In six short sections, we’ll help guide you towards making informed choices on buying the plasma TV you need for your home theater or living room, tradeshow application, business or retail display, or executive and corporate boardroom.
The sections in this Buying Guide are arranged in an order and progression that we feel is most helpful in imparting key information towards a plasma TV purchase. First, we’ll take a look at the kind of environment in which you are setting up the plasma display. Next, we’ll see what kind of content you intend to watch on the TV and what sort of A/V devices you’ll be using to determine the plasma type for your needs. Then, we’ll check out important plasma specs you should know about and installation issues to pay attention to. Lastly, we’ll take a quick look at pricing and other cost issues that you may want to consider.
Ready? Let’s begin.
The Plasma TV Environment
Calculating the Correct Distance In setting up the environment for your plasma TV, a primary consideration is to determine the screen size to match the floor plan or available space where the plasma will be displayed.
Plasma monitors are measured diagonally across the screen, just like any other television set. You can typically choose from the following sizes: 32”, 40”, 42”, 46”, 50”, 61”, or 63”. Bigger is not always better, and a certain distance must be maintained between the plasma TV and the viewing area for optimal viewing experience. Sitting too far away diminishes the overall impact. Sitting too close, however, could also present its own problems — as when you start seeing the screen’s “structure”; i.e., the dots or pixels that make up the plasma display. The right distance depends on the size of your TV.
- For 32” to 37” TVs, 6 to 10 feet from the screen is needed.
- For 42” to 46” TVs, 10 to 14 feet from the screen is needed.
- For 50” TVs, 12 to 16 feet from the screen is needed.
- For 60” and larger TVs, at least 15 feet of space from the screen is needed.
In determining the appropriate TV size for you, you should also consider the space required to install the unit itself. When recessing a plasma display unit, allow at least 3 inches of open space at the top of the unit and adequate ventilation space of at least 2 inches behind it as well. Remember, too, that most plasma displays do not have built-in speakers, so you’ll need to allow space enough to attach speakers.
Viewing Angles: More on TV Placement
Viewing angle is another factor that affects the viewing experience. Today’s plasma TVs offer viewing angles approaching (and sometimes exceeding) 170 degrees. This is much better than viewing angles for LCD displays and rear-projection TVs, and the wide viewing angles for plasma displays translates to a bright, clear picture for anyone in the room — no matter where they’re sitting.
Room Lighting and the TV Picture
Lighting is also important in the area where your plasma TV is set up. Plasma TVs generally do a fine job in rooms with regular indoor lighting, but optimal viewing may not be possible in areas with too much direct sunlight. Thus, windows that let in direct sunlight should have easily adjustable blinds or curtains that can eliminate reflections off the screen. Light from a window behind the TV also makes it difficult for the eyes to adjust to the very brightness of the screen, and window treatments are recommended in such cases. A little bit of controlled background lighting could also be helpful, as the background light gives the black portions of the picture a deeper, darker look.
Altitude May Increase Noise Levels
If you live in Denver, Santa Fe or other areas above 6,000 feet, be aware that some plasma displays may start exhibiting operational noise. This is due to increased pressure on the gases contained in the glass substrate of the plasma, a phenomenon that makes the unit work harder to cool the display element. Check to see if the manufacturer has a maximum altitude rating if you are setting up the plasma in high-elevation areas.
What You Can Watch on Your Plasma TV
You can choose between HDTV (High Definition TV) and EDTV (Enhanced Definition TV) for your choice of plasma display. Which type you prefer depends on the kind of material you intend to watch on the plasma.
EDTV is the perfect entry point into digital television, with a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio and an image resolution that is 200% better than today’s analog televisions. On the other hand, HDTV has up to four times the resolution and colors compared to EDTV, offering the ultimate visual and sound experience.
At present, only a limited number of programs are broadcast in true high-definition format (all major networks broadcast HD counterparts to their regular analog-signal broadcasts). In fact, if you plan to use a plasma HDTV for regular TV programming, you may be surprised to find that regular TV programming may even appear slightly worse, as the big screen exaggerates the flaws in standard TV programs. DVD images from most of the currently available DVD titles on the market today also do not fare as well on true HD plasmas. In fact, these DVD images appear better on EDTV plasma units, because the image resolution of a widescreen DVD (nominally 740 x 480) more closely matches the actual resolution (852 x 480) of the EDTV plasma display.
Why bother with a High Definition TV at all, you may ask? Because HDTV, paired with a true High-Definition or high-quality source, can produce truly stunning images. With a progressive-scan DVD player paired with, say, any of the recently released HD-DVD or forthcoming Blu-ray DVD titles (encoded in true HD format), your plasma HDTV can come to spectacular life and bring out unrivaled image quality. And as more TV programming becomes available in High-Definition format with the looming of the FCC deadline for switching to all-digital broadcasting, plasma HDTV sets will have more TV content to show. One thing’s for sure: Your HDTV won’t be obsolete anytime in the next few years.
