Plasma vs LCD TV
Before buying a flat panel HDTV, one question that many people ask is whether to choose plasma vs. LCD TV. Both plasma and LCD TVs are very similar in aspect, features and to some extent in picture quality. The technology behind them is very different and comes in both cases with pros and cons. The answer to plasma vs. LCD TV question is not a straightforward one but more than anything it is subjective and has to do a lot with what your particular expectations are and how you intend to use your HDTV. Best thing to do is find out what are the pros and cons of each type of display and how they translate in a real life scenario. Applying this information to your particular case will allow you to decide whether to buy a plasma or an LCD TV.
Plasma vs. LCD Picture Quality
In an optimal/controlled environment, plasma TVs offer better picture quality versus LCDs. They have much vivid colors and better black levels than LCDs have. They also have better contrast (which partially comes from the better black levels) and better color gradients.
Plasma TVs are better if you want to watch movies or TV. The overall picture that you actually perceive during a movie will be better than in the case of LCD. Even if you actually find LCD models that have rating similar or greater than plasma TV those are only on paper. In real life there is a difference. Pioneer even presented at CES a prototype of plasma TV that has such a great contrast ratio that made its brother PDP-5010FD look low quality in comparison (even though it is currently one of the best HDTV in the world).
Plasma TVs are usually the natural choice of movie enthusiasts – especially the ones that use to dedicate a whole room for home cinema. Why does this happen? They like movies and they like to get the best possible experience when watching them. For that plasma TVs are the best possible choice.
LCD TVs on the other hand compensate for their lower picture quality and black levels by being a bit more adaptive. They usually handle very bright environments better because they have better brightness, and generally in these conditions look better than plasma TVs. They also have a better picture quality when used as computer monitors because this is the purpose they ware initially created for. Derived from this, they are also a bit better for playing video games on them – this is however a bit subjective because some people actually prefer the vivid colors and deep blacks of plasma TVs in a game.
Ambient Light Factor
Until not to long ago, ambient light was the main argument you had in choosing LCD over plasma. With today’s models, though it remains a factor that helps you decide which technology to choose, it is not as decisive as it was before.
Before we see how plasma vs. LCD works in these two environments, one important fact you must understand is that no matter what TV you are using, the picture quality will almost always look better in a dark room. I say almost always, because in some cases if you set your TV at maximum contrast and brightness, the colors will look a bit unnatural and oversaturated in a dark room and better in a lit room. This is why in many stores the HDTVs are running at maximum contrast and brightness to compensate the huge amount of ambient light (which is about ten times more than the amount of light the average person has in its room). Keeping a plasma or LCD TV at maximum contrast and brightness is not recommended because it will make it wear up faster. These two settings should be kept at around 50%.
Now to compare plasma vs. LCD TV we consider the two lighting situations – well lit room and dark or less lit room.
Because of the differences between the materials used to make the plasma and LCD screens they perform differently when it comes to ambient light. Plasma TVs look better in dim or dark environments because they natively have better overall picture quality, better black levels and better color saturation. However when you turn on the lights or you open your blinds, because of the highly reflective screen the picture quality will be reduced. In the case of LCDs, you will notice they don’t look as good in a dark room but in a well lit one they will look better than a plasma TV because of their less reflective screen.
There is also another aspect that makes a difference between the two types of HDTV when it comes to ambient light. LCD pixels don’t produce light by themselves so there is a lamp behind the screen that passes light through them. They act more like color filters than light bulbs. Because of that plasma TVs have better black levels than LCDs. In the case of a plasma TV if a pixel is supposed to be black it will be very close to black, while in the case of the LCD there will always be some amount of light passing through from the lamp behind the LCD panel and that pixel will be lighted more than in the case of the plasma TV. In a dark room the poor black levels of an LCD will be much more noticeable while the plasma TV will look very good. However in a well lit room the ambient light will make the poor blacks of the LCD unnoticeable and its superior brightness will make it look better.
So to recap, in a well lit room an LCD will look better, while in a dim or dark room the plasma TV will have an edge. But guess what, plasma TVs have an ace in their sleeve.
Anti Reflective Coating to the Rescue
Some models of plasma TVs have their screens coated with an anti-reflective layer or the screen itself is made in such way to reduce the amount of reflected light. This is not something that you will find in all plasma TVs but it is pretty common in modern models and if you decide to buy a plasma TV it is a feature you definitely want to have. Manufacturers call this anti reflective coating, anti reflection or anti glare – it varies with every brand. Now, if you are wondering whether this anti reflective coating makes plasma TV perform as good as LCD in a well lit environment there is no easy answer. As in most cases when it comes to quality and efficiency it is something that has to do with the brand. Some do this better while others aren’t so great.
