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The Definition of Flat TV Flattens

LAS VEGAS--For years, "LCD or plasma?" has been the "paper or plastic" of the HDTV business. The two flat-panel technologies have offered roughly comparable picture quality and pricing, so many people have puzzled over which one would be right for them. To further complicate things, you could also opt for a big-screen "microdisplay" projection set, about a foot thick but still much lighter and thinner than any tube TV.

In many home settings, LCD turns out to work better, because it doesn't have as many glare problems as plasma. Manufacturers, meanwhile, have put a lot more money into LCD factories, driving prices steadily downward as the supply of these flat-panel displays increases.

And so at this year's CES, "TV" means "LCD" for most of the companies exhibiting here. Some vendors that once built several different types of televisions have condensed their lineup to LCDs -- Philips is exiting the plasma business and Sony will no longer make microdisplay sets. Even the industry's foremost advocate of plasma, Panasonic, is now selling a wider range of LCDs in larger sizes than before.

An executive at one company that still makes all these different types of TV provided some sales numbers that illustrate the trend. Tim Baxter, a marketing vice president at Samsung, said that in 2007, about 18 million LCD TVs were sold in the U.S., compared to roughly 3.5 million plasma screens and 1.5 million microdisplay sets. (He said Samsung's figures are based on data by DisplaySearch and a few other market-research firms.) In 2008, Samsung expects industry-wide sales to total 24 million LCDs, 3.8 million plasmas and just a million microdisplay sets.

LCD technology still has some picture-quality issues compared to plasma in contrast and response time, but manufacturers are chipping away at those. Upgrades to LCD backlights and other components keep expanding the contrast ratio of new models, allowing them to display darker shades of black. And response times -- how many milliseconds a screen needs to change a pixel's color from white to black -- keep dropping as well. A year ago, few LCDs offered response times faster than 8 ms, but now I've seen numbers as low as 2 ms (seen on some high-end screens from Philips). Most manufacturers are also offering a feature called "120 Hz," a strangely obscure way to indicate that the screen redraws itself 120 times a second instead of the usual 60, electronically inserting additional frames to smooth out the action and ensure that there's no visible blurring or smearing of moving objects. See Gizmodo's explanation from last year's CES for more details on how 120 Hz works.

(Lest you think that the LCD you bought a year ago is obsolete after all these tweaks to the technology, remember that most of these display issues are hard to spot in everyday viewing. To show off what kind of a difference 120 Hz can make, most vendors have to show test footage consisting of steady pans across a fixed background or a page full of text.)

Are you happy to see your choice of TVs get a little simpler, or do you think that it's too soon to crown a winner in flat-panel technology?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 9, 2008; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  CES 2008 , Video  
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It's never too soon: The winner is LCD. It was always LCD.

When you have a technology like plasma, in which it is possible to burn an image into the screen by playing video games with static HUDS or always turning to a cable news channel and its crawler, there are problems.

TV technology should be as universal as it was before flat panels. There shouldn't be a limit to how long I can play Halo, or how long I can watch CNN before I should change the channel, so my $3K TV doesn't break.

Set it and forget it, that's my motto.

Now if only more companies would protect the liquid-crystal matrix with glass (like new iMacs), so I can't smudge and/or scratch the thing.

Posted by: Brendan West | January 9, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse

"strangely obscure"? Rob, people have been measuring refresh rates in Hz for decades now.

Posted by: wiredog | January 9, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Like many people, I was not in the market for a plasma-sized TV when I bought my 32" LCD. I think the under-40" market for TVs is a big boost to LCD sales. Plenty of consumers out there with small rooms and limited budgets who won't buy the big plasma models.

Posted by: Size matters | January 9, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

The problems with plasma are overstated. Five years ago, they were legitimate. Now plasma monitors have a wobble feature that significantly reduces burn-in.

When I spend $1500 (not $3000 - where did that number come from?) on a TV, I want the best picture quality and I can't get that with LCD.

