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Plasma versus LCD

The screne arena

MOST television sets found in the home use bulky cathode-ray tube (CRT) technology.

The slimmer, flat screens that save space feature either plasma technology or liquid crystal displays (LCD).

Plasma screens (above) emit light, providing a bright picture even outdoors, and can be viewed from as wide an angle as 160 degrees.

LCD screens are used more commonly with home computers. They are less expensive to make, not as bright as plasma or CRT screens, and offer a narrower viewing angle.

Television manufacturer Sharp expects to stop using conventional picture tubes completely by 2005, and recently launched 13-, 15-, and 20-inch LCD screens that receive wireless video signals from a TV tuner.

Plasma and LCD screens are just that - screens. You need a tuner or video recorder to watch television on them, and a central processor unit and keyboard to surf the Internet on them.

Five years ago, Mitsubishi shocked the world during NAB when it announced that it was out of the CRT manufacturing business. Mitsubishi said that it wanted to transition all consumer and professional screens over 20" from CRT to plasma - dubbed the 'screen of the future'. Flat, at only four inches deep, and using some of the same performance properties as CRT with a phosphor-based color system, the plasma was off and running, with an advanced technology that left bulky presentation CRT monitors an artifact of display history.

By 2000, the plasma was the direct-view monitor of choice for virtually every ProAV display application over 27". But, like the CRT, plasma still has that nagging burn-in issue - static images displayed for long periods of time are burned into the phosphor elements inside the plasma.

Despite burn-in potential, the advantages of the thin, flat display outweighed the disadvantages, as plasma displays became practical in applications where they had never been considered before. Not only are they being used in conference rooms and boardrooms, you now find them in airports, retail stores, kiosks, lobbies and even in fast food restaurants. Plasma has truly helped create the new cottage industry of dynamic signage, where content is changed to suit the audience's (or advertiser's) preferences for information at any given time.

Fast forward to 2003.

Now, here comes LCD - Liquid Crystal Displays. Once relegated to digital watch displays, the new trend appears to be flat-screen LCD technology in everything from PDA (personal digital assistants) to back-seat entertainment center displays in cars to the ultimate in flat-screen, light-weight TVs. This time, however, Sharp and Samsung seem to be leading the pack with a host of large-format LCD screens. 37", 40" and soon 46" & 50/54" LCD screens will boast the same ergonomic and aesthetic characteristics of plasma, but without that nagging burn-in. Although vast improvements in plasma technology have made burn-in less of an issue, it is still inherent to the technology when displaying still images, text or graphics for long periods of time.

Liquid Crystal Display technology in large format, flat-panel displays works virtually identical to those in laptop screens where a back-light passes white light through red, green or blue LCD windows. Put hundreds of thousands or even millions of these little windows together and you have a large-format 40" display. But, LCD can weigh 50-75% less than plasma. And of course the power supply, in some cases, and electronics may be housed in a separate box that's either racked or set on a shelf. In fact, at January's CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas as well as the recent NSCA show in Dallas, a host of manufacturers were demonstrating LCD's that were upwards of 40" diagonally that could be lifted and moved by one person under one arm.

So, now there are two technologies vying for the attention of millions, if not billions (eventually), of buyers of flat-screen, large format televisions and presentation monitors. The consumer market with its sheer size and volume will eventually decide the winner of that technology battle, but in the mean time, the ProAV market's early adopters are leading the technology adoption curve. And so far, plasma has a huge advantage. Not only is plasma five years ahead of the curve of LCD, but factories are cranking them out by the tens of thousands.

In the ProAV market however, size matters and with sizes up to 63", plasma has a huge lead. In addition, unlike the consumer market where price seems to lead performance, the fact that plasma incorporates a technology that is superior to LCD in display of motion images like video and HDTV (as phosphor imaging has a better ability to process motion than the current generation of LCD imaging products) gives plasma a bigger lead. But, how long will that last? Some manufacturers, such as Samsung, are not hedging their bets either way, and currently produce both plasma and LCD displays. In fact, Samsung boasts being the only manufacturer having the largest displays in both categories (63" plasma and an over-50" LCD). And, I've seen a couple of manufacturer's road maps that include both larger Plasmas (yes, larger than 63" - coming Q4, 2003) and larger LCD's. In fact, Samsung showed both 46" and 54" LCD's at CES.

Ironically, LCD may be the better technology for many of the current applications in the ProAV market. Here's why.

Although consumers use video most of the time, many ProAV installs don't require this.

