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Real-world LCD vs. Plasma Comparison Shopping

I recently helped a friend shop for a new flatpanel monitor for his living room. We spent many hours online and at various consumer-electronics stores, trying to determine which would better serve him—LCD or plasma. We got all kinds of opinions and tested all sorts of source material

Real-world LCD vs. Plasma Comparison Shopping

Nov 17, 2008 12:00 PM,
By Jason Bovberg

I recently helped a friend shop for a new flatpanel monitor for his living room. We spent many hours online and at various consumer-electronics stores, trying to determine which would better serve him—LCD or plasma. We got all kinds of opinions and tested all sorts of source material, and we ended up with a decision that we’re both happy with, considering my friend’s needs. That decision was plasma, and it turned out to be a surprisingly personal decision.

As electronics consumers, we are probably all rah-rah champions of one technology or the other. In my experience, people who own an LCD monitor enjoy trash-talking those who own plasma TVs, and—to some extent—vice versa. (In my experience, LCD owners are, by and large, a cranky bunch.) But there’s far more to a TV-purchase decision than simply weighing perceived pros and cons or even visiting a store and doing a quick comparison. I would even go so far as to say that if you walk into Best Buy, stare open-mouthed at the selection, and make your decision based on comparative image brightness or sharpness, you’ve probably made a poor decision. Dazzled by the kaleidoscopic chaos of a wall of flashing, dialed-to-11 imagery is not the mindset from which to determine which TV will best power your own home theater.

So, before you step into that store, do some research. One of our first questions was whether my friend even needed a 1080p monitor (regardless of LCD or plasma), considering that it would probably be a long time before he had a true 1080p HD source flowing into the display. He isn’t a gamer, and he didn’t have any desire to dive into the world of Blu-ray. Would a 720p HD monitor suffice? Perhaps. But his passion is sports, and we seem to be—slowly but surely—inching ever closer to 1080p broadcasts over cable and especially satellite. Will a 1080p conversion happen any time soon, or even within a typical TV’s lifetime? Perhaps not. It’s an expensive prospect for providers. It could be a year, or it could be 20 years. My friend decided not to gamble, and went with 1080p to future-proof his setup. (And anyway, by the end of our quest, he was quite sold on the prospect of Blu-ray.)

That decision out of the way, we looked at the physical differentiations between LCD and plasma. LCDs—liquid crystal displays—get their bright images from backlighting liquid crystals between glass panes. Plasma displays use electrical voltage to charge up a matrix of tiny gas-filled cells. Because of the differing approaches, each technology has its comparative advantages and disadvantages. Plasma displays tend to handle black levels with more precision (great for movie watchers, providing richer cinematic contrast); LCDs suffer in this area because of their “backlit” nature, although they’re making up ground in the latest models. And one difference I had seen firsthand was LCD’s habit of motion blur. Watching tennis with my dad earlier this year, on his brand-new LCD, was like watching a kid playing with a fluorescent-yellow highlighter, streaking it across the screen. On the other hand, plasmas require more energy than LCDs and can run pretty warm. And plasmas have been known to be “image burn-in” offenders—that is, some people say that if you leave a static image onscreen for too long (say, logos or dashboards in games), it will leave a ghost of itself imprinted on the display. On current models, with reasonable brightness settings, this is no longer a real concern. Finally, one of LCD’s primary advantages is its glare resistance. If you’re installing your TV in a room that’s on the bright side, then LCD has a natural benefit.

I knew about all these differences as we descended upon our local stores, but I’d never really performed back-to-back comparisons. What my friend and I found—feeding Blu-ray traditional DVD source material into the LCD and plasma TVs that we narrowed down to in the 52in. range—was that the actual imagery differences between the two technologies were subtle to negligible, particularly after we were given free rein to play with the TVs’ picture settings. For one comparison between two big-name sets, our initial impression was that the LCD was obviously sharper and brighter, but actually adjusting sharpness and brightness to sane levels on both sets provided easy equalization, thus shedding light on the too-often overlooked fact that manufacturers always crank up sharpness and brightness for the benefit of bright showrooms.

In the end, my friend made his choice based on reasons that were a bit more personal than technological. He realized that most of his TV and movie watching would be standard definition. Indeed, the bulk of material flowing into his set, for the foreseeable future, would be standard-def 4:3 imagery such as old TV shows and news channels on the non-HD stations (which still outnumber HD stations by a factor of 20 to 1 with his provider). In our tests, the plasma handled standard definition a little better than the equivalent LCD, just appearing a tad more natural and colorful (although admittedly pretty cruddy compared with the HD feed that we were becoming accustomed to!). Also, he would be installing the set in a very dark, purpose-built room, so glare wouldn’t be a problem. And given the amount of sports viewing he’d be doing, the LCDs tendency toward motion blur was a negative. We both nodded our heads, flagged the salesperson, and pointed at the plasma.

He remains ecstatic with his choice and is already planning to purchase a Blu-ray deck. And I’m happy that he decided to take his time with his decision after having been more prone to run out and throw money down on the first fabulous image he saw. I had convinced him to do observe proper diligence—something largely missing from the mindsets of many buyers. So, before you submit to the razzle-dazzle of showroom HD imagery, be sure to spend some time thinking about exactly what you want and, more important, need in a flatscreen HD display. You might find that personal preference outweighs technological differentiation.

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