Looking to upgrade your TV?  Many of you are probably wondering how to choose the best Plasma, should you go that way.  Here’s a few tips on not only choosing a Plasma, but whether plasma is the best choice from the very start.

Summary:

  • Know your lingo
  • Where you watch your plasma is very important
  • Size matters
  • 3D is optional
  • Internet capability means cutting the cable
  • Calibrate your HDTV
  • worry not about myths

1. Definitions

First, it may be a good idea to go over nomenclature. When you head over to the local big box store to shop for your plasma TV, you’re could get overwhelmed by a bunch of buzz words designed make you think you’re getting more than you really are.  So understanding vocabulary is key to not getting lost.   And since there will be a test (OK, not really), here’s a few terms to learn:

  • PlasmaPlasma uses a trapped gas that is charged by electricity to create incredible light to pass through. It usually produces far bolder colors and great blacks, which are marvelous for shadow scenes. The downside with Plasma is that they are usually difficult to view in bright, ambient lit rooms and originally suffered from a “burn in effect” (which has been overcome in recent years). These drawbacks have allowed LCDs to pass them in popularity to the point that Plasma is becoming less and less a factor in HDTV as more manufacturers abandon it for more popular and cheaper LCD designs. Since LCD has greatly improved in quality (thanks to LED backlighting), the contrast ratio gap between plasma and LCD has greatly reduced to the point where paying more for Plasma’s benefits is largely wasted on the average viewer.
  • Contrast Ratio/Brightness – defined officially as “ratio of the luminance of the brightest color (white) to that of the darkest color (black),” Contrast ratio is essentially how “black” your blacks are.  This is really important for getting greater detail in shadow.  You’ll hear some pretty wild figures from salesmen as to how much a CR ratio should be, but unfortunately, there really isn’t a standard here.  Manufacturers are all over the map in how they measure and rate the contrast ratio, which can make it very difficult to compare from one set to another based on the specs.   The good news is that most plasma TVs have fantastic contrast ratios, so no matter what brand you end up with, odds are you’ll be pleased with how good the contrast is.  But in the end, it depends on how good those blacks look to you personally.
  • Resolution  We’ll get to size later, but in general, when trying to choose between 720p or 1080p, smaller 1080p TVs (under 40”) are simply a waste because you can’t really get the advantage of it. Additionally, the TV will also downscale the 1080p image from a Blu-ray disc which can cause some artifacting. So screens larger than 40” should go with 1080p. Smaller screens, like those that are also used for computer screens do just fine with 720p. But in the end, broadcast television looks the same with either.
  • Progressive –  As we mentioned above, the benefit of a plasma TV is that there are no interlaced scanlines.  All plasma’s are progressive by design and that means you get all the visual information with every single frame you watch (as opposed to 1080i LCD TVs which show every other line at any given frame, but they are mostly phased out now).  Nowadays, HDTV standards are progressive, meaning that they show the entire image, with every line of resolution, with each frame. TVs can come in 720p or 1080p, meaning 720 lines of resolution or 1080 lines of resolution. Naturally, the higher the number, the sharper and more colorful the image. Some stations broadcast in 720p, but not many, especially in cable or satellite, where the image is compressed.
  • Hertz (hz) – Hertz is essentially the number of frames per second, or times the pixels turn on and off. The more Hz you have on you picture, the more sharp it becomes. But it also can reduce motion blur and make your image look more plastic … called the “soap opera effect.” Most TVs now are 120 to 240 hz.  Now your salesman will be pushing you towards 240hz.  But for most, that’s overkill.  Broadcast signals are usually sent at 60hz since that is the standard. This requires the TV to “interpolate” or add frames in between to the image and that’s what causes the effect. It’s great for sports and action films, but not so much on dramas, which cause the plastic look. But frame interpolation can be turned off which will cause the kind of motion blur that we are used to.  Blu-ray, however, does take advantage of 120hz, so if you watch a lot of movies on Blu-ray, that may be a good option.  And if the soap opera effect is off putting, most TVs have the option to turn off frame interpolation and bring back the motion blur you are used to.