Devices for your Plasma TV
With today’s plasma TV models, almost all of them will have multiple inputs that allow connection of various devices, with 32” or larger screens having inputs for connecting six or more different A/V components. Which video components do you have now, and which do you plan to add in the future?
At the very least, you’ll probably want to connect your antenna or cable box, plus a DVD player and perhaps a VCR. Other possibilities include a satellite TV receiver, video game system, or TiVo hard disk recorder. And if you use a camcorder, you will definitely want a set of front-panel A/V inputs on your new TV.
The newer plasma TVs will include digital inputs such as HDMI or DVI, which can accept HDTV signals from your cable box or satellite (and even some DVD players) in an all-digital format. Some plasma TVs also include a VGA or DVI PC input, which allows your plasma unit to pull double-duty as a PC monitor.
Connection tip: If you route your video signals through your home theater receiver, you can connect even more video sources. Most home theater receivers provide Composite Video inputs and outputs to enable video switching, making it easy to choose from among your video sources. If yours does, you may be able to connect your video components to your receiver, which will then send the selected video signal to your TV. Many receivers have S-Video connections as well, and some even include Component Video switching.
Plasma TV Specifications
When comparing plasma TV sets, it’s important to know what to look for to make sense of the specifications you’re presented with. Below is a quick rundown on the necessary specs that you need to weigh before making that all-important purchase decision.
Resolution: Resolution is a determining factor in selecting a plasma TV. Do you want HDTV or EDTV? HDTV, with a resolution of at least 1024 x 720, is the ultimate visual and sound experience, but what is available for viewing on HD is currently restricted to a few HD channels on cable, as well as the newly emerging — and necessarily few — DVD titles from the HD-DVD and Blu-ray DVD formats. On the other hand, most of the currently available DVDs actually play better when viewed on EDTV, because the image resolution of a widescreen DVD (nominally 740 x 480) more closely matches the actual resolution (852 x 480) of the EDTV plasma display. Choosing the type of plasma TV that you want, therefore, is a question that should be considered along with the type of content you frequently watch or will be watching on your plasma.
Inputs: A plasma television should work with any existing video component with standard A/V, S-Video, or Component Video outputs. In addition, most plasma TVs have DVI or HDMI connections for use with high-definition sources. Some plasma TVs also have VGA input connections that allow them to be used as monitors for a PC. At the minimum, look for the following specifications on a plasma connection: DVI-I or DVI-D, Component, RCA or Composite, and S-Video. Take into consideration your current component set-up — such as your satellite system, cable box, DVD player, and external stereo components — and see what kind of inputs or connectors they use.
Tuner: Check your plasma to see if it is HD-ready or HD-integrated. An HD-ready plasma TV is essentially a monitor that needs an external tuner source before it can function as a TV. An HD-integrated panel has a tuner built into the set and is ready for use. If you receive your HDTV programming via cable or satellite instead of over-the-air, you may not need a tuner at all, as you will be using the set-top boxes provided by your cable/satellite service to receive HDTV programming. Check with your cable or satellite providers for more details. Some cable/satellite companies do away with set-top boxes and provide their subscribers with cable cards instead. Check with your cable/satellite provider if they provide cable cards and the cable-card type that they offer, and then check the specification on the plasma for cable card slots.
Contrast Ratio: Contrast ratio is the measurement that determines the variation between the whitest and darkest parts of the image. This is an important specification, since plasma TVs with a low contrast ratio will make dark images look muddy and gray while making light images look washed out. A good measure of contrast ratio is 1,000:1 or higher. Anything less than 1,000:1 — especially on a set that is 42” or larger — may not provide optimal viewing experience.
Brightness: Without sufficient brightness, your image will look muddy and soft — even in a dark room. Viewing distance, screen size, and ambient room light will also affect the need for more brightness capability. A brightness rating listed at 550 cd/m2 or higher is good, but don't get bogged down with the technical number listed. Instead, make sure that the screen is bright enough for your needs as you conduct your own visual inspection.
Panel Life: Look for a minimum of 60,000 hours of panel life in your plasma specifications. This is the rating on how long it would take before your panel has half the brightness compared to when it was new. A 60,000-hour spec translates to approximately 20 years of viewing at 8 hours per day. (This approximation may vary, depending on the source and type of content, settings, environment, and use of your plasma TV.)
Anti-burn-in/Pixel Shift: Burn-in refers to the remnants burned on to the screen after a static image has been left on the plasma for a long period of time. To minimize or prevent burn-in, determine if the plasma panel utilizes burn-in protection, such as power management settings, full-time picture or pixel shift (both vertical and horizontal) technologies, or automatic screensaver functions.
Speakers: If you plan to use an external surround sound system, you won’t need audio speakers, but most plasma TV sets include speakers that rated anywhere from 7-12 Watts Pre-amp — which is much better than that of conventional TVs and sufficient for most viewing. Check your plasma’s specifications to see if it comes with speakers and if the speakers are removable.
