October 18, 2007 10:40 AM PDT

Teaching plasma to follow LCD's lead

Teaching plasma to follow LCD's lead
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Once considered the future of television, plasma TVs have lost their shine.

In the last several years, the display known for excellent picture quality has given ground to the exploding popularity of LCD (liquid crystal display) in the high-definition TV market. Though plasma TVs were first to reach consumers a decade ago, LCD TV manufacturers were able to bring the costs below their plasma counterparts with an efficient panel manufacturing process.

Now researchers are looking at ways to improve plasma's brightness levels, power consumption and cost, and developers hope that will help plasma regain some of the ground it's lost. Of course, LCD technology will also improve, but the closer pricing appears between the two, the more viable an alternative plasma becomes.

"Performance will be going up in both (plasma and LCD), but costs will be coming down faster in plasma," according to Ross Young, president of market research firm DisplaySearch.

That's good news for consumers. One of the biggest challenges in getting people to switch to high-definition TVs is the price. Predictably, as prices have fallen in the last year, more consumers are willing to buy into the idea of the HD experience. About 1 million plasma and 5.2 million LCD TV sets were sold in the U.S. last year, compared to about 750,000 plasma and 2.6 million LCD the year before that, according to retail tracking data collected by The NPD Group.

"Plasma panels will perform better in all environments, and at the same time, they'll get cheaper--that's a pretty nice advance for plasma."
--Ross Young, president, DisplaySearch

LCD is so far the undisputed champion of the HDTV popularity contest, and much of it has to do with price and manufacturers' ability to scale the technology to increasingly larger screen sizes. But plasma manufacturers have gradually found ways to produce their displays for less too. The average price of an LCD dropped from $989 last year to $932 this year, while plasma's average price fell from $2,480 to $1,664.

Besides lower price, one of the traditional benefits of LCD over plasma is the brightness of the picture in a well-lighted environment. And though all TVs can be energy hogs, plasma sets are notorious for their high power consumption.

Many believe the key to solving all three issues for plasma is something called luminous efficiency, or the ratio of the light output compared with the power input. Currently, the best plasma TVs are capable of 2 to 2.5 lumens per watt. For comparison's sake, the average fluorescent light bulb can output 80 lumens per watt.

Efficiency can be increased in several ways, including changing the concentration of the gas mixture within the plasma panel, altering the structure of the plasma cells, and using different phosphors. Companies like Panasonic, Hitachi and Pioneer have banded together to create a display capable of 5 lumens per watt, double what's currently available on the market. Simply doubling the current luminous efficiency results in twice the brightness at the existing power levels, or half the power necessary to produce the existing brightness levels.

One of plasma's most loyal proponents, plasma researcher and pioneer Larry Weber, says that if a fluorescent lamp can do 80 lumens per watt, there is "no reason a plasma display can't get anywhere close to that." Weber is currently tinkering with plasma display panels for this exact reason, although he cautions that 80 or even 40 lumens per watt could be far off. "If you ask someone today (how to double or triple the luminous efficiency) they'll say, 'I don't know how to do it right now,' but as time goes on, these things will become more likely."

Huge payoffs likely
Plasma manufacturers are trying to avoid being edged out of the HDTV market by LCD, so putting any money into research in this area will likely bring a huge payoff for them. For one, better luminous efficiency will mean fewer parts needed to put the TV together. The power supply in a 42-inch 720p plasma TV accounts for 9 percent of the manufacturing cost, for example. It's only 3 percent of the cost of a comparable LCD TV. By increasing a plasma's efficiency to 5 lumens per watt, the cost of producing the TV could become equivalent to LCD, Young argues, which will allow plasma manufacturers to simply focus on improving the panel technology. And every dollar counts in the TV market, where margins are razor thin.

The improvements are not just internal. Customers will likely notice the enhancements in picture quality as well. Right now, plasma TVs look better in dark, home-theater-like environments because of their great contrast ratio and ability to light individual pixels, but that doesn't necessarily translate well to the show floor of a big-box electronics store. Increasing the brightness will erase that difference between plasma and LCD, according to DisplaySearch's Young.

