it as approved Android with Google, making it easier for airlines to put their own interesting apps and experiences on there.

Panasonic also makes satellite antennas that go on top of the plane to connect the plane's Wi-Fi network to the Internet, and to provide live TV service like Dish or DirecTV. These antennas are actually sophisticated arrays of solid-state receivers mounted on a robotic aiming platform. Motors move the antenna array to automatically keep it pointed at the right part of the sky as the plane turns and tilts. It's neat to watch in action.

I'm actually writing and posting this from 35,000 feet on a Virgin America plane kitted out with Panasonic equipment. It's older generation gear, but it works well. The Wi-Fi is pretty good, I have live and on-demand TV at my seat, and the equipment box under the seat is 1/10 the size of what I see on most other planes. My phone is charging from the USB outlet and sitting in a little phone-size pocket. I just ordered a drink from the touchscreen. (Yes, there is a vodka button at my seat!) Virgin is running it with their own custom version of Linux instead of Android, but the hardware is Panasonic.

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