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The Right Screen For You


The two different camps of flat-panel display standard will, of course, gladly spruik the advantages of their own standard and the deficiencies of the other. But which type of display, plasma or LCD, is better? And which will give you more bang for your buck?


Plasma and LCD technology — what’s the difference?

Plasma and LCD panels may look similar, but the flat screen and thin profile is where the similarities end. Plasma screens, as its name suggests, uses a matrix of tiny gas plasma cells charged by precise electrical voltages to create a picture. LCD screens (liquid crystal display) are in layman’s terms sandwiches made up of liquid crystal pushed in the space between two glass plates. Images are created by varying the amount of electrical charge applied to the crystals. Each technology has its strengths and weaknesses, as you’ll read below.

Is there a difference in picture quality between plasma and LCD screens and normal CRT TVs?

It’s not what’s happening behind the screen that’s important — it’s how the screen performs as a television that matters the most. In that regard, both plasma and LCD sets produce excellent pictures, although some home entertainment specialists and gamers still say CRTs produce the best overall images (although the latest plasmas are particularly good, and LCD sets are quickly catching up in terms of quality with advances like LED backlighting). Those same home entertainment specialists will tell you that for basic home theatre-like usage, plasma screens have a slight edge over LCDs. This is because plasma screens can display blacks more accurately than LCDs can, which means better contrast and detail in dark scenes. The nature of LCD technology, where a backlight shines through the LCD layer, means it’s hard for it to achieve true blacks because there’s always some light leakage from between pixels. This is steadily improving with every new generation of LCD, though.  

What advantages does plasma have over LCD?

Apart from better contrast due to its ability to show deeper blacks, plasma screens typically have better viewing angles than LCD. Viewing angles are how far you can sit on either side of a screen before the picture’s quality is affected. You tend to see some brightness and colour shift when you’re on too far of an angle with LCDs, while a plasma’s picture remains fairly solid. This is steadily changing, with more and more LCDs entering the market with viewing angles equal to some plasmas. Plasmas can also produce a brighter colour, once again due to light leakage on an LCD affecting its colour saturation. Plasma pundits will also tell you that some LCD screens have a tendency to blur images, particularly during fast-moving scenes in movies or in sports. While that was true for older generation LCD screens, newer models have improved significantly — so much so that the differences in performance between LCDs and plasmas in this regard is almost negligible. (While the pixel response time, measured in milliseconds (ms), can give you some indication of an LCD’s performance with fast-moving scenes, it’s not always reliable.) Traditionally, the biggest advantage plasmas have had over their LCD cousins is price, particularly in the large screen end of the market. Depending on the resolution, plasma is still able to beat most equivalently-priced LCD screens. Plasmas being sold in Australia generally run between 42 and 63 inches wide, with the cheapest 1024×768 standard-definition 42-inch selling for approximately AU$1700. However, you can also find some 32-inch plasmas on the market, and they can be found for under AU$1000, but we think LCDs offer a better deal at this size. Sets that are 60 inches are becoming more mainstream, and are still cheaper than LCDs of the same size, eg, the run-out Pioneer PDP-LX609A goes for about AU$12,500. LCDs, on the other hand, generally top out around the 52-inch mark — though there have been some ludicrously expensive 70-inch Sony LCDs available. Price parity is starting to occur with plasmas and LCD with sizes over 50 inches.

What advantages does LCD have over plasma?

Apart from becoming increasingly price competitive, LCD has the edge over plasma in several other key areas. LCDs tend to have higher native resolution than plasmas of similar size, which means more pixels on a screen. LCDs also tend to consume less power than plasma screens, with some of the newer “Eco” LCD panels able to use half of the power than equivalent plasmas, with the trade-off being lower brightness. In terms of bulk, LCDs are also generally lighter than similar-sized plasmas, making it easier to move around or wall mount. This is because LCDs use plastic in their screen make-up whereas plasmas tend to use glass. LCD pundits point to the belief that LCDs have a longer lifespan than plasma screens. This may have been true of earlier plasma models, which would lose half of their brightness after more than 20,000 hours of viewing. However, many plasmas available on the market today quote a lifespan of about 60,000 hours, which is the same as LCD. This means they will last for almost seven years if left on 24 hours a day. Last year, LCD finally caught up to the quality of plasma with the introduction of LED backlighting. Instead of lighting the screen with fluorescent tubes, as is traditional, it uses banks of LED lights. There are two types of LED lighting: direct and edge. Direct backlighting is arguably better because manufacturers are able to turn sections of the screen lighting off — meaning higher contrast. Edge-lighting is as it sounds, using a series of LEDs along the edge of the screen. The light is then spread evenly across the screen using a series of mirrors. Most thin LCDs arriving on the market use this method. Look out for more LED-backlit screens this year, but be aware they are NOT a new category of screen, and not to be confused with OLED. You might have also heard that plasmas suffer from screen burn-in, an affliction not commonly associated with LCDs. Screen burn in occurs when an image is left too long on a screen, resulting in a ghost of that image “burned in”. Newer plasmas are less susceptible to this thanks to improved technology and features such as screensavers, but burn-in can still be a problem. However, after a few days most burnt-in images will fade — they are no longer permanent.

Which is better value for me right now: plasma or LCD?

 If you’re in the market for a big screen television — and we’re talking 50 inches and above — then we’d suggest plasma as a safe bet. Plasmas give you more bang for your buck at the big end of town, and while LCDs can give you better resolution, plasma still has the edge in terms of picture quality. One other thing to look for, whether you opt for plasma or LCD, is an integrated HD digital tuner — some TVs still have analog tuners, which look pretty terrible on a large screen. At the smaller end of things (17-inch to 42-inch TVs), LCD is the only way to go if you want something slim and tasteful. And the best thing is that LCDs are getting cheaper all the time. There has also been a lot of debate surrounding use in bright environments versus dark, cinema-like conditions. The traditional wisdom is that LCD performs better during the day due to its backlighting system, and that plasma in a dark environment, as it uses a glass front. Nonetheless, products like the non-reflective Pioneer Kuro plasmas and LED-backlit LCD panels with their better blacks completely turn this logic on its head. That said, plasmas do generally perform better in the dark, and models with an anti-reflective coating — such as the new Panasonic plasmas — are the best all-rounders.

Do I need to buy 1080p?

 If you’re a true high-def junkie who’s keen to see every pixel of a 1080p source reproduced as is, then LCDs are seemingly the way to go. However, 1080p is quickly becoming the norm, with many LCDs now featuring 1920×1080-pixel resolutions. Budget LCDs and plasmas on the other hand feature either 1366×768 or even 1024×768 (720p) resolutions. If you’re buying a screen 50 inches or larger, there’s now no reason to get anything less than 1080p. Despite the current HD buzz, there is still very little content available in 1080p — especially when compared to the infinite amount of SD content like TV programs and DVDs. At present, Blu-ray, and some HD downloads, are the only sources that can do 1080p, and free-to-air (FTA) is only 1080i. But it isn’t all about the resolution — it’s not the pixels, it’s what you do with them. Most modern TVs, and even budget ones, will accept a 1080p input, and it depends on the quality of the scaler on-board as to how good a picture you’ll get. The big names — Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and LG — usually have very good image processors that can resize the source content — whether it’s a DVD, Blu-ray or FTA — to the resolution of your screen without a problem.

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