"Plasma panels will perform better in all environments, and at the same time, they'll get cheaper--that's a pretty nice advance for plasma," Young said. "Currently, people position LCD versus plasma (sales) based on where it's going to be: in a bright room with a lot of windows or a darker room or if you just watch TV at night. In the future, they both become great for all applications."

See more CNET content tagged:
plasma, DisplaySearch, efficiency, Hitachi Ltd., LCD

20 comments

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A little consumer education would also help
I don't know how many people have told me they bought a new plasma TV and it turns out to be an LCD or even a microdisplay RPTV instead. To many consumers Plasma=HDTV and if you go into a store and all HDTV's are plasmas in your mind why not buy the one with the best picture quality and lowest price combo?
Posted by BrodieB (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The plasma TVs power consumption myth
There is basically no difference in the average consumption of
an LCD equivalent in size to a 42 in. modern plasma TV. This is
well documented by tests made by various laboratories. The
explanation is quite simple: a plasma TV consumes a variable
amount of power, depending on the image shown (the tests
were made with several kinds of movies, because the movie you
play has a great impact: thrillers tends to be darker, while
cartoons use more light). When a plasma screen is black, the
consumption drops to about 65 W.

On the other hand, due to its backlight system, for LCDs the
power consumption is virtually constant, no matter if the screen
is bright white or totally black: the LCD simply switches the
backlit light on and off for every colour pixel. The power
consumption for a 42 in LCD goes between 150 and 180W.

So while the power consumption indicated on plasma TVs is the
maximum, on the LCD TVs +it+ is indeed the power that is
constantly drawn.
Posted by lixpaulian (106 comments )
Reply Link Flag
true
Agreed...and a properly calibrated TV draws around half, sometimes less, of an uncalibrated one.
Posted by jrm125 (334 comments )
Link Flag
I wonder
Why can't an LCD lower the brightness of it's backlight for darker scenes, only making it as bright as the brightest pixel, and then compensate with the filters? That should save a bunch of energy and increase blackness.

A similar technique could make projectors with the high contrast and perfect black of a DLP with the uniform spectral variation of an LCD, by putting the two in series (illuminating the LCD with light deflected by a micromirror array).
I wonder if they are working on these two techniques.
Posted by herby67 (144 comments )
Link Flag
Fears of Burn in
The one thing keeping me from considering Plasma is the fear of
"screen burn-in". I'm sure advances have been made over the
years, but its a pretty big stigma to overcome, esp. when you are
talking about something costing over $1K
Posted by totorototoro (69 comments )
Reply Link Flag
no longer an issue
Newer plasmas no longer experience burn in so long as you follow the proper 100 hour break-in period. I just purchased a Panasonic plasma...set the brightness down for the first 100 hours...and the set looks fantastic now. It apparently lengthens the life as well.
Posted by jrm125 (334 comments )
Link Flag
Another plasma myth...
I was fools enough and paid some 13'000$ for my Panasonic
TH42-PW3 back in 2001! Anyway, after 6+ years there is no
sign of burn-in, the TV set is as bright as it always was. And
note that I took no special precautions (100 hours break-in,
etc.).

My next TV will be a 1080p plasma from Pioneer or Panasonic...
I had absolutely no issues with my current one; however, with a
resolution of 830/480 it's the time to move on...
Posted by lixpaulian (106 comments )
Link Flag
average price...
"The average price of an LCD dropped from $989 last year to
$932 this year, while plasma's average price fell from $2,480 to
$1,664."

I don't know where these numbers came from but I think it
should be noted that lcd's are comonly available from 15" to 52"
while plasmas start at 42" and go to 60". If one type of tv starts
at almost a third of the size of course the average price is going
to be cheaper I think It would be better to compare I don't know
two of the same brand tv's with maybe the same resolution and
you will see plasmas are usually cheaper.

