Plasma TV vs LCD TV - Which is Better?
An Interesting Question with a Really Bad Answer
Bad Answer? Yes. In fact the answer is simply this. It depends. I imagine that at least half of my readers jumped to a different page by now but I like to be upfront. Here's the good news...
A potential buyer can be better informed before making what turns out to be a pretty sizable investment on what could be the wrong television. That is exactly the purpose of this article.
This is the unadulterated, unbiased truth behind both of these wonders of technology to answer the question: "Plasma TV vs LCD TV - Which is Better"
It lays out the the pros and cons of each, taking into consideration the latest developments in both technologies which incidentally alters many beliefs behind this question that have now become myth surrounding these sets.
In fact, that seems like a great starting point. Let's dispel the myths.
- Myth #1 - Plasma TVs Have a Small Life Span- Not true. Today's Plasma Manufacturers claim a half life of up to 60,000 hours. You would have to watch TV for about 8 hours a day for 20 straight years to reach this number. Even then your picture won't disappear. In fact, the Manufacturer's claim a 50% decrease in brightness when this number is reached. Keep in mind my 32" Sony Tube TV is going on it's 14th year (and I don't watch TV for 8 hours a day) outlasting all my other standard tube televisions. In other words, Plasma TVs last as long as any other TV you ever had. And in most cases far longer.
- Myth #2 - LCD TVs Don't Come in Large Screen Sizes - This used to be the case. But is not really true anymore. 52-inch screens seem to be the sweet spot before a large jump in price but that doesn't mean you can't get a 65-inch LCD TV. Also large screen Plasmas in some cases (or in at least the models I recommend) are not cheap at this size either.
- Myth #3 - I Can't Play Video Games on a Plasma Because the Images Will Burn Into the Screen - This an interesting myth. The quick and easy answer is that this is not true. The longer answer pertains to the misuse of the word "burn-in" which is actually pretty rare and results from some pretty extreme abuse. There are ways to virtually guarantee that it won't happen. That is to "break-in" the plasma display. We'll discuss it further later on.
- Myth #4 - Plasmas Look Better than LCDs- Not true. This depends on your viewing environment and the models you have selected. I can take a top of the line plasma and make it look bad next to a low end LCD simply by putting the plasma in the "wrong" environment.
Plasma TV vs LCD TV
Most LCD Displays get their illumination from a CCFL (Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamp). This light has within it all of the color spectrum that will be visible in the display. That is to say that if the light does not offer the wavelength to produce a certain color it will not be available on the screen. This can sometimes be one of the causes of what is called a color "push" or shift of a certain color within a certain color space. For instance, a green push usually effects the grey color space whereas red push usually effects flesh tones. This can usually be minimized through proper calibration of the picture.
Another issue caused by the backlight is the fact that as light travels from it's source it disperses. That is, the screen can potentially get brighter as you get closer to each individual lamp behind the set. LCD Televisions mask this by diffusing the light through the panel, but as you could imagine this is quite a challenge and therefore, some displays can seem to be slightly uneven in terms of brightness or may even display a bright portion of the backlight "leaking" out of the frame of the picture. This is called "flashlighting".
Most of the time this is not visible during normal viewing (you don't watch blank screens do you?), but it is something to look for when looking at movies and tv shows to see if it is visible on the set you are considering.
To combat some of the above problems with CCFL backlights some manufacturers are moving to LED backlights. However, so far this has led to a different set of problems. Once this LED technology is perfected it may be the answer that the LCD world has been looking for.
To confuse matters even further, there now appears to be an LCD technology that uses Lasers as a backlight. As of this writing I don't have enough data to comment on it's effectiveness.
LCD Bashing Complete
After ripping into LCD Technology let me say that it is not all doom and gloom. First of all the top tier manufacturers (Sharp, Sony, Samsung, LG, Philips) spend a great deal of time, effort and money eliminating color push and uneven screen brightness. And many of them have come pretty darn close to being perfect in these regards. In fact, Sharp's Kameyama (K1) Plant in Japan has been elevated to legendary status for the panels they create. Each panel is seemingly void of defects.
There are lots of reasons to get an LCD:
- Non Reflective Screens - most LCD TV Panels have matte finishes meaning far less environmental reflections. There are some LCD TVs which use a specially filtered glass to produce more contrast. These sets do have reflective screens. This is an important distinction when purchasing your set. Be sure you know the answer.
- Brighter Picture - LCD Televisions commonly display a much brighter picture. Again this gives them a clear advantage in a room with a good deal of ambient light, and makes them an absolute necessity in any brightly lit environment.
- No Image Retention - When the image is gone, it's gone. There is never any trailing remnants or "ghosting" of an image.
- No Burn-In- The chances of you leaving an image on screen which would remain on the display permanently even when it is off is non-existent.
- Great for PC Applications - Reasons 2, 3 and 4 make it ideal for PC use.
Who Said LCDs Don't Come Big?
So I Should Pass on Plasma Then?
Wait a sec, don't do anything rash.....there's more.
