In Part 1 we took a look at the technologies of LCD and Plasma TVs. In this installment, we'll discuss the pros and cons, and how to shop for the best TV you can get.
It's perfectly natural, when you're standing at Best Buy or wherever, to be drawn towards the brightest TV on the wall. TV manufacturers have known this for a long time, which is why TVs get brighter and brighter with each generation, and most tend to look very blue (which appears brighter to the eye). This natural tendency immediately biases everyone towards LCDs. In a brightly lit showroom, LCDs will appear brighter and more contrasty (more "punch") because they handle ambient light better than plasmas. This isn't just a strength on the sales floor. If you're playing games in a well lit room (lots of windows, let's say) LCDs will almost always look better.
BUT, it's an illusion. In a dark room, plasmas will almost always have a lower black level (how dark the dark parts of the image are) and will have a better contrast ratio (the ratio between the dark parts of the image and the bright parts). And the better the contrast ratio the better the image will appear. It will seem more 3D, have more depth, be more realistic, and so on. In a dark room, side by side and with the brands obscured, nearly everyone would pick a plasma over an LCD, all else being equal. But of course, all else isn't equal.
If your room has a lot of windows, or is otherwise brightly lit, an LCD will look better during the day. Even with the latest anti-reflective coatings, LCDs still outperform plasmas in this regard. To me this is the funniest point of contention between LCD and plasma fans. Those that watch TV and play games during the day can't understand why someone would want a plasma. Those that watch TV and play games at night can't understand why someone would want an LCD. Each has its niche; it's all in how you're going to use it.
The current generation of LED backlit LCDs perform far better than their CCFL (cold cathode florescent lamps) ancestors. The best are the "local dimming" models, where the LEDs behind an area of the screen will dim if that part of the screen is supposed to be darker. Even still, the contrast ratios aren't as good as plasma. LED LCDs also tend to be capable of incredible brightness, more than would ever be needed. But if you want to tan while you play, by all means.
Also, addressing a personal pet peeve, there is no such things as LED TVs. All LED TVs are just regular LCDs that happen to be backlit by LEDs. LED TVs are not millions of tiny LEDs making an image (like a Jumbotron or something). They are hundreds of LEDs making light, the liquid crystal is making the image.
One of the most important aspects of a TV for gaming, to me, is motion resolution. This means that as you look around/move around in a game, the image doesn't blur. I'm a big FPS gamer (TF2, CS, etc) and for me I want everything to be sharp as I'm running around. For the most part, this is the biggest failing of LCDs.
The technical reasons for this are rather, well, technical, and have to do with how your eye sees changes in what it's looking at. Suffice it to say, the latest generation of 240 Hz LCDs are much, much better when it comes to motion blur than their 60 Hz forbears. But even the best 240 Hz models will blur more than your average plasma.
"But wait!", you say. "What about burn in?" Anyone shopping for a TV these days is going to hear about that magical plasma plague called burn in. Burn in is when an image becomes permanently burned into the screen, so no matter what you're watching, you see the ghost of that former image. This could be something like the news ticker at the bottom of CNN (does anyone watch CNN anymore?) or the HUD in Halo or just about any FPS.
In the early days of plasmas, this was something of an issue. Knowing it was something of an issue, all the plasma manufacturers took steps to fix it. Better, less "sticky" phosphors, anti-burn in circuitry, and so on, have made burn in pretty much a thing of the past. After the first 100 hours or so of use (where the TV "burns off" impurities in its phosphors), burn in is exceedingly difficult.
The most important thing to remember about burn in is this: you will see burn in LONG before it becomes permanent. If you play an epic 24 hour Modern Warfare 2 marathon as soon as the TV is out of the box, perhaps you may see some hints of burn in. The remedy? Just watch something else. It will go away on its own. With normal use, burn in isn't an issue.
If you can, find a decent, darkly lit, place to compare TVs. Stand back from them, about the distance you'll be sitting at home. Don't stand up close, all TVs look like crap up close. Ideally they'll be at eye level, but that's a tall order, I know. Pretty much the worst place you can compare TVs is in a bright place, like Costco.
The best place is small boutique A/V stores (if you can find any anymore, it's been a hard few years). If you go to one of these stores PLEASE have the decency to tell the salesperson your intent. If someone is on commission and you don't intend to buy, you are potentially costing them money to talk to you. If they're a good salesperson, they'll help you even if you tell them you're not buying that day. But it at least gives them the OK to help another customer.
Buying TVs on the Internet has certainly become more popular, but personally I wouldn't do it. It would concern me about what would happen if something went wrong. How do you return it? Can you return it? Just something to consider.
I'll close with this, the best TV out there is the one you like and can afford. The difference in picture quality between a $1,000 plasma and a $1,000 LCD is likely to be marginal. I have my personal preferences, but in the end, if you do your research and you like the TV, it's going to be great. Is that a cop-out? Maybe, but the average picture quality now compared to when I started in the TV reviewing business is orders of magnitude better.
Lastly, go big. You won't regret it.
- Ignore manufacturer specs. They're all 100% lies and fabrication. Sorry, they're totally useless. I've never seen one that is within 10x of a real number.
- If your room has a lot of light, or you play games mostly during the day, LCD is probably the better bet. Many new plasmas have excellent anti-reflective coatings, but these generally won't do as well as your average LCD.
- Conversely, plasmas will have a better picture at night or in a dark room.
- Every flat panel is going to be brighter than a CRT. So even though LCDs tend to be brighter than plasmas, plasmas are not dim. Any flat panel is going to be plenty bright.
- If fast motion is your thing (as in any first or third person shooter), plasma is the way to go. The motion resolution on a plasma is going to be significantly better than even the new 240 Hz LCDs. So when you're spinning around to shoot at someone behind you, everything will remain "in focus," where on an LCD it will be blurry. Unless of course the game is blurring it on purpose, which is a different story.
- Even inexpensive flat panels are way better than the best flat panels from five or six years ago. You don't need to spend a fortune, but do your research. Even for similar prices, certain brands will outperform others.
- Permanent burn in is pretty much impossible, but if you're worried about it, watch varied content for the first 100 hours or so of use (some games, some movies, some TV, you know, like you normally would).
- Turn down the brightness on your LCD. Put it in Cinema mode or the like. Not only will the picture be better, you'll save on electricity too.
- HDMI cables are a rip off. Do not pay more than $10 for a 1 meter HDMI cable. I have a whole article about this coming soon.