Flat-panel TVs: Plasmas, LCDs, and How They Compare
The biggest television technology revolution since color, flat-panel plasma and LCD TVs have replaced tubes as the TV technologies of choice. You can hang flat sets on the wall, on the ceiling, or above the mantle in place of a trophy buck--although most people just put 'em on stands. The two major types of flat-panel TVs are plasma and LCD, so we'll go over each type separately and then compare them in a chart at the end.
|Generally better home-theater image quality than LCD; wide viewing angles; superior motion resolution.||Bulkier and less energy-efficient than LCDs; sometimes lower native resolution than similarly sized LCDs; glass screens can reflect ambient light.||The original flat-panel TV technology has lost plenty of ground to LCD recently, but reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.|
With prices starting about $700 for the least expensive models, a plasma TV is within reach of most shoppers. Plasmas used to be less-expensive than LCDs in larger screen sizes, but the gap has pretty much closed completely by now, so plasma has to depend on factors other than price to remain competitive. One area where plasma still reigns, however, is in very large screen sizes. Today's 50-inch plasmas--the plasma TV sweet spot--are still less expensive than similarly sized LCDs, and in even larger screen sizes the gap widens considerably. That said, big-screen plasmas are still a solid chunk of change more than rear-projection sets.
Picture quality varies greatly between different makes and models of plasma TVs, so be sure to read reviews before you plunk down your cash. The best plasmas produce top-notch image quality, with deep black levels, excellent color, wide viewing angles, and better motion resolution than similar LCDs, making them subject to less blurring during fast movement. On the flip side, many people don't notice LCDs' blurring, so it's not as big of a difference-maker as many marketing campaigns would have you believe.
Although 1080p native resolution is common among plasmas and LCDs, the latter often have higher native resolution than entry-level plasma TVs at similar screen sizes. In the real world, however, the difference just isn't that noticeable.
One distinct advantage LCD has over plasma is in the arena of power consumption. Per square inch of screen, plasmas almost always use more power than LCDs to produce the same picture brightness. Check out our TV power consumption guide for more details.
In early 2009, some TV industry watchers were predicting plasma's demise at the hands of LCD. Vizio and Pioneer left the plasma business, leaving only LG, Samsung and the biggest plasma producer of all, Panasonic, left selling plasmas in the U.S. All three makers continue to deliver innovations in plasma, including better picture quality and improved energy efficiency, so as long as their sets remain price-competitive with LCD, plasma still has legs.
Burn-in: You may have heard that plasma has a couple of drawbacks. One such downside is 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 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 models 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. Check out our guide to burn-in for more details.
Plasma life span: The life span of plasma TVs is another area that's improved dramatically with the last few generations of the technology. Partly in response to claims made by LCD TV makers, plasma manufacturers now claim their panels last an extremely long time. Most plasma makers today claim a life span of 60,000 hours before the panel fades to half brightness. That's more than 20 years if the TV is on for 8 hours per day.
|Available in a range of sizes; matte screens generally reflect less light than plasma's glass; new technology like LED and 120Hz helps close picture quality gap with plasma.||Home-theater image quality generally not as good as on plasma models; relatively narrow viewing angle.||Flat-panel LCDs will continue to be the most popular HDTV technology, thanks to falling prices and plenty of choices.|
Flat LCDs are extremely popular in all screen sizes these days, thanks to competitive pricing and the fact they can fit just about anywhere. Larger LCDs--as big as 65 inches--remain more expensive than plasma and rear-projection models, but in the popular 40- to 55-inch size range, LCD and plasma are generally priced the same.
The picture quality of LCD TVs has historically suffered from poor black levels, but the latest versions are often much-improved. The best plasmas still surpass the best LCDs in terms of delivering a deep black, however. That's because LCDs use a backlight to provide illumination, and there's almost always some light leaking through the pixels. Color saturation is also generally inferior to plasma's, again as a result of the inability to completely blacken (turn off) the pixels. New LCD technologies, including LED backlights, are helping even the playing field, but they're still more expensive.