2.  Location, Location, Location

Now that we have definitions out of the way, we can turn out attention to the most important factor when buying an Plasma … location, location, location. As we briefly mentioned above, where you put your TV can pretty much determine the kind of TV you buy.  Plasmas are best in rooms where there is either no windows (like a man-cave or home theater) or a room where the light can be completely closed off.  This is because plasmas have highly reflective screens which can be difficult to watch in living rooms with bright ambient light.  If you’re planning on putting your TV in the living room and there’s a ton of windows surrounding it, an LCD is probably a better choice for you.  But if you can block off the outside light and essentially turn your room into a local movie theater, then a Plasma TV is ideal.

3. Size Matters

As we mentioned in our How to Buy and LCD TV guide, the ratio of screen size to viewing distance is paramount for the best viewing experience.  Most people just look at the price tag and end up with a TV that’s too small for their room, wishing they had gotten a larger screen.   But in an effort to save a few hundred bucks, the viewer makes a faustian bargain which is nothing but a false economy.  And many, simply don’t know that there’s a relationship between distance and screen size. As a rule of thumb is to get a screen large enough to fill a 30 degree viewing angle at the distance that you are sitting. Anything less will cause you to be pulled out of the program.  So, when choosing your plasma, keep in mind how far away you plan on sitting and then look at the chart above to see what screen size is best for you.  You can move up or down from it, depending on your budget, but at least you’ll have a starting point. Here’s a handy calcuation to determine the best size for your room:

  • Minimum size= Viewing distance/3
  • Maximum size=Viewing distance/1.5

Using this calculation, and the average viewing distance of about 10-12 feet, the proper HDTV size would be about 42-55 inches, or more depending on your budget.

3. To 3D or not 3D … that is the question

Now I know what you’re thinking.  3D is 3D.  Why would it matter between LCD and Plasma?  Well, in fact, it does.  In the beginning, LCDs suffered from slow refresh rates which became a factor in 3D due to motion blur,  panning, etc.  Plasma was always progressive by design and their refresh rates were quietly superior.  But LCDs have improved their refresh rates to the point where Plasma manufacturers are having to now start pushing the envelope again.  The result?  Two plasma manufacturers (Samsung and Panasonic) are now saying in their specs that 3D plasma televisions have a processing speed of 600Hz.  Why does that matter?  Well, on that point alone it wouldn’t.  Both LCD and Plasma can now show 3D in full 1080p resolution.  But where LCD begins to fall behind is with a phenomenon called “ghosting” (referred to as “crosstalk”).  This usually occurs due to LCDs that have edge lit LEDs, rather than back-lit lighting with local dimming.  Plasma, by contrast, doesn’t suffer from ghosting because the entire display is one even backlighting of gas excited to the point of becoming plasma.  That translates to bold colors, great shadows, and detail that 3D can take full advantage of.  Couple that with speed to deliver the full 1080 lines of resolution to each eye and plasma gets the edge in three dimensions.  So if 3D is your thing, you’ll want to go plasma.

4. Wired or Wireless Connectivity

The future of TV is on the Internet.  As such, many HDTVs, and plasmas are no different, are now able to stream video directly from the Internet through on board apps for Netflix, Hulu, and even broadcast stations like ABC.   And with over a third of all Internet traffic being streaming video from these services more people are “cutting the cable,” and saving money.  Over time, those savings along will more than make up for the extra money you spend to power your plasma.

But should you hard ware your new Plasma to your router or go wireless (WiFi)? Wi-Fi gives you the great advantage because then you don’t have to string long Ethernet cables from your router to your TV.  However, wireless does have the drawback of signal interference, slower speeds and the likelihood of more buffering of the stream.  If you have your router on the other side of the house, or maybe in a room upstairs, you may need to get a repeater to pass the signal along for better streaming of video.

5. It’s all in the connections

How should you connect your new Plasma?  Well, if you have a home theater or an audio/video receiver, the best connection would be HDMI, since it is the current digital standard and every TV comes with it.  This also allows you to hook it into a current home theater, satellite box, and keep both audio and video signals completely digital.  The more HDMI connectors you have, the better, but 3 is the minimum since that would allow you to connect to to your cable or satellite box, video game console, and Blu-ray/DVD player.  Other inputs would be component-video (red, green and blue), S Video or standard composite connections (red, white, and yellow) for older components.  But some are looking to use their TVs as computer monitors and for that you can use a DVI connector. But with DVI, you’ll also need an audio cable connector to handle your sound since DVI doesn’t carry the audio signal.  Another input option is Ethernet.  If you have a computer or networked attached storage to stream video and audio, an Ethernet connector will give you access to that network.

