LCD vs Plasma TVs Buying Guide

Plasma vs LCD? What is high definition? We walk you through the process of picking up a new flat panel LCD or Plasma television.

It’s time to buy a new TV; the old one has finally packed it in, but when you go to the store there are so many choices and it’s hard to know what to get. This guide will show you what to look out for so that you take home the TV that’s right for you.

Plasma vs LCD

The biggest choice you will have to make is the type of TV you want to buy: plasma or LCD. In previous years if you wanted a large TV, plasma was your only option but now LCD televisions are available in similar sizes to plasma for around the same price. The main thing that now separates them is how well each can display certain types of content.

LCD televisions use lights behind the panel to make the images appear on-screen. This makes colours look great but blacks end up looking a little grey. Plasma TVs don’t use these lights and so the black levels on a plasma screen will always look better than an LCD, making them ideal for movies.

On the flip side, this also means LCDs operate better in a variety of lighting conditions. In a brightly lit room during the daytime, for example, an LCD will produce a much clearer image than a plasma screen. To make the most of plasma technology, you’ll want to be sitting in a dark room.

A few years ago plasma TVs suffered from a burn-in or image persistence problem that occurred when a still image or logo appeared on the screen for a long period of time (for example a paused console game screen, or a network logo). Plasma screens released in recent years no longer suffer from this problem, so if you want to watch a lot of TV or play games you can consider both plasma and LCD TV screens.

If you watch lots of fast video, such as sports, you’ll be happy with either a plasma or LCD. A few years ago LCD screens suffered from slow response times, meaning anything fast left a trail across the screen. These days, however, better technology and the invention of things like 100Hz and 200Hz playback have removed this problem. Plasma screens are still better for fast motion, however, as their display technology allows them to refresh twice as fast as a 200Hz LCD screen.

You should also note that LCD screens are far superior when it comes to connecting PCs. Most plasma TVs have trouble displaying PC images perfectly; they often connect at a lower resolution than an LCD, meaning if you have a media centre PC or just want the option of connecting your desktop computer, an LCD is the way to go.

There are some LCD televisions hitting the market now that have LED backlighting - using a sheet of tiny individual lights spread across the entire panel rather than large fluorescent tubes. This allows for more consistent lighting and the lights can be individually switched off, creating a much better contrast ratio and deeper colours. Unfortunately this technology is still new so it costs a pretty penny.

High Definition?

The other main thing to think about when buying a new TV is whether to get a high-definition set or not. It gets more complicated than that, though, because there are actually several kinds of high definition, making the choice even harder.

Standard Definition

DVDs and regular television are all in standard definition, which in Australia means they are 576i (having 576 lines of horizontal resolution). The i stands for interlaced, meaning half the picture refreshes at any one time. If you have a massive DVD collection or aren’t all that fussed about the quality so much as the size of your picture, then maybe a standard-definition panel will do. However, they are becoming rarer and we’d almost always recommend a high-definition panel.

High Definition

There are three kinds of high definition: 720p, 1080i and 1080p.

720p

720p indicates a screen capable of displaying 720 lines of horizontal resolution progressively (the whole picture refreshes at once). There are a number of 720p sources, including high-definition TV broadcasts and next-generation games consoles. High-definition movies such as Blu-ray discs will also look good at 720p, although their native resolution has 1080 horizontal lines so they will be scaled down a little. A 720p screen definitely makes a noticeable difference, giving you a crisper, sharper picture and is probably the best choice for someone on a budget as it will serve you well for years to come without costing the earth.

1080i

Many screens that can display 720p can also do what is called 1080i which offers 1080 horizontal lines of resolution. To novice users it would seem like having more lines than 720p makes it better, but the fact that it is shown in an interlaced manner means 720p typically offers better image quality. If you have the choice you should run at 720p over 1080i.

1080p

The best quality image available is 1080p, where screens display 1080 lines of horizontal resolution progressively. They offer incredibly sharp pictures and are the perfect choice for technology enthusiasts. Some of the sources mentioned earlier, such as high-definition games consoles, can also output at 1080p. Blu-ray movies have a native resolution of 1080p, meaning they look best when displayed on these screens. However, you should note the difference between 720p and 1080p is not really noticeable on small screens. It isn’t until you get to a 46in screen size or larger that 1080p really becomes worth the extra cost, and even then many users may not see the difference.

Motion Enhancement

A relatively recent TV feature is motion enhancement. Most high-end TVs are 24p compatible, meaning they can play back footage at 24 frames per second. This is the native speed at which most film is shot, so it means things will look more natural when you watch them on your TV.

The other side of motion enhancement is faster refresh rates. Many new high-definition TVs have a 100Hz mode of some kind and some have even notched it up to 200Hz, which means the image will refresh many more times per second than on an older screen. The theory is that this helps smooth out motion, because the more frames involved the less jerky it will look. Some manufacturers have done this very well while others often wind up introducing more problems than they fix, so be careful and do your homework. On the plus side you can pretty much always turn these modes off if needed.

DLNA

Another new development in TV technology is the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). Members of the alliance developed a concept of wired and wireless interoperable networks as a way of sending information between devices. For example DLNA-compliant TVs are capable of streaming information from your network directly to your screen without a third-party device. The technology is still in its infancy, but it is likely to be a key part of your home entertainment setup in a few years.

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