Posted by: slar | January 9, 2008 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Actually I think the LCD still ahead of Plasma complains and problems with the burning issue and glare, there is no glare in LCD's.

Posted by: Yaser | January 9, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

TV technology should be as universal as it was before flat panels.

Burn-in from video games was an issue in every televison made before 1980- this "universal" concept you speak of never existed.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 9, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm not ready to say LCDs are the CLEAR winner, but thery are getting there.

PLASMAS offer a "better" image right now - contrast, brightness, color, lack of blurring being the factors for better. But suffer with higher reflections, burn-in concerns, and limited screen sizes (none under 42, none in the 46-47 range).

LCDs are getting better and seem to offer better prices, minimal reflections, no-burn in. But they suffer potential dead pixels, potential blurring and unless you buy top of the line, a more washed out image.

Can't wait to see good priced LCDs with good image quality!

Posted by: Anonymous | January 9, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Why are companies like Sony moving out of the rear projection business though? I am yet to see a plasma or LCD tv that stands up to my Sony rear projection in image quality. Plus over the last few years they have become much much thiner than they once were.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 9, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

To each his own but I prefer plasma. The contrast and dark detail and the complete absence of motion artifacts is what does it for me. The "burn in" issue is mainly solved unless you really have a fixed image up for long periods, which I don't.
If I had the tv in a room with a lot of windows and lighting, I'd probably aim for LCD.
I don't think there is a "winner" here unless sheer sales numbers is the criteria. Discerning viewers will prefer plasma and there is a market for that.

Posted by: Alan Browne | January 9, 2008 8:56 PM | Report abuse

Have you seen any LCD TVs that can compete with a high-quality Sony CRT on picture quality?

Posted by: William | January 9, 2008 10:55 PM | Report abuse

If you're buying over 50" - Best Bang for the Buck is Plasma. Almost every LCD vs. Plasma article states that Plasma still produces the better picture without regard to money. But why would anybody pay hundreds or thousands more for a 50"+ LCD with a lesser quality picture? And anybody that thinks LCD technology doesn't have its own issues hasn't worked in the computer field. Dead-pixels on LCD laptop screens are more common than people would like to believe.

Posted by: Frank | January 10, 2008 12:29 AM | Report abuse

Slar wrote on January 9, 2008 02:11 PM:
The problems with plasma are overstated. Five years ago, they were legitimate. Now plasma monitors have a wobble feature that significantly reduces burn-in.

When I spend $1500 (not $3000 - where did that number come from?) on a TV, I want the best picture quality and I can't get that with LCD."

Well, $3,000 is what my parents spent on their 1080p Bravia ^-^

Posted by: Brendan West | January 10, 2008 6:59 AM | Report abuse

I have 5 LCDs and a Plasma and the Plasma's picture (color, contrast, and black) is better. I have been using LCDs for years due to lighting/glare issue and just recently finished a room in my basement with no external light so I picked up a Plasma and was amazed. They both have their purposes and should be around for a long time.

Posted by: criss | January 10, 2008 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Brendan, Brendan, Brendan.....

The very first post and you could not be more uninformed if you were an 80 year old granny shopping for a TV. Or maybe you are.

And as for Rob the author, it's apparent that you prefer LCD but I was at the show and your statement is overblown,

"Even the industry's foremost advocate of plasma, Panasonic, is now selling a wider range of LCD's in larger sizes than before".

they've added one size, a 37 inch to fill the void of the dropped 37" plasma.

And why are other companies getting out of the plasma business? It's because Panasonic has nailed down Plasma technology to the point where there is hardly a company on earth that dares to compete with them. Any other tv on the market, LCD or Plasma cannot compare to these bad boys!!

The latest line just blew me away just like last year. The quality of these pictures are once again going to be unsurpassable!!!!!

Posted by: Tommy Gun | January 11, 2008 7:40 PM | Report abuse

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