Universal Remote: A universal remote can take the place of having one remote, so that it controls all the various components of your TV system, such as the DVD player, audio, cable/satellite etc. If you plan on buying a universal remote, check to see if it’s supported by the plasma set of your choice to make sure the plasma accepts universal remote devices.
Power Consumption: Power consumption for plasmas range from 240 watts to over 500 watts, If you’re concerned with how much energy a plasma set may use, check its specifications to determine power consumption. Units tend to have higher wattage requirements as the screen increases. A good rule of thumb is to compare similar-sized units together; units with higher wattages tend to use inferior components as a rule.
Installation and Mounting Options
There are basically two options for installing a plasma TV: Displaying it on a table stand, cart, or similarly equivalent horizontal surface; or hanging the Plasma TV (on a wall or from a ceiling, using wall mount fixtures).
One of the major benefits of plasma TV is the flexibility of mounting and installation options that are available. However, because of the sheer size of the TV, mounting presents its own sets of issues that need to be taken into account.
For wall (or ceiling) mounting, you will need two people (ideally), with at least one having enough experience to determine the strength of the wall, what is behind the wall, and the proper hardware to use; e.g., anchors, screws, etc. The last thing you need is to have your new Plasma TV fall off the wall and smash into bits because of improper wall mounting. Professional installation is highly recommended in this case.
Below are various TV mounting options you might consider:
• Table Stands are popular for displaying plasma units. These units, however, are not one-size- fits-all appliances. Sometimes one is included with the TV itself; other times you have to purchase the stand separately. Most consumer-oriented plasma TVs come with their own matching table stand, used whenever there is enough tabletop space to support the TV. These units are custom-made to manufacturers’ specifications, as each plasma display has its own requirements on how the stand fits the plasma. The table stand allows for maximum flexibility, as nothing is permanently affixed to the wall. (Add graphic)
• Plasma TV Carts are typically used in business applications for trade shows and in-house presentations. Table carts are often used in a courtroom setting or to mobilize up to the edge of a boardroom table for maximum visual presentation. The table cart may include a platform for placing a DVD player, laptop computer, or VCR. (Add graphic)
• Flat Wall Mounts maximize the space-saving benefits of plasma technology. This is generally the least expensive option, and it adds less than two inches to the total depth of the plasma unit. It is used in home theaters, living rooms, or company boardrooms to achieve and maximally offset the sleek appearance that plasma displays are known for. (Add graphic)
• Tilt Wall Mounts let you place your plasma TV above eye level, keeping the unit out of the way but allowing it to be readily viewable from anywhere in the room. A tilt wall mount typically allows 15 to 20 degrees of tilt (depending on the brand of the wall mount). This option is often used to install plasma displays above fireplaces and in bedrooms, and is also used for overhead displays in retail or industry (with or without an attached ceiling bracket). The tilt wall mount adds from 4 to 6 inches to the depth of the mounted display. (Add graphic)
• Articulating Wall Mounts use swivel arms to render the plasma unit flush with the wall and out of the way when the unit is not in use. Pulled out, this mounting device allows you to turn the display 120 degrees to either side and as much as 10 degrees up or down. It adds between 3 or 4 inches to the depth of the plasma mount (depending on the manufacturer of the wall mount), and is used for maximum flexibility in sports bars, library studies, and commercial display operations. (Add graphic)
• Ceiling Mounts enable you to mount your plasma TV where you want it in case a wall isn’t available. This option is generally coupled with a tilt mount, so that the display can be adjusted downward for easier viewing. Lengths of ceiling mount poles vary according to customer needs, but standard lengths are from 24 to 43 inches. Ceiling mounts are usually used for airport displays, checkout counters, hospital rooms, and bedrooms. (Add graphic)
Pricing and Other Costs
Plasma TVs are expensive, but they do fall into a few distinct categories. Below is a rough guide to retail and online pricing for plasma units (current as of this writing, May 2006).
- $1,000 to $1,500 buys you a plasma TV up to 42”
- $1,500 to $3,000 buys you a plasma TV up to 50”
- More than $3,000 buys you a plasma up to 65”
- Under $1,500 buys you a refurbished EDTV plasma
- Under $2,000 buys you an EDTV plasma
- More than $2,000 buys you an HDTV plasma
In addition to the cost of the plasma TV itself, you may want to factor in the price of accessories, such as cables, surge protectors, additional audio equipment, furniture, and room treatments to arrive at a realistic cost outlay for your plasma TV purchase.
Lastly, be aware of “standard” charges that apply to your purchase: a sales tax when the TV is bought at a brick-and-mortar establishment; shipping charges (especially if the TV is bought online); and delivery and/or set-up charges. Check and compare the manufacturer warranties for various plasma TV brands; extended warranties are always extra.
Microtek Lab Inc. is a consumer electronics company focused on scanners, plasma and lcd televisions, digital projectors, lcd monitors, digital cameras, home theatre equipment, and accessories. You can view their online store at http://www.store.microtek.com