Most large screen imaging applications in the ProAV market incorporate a lot of fixed computer display applications (i.e. signage, logos, PowerPoint presentations, museum displays, etc.). In fact, some studies cite that static image display applications where computer data is the primary source (such as PowerPoint, Macromedia and even Microsoft products such as Internet Explorer and Excel - images that don't have a lot of motion) are already over 80% of the applications for ProAV install-projectors mounted in the ceiling. So, doesn't it stand to reason that many applications where plasmas are being used now in boardrooms, conference rooms and training rooms would follow similar stats? In fact, one study introduced at last year's infoComm show showed that video was used less than 8% in the average boardroom, conference room and training room installations they had polled. Public displays, which use flat screens for advertising or informational signage, take the static image display requirement to a new level, where images are left on the screen 24/7. Thus, LCD imaging might be the perfect solution for those applications - no burn-in. But, some of the new plasma technology getting ready to debut may combat that with 35,000-40,000 hour life plasma panels.

But, the real power in plasma and LCD is in the consumer world where every person who owns a TV will have to buy a new one some time over the next 10 years to accommodate the transition over to digital television. In the USA, the transition is already occurring with a final DTV-only date of 1 January 2007 looming over the horizon. And, as both these new flat-screen technologies primarily use 16:9 widescreen aspect ratios, there is no question that one of them will dominate the consumer TV space, but with ProAV, I'm betting there will probably be applications for both for a long time to come.

compare the two most popular flat screen TV technologies.

Comparison Plasma televisions LCD televisions Advantage
Screen Size Screen sizes range from 32 inches to 60 inches Sizes range from 13 inches to 40 inches, but larger screens are expected soon. Plasma TVs. Larger LCD TVs are already in development.
Viewing Angle Up to 160° Up to 170° LCD TVs.
Screen Refresh Rates Plasma displays refresh and handle rapid movements in video about as well as CRT televisions. LCD TVs were originally designed for data display, and not video. Therefore refresh rates had to be improved. LCD TVs with refresh rates of 16 ms or higher show very little noticeable artifacts. Slight edge to plasma technology.
Burn-in Plasma TVs can suffer from burn in produced by static images. After extended periods, stationary images "burn in" and produce an after-image ghost which remains permanently on the screen. Newer plasma TVs have addressed burn-in and reduced the issues of older models. LCD TVs do not suffer from burn-in. LCD TVs
Product Life-span Typical plasma TVs have a life span of 20,000 to 30,000 hours, which equates to at least two years, three months of 24/7 usage before the TV fades to half the original brightness. LCD TVs life span is typically 50,000-60,000 hours, which equates to at least 5 years of 24/7 use. LCD TVs run nearly twice as long as plasma.
Weight Plasma displays are fairly heavy, and may need additional supports to be mounted onto a wall. LCD TVs weigh less than comparably sized plasma TVs. LCD TVs are considerably lighter.
Durability Plasmas are very fragile making them tricky to ship and install. Unlike the commercials where plasmas are mounted on the ceiling, plasmas are best installed by a professional, and should be installed on a wall that can bear a good deal of weight. Much more durable then plasmas. End users can easily mount an LCD TV themselves if desired. LCD TVs are far less fragile than plasmas.
Shipping Due to their fragile nature, plasma TVs need to be shipped by specialty carriers. Overnight or fast delivery options are not recommended. Special shipping methods and their heavier weight add to higher shipping costs. Shipping LCD TVs is not difficult, and is not as expensive as shipping plasma displays. LCD TVs are lighter and far less fragile than plasma displays making shipping easier.
Installation Plasmas are heavier, use more power, and run hotter than LCD TVs, and therefore require more planning when mounting them. Plasmas are generally best installed by professionals. End users can easily install LCD TVs themselves, or can use them just as they use a traditional TV using a stand. LCD TVs are much easier to install than plasma TVs.
Brightness Plasma TVs range from 500-700 cd/m2, but are measured based on a different standard than LCD TVs. When compared under "real world" circumstances, plasma TVs brightness is typically closer to 100 cd/m2. Measured under the more stringent "real world" standards, LCD TVs average a brightness rating of 450 cd/m2. In the "real world" situations, LCD TVs are 4 times brighter than plasma TVs.*
Thickness As thin as 3 inches deep. As thin as 2 inches deep. LCDs TVs are just a bit thinner.
Performance at High Altitude High altitudes can affect the performance of plasma displays because the gas held inside each pixel is stressed, and has to work harder to perform. LCD TVs are not affected by high altitudes. LCD TVs.
Contrast Ratios Current plasmas measure contrast ratios of up to 3000:1. However, when compared to LCD TVs in "real world" situations, contrast ratios for plasma TVs drop to approximately 200:1.* LCD TV contrast ratios are measured using "real world" standards. Typical contrast ratios range from 350-450:1. LCD TVs contrast ratios measured in real world situations double typical plasma TVs.
* source = NEC-Mitsubishi white paper
  TV Plasma LCD
Screen size Small to large Large to really large Small to large
Price Low High Low to high
Light yield High Average to high Average to high
View angle High High Small to average
Weight Heavy Average Light
Energy usage Average to high High Low
Livetime ca. 50.000 hours ca. 25.000 hours ca. 60.000 hours

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