Plasma remains the best choice for large-screen high definition TV viewing, and Max Everingham revels in reminding us why.

“If plasma still rocks, why don’t I ever hear anything about it?” we hear you ask. Walk into any of the big chain electrical stores these days and you’d be forgiven for thinking that your only option when buying a large-screen high definition TV is LCD. There’s a reason for that. In fact there are several, but performance isn’t one of them.

We’ll touch on the main reason a little later in this article but, for now, be assured that plasma still rocks because, centimetre for centimetre, it’s still the best choice for anyone looking for a superlative HD TV viewing experience, whether you want one for movies, videogames or sport. And despite the lower profile, those in the know are buying them in the thousands. Samsung reckons that, in the US, 50 percent of HD TVs over 50 inches are plasma – that’s half of all sales, and around a third of 40 inch-plus sales.

You probably don’t believe us. That’s fine. Like Betamax over VHS or film-based SLRs over digital cameras, the popular choice is not necessarily the superior choice and, in fact, plasma shares this same, odd stigma of being better but not more prevalent in homes.

Largely, this is due to number of misconceptions – ‘plasma myths‘, if you like, which may once have been as true of plasma as saying the ‘Made in Japan’ sticker was a reliable indicator of low (yes, low) quality 50 years ago. But like all good commonly held beliefs, times change and they are now utter hogwash.

I should declare that I used to work for a company that made plasma televisions, but there are two reasons why that shouldn’t upset you now. Firstly, I no longer work for them or have any dealings with them (they finally saw sense) and, secondly, the company in question, Pioneer, has stopped making plasma televisions entirely.

That’s a terrible shame, because the company made the best consumer displays in the world and it’s entirely our fault, because not enough of us bought them. And by ‘our fault’, I mean ‘yours’, because I bought two.

So, I’ve made the statement that plasma TVs are better than LCD. Here’s my reasons.

Black is black is black

So let’s imagine you’ve seen the light and it’s provided by plasma: what benefits do all those little gases bring? Well, the Big Kahuna is picture quality.

Plasma, unsullied by backlighting issues that challenge LCD, produces deeper blacks and detail and that is not a contested fact. It also produces more natural and vibrant colours and does not suffer from motion blur, the last admirably tackled in LCD but not removed entirely by 100Hz or even 200Hz technology.

The newest plasma screens from Samsung and Panasonic feature something called 600Hz subfield processing. This isn’t the same as 100Hz or 200Hz interpolation circuitry – which creates new lines of picture information between the original lines to give the appearance of smoother image – but a system that increases the number of times (from 8 to 12 per second) an image is flashed onto the plasma’ pixel grid. The result is an even more solid image, especially on Blu-ray material.

Love in motion

The enjoyment of what you’re watching is further enhanced in plasma thanks to faster response times and a wider viewing angle. ‘Response time’, while not wishing to get over technical, is the time taken for a picture element to change from black, to white, to black again. In other words, how quickly the display reacts to changes.

With plasma, response times are negligible, with virtually instantaneous switching, but with LCD televisions, even the fastest are measured at 4ms, and the average is between 6-8ms. The effect is that anything that moves rapidly across the screen can appear blurred, as the circuitry fails to keep pace with the changes that are happening on screen, leaving residual images as it struggles to catch up.

As mentioned, the 100Hz and 200 Hz technology in newer LCD panels aims to combat this, but it’s surely better not to have to fight at all, and this is where plasma has the advantage.

Taking a wider view

Viewing angle may not be a big issue if you’re watching your 66 cm television in your CBD studio flat on your lonesome, but if you like to invite a crowd round to watch the Sex in the City reruns over a few chardies, those sitting off to the side would notice seriously compromised images with significantly less vibrant colours if you’ve chosen an LCD TV; whereas with plasma, everyone sees the same quality, with a practically 180-degree sweep offering equally good image reproduction.

Not to mention that with a 127 cm (50 inch in old money) HDTV in your lounge room your posse is all going to need to be sitting at least two metres from the telly (many people’s eyes are bigger than their bellies here, and they buy screens that are too large for the room), the viewing angle can still be quite important.

Contrast

The numbers quoted by over-enthusiastic (or under-informed) PR people are reaching ridiculous levels these days, but even contrast ratios are better with plasma. Ignore any mention of ‘dynamic’ and ‘full on/off’ contrast measurements that yield absurd and useless numbers, and look at static contrast ratio.

Savvy LCD makers don’t even put these specifications up on their websites, making direct comparison tricky for the average Joe, but for a more reliable and less excitable truth, it’s worth noting that the ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) calibration folk, while self-appointed experts, nevertheless know their stuff when it comes to HDTV picture quality and generally swear by plasma over LCD.

Matt Pearce, Product Manager, TV, from Panasonic Australia sums it up for us: “Superior motion picture resolution, contrast, colour and viewing angle combine to make plasma the best choice in large screen TV viewing”.

The upshot is that, if you’re a fan of fast-moving action – and if you’re male, that means practically everything you watch – then plasma is going to really do it for you.

Night and day

Plasma and LCD are both great. But retail salespeople will rarely, if ever, give you accurate, unbiased advice that is personally suited to your situation. And that is what you’re after, because very often the choice between the two technologies is partly, or even wholly, made for you.

If your lounge room is only three metres square, for instance, you’re probably going to want to look at a TV smaller than 107 cm or 42 inches, which would suggest you consider exclusively LCD (plasma isn’t made in the smaller screen sizes).

But if you don’t, you’re going to want to consider plasma over LCD, given the better motion handling, deeper blacks and higher contrast ratios, and bigger, better-value screen sizes

Innovation

Plasma manufacturers continue to innovate – Panasonic’s NeoPDP concept basically gives you even better performance with much lower power consumption. All Panasonic’s 2009 Viera plasma HDTVs have improved energy efficiency and feature the new energy star rating label as part of the voluntary labeling scheme.

Says Panasonic’s Matt Pearce: “Consumers can be confident that they are making an environmentally responsible choice when purchasing a Panasonic Plasma TV.” They’re making them even thinner, too, with the flagship, 54 inch Z1 NeoPDP model featuring 1080p wireless HDMI Full HD technology but still only being one inch thick!

Samsung is providing sets connected to the internet, and LG is making them increasingly beautiful with their ‘borderless’ designs. There’ll always be fans of both technologies, there’ll always be fierce competition – and that’s all good for us, the people who lay out the cash – but don’t dismiss plasma until you’ve had a really good, close look at it.