The nature of Plasma technology creates its own set of challenges to engineers. Plasma Televisions work by exciting phosphorus gases sealed in the display. These gases are packed into the display in configurations of 3 "cells". Each of these cells burn in one of 3 primary colors; Red, Green and Blue. As you may already know these 3 colors make up all of the visible colors in the spectrum. This is not to say that a Plasma TV can reproduce every color perceptible to the human eye. The color of the excited gases would have to be pretty accurate not only in wavelength but in configuration for that to be a possiblity. However, you can already tell why Plasmas tend to have better color accuracy than LCDs.
Quick disclaimer:Note the use of the word "tend". There is no hard and fast rule that a Plasma will have better color than an LCD. However, chances are that statement will be true when you put the respective top-of-the-line models next to each other.
Since Plasmas have to excite gases to produce color there is a real challenge in making the gases respond quickly to changes in the picture. This can cause the cells to lag behind causing what some people call burn-in, though it is actually image retention. These images are not burned into the display they just linger for a split second after being displayed. This actually occurs naturally in the human eye. If you ever stared at the sun for too long you know what I am talking about. This can and does happen on plasma displays. However, it has been much improved upon and becomes inperceivable after what is called a break-in period.
The break-in period is considered to be the first 300 hours or so of a Plasmas life. Within this timeframe it is recommended that still images, and programs with "tickers" on the bottom of the image, or programs with static opaque logos not be displayed. During this time in a Plasmas life the gases need to be conditioned to respond rapidly. If the same image is displayed too long and the gases cannot change quickly enough there is a potential of burn-in.
After the break-in period the potential of burn-in is very unlikley. Also many new plasmas such as the Pioneer Kuro displays combat this by slightly moving the image at a very, very slow rate (way too slow and small for the human eye to see- Pretty smart). I know some Plasma junkie is jumping up and down shouting, "Plasma don't burn-in anymore! Heck you said yourself it's a myth." This is true. The potential is extremely small and would require some considerate abuse which is why so many people say it isn't even possible. But if you download any manual to any plasma the warning is right there. That's enough for me to take notice.
In short, I wouldn't watch ESPN or Bloomberg or play Video Games on my Plasma for the first 300 hours. After that I would watch anything I want and play anything I want without worry. I would just be careful not to leave paused games on the screen for several hours or fall asleep with ESPN on.
Last, Plasmas tend to make a small buzing sound and run a little hotter than LCDs. They also generally use more electricity.
Reasons to get a Plasma:
- Fantastic Color Reproduction - An ISF Calibrated Pioneer Kuro is truly a thing of beauty.
- Fantastic Contrast with Minimal Crush - Because of the nature of the technology it is easier to produce several shades of black making details visible in very dark scenes.
Pioneer Performance in Different Lightings
Your Viewing Environment
I was recently at an outdoor hotel bar and they had 2 Pioneer Kuro displays hanging on the wall. I looked at them and saw the reflection of the pool behind me. It wasn't incredibly bad but it was definitely reflective and washed out. Actually it was this moment that inspired this article. All I could think of was the large amounts of money the owner spent with a custom installer (who clearly didn't know what he was doing) and the net result was ultimately disappointing. Too many people get caught up in the latest craze. Even some Certified Installers clamour over the Kuro Displays without ever admitting that they don't fit in certain situations. Pioneer has reduced the glare considerably but hard direct light still reflects on the display. This makes the Kuro a candidate in some situations that was previously strictly for LCDs. However, there are still situations that the Kuro can't handle.
This is true of technology in general. You have to use the proper tool for the job.
I saw the same 2 displays at the bar as I walked past it that evening and they were gorgeous. Deep rich natural colors, blacks that were black yet the finest details were visible in the darkest scenes. I'm telling you it stopped me in my tracks. The problem? The bar was more than half empty. It's a Bar that is full during the day not at night. The owner of this establishment was actually done a disservice by this installer who sold him or her one of the most beautiful displays available. Clearly the situation called for an LCD TV.
Some Clear Cut Favorites
- A Sharp LED LCD
The new Sharps are,...well,..sharp. And now they're cheap. (non 3D, of course) This one is 1080p, has LED back lights and has Netflix.
- The Viera Panasonic Plasma
These non-3D Plasmas are now an incredible deal. 50 inches for under $1000 from one of the top plasma manufacturers out there.
- Why 1080p is actually important
Whether you choose a Plasma TV or an LCD TV this article gives an in depth explanation of why it is important to have a display that is capable of 1080p.
So Which is Better?
I told you it was a bad answer.
In short, I would say that placing a Plasma Display such as the Pioneer Kuro or Panasonic PZ800U series in a room with some light control or in a room that is mostly used at night is visual bliss.
On the other hand, LCD technology is catching on in popularity and is closing in on the color and contrast of Plasma Televisions. In a room with environmental light, such as direct sunlight, it simply can not be beat. Hook up your Home Theater PC and Video Games without a care in the world. (don't abuse your display though- everything has consequences). What's more is, some LCD Displays like the Sharp D82U series (I'm biased because I own this one) comes pretty darn close to the picture quality of some top end plasmas and is even better than some of the lower end models.
So there you have it. Know you're environment. Know the primary uses of the display. Go hunting with an open mind...You're TV will find you.