In my previous article I stated I’d give everyone a crash course on making a good decision if buying home theater equipment for Christmas and the Holidays. Over the next few articles I write I’ll give a bit about the basic HDTV technolgies one might encounter as well as the pros and cons. First up? Plasma.
Plasma TV has been around a while. I first saw some professional models around 1996-97 while in Las Vegas made by Fujitsu. The first unit I actually saw for sale was upon Sun TV’s return to the Buffalo market in 1998. It was a Philips 42 inch Plasma. It was several inches thick and cost a whopping $20,000. Over the next several years prices would drop, substantially. By the early 2000s, Wal-Mart was carrying an iLo 42″ Plasma that broke the $2000 barrier. While the picture was good these early plasma sets ran hot, suffered from serious burn in issues and were somewhat unreliable. This would be the stigma that would stick with Plasma, a long time after these issues were corrected. It would also spark rumors that Plasma TVs had gas that needed to be replaced periodically. I remember going to the Wal-Mart stores and seeing the iLo sets turn brownish after a few months, and I remember being surprised at how hot they ran (you could literally feel the heat radiating off the sets). It seemed each Black Friday would mark a new milestone on a cheap 42″ plasma. First it was $1500, then $1000, then $700. Last year I bought Wal-Mart’s Black Friday Emerson Plasma for $448. That $448 Plasma has a picture that is astonishingly better than the $20,000 Philips from years ago. To say technology has improved is an understatement.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that many of Plasma’s early issues have been corrected. Getting burn in is not the easy task it once was, given the longer phospor life (plasma’s work much like a flourescent light, by using electricity to excite phosphors comprised of various gasses). They don’t run anywhere near as hot and are generally much more reliable. It is still possible to have image retention which is a temporary situation in which previous images are seen on the screen but it goes away. It can be limited by putting the TV through a proper break in and not running it in vivid mode (something I wouldn’t recommend anyway as vivid mode is generally the worst in terms of picture quality and accuracy).
Plasma TVs have several advantages over LCDs. They’ll oven cost less for a similar size and generally have better black levels than anything that can be had in the same price range for the same size. They have better motion response (good for fast moving acton like sports). The disadvantages are obviously the burn in risk, and they use more electricity.
The panels used to make Plasma TVs come in several resolutions, forget EDTV panels of yore, the current ones are usually 1366×768 (considerd a 720p), 1920×1080 (1080p), or more recently a 1280x720p (used in budget sets). One should be less concerned when buying an off brand than before, Plasma sets are primarily made by Panasonic, LG and Samsung these days (most other manufacturers no longer make Plasma sets, and those that do, such as China’s Changhong are often not imported into the US). This means that even if you buy that Best Buy Insignia or Wal-Mart Emerson, it is probably made by one of those three companies. Samsung does a lot of OEM work and is often times the culprit. If you don’t mind having a nice Samsung panel (albeit minus a few features), then buying one of those Insignia sets is the way to go. LG also markets their sets under the Zenith brand. Wal-Mart also sells some Sanyo plasma sets. While not exactly OEMed like a house brand, these are generally Samsung or LG sets made to Sanyo’s specifications.
When it comes to 3D, Samsung plans on offering a budget 3D set in the 720p resolution (it would not be surprising to see OEM versions of this set show up on Black Friday, or the set itself heavily discounted). The rest are mainly comprised of Panasonic offerings. Due to the fast motion response of Plasma 3D looks very good. You can demo a set yourself at the Best Buy at the McKinley mall who has a Panasonic Plasma running a 3D demo.
All in all, Plasma is not a bad choice like it may have been years ago. If you see one at a cheap price don’t rule it out simply because it is a Plasma. When compared with a similar sized budget LCD it will almost certainly have better black levels and color accuracy that you won’t get in that LCD unless you spend substantially more. Given that 42″ Plasmas are hovering around the $500 range for budget models (and I’ve seen Sears run their 50″ Zenith Plasma made by LG for $599 already), seeing a $399 42″ Plasma and $499 50″ for Black Friday is not the surprise it used to be given what I paid for my Zenith around Memorial Day I’d expect prices to remain low for the weeks leading in to Christmas. At those prices given the fact that so few manufacturers make Plasma TVs if one can live without the 1080p resoultion that those very cheap sets are likely to lack, then they will be able to enjoy a large screen at a very affordable price.