You want a flat panel TV, but should you buy plasma or LCD?

In one sense, the above question is easy to answer. If it’s a small TV you want, below about 106 cm (42 inches), then LCD is the way to go. It used to be that for big TVs plasma was your only choice, but now LCDs reach up to at least 132 cm (52 inches) and are becoming more price competitive with similar-sized plasma TVs.

The very largest sizes – up to 178 cm (70 inches) – are still exclusively plasma, for the time being at least. Here are some things to consider.

Resolution

We are tempted to say that these days you should only purchase a full high definition TV. That is, one with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. We stand by that for any display of at least 127cm (50 inches), and it’s preferable, really, for any display over 100cm (40 inches) But for smaller models it depends on how close to the screen you will be sitting. An 80cm LCD television viewed from across the room is fine at 1366 x 768 pixels, but if it’s sitting at the foot of your bed, just a metre and a half away, then 1920 x 1080 pixels is still preferable.

Picture smoothness

This is slightly different to resolution because it refers to how closely you can be to the screen before the individual dots constituting the picture become visible. LCD TVs have extremely narrow gaps between their pixels, so even when you’re standing close the picture will remain smooth. Plasma technology requires thin glass walls around each of the plasma cells, so the illuminated pixels are a little further apart. That can produce a kind of screen door effect if you sit too close. At normal viewing distances, though, there’s little to tell them apart.

Contrast ratio

While ‘contrast ratio’ tells us the ratio between the brightest elements of picture the screen can produce, and the darkest, what is really important is only the latter. If anything, LCD TVs can be a touch brighter than plasmas, but they don’t produce black as well. Lately plasmas have been routinely claiming 15,000:1 or better contrast ratios (we’ve seen one brand claim a million to one!), and some LCD TVs are claiming similar figures. But if you sit in a dark room, high quality plasma TVs outperform high quality LCD TVs when you’re watching a dark scene.

Motion

LCD TVs have come on tremendously in recent years in their ability to display fast and accurate motion, but we think that plasma TVs still have a slight edge here.

Burn-in

Plasma TVs can suffer from ‘burn-in’, where the ghost of a static image (such as a DVD or games console menu) that has been left on for a while is retained. Most are now quite resistant to this, but they can still be burnt in if, say, a menu is left displayed for hours on end. If you choose a plasma TV, always take extra care to avoid this.

Power

In general, in our experience, LCD TVs use a little less power than plasma TVs. But that does not apply to all individual models. When the Energy Star rating scheme comes in later this year, this choice will be easier to make.

Similarities

Apart from the above, plasma and LCD TVs are pretty much the same. Both have a similar service life (typically around 60,000 hours of viewing). Likewise, the viewing angle on plasma TVs and the good LCDs is just about the same, as are the range of extra features.

Both plasma and LCD are excellent. Both are better than their equivalent models of last year. And we might even hazard the guess that both will please you!

GadgetGuy tip

What size of TV is right for you? You can really only tell by eye. So before you go shopping, work out where the TV is going to be in your room, and where you are going to be sitting when you’re watching it. When you go to the shop, check out how the picture quality looks when you’re the same distance away. Take a tape measure if necessary.