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?
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