6. Sound choices

Should you rely on the speakers that are built into the TV or go with a home theater or sound bar? I haven’t found a TV that has a speaker setup that rivals a home theater system. If you can swing a system, which usually comes with at least 6 speakers and a subwoofer, and a Blu-ray player, I’d say go for it. But if you don’t have space in your room, then by all means look at a soundbar. But if you’re on a budget, then sometimes the reality is that the home theater system will have to wait. Just start saving up for it.

7.  Which ones to choose?

This is where it gets really easy.  There are only two – Samsung and Panasonic.  As LCDs have gotten more popular, many manufacturers have gotten out of plasma manufacture because the cost to make them are higher and the market is driving the cost of a TV ever downward.  There comes a point where it simply isn’t worth it for a narrow profit margin.  Even the maker of the finest plasma ever made – the Pioneer Kuro – ended plasma production even though they offered the best TV in the category.

8. What’s on the horizon?

The future is bringing all kinds of innovations, including glasses free 3D, 4K resolution, Skype support and even holographic projection.  The fact is that plasma TVs are a vanishing breed and may not be around that much longer.  Even though they offer superior color saturation and contrast ratios, the fact is that LED LCD TVs have closed the gap dramatically.  And with prices heading downward as the technology advances, it’s only a matter of time before plasma vanishes altogether.   So if you’re thinking about getting one but are hesitant, buy one now because the next time around, they probably won’t be there except in the clearance section.

9.  Set up

When bringing your new plasma home, do NOT transport it on it’s back.  Many people have found their TVs don’t work well after doing this and some have broken altogether.  Carry it straight up or have it delivered and set up professionally.  That way, if they screw it up, it’s covered.  You do it yourself and your taking calamity into your own hands.

But if you’re in ernest to set it up yourself, then once you get the TV home you’ll need to calibrate your TV to fit your room.  You can spend several hundred dollars to have a professional do it, but you can also go the DIY route wit a few tools and tips.  Every TV is set for a “dynamic mode,” at the factory to look great on the showroom floor. That’s because they don’t know which one will be chosen to demo the model. But that also doesn’t look that great when you get it home.  You can set your TV to movie or cinema mode in the setup menu and that’ll get you about 80% there.  But you can also pick up a great DVD called Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics, by Joe Kane. This DVD has special test patterns and audio calibration signals that will help to optimize your HDTV for the special conditions of your viewing room, and it will do it in under a half hour. Well worth it’s $20 price tag.

You’ll also want to break in your Plasma TV by working out display for the first 100 hours. You can tune into a 16×9 HiDef channel with no ticker or bug in it and let it play, but the SD version of Digital Video Essentials (not the Blu-ray) has a great pattern that’s a solid, full white field which will exercise all the pixel phosphers the same. Also, there’s a Plasma TV Logo Removing DVD, available in NTSC or PAL format that you can get at beginwithsoftware.com. It puts colored noise on screen.

10. Putting a myth to rest … sort of

One final though.  Many people have shied away from plasmas because of the burn in or image retention factor.  It is true that early plasma TVs suffered from a burn in which would show a ghost image of a previous image – thereby ruining the picture.  This usually occurred when a TV was on for hours at a time on the same picture – like a news channel.  And that little channel logo (called a bug) in the lower right hand corner was also a culprit for burn in.  Plasma manufacturers have albeit eliminated the burn in issue thanks to a “screen wipe” function which wipes out any looming ghosting which may have started to happen, so now it’s a distant memory.

But there is a new issue that plasma TV manufacturers are aware of and that elevated black levels after about 1500 hours of viewing time.  For some reason, the TV will amp up the contrast after this time, forcing viewers reconfigure it from the menu.  Both Panasonic and Samsung are aware of this issue and working on a firmware fix.  But in the mean time, it’s easily handled.

Conclusion

In short, Plasmas have bolder colors, deeper blacks and contrasts and are perfect for home theaters where the room can be darkened.  They make for great 3D TVs and don’t have nearly the plastic issues (the soap opera effect) as their LCD cousins.  However, they’re generally cheaper when it comes to your money, but they use more power than LCDs (long term vs short term).  But for the videophile who loves the best possible image and bang for buck, you can’t beat them.



James DeRuvo