The Tussle for Television
The commercials make it look so appealing: Hang that sleek flat-panel screen over the fireplace, making the TV a thing of grace instead of a mere mind-vacuum. But then comes the choice between LCD or plasma technologies, and it's no longer so simple. Keep a few distinctions in mind, and you can have the right set in time for the Super Bowl.
First off, don't believe the commercial hype: The flat-screen TV won't easily hang on the wall. Any of those svelte 42-inch panels weighs at least 60 pounds, and the weight goes up considerably with bigger screen sizes. That means hiring a contractor or begging Casey, your talented if disheveled brother-in-law, to drill, pound, and plaster that behemoth to the wall. About 90 percent of people just put it on a stand, says Riddhi Patel, who tracks TV tech for the research firm iSuppli Corp. "It usually ends up in the same corner where the old TV sat," she says.
Still, a flat-paneled corner looks more fashionable than a bulky tube set or a rear-projection screen, even though those options are slimmer compared with earlier versions. On average, U.S. buyers are willing to pay about $300 to $500 more to get a flat panel of the same size as competing rear-projection sets, Patel says.
And amid free-falling prices, flat panels seem cheap these days: A good 42-inch plasma can be found for less than $2,000 (as if any TV at even $1,500 is cheap!). Prices on plasmas have alluringly dropped by nearly half in just a year, says Tamaryn Pratt, a top analyst at Quixel Research. "People are buying larger screen sizes than they would've even considered in the past."
Picky pixels. Plasmas remain less expensive than LCD s, which are likewise falling in price but not enough to close the gap. On average, a 40- to 42-inch LCD sold for about $3,589 last quarter, compared with about $3,000 for a comparable plasma, Pratt says.
Are LCD s worth the added cost? Perhaps so, if you think the highest resolution might be important in the near future. LCD s can get more pixels--the measure of picture definition--into a panel than plasma sets can. But today's TV and DVD content hasn't matched the highest resolution TV s can achieve. The better plasma screens available are fine for current high-definition broadcasts. Only the next generation of DVD players might fully exploit the best LCD (you can read about the ongoing Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle on Page 62).
Looking past resolution, the plasma vs. LCD choice comes down to your habits:
Plasmas look better in low-light conditions where people watch prime-time TV, because less light shows off plasma's better blacks.
LCD s look better in brighter rooms, the probable scene for watching afternoon football.
But plasmas blur less in fast-action scenes. The difference is less pronounced now but still exists.
Though they have improved, plasmas have some risk of images permanently "burning" in, particularly if the screen's tuned to the same news channel that might, say, run a ticker along the bottom.
An LCD' s picture fades more when viewed from a sharp angle to the side.
At too close a range, plasma images are a bit like looking through a screen door, and plasmas weigh more.
One distinction that's largely gone away: life expectancy issues for plasma, which now can last 60,000 hours before failing. That's more than 25 years at six hours a day, every day. Can your sofa (or your seat) last that long?
PLASMA TV VS. LCD TV
Plasma TVs generally are the more affordable flat-panel technology.
THE GOOD: Can get dark shades of black that are ideal for dimly lit rooms.
THE BAD: Heavier and thus harder to hang on walls. In small rooms, plasmas can appear to have a window screen over the picture.
The LCD technology is moving from your office desktop to your living room.
THE GOOD: Can get higher resolution than plasma TVs, something new game machines and DVD players could make use of.
THE BAD: Can be harder to see the picture when viewed from side angles.
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.