TV screen battle: Plasma versus LCD

Dreaming of a supersize flat screen for your home entertainment center? Plasma isn't your only option: In a few years, large-format LCDs will compete with plasma displays for your pocketbook, industry officials predict.

By the middle of the decade, competition between the two formats is widely expected to be fiercest in the market for 42-inch TVs. "It's going to be a real battleground," says Sweta Dash, LCD analyst for the research firm ISuppli Corp./Stanford Resources.

The subject of large, skinny televisions came up repeatedly Tuesday during opening sessions of Stanford Resources' 19th Annual Flat Information Display Conference, which features presentations by analysts and by executives from display technology companies worldwide.

Prices Drop

While striking large-format displays remain expensive by CRT standards, prices definitely are coming down from the US$5000-plus points of years past. Gateway recently released a basic, low-resolution 42-inch plasma display priced at US$2999, and ISuppli/Stanford Resources analyst Rhiddi Patel expects to see better-quality plasma displays available for US$2500 by 2005.

But the real news is the prospect of competition from LCDs of similar size. Until recently, the manufacturing facilities that produce the panels used in LCD displays simply weren't geared for such large-format products, and today the largest LCD TV screens are about 30 inches (measured diagonally).

However, new and upcoming generations of LCD plants will be able to efficiently produce 42- and, eventually, 50-inch panels. By the second half of the decade, the cost differential between same-size LCDs and plasma displays probably won't exceed 10 percent, ISuppli/Stanford Resources senior vice president David Mentley said.

Plasma Now, LCDs Later

"Right now, plasma has gotten an early jump into the category, and rightly so," says Al Giazzon, vice president of marketing for NEC-Mitsubishi Electronics Display of America, which sells both LCDs and plasma displays.

That's partly because, at the moment, vendors of large LCDs simply can't compete on price. It's also because plasma screens don't have the response-time issues that make LCDs less than optimal for moving images such as video or games. The principal drawback of previous-generation plasma screens--the tendency of stationary images to burn in and produce permanent ghosting--has diminished greatly in newer products. NEC, for example, has developed technology to deal with the problem by moving stationary pixels just enough to prevent such burn-in, Giazzon says.

But LCDs have some advantages over plasma, Giazzon adds. If you're contemplating a home entertainment setup involving a PC--perhaps running Windows XP Media Center Edition--or other activities involving text as well as graphics, you'll get a crisper, brighter image from an LCD.

The LCD Edge

Carl Streudle, marketing vice president for LG.Philips LCD America, concurs. LG Philips makes LCD modules for use in all types of products, from handhelds to monitors to TVs. The company projects that worldwide LCD TV sales in all sizes will total about 1.5 million this year and 3.2 million in 2003. Most of these, however, will have screens no larger than 20 inches or so.

"Going forward, we do see a shift to larger sizes," he says. And prices will fall, too: The 30-inch models that go for US$5000 to US$5500 today should drop to US$2000 to US$3000 in the next two years--"and that's being conservative," he said.

Streudle believes that consumers will move to LCDs for better screen quality, higher reliability (LCDs have none of the burn-in issues associated with plasma), and longer product life. LCDs last for about 50,000 hours versus 30,000 hours for today's plasma screens, according to LG.Philips.

Streudle says that LCD TVs weigh 10 to 15 percent less than plasmas of comparable size. They often look better in daylight than plasmas, though Streudle concedes that plasmas have a brightness advantage at night.

As for response time, Streudle says that it will drop from today's 25 milliseconds (and in newer units, 16 milliseconds), to less than 5 milliseconds in 2004.

Stanford Resources' Dash expects LCD TV sales to grow tremendously over the next few years, to 9 million in 2005 and to over 18 million in 2006. But while larger-format LCD TVs will increase in popularity in the second half of the decade, she doesn't anticipate that they will kill off plasmas.

"I think they can coexist," Dash says. "Forty inches will be the real battleground."

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