Response Time / Refresh Rate
Plasma and LCD TVs have different response times. This is due to the technology behind each of them. Plasma TVs have an almost instant response time – much like CRT TVs (your old “tube” TV) – and inherently a huge refresh rate. LCD TVs on the other hand have a higher response time which means a smaller refresh rate.
No to clarify a bit, let me explain what response time and refresh rate are and how they relate. The response time is the time it takes a screen pixel to completely change its color or pass from one state to other (e.g. from on to off). The refresh rate is a measure of how fast a screen refreshes its content. If the response time is low – meaning the pixel reacts fast – then the refresh rate will be high. A display with a low (or slow) refresh rate will have a high response time. The lower the response time it is and the higher the refresh rate the better.
Why does the refresh rate or response time matter in real life? If you watch a fast moving scene like sports or action movies on an LCD you will notice motion blur caused by the pixels not changing their colors fast enough. This problem will not happen with plasma TVs as the image will remain crisp even during the fastest moving scenes. So basically plasma TVs are more recommended if you want to get the best out of sports and action movies. If on the other hand you watch programs like National Geographic where the lion sits in the grass and slowly moves his head then any of the two types of display perform the same.
Does this mean LCD TVs will look bad in this situation? No it doesn’t! This is something you notice only if you know what to look for, or if the LCD TV has a really slow refresh rate (high response time). This was a problem with the older models of LCDs but – as it was the case with high amount of ambient light and plasma TVs – the LCD manufacturers have worked on this problem and significantly improved the response times. Not all LCD TV models have good response times for fast moving scenes, but you will find quality models with pretty good response times. They won’t be better than plasma TVs but they will be good enough to see action movies and sports without noticing the shadowing around moving images.
Viewing Angle of Plasma and LCD
If you intend to watch TV all by yourself, the viewing angle might not be a big issue, but if you want to sit with the whole family or have your friends over it is a good thing to have a wide viewing angle on your HDTV so everybody sees the content on screen at top quality. Plasma TVs have a viewing angle of about 160 degrees versus LCD TVs that have a viewing angle of 120-130 degrees. And more than that, plasma TVs keep the image quality across the whole range as opposed to LCD TVs which will change color depending on the angle you are looking at them. So even if the LCD manufacturers state the viewing angle to be 120 degrees, starting from about 90 degrees you will notice changes in color – especially in the dark areas that will not look as dark as they should anymore.
This is a clear advantage that plasma TVs have over LCDs even though serious improvements have been made in the last years by the LCD manufacturers. In the case of LCD TVs there is even a bigger problem with the models in the middle or entry level class, so pay attention to this aspect if you choose to go the cheap way.
Plasma vs. LCD TV Sizes
Regarding sizes, LCD TVs are more flexible versus plasma TVs. Plasma TV sizes start from 32 inch and go up to 65 inch. LCD TV sizes start much lower and go up to 58 inch, so if you want a small HDTV the only way to go might be an LCD TV. If you are looking for a small TV for your bedroom or kitchen the LCD may be the only way to go. Keep in mind however that many of the LCD TVs under 32 inch are not high quality (they are produced by 2nd tier brands). On the other hand large plasma TVs might be cheaper than large LCD TVs so if you are aiming to buy a large TV you might be more advantaged with a plasma TV.
Plasma vs. LCD TV Problems and Myths
Problems with Plasma TVs at High Altitude
Plasma TVs have a “problem” operating at high altitudes. Because of the rarefied air, when watching a plasma TV at high altitude you might experience a buzz-like noise. This happens because the fans that are cooling the plasma TV have to work harder to do their job. The problem is mainly of esthetic nature and it will not affect the plasma TV picture quality. Operating a plasma TV at a higher altitude than the one it was designed for, can however slightly shorten its life because the components inside it work harder. Pioneer states that their models are designed to work up to 7500 feet, Panasonic models go to 7800 feet and NEC plasma TVs are the best from this point of view by being able to operate normally as high as 9180 feet.
Plasma TV Burn-In Myth
Ah, this is my favorite! I have read many articles and guides online that scare people telling them plasma TVs develop burn-in and they recommend against them. The thing with these guides is that they are WRONG. They ware correct a few years ago however.
Older plasma TV models had a problem with burn-in. If you would have left a static picture (e.g. pausing a movie) on the screen for a long time or if you would have watched the same channel (that had a logo in the corner or news tickers) for many hours you would have likely ended up with a nasty burn in. Today’s plasma TV models however are very resistant to burn-in. You can play games on a plasma TV without worrying you will get burn-in and you can leave the same channel for hours and hours. With the older models of plasma TVs it would have taken just around 4 hours to get a burn-in from a static image. With today’s top quality models you would have to leave your plasma TV for over a day displaying a static picture in order to get burn in. So this is no longer a problem. I have read in a review online (I don’t remember the source unfortunately) that Panasonic engineers stated it would take their plasma TV models over four days to get burn-in.
