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Flat panel televisions: Which one’s right for you?

By The Vann’s Editorial Team
Last revised October 12th, 2009

So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and purchase a new flat panel television. Now you may be asking yourself, “Should I get an LCD or a plasma television? What’s the difference, anyway?” Both options offer terrific viewing experiences, and with the technologies behind them having vastly improved since the first flat panel hit the market, it’s hard to go wrong. But there are a few issues to consider before you plop down your hard-earned cash on a new flat panel.

Before we get into the specifics of plasma vs. LCD, imagine how a flat panel in general improves your living room. No matter what the size, the option to wall-mount a television means you get away from bulky CRT systems — your television now resembles a piece of art rather than a piece of furniture. This opens up your entertainment room and gives you more space for beanbags or bamboo plants.

Room and screen size: Get the most out or your flat panel

Sitting the right distance from your flat panel television is important for optimizing your viewing experience. If you get too far away from an HDTV, your eyes can’t resolve all the detail it offers. But if you sit too close, you may start to notice the pixels that make up the screen, which will be distracting. Of course, everyone is different, as a trip to your local movie theater will prove. Some head for the front, some enjoy the back row, and many opt for somewhere in between. You likely have your own comfort zone when watching television, too.

Here’s a tip for determining how close you should sit to your flat panel. To approximate an optimal-viewing-distance range, you multiply the screen’s size (measured diagonally) by a fixed number. Generally, a range between 2 and 3 times the screen size will deliver the appropriate viewing experience.

Now, to business

Although they are both categorized as flat panel displays, plasma and LCD use different technologies to achieve this status.

Liquid. Crystal. Display. LCD. Just as the name implies, LCD screens use liquid crystal as the foundation of their image-reproducing technology. An LCD’s screen consists of an array of hundreds-of-thousands to millions of square pixels arranged into a grid. When different levels of electricity are applied to a layer of liquid crystal sandwiched between each pixel’s two light filters, the molecules that make up the liquid crystal arrange themselves in a particular way so that only a certain amount of the light being produced behind them is allowed to pass through and be seen by the viewer. While the liquid crystal is involved only in regulating the amount of light, a color filter placed between the light filter nearest the viewer and the viewer is responsible for determining the color of the light that passes through the screen. To create blacks, enough energy is applied to the liquid crystal so that its molecules arrange themselves so as to block almost all of the light.

Both LCD and technology have extremely high longevity — the average panels have potential viewing lives of 60,000 hours.

Middle school science class reminds us that there are four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. Plasma screens also consist of an array of hundreds-of-thousands to millions of pixels arranged into a grid. While LCD pixels sandwich liquid crystal between light-filter panes, plasma pixels position a gas-filled cell between two glass plates. When electricity is applied to a pixel cell, the gas inside is ionized, becoming a plasma, and the movement of the gas ions result in the emission of photons, or particles of light. While the ionization of the gas is responsible for the production of light within a plasma display, both the amount of electricity applied to a pixel and the use of phosphor coating on cells result in the production of color.

Plasma displays are brighter than most televisions, boast a broad color gamut, and can be produced in very large sizes (up to 103” diagonally in some cases). The compact nature of plasma display technology also allows for a flat-panel design perfect for mounting on your wall and freeing up space in your living room — the display panel itself is around 2.5” thick. Plasma displays also have a potential life of 60,000 hours — nearly 30 years at five hours of use per day.

As a final note, there is some concern about the risk of “phosphor burn-in” with plasma displays. This refers to a phenomenon by which the prolonged display of a stationary image on a plasma display can cause a “ghost-like” residue of that image to remain, permanently. Phosphor burn-in occurs because the phosphor coating on the individual pixels can lose luminosity with use. When the same image is displayed constantly (even on just a small part of the screen), the pixels involved in displaying that image begin to fade or dim (i.e. lose their luminosity) and can be visible to the eye. Phosphor burn-in occurs most commonly when a television station that displays its logo in the corner of the screen is left on for extended periods at a time. Also, menu screens on video games and DVDs can have a similar effect if left on for long periods. While phosphor burn-in can happen in these extreme cases, many manufacturers have developed technologies that greatly reduce the possibility of burn-in. Look for pixel orbiting, image washing or screen-saver modes.

Set the mood — ambient lighting

One of the biggest differences between plasma and LCD is how each performs given your room’s level of ambient light. Each tends to perform better than the other in a particular environment, and the difference in performance between plasma and LCD has a pretty simple explanation.

LCD screens tend to perform better than plasma when there is a lot of ambient light in your viewing area because the glass used in LCD screens tends to reflect less light than that of Plasma screens.

At the same time, plasma screens are better suited than LCDs to use in situations where there is a lower level of ambient light. This is primarily a result of each panel type’s ability to produce black levels. Black levels, or the ability of a display to reproduce blacks, is a key component in the reproduction of high-definition images. More blacks mean more contrast and more detail. Plasma displays completely shut pixels off to achieve deep, high-detail black levels. Because this method reduces the luminosity of the panel, plasmas are better suited to low-light conditions. LCD displays, on the other hand, reproduce black levels by blocking the passage of light through a pixel. Because LCDs can’t completely block all of the light, lower black levels are attained and these panels may appear overly bright in low-light situations.

Don’t miss the snap

The type of programming you plan on watching on your new television is also a topic of concern in deciding on the best type of flat panel television to purchase.

A major point of interest if you are interested in watching fast, high-action content, like sports or movies, are screen refresh rates. The rate at which a panel can display new frames on the screen, screen refresh rate technologies have seen recent advancements that have greatly narrowed the gap between the two formats. Plasma screens may still have a slight, but minor, advantage in this area.

Also, if you plan of viewing high-definition content — Blu-ray Discs or high-definition television — you will want a panel that can display hi-def content. Currently, the most advanced hi-def formats are known as 1080i and 1080p — terms referring both to the content’s resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) and its scanning, or display, method (“i” for interlaced or “p” for progressive).

Hang this on your wall

One thing that people love about flat panel televisions is that they can be mounted on a wall — LCDs and plasmas alike. Mounting a flat panel television on your wall frees up all that space in your living room previously occupied by an entertainment center.

When discussing mounting options, weight is the principle variable of concern. Plasmas weigh quite a bit more than LCD televisions and, therefore, some wall reinforcement may be necessary if a large flat panel plasma is being mounted. Also, if a mounting system such as a cantilever mount (a mount that extends the television away from the wall and allows it to rotate and swing laterally) is used, because of the extra leverage produced by using this type of mount, particular consideration of the integrity of your wall should be taken.

Give us a call

So, by now you hopefully have a good idea of the type of flat panel television you'd like to purchase, or at least have some information to help you make your decision. These guidelines are meant to give you a basic understanding of the differences between LCD and plasma televisions. While there are some notable differences between the two technologies, both provide a video experience quite unlike anything your old CRT can offer. Hopefully we’ve provided information in this article that will help you make your decision. If you still have questions, give us a call to discuss your concerns, and we’ll work together to make sure you make the best purchase for your needs. Our expert staff can be reached at 1-800-769-5668.

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