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LCD Versus Plasma

If you're looking a flat-screen TV, the one question, other than price, that plagues most people is which is better, LCD or Plasma? Here's point-by-point comparison.

If you're looking a flat-screen TV this holiday season one question, other than price, that plagues consumers is which is better, LCD or Plasma?

Unfortunately, there is no one single answer to this question.

LCD enthusiasts will tell you an LCD flat-screen television is better, and Plasma users will tell you Plasma displays are better. Your own decision is mainly going to based on the television size you want, where in your home it will be used, and, of course, your budget. To help you figure out which type of television is best for you, we'll discuss both technologies in terms of how it works, and also compare common features between standard consumer-level LCD and Plasma televisions in the 32 to 50 inch range.

How Plasma Technology Works

Plasma TV's create a picture from a gas (plasma) filled with xenon and neon atoms and millions of electrically charged atoms and electrons, that collide when you turn the power on. The collision increases the energy level in the plasma and the neon and xenon release photons of light (similar to the way neon lights work). Read full Webopedia definition.

How LCD Technology Works

Short for liquid crystal display, LCD is a type of display that uses two sheets of polarizing material with a liquid crystal solution between them. An electric current passed through the liquid causes the crystals to align so that light cannot pass through them. Each crystal, therefore, is like a shutter, either allowing light to pass through or blocking the light. Read full Webopedia definition.

One of the biggest problems facing consumers shopping for either an LCD or Plasma television is old information. Because these technologies change so often and get better with each new model released by a manufacturer, some issues concerning LCD televisions from even a year ago aren't much of an issue today — and the same holds true for Plasma displays. For example, a year ago you could expect to see a full 15 degree difference in the viewing angles between LCD and Plasma displays. Today, Samsung offers a 178 degree viewing angle on many of its Plasma displays, and up to 175 degrees on its LCDs of similar sizes.

While the chart below offers some general observations on features of both types of televisions, consumers need to remember that the numbers and features change between each type of display and also between exact models and manufacturers. If you're undecided about choosing Plasma over LCD, and vise versa, the best thing to do is read the technical specifications of each television and decide based on the up-to-date manufacturer's specifications.

Features For Consumers

What To Expect With LCD

What To Expect With Plasma

Size Commonly 13 to 52 inches. Larger sizes are available but very expensive. Commonly 42 to 63 inches. More choice is available for 50 inch and above. Larger sizes are available but are very expensive.
Viewing Angle & Off Angle Standard of 160, but up to 175 degrees (depends on model). Slight picture fading at extreme angles. Up to 178 degrees (depends on model). Off-angle viewing is excellent and better than LCD.
Resolution, Brightness and More Generally offers slightly higher resolution than Plasma. Not as good contrast ratio. Anti-glare makes it better for viewing in bright rooms. Newer technology offers improved black levels, but still not as good as plasma for producing blacks. Higher levels of brightness and contrast.  Viewing quality best where lighting can be controlled. Better display of black.
Weight, Durability, Power Consumption Lighter than Plasma. Also more durable than Plasma. Consumes 30 to 40 percent less power than plasma of similar size. Very heavy and usually needs special wall-mount brackets. Plasma are more fragile and also consumes more power than LCD.
High Altitude Performance Not affected by high altitude. Anything above 6,500 feet can affect the performance.
Inherent Issues LCD televisions may suffer from a defective pixel (also called a stuck pixel or dead pixel). This is a single pixel on the display that always remains lit or dark, usually the result of a transistor malfunction or uneven distribution of liquid in the LCD. Plasma can suffer from "burn in" the term used to describe a ghosting of an image that can remain on the screen if a stationary image has been left on too long. Burn in has been reduced in newer models.
Lifespan
60,000 hours is equivalent to five years of 24/7 usage, or approximately 27 years of typical family TV use.
Typically you can expect 50-60,000 hours. With some LCDs you may be able to replace the the fluorescent lamps. Compare with older CRT televisions that typically had a lifespan of 25,000 hours. Many newer plasma displays also have reached a lifespan of 60,000 hours and higher. Plasma displays, however, will slowly lose some brightness over a long period of time. This brightness lose is called LTHB (Life to Half Brightness).
Price Typically, you can expect LCD televisions in the 42-inch and below range to be a better-price when compared to plasma televisions below 42 inches. Typically you can expect plasma televisions in the 42-inch and above range to be a better price when compared to LCD televisions above 42 inch.

The Big Misconceptions

One of the biggest misconceptions with plasma displays surrounds their lifespan.  Many people confuse the LTHB (Life to Half Brightness) with half-life span and assume that a plasma with a 60,000 hours lifespan will only last 30,000 hours until the brightness starts to fade. This is a misconception. Panasonic, for example, is trying to get this notion out of consumer's heads. The 60,000 hour rating is to LTHB not the entire lifespan of the plasma display. This year Panasonic's top of the line plasma displays are rated at 100,000 hours before reaching half brightness. Its important to understand the difference between "Life to Half Brightness" and "half lifespan". When purchasing a plasma display, be wary of retailers that say a plasma display is good only for a couple years and offer to sell you an expensive warranty upgrade to replace your plasma in the next four to five years.

Another hotly debated statistic is the contrast ratio, which is the difference between the brightest white and darkest black parts of an image. The higher the contrast ratio, the better and more realistic the image. Some displays may offer specifications of 20,000:1 and higher. Basically this means that the black level is 20,000 times darker than the white. The problem is that number is realistic only so long as the set is being viewed in a perfectly blackened room. Add so much as the light emitting from a single burning candle and you would not notice a difference between this extreme contrast ratio and a contrast ratio of around 500:1. Additionally, groups who caution consumers against paying more for higher contrast ratios say that at any given time the human eye can see only around 800:1 in contrast detection.

Which has The Advantage?

For the most part, if you're looking round the 50-inch and under size, the latest LCD and plasma displays will both provide an excellent picture quality. In larger sizes, plasma will have the advantage. LCD has the edge in smaller sizes. In viewing quality, plasma has an advantage when displaying blacks, but the nature of plasma makes it better for viewing in environments where you can control the lighting. LCDs offer anti-glare and will produce a better visual quality in brighter rooms. The latest generation of LCDs have all but removed the "viewing angle" issue. However, some less-known and cheaper brands of LCD displays will not have as good of a viewing angle. For a long time LCDs were the winner when it came to resolution (pixels per screen size). Plasma, however, is closing the gap in the 50-inch display range. 

For most people, it's going to be your budget that guides your purchase. Decide on a budget then choose your size and directly compare manufacturer's technical specifications for the different LCD and plasma displays that fall within your budget and display size requirements, and consider where in the home your new television will be used (e.g., brightly lit room, corner, wall-mounted and so on).

Terminology

Like most new technologies, the world of home theater and big-screen televisions is full of new words, terms and slang. To get you started on knowing the lingo, here are some of the many terms you'll encounter when shopping for a new flat-screen TV.



Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.





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