Don’t worry about burn-in. Just enjoy your plasma TV whether it is while watching movies, TV channels or playing games on your X-Box or PC. If however you intend to use your HDTV as a computer monitor we strongly recommend you to choose an LCD TV. That is because plasma TVs, though are much more resistant to burn-in these days still develop this problem after a few days of being used as a computer monitor. Also we recommend to break-in the plasma TVs and calibrate them correctly to even further reduce the burn-in chances.
LCD TV Stuck or Dead Pixels Myth
Plasma TVs had burn-in and LCD TVs had dead or stuck pixels. You will still find models with a few stuck or dead pixels but think at this: there are over 2 million pixels in a 1080p LCD TV; you think two dead pixels would be noticeable? And this is if you happen to get an LCD with dead pixels because most of them have no dead pixels at all. Also remember that buying a top quality model means you have higher chances of getting one without dead or stuck pixels.
How to Fix LCD Stuck Pixels
Now if you do happen to get an LCD that has stuck pixels, there is a chance to fix it. I must first explain the difference between stuck and dead – stuck is a pixel that always has the same color, while dead is a pixel that is always black (off). You can’t fix dead pixels but it is possible sometimes to fix the stuck one. You get a piece of clean micro fiber cloth or some very soft cloth and put a bit of water on it. Make sure you don’t drown it in water though. If you have LCD cleaning solution it is even better. Wrap the cloth around your finger and gently rub the stuck pixel area pushing very softly and “massaging” in circles. Normally it takes a very gentle “massage” for a very short time (just 2-4 circular motions). If you’re lucky the stuck pixel started to work. If you’re not then you should stop. Do not over do it because you can damage your screen and make it worse. By the way, if you damage your screen like this, don’t blame me because I have warned you it can go bad.
Plasma and LCD TV Lifespan
Both plasma and LCD TVs have similar lifespan. The modern models go to around 60,000 hours until their brightness reduces to half (this is the industry standard to measure TVs lifespan). 60,000 hours means about 40 years using it 4 hours each day or 20 years if you’re watching 8 hours each day. It’s a lot of time and I bet meanwhile you will change a few models. So basically here there is virtually no difference in plasma vs. LCD TV technology; the only difference is given by the particular brand and model (as with everything for that matter).
Brand is Very Important
When comparing plasma vs. LCD it is important to make sure you compare models of similar quality. If you compare a model from a top brand with one from a lower quality brand you would trick yourself. The thing is that brand and manufacturing quality are more important than anything no matter if you choose plasma or LCD. Buy a quality product and you will be satisfied with it no matter what type it is and what you are doing with it. If you buy a top quality product and you also did your homework and know what is more suitable for you, then you can rest assured you truly have the best HDTV for your needs.
If you … then choose …
Don’t take the following as a rule but as a guide to better understand what is recommended for whom and in what cases. I hope it helps you to choose better if I give you some examples of possible situations.
- If you want a HDTV mainly for watching movies, maybe to put it in your dedicated home cinema room where you can control lighting, and you want the best viewing experience then plasma TV is the best. LCD is not that recommended if you are the type of person very passionate about watching movies.
- If you want a HDTV for everyday general use, without being interested in some particular content to view and you don’t have a lot of light in your room, both plasma and LCD will do a good job but a plasma TV will probably offer better image quality.
- If you like watching sports a lot, plasma TV might be a better choice because of its almost instant response time and high refresh rate. You will see the fast moving scenes you usually get in sports crisp and clear.
- If you have a lot of light in the room but you can use blinds when you watch TV/movies or you usually watch TV during evening/night a plasma TV can still remain a better choice (one that has anti-glare is always preferable) than LCD. The LCD might be better however if you don’t have blinds or you don’t want to close them and you mainly watch TV during day.
- If you have an exceptionally bright room, and especially if sun is falling on the place you want to install the TV, then an LCD is much more recommended than a plasma TV.
- If you want to use the TV a lot (predominantly) to play video games LCD is again much more recommended.
- If you want to use the HDTV as a computer monitor it is recommended NOT to choose a plasma TV. LCD is more then recommended in this case.
- If you do want to play games but you also use the TV to watch movies or TV programs more than you play games then plasma TV remains better.
I hope you got the idea. Basically you have to balance between picture quality, environment and the other things that might apply to your particular case.