Samsung 40" 720p lcd $1,299
Samsung 42" 720p plasma $1,249
bestbuy.com
Posted by optimistic_won (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Not the point
The point was not the current average price of each type of TV, but rather the fall in the price of each type. Notice the $60 drop in the price of LCD and $800 drop in plasma. These values are still misleading because the average LCD is smaller than the average plasma...but you are missing the point.
Posted by jty12388 (14 comments )
Link Flag
Burn in IS still a plasma flaw
Although there have been many advances to try to fight the burn in phenom, it is STILL a problem with plasmas, break them in or not. I guarantee you if your son or daughter or anyoneone leaves something on the screen like a dvd menu or the player menu for long enough befor you get to it, your going to have some burn in. Its alot less likely to happen tese days, but it still can, its not a myth.
Posted by ian_t01 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No longer an issue: reader comment from jrm125
The person admitted that there is still a problem.

If there was not still a problem than the manufacturers and insurance companies for example D & G in the UK would include repairing, 'burn-in' (display faults) within guarantees.

It is a no brainer.
Posted by BT7474 (41 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Really because Im still readin gburn horror stores?: reader comment from bo
Manufacturers would not recommend a proper burn-in period if it was not important.

Burn-in problems probably still occurs.

Not following the correct running-in (reduce brightness) for probably 100 hours will most likely shorten the life of the plasma TVs.

If there were no problems than the manufacturers and insurance companies for example D & G in the UK would include repairing, 'burn-in' (display faults) within guarantees.

It is a no brainer.
Posted by BT7474 (41 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A little consumer education would also help
I don't have time to fully explain, but it is not that simple.

The showrooms set the brightness and contrast far too high. This is so that it looks better in the bright lighting of the showrooms, but useless when you calibrate it properly at home. For example in the showrooms you don't notice the detail as much, because of for example the bright lights. They probably calibrate (set-up) TVs that they want to sell better than the ones they don't want to sell, for example a bigger commision/profit.

A technique that I learn on one website was the following; place your hands together as though you are praying with fingers pointing towards the ceiling, interlock your fingers, whilst interlocked fingers are facing upwards towards the ceiling look between the space between your thumb and fingers whilst holding your hands against the TV screen, and this will allow you to see for example the correct shade of black that you are looking at providing the TV is calibrated correctly. It is also necessary to see the following sources on the TV that you would be using; Cable or Satelitte, DVDs (take a variety), in the UK Freeview, HD Freeview (hopefully, should be available in the UK), and especially see what standard definition TV looks like using TV aerial (antenna). The TV aerial that the stores uses maybe connected to at least fifty TVs. You have to know whether it is the first or the last TV in the chain, because last would give the worst picture quality. You will need a calibration disc. Some DVDs have THX and a calibration section on them for example some Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. You will have to convince the store to alter the TV connections. Why do you think that stores usually show high definition films that are probably 4kx2k twice has high as 1920x1080p that you can buy and showing cartoons/games? It is to hide the problems of HD (high definition) faults compared to CRT (standard televisions) etcetera.

When you get the TV home some of the things that you have to consider are; quality of TV aerial, cables, lighting, and calibrating the TV. An HD TV I think of being three TVs in one; Analogue (TV/antenna), Digital )if you rember to buy one with a digital and analogue tunners, Scart/Component and HDMI settings/calibrations. CRT TVs usually brightness, contrasts, Sharpness, Colour, and colour balance but a good HD TV probably about thirst or so (too lazy to check), but a lot. Definitely not a five minute job to do it properly.

Friends, probably thought that the TVs were plasma, because how quickly the LCD technology improved for example picture quality that use to be completely dreadful on the best LCD TVs.
Posted by BT7474 (41 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Burn-in? No. Image persistence? Yes
There is a difference between the so called plasma burn-in and CRT burn-in. In 100% of the cases, CRT burn-in is what the name implies: an image will be etched forever in the CRT. You can see a lot in some old ATM machines that use small color CRTs instead of LCDs.
Plasma burn-in is a different story. In most cases, there is some persistence, but this will not be permanent.
Also, most (all?) plasma sets have settings buried in the configuration menus to activate some sort of screen saver to avoid this problem.
Posted by aemarques (162 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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