Viewing angle is another weakness of LCD compared with plasma. On every LCD we've reviewed, we witnessed some brightness and color shift when we watched from an angle that's more or less removed 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. In addition, LCDs are much more likely to exhibit uniformity problems than plasmas, which can appear as lighter areas on dark screens, clouding, or even color banding on some models. These can be more or less severe from model to model, so check the individual reviews for comments.
LCD specification sheets often talk about response time, but in our experience, almost all newer LCDs have adequate response time to deal with fast motion to the satisfaction of most viewers. A related issue is motion blur, which can occur in fast-moving images. LCD TVs with a 120Hz refresh rate can alleviate some of that blurring, but they're generally still not as blur-free as plasmas. It's also worth noting that many people don't notice motion blur at all. 120Hz LCDs often have dejudder processing too, which smoothes out judder in images but can also make some material look more-artificial. In 2009, LCDs with 240Hz refresh rates will hit the market, although we doubt they'll offer substantial improvements.
LCDs also have a reputation for being brighter than plasmas, and while that's technically true, most plasmas are plenty bright for even the most demanding situations. One definite advantage of LCD TVs, however, is that their matte plastic screens reflect less ambient light than plasmas' glass, so they're usually better for very bright rooms with little light control. Note that some LCDs have glossy screens, as opposed to matte.
Want a quick and dirty comparison between plasma and LCD? Here it is, but for full explanations feel free to start at the top.
|Screen sizes||42 inches to 65+ inches||5 inches to 65+ inches|
|Cabinet depth||3+ inches||3+ inches|
|Power consumption (more info)||Less efficient per square inch||More efficient per square inch|
|Price||Similar to LCD for same screen size||Similar to plasma for same screen size|
|PC connectivity||Less common but still included on many models||More common than on plasma TVs|
|Other features||Varies per model||Varies per model|
|Motion blur caused by display||Negligible||Difficult to discern on most models, although subject to more blurring than plasma. 120Hz and 240Hz models subject to less motion blur|
|Black-level performance (depth of "black" displayed)||Varies, although excellent on many models.||Varies, although generally worse than plasma on many models. LED backlights with local dimming offer significantly deeper blacks.|
|Color saturation||Varies, although generally a bit better than on LCDs due to black-level and off-angle advantages||Varies, although the best models can equal the best plasma TVs|
|Resolution (more info)||1080p is standard in all but entry-level models.||1080p is standard in all but entry-level models.|
|Off-angle viewing||Excellent from all angles||Image fades slightly when seen at extreme angles from sides or from above or below|
|Reflectivity of screen||Glass screens can reflect lots of light, so may be an issue in very bright rooms. Some models have glare-reducing screens that are more or less effective.||Matte-plastic screens usually reflect less light. Some models have screens that are actually more reflective than plasma TVs.|
|Burn-in (faint after-images left on the screen; more info)||Possible with still images left onscreen with very bright settings for hours, although new models are much less susceptible, and most burn-in is temporary and goes away after watching moving images.||Occurs only in extreme circumstances|
|Life span (hours until brightness fades by half)||Typically 60,000 hours, or about 20 years if used 8 hours per day||Typically 60,000 hours, or about 20 years if used 8 hours per day|
|Performance by program type|
|HDTV||Excellent, although the rare EDTV models can look a bit softer because of lower resolution||Excellent for HDTV-compatible models|
|Standard-definition TV||Dependent mostly on screen size. The smaller the screen, the better standard-definition sources usually look.||Dependent mostly on screen size. The smaller the screen, the better standard-definition sources usually look.|
|DVD movies||Excellent given a model with good black-level performance||Very good, although models with worse black-level performance are less desirable|
|Games||Excellent for most users, although burn-in might deter gamers who leave screens paused for hours or overnight||Excellent, although motion blur might deter the most sensitive gamers|