Bye bye plasma: is this the end for the original flat TV tech?

19th Mar 2013 | 15:32

Bye bye plasma: is this the end for the original flat TV tech?

Should we mourn its passing?

Bars and restaurants often say they have 'plasma screens', but times have changed - look at the TVs up close and you'll find that the majority are not plasmas at all, but LCD TVs.

The liquid crystal display has taken over, not only in pubs, but in living rooms, offices and shopping centres. It dominates big and small screens, from smartphones and tablets to netbooks and desktop monitors. In fact, such is plasma's demise that the only place you're likely to see a plasma TV is in the home of … someone who's done their research – and on picture as well as price.

Sure, fancy new innovations like OLED will definitely takeover in the long-run, but for now, plasma – contrary to popular belief – is still the best TV tech we have.

The first-ever flat (ish) 42-inch TVs from Pioneer and Fujitsu in the late 1990s were plasmas, and until the arrival in the mid-Noughties of LCD technology plasma was the only widely available flat TV tech. Until just a few years ago the term 'plasma' was the colloquial term for any flat telly.

Domination of LCD

How things have changed since this writer worked on What Plasma? magazine eight years ago. Such is the domination of LCD panels that we're not surprised Panasonic, the company with the world's largest plasma panel-making factories – in Japan – is now thinking of exiting the plasma (and possibly TV) market.

Barely one in ten TVs sold are plasmas, a figure that's remained constant for a few years now. A story last year suggested that all was not well with its plasma-dominated large-screen display operations, and that iPad screens were the way forward. Plasma panels just don't get that small; the smallest plasmas we've ever seen were 32-inch TVs from Hitachi and LG a few years ago, and mostly it's found on 42-inch+ screens – and even 152-inch whoppers.

Pioneer's Kuro plasmas had cult following before being dumped in 2008

Although it would be naïve to suggest that the way forward is in producing more of its own – and truly stunning – 4k OLED panels, not yet, there are other clues to Panasonic's intentions in what's happened to its own technology, Active Shutter 3D.

The failure of this technology to catch-on in the mass-market has led to a critical decision in 2013, with all of Panasonic's new 3D-ready LCD TVs use the FPR or 'passive' 3D technology popularised by LG. In short, despite its massive panel-making operations it's been forced to source LCD panels from LG.

However, at an event in Nice in February, Panasonic once again made a fuss of its beloved plasma tech, claiming that plasma is still the best for watching sports and movies. A month earlier at the CES 2013, a similar treatment was given to its ZT60 Series, which was heralded as 'Beyond Reference'.

A Panasonic booth attendant even said to us: "LED TVs can outsell plasmas as much as they want – there's no way we're giving up on the best picture tech."

Panasonic's ZT Series plasmas afor 2013 are described as 'beyond reference'

Best picture tech

You could argue that sentiments like that are really about vested interest and finance; having built huge plasma manufacturing plants, Panasonic needs to shift units, or close them. However, that claim about the 'best picture tech' is dead right: plasma is superior to LCD TV, LED-backlighting 'n' all. Plasmas produce a picture that's more colourful, natural, smoother, blacker and simply … better.

It copes with fast-moving scenes without blurring, and shows more detail in dark areas of images. It's also cheaper, with 42-inch plasmas like the Panasonic TX-P42X50B now selling for less than £300. And for anyone after the best-ever TV, you need look no further than whatever happens to be Panasonic's flagship plasma TV – currently the Panasonic TX-P50VT50B. Panasonic's current plasma tech is a grandson of Kuro, an ultra-black plasma technology developed by Pioneer until 2008 and still mourned by home cinema aficionados – the real losers if plasma does disappear.

The arguments for and against LCD and plasma are long rehearsed, but why is plasma losing to LCD? I don't buy the brightness argument. If you live in a greenhouse and only watch TV during the day then, yes, the brighter LCD TVs are perhaps more punchy, more versatile. Dim the lights, though, and doesn't the blue-ish tinge to LCD TVs get annoying? How about the smudgy, blurry picture when the camera pans quickly?

Illusion of progress

So why did LCD triumph? Once the major brands had decided on LCD, it's been largely about marketing and the illusion of progress. We've often heard bad language aimed at plasma technology, usually without much basis; 'screen burn' or the softer-sounding version, 'image retention', is a common accusation, though it's not something that affects modern plasmas. And nor do you have to 'replace the plasma gas every year', as one TV salesman once told me.

There's absolutely no doubt that bigscreen LCD TVs have got better – much better – in the past five years. We've seen innovations like super-slimness, 100Hz, 200Hz, and probably the clincher, LED backlighting, lauded on posters, TV adverts and in shops. Plasma, meanwhile, has merely managed to get a little bit thinner with each passing year.

However, LCD tech's gradual progress hides the fact that plasma has for years been able to show fast motion without losing resolution, and show realistic inky blackness; it's had to need for 100Hz. A moving image on a HD-ready telly like the Panasonic TX-P42X50B plasma is more consistently detailed than any LCD TV, and the truth is that all innovations to LCD TV tech has been with one aim; to create a picture quality that's as good as plasma.

Efforts to refresh public perception with tags like 'neo' plasma have largely failed

A bit of a pointless process, but that process has almost concluded – which is why we shouldn't mourn for too long if plasma is in its death throes, though there is some hope for the original flatscreen TV tech. LG and Samsung both still manufacturer plasmas in South Korea, and examples like the Samsung 51F8500 show that innovation continues. Meanwhile, LG sells its 50-inch 50PM670T plasma for under £600 while LCD-flavoured models go for twice as much.

For the mass-market, which long ago chose the slimmer, pricier LCD models over plasma, there's no going back, but we hope plasma remains at least an option for those of us who think that a TV should be judged on picture quality, not how thin it is.

Five years ago a stunning 47 per cent of British men said that said they'd give up sex for six months in exchange for a 50-inch plasma TV. What's the betting that most settled for an LCD TV?

TV plasma LCD televisions
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