Flat-panel TVs: plasma and LCD
(updated August 4, 2005)
The biggest television-technology revolution since color, flat-panel TVs will eventually replace tubes as the direct-view televisions of choice. You can hang flat sets on the wall, on the ceiling, or above the mantle in place of a trophy buck. The two major players in the flat-panel game are plasma and LCD, so we'll go over each type separately.
Upside: As little as three inches thick; very good home-theater image quality in best examples; wide viewing angle.
Downside: Relatively expensive; slight potential for burn-in.
Forecast: Prices have fallen, and pictures have improved dramatically, perpetuating plasma's place as king of the flat-panel home-theater hill.
With prices starting at about $1,500, owning a coveted plasma TV is within reach of most shoppers. Compare that to the $4,000 or so that you'll have to pay for a 42-inch flat-panel LCD, and you'll see why plasma is continuing to surge in popularity.
Panasonic's TH-50PHD7UY plasma is a perfect example of the all-picture look.
Burn-in: You may have heard that plasma has a couple of drawbacks. One such downside is called burn-in, which occurs when an image--such as a stock ticker, a network logo, or letterbox bars--gets etched permanently onto the screen because it sits in one place too long. In our experience, the danger of burn-in has been greatly exaggerated, and people with normal viewing habits have nothing to worry about. The potential for burn-in is greatest during the first 100 or so hours of use, during which time you should keep contrast rather low (less than 50 percent) and avoid showing static images or letterbox bars on the screen for hours at a time. After this initial phase, plasma should be as durable as any television technology. Many panels also have burn-in-reduction features, such as screensavers and pixel orbiting, or settings to treat burn-in once it occurs, such as causing the screen to go all-white.
Plasma life span: The life span of plasma TVs is another area that's improved dramatically over the last few generations of the technology. Partly in response to claims made by LCD TV makers, plasma manufacturers are now claiming their panels last an extremely long time. Most plasma makers today claim that their 2005 models have a life span of 60,000 hours before the panel fades to half-brightness. According to a 2000 Nielsen study, the average TV in a household is on for 7 hours, 40 minutes per day. Even if the real figure is closer to 30,000 hours, that works out to more than 10.5 years before the plasma reaches half-brightness--about what you'd expect from a direct-view CRT.
In short, plasma is a perfectly durable technology that's still a much better value than LCD in larger screen sizes.
Upside: Higher resolution than comparably sized plasmas; no danger of burn-in.
Downside: Expensive in larger sizes; home-theater image quality not as good as plasma; relatively narrow viewing angle.
Forecast: Prices on this technology should fall precipitously over the next couple of years, following the computer LCD trend. Meanwhile, image quality will go up.
The 32-inch Sharp LC-32GD4U delivers excellent image quality for an LCD panel.
Flat LCDs are extremely popular in screen sizes below 37 inches, thanks to their stylish looks and the fact they can fit just about anywhere. Larger LCDs--sizes up to 57 inches have been announced--remain quite expensive compared to plasma and rear-projection models. Not coincidentally, the smallest plasmas are 37 inches.
The picture quality of LCD has historically suffered from poor black levels, but the latest versions are much improved, if not quite up to the best plasmas. That's because LCDs cannot achieve a true black since there's always some light leaking through the pixels. Color saturation is also generally inferior to plasma, again as a result of the inability to completely blacken (turn off) the pixels. Light leakage affects the purity of the color.
Viewing angle is another weakness of LCD compared to plasma. On every LCD we've reviewed, we witnessed some brightness and color shift visible when we watched from an angle that's far from the sweet spot right in front of the TV (to either side, and especially above or below). Plasmas look equally good from very wide angles.
On the other hand, LCDs will generally have higher native resolution than plasmas of the same size, leading to better detail with HD and computer sources.