Plasma TVs make a blockbuster first impression. A scant 6 inches thick or less, these sleek flat panels display bright images on screens measuring about 3 to 5 feet diagonally.
A plasma screen is made up of thousands of pixels containing gas that's converted into "plasma" by an electrical charge. The plasma causes phosphors to glow red, green, or blue, as dictated by a video signal. The result: a colorful display with high brightness and a wider viewing angle than most rear-projection sets and LCD (liquid-crystal display) TVs. Thanks to steady improvements in plasma technology, the best of these sets have excellent or very good picture quality. Some picture-tube TVs still do slightly better with fine detail, color accuracy, and subtle gradations of black and gray, but plasma TVs are coming closer.
However, the picture isn't all rosy. Like projection TVs using CRT (cathode-ray tube) technology, plasma sets are vulnerable to screen burn-in. Also, plasma sets run hotter and consume more power than any other type of TV. Because plasma sets are relatively new, their long-term reliability is still a question.
When buying a plasma TV, you'll face a choice between HD (high definition) and ED (enhanced definition) sets, which cost less. The two types differ in native resolution, meaning the fixed number of pixels on the screen. In a spec like 852x480, note the second number. If it's 480, the set is ED; 720 or higher, it's HD. Both types of sets should be capable of up- or down-converting signals to match their native resolution. ED sets can display the full detail of 480p signals such as those output by a progressive-scan DVD player. When connected to an HD tuner, many can down-convert HD signals (which are 720p or 1080i) to suit their lower-resolution screens. While you won't see true HD, the picture quality can be very good. If you sit too close to an ED set, though, images may appear coarser than on an HDTV, as if you were looking through a screen door.
There's another major choice. Within the HD category, there are three types of TV sets: HD-ready sets. Also called HDTV monitors, these sets can display standard-definition analog programs (which still account for most non-prime-time TV broadcasts) on their own. To display digital programs, they require a digital tuner to decode those broadcasts. If you're getting your HD programming from cable or satellite, your digital cable box or satellite receiver has the appropriate digital decoder built in. All you have to do is connect your HD-ready TV to the box and you're all set. Cable companies charge a small rental fee for digital or HD-capable boxes. To receive HD via satellite, you need an HD receiver and special dish antenna(e). Together, these cost about $300, but you may be able to get them from the satellite company at little or no charge as part of a promotion.
You can also get digital broadcasts, including HD, over the air, via an antenna. To do so, you'll have to buy a digital tuner called an ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) tuner--the external box costs a few hundred dollars. However, there's no charge for service as there is with cable or satellite. Some satellite receivers also offer a built-in ATSC digital tuner. To receive digital programming via antenna, you must be fairly close to a transmitter, with an unobstructed view. With digital signals, you'll either have a clear, strong signal or none at all.
Integrated HDTV sets. These have the ATSC digital tuner built in, which enables them to decode any digital signals, including HD with no additional equipment when used with a roof antenna. You may be able to receive the major networks' HD offerings transmitted over the air in your area, but not the premium channels available on satellite and cable. To get HD via cable or satellite, integrated sets require an HD-capable cable box, CableCard, or satellite receiver--the built-in digital tuner only works for off-air digital broadcasts. As of July 2005, all new TVs 36 inches and larger--a category covering most plasma TVs--were required to have a built-in digital tuner to comply with a government ruling. Although integrated HDTVs have a digital tuner for off-air programs, most of these sets still require an HD-capable cable box or satellite receiver to get cable or satellite.
Digital-Cable-Ready (DCR) sets. Some new integrated models, called digital-cable-ready (DCR) or plug-and-play sets, can receive digital-cable programming without using a set-top box. For HD and premium cable programming--and possibly for any digital programming--you must insert a CableCard into a slot on the set. You usually have to pay a few dollars a month to rent the card from the cable company. Current DCR TVs are not interactive, so even with a CableCard in the slot they can't provide features such as an interactive program guide, video on demand, or pay-per-view ordering via remote. Second-generation DCR TVs and CableCards should be here soon, and they're expected to have two-way capability, allowing for interactive features. Integrated sets typically cost more than HD-ready sets, with digital-cable-ready models costing the most.
Among the brands in the plasma TV category are Hitachi, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba. Prices have dropped sharply over the past year or two. At publication time, HD-ready models with 40- to 44-inch screens, the best-selling size, were going for $3,000 to $5,000 or more. TVs with 50-inch or larger screens were selling for $4,500 and up. Look for prices to fall further, now that companies such as Dell and ViewSonic have expanded from the computer arena into TVs with aggressive pricing.
Plasma TVs have most of the features that are now standard on direct-view, CRT-based TVs, plus some features that are less common. These include picture-in-picture (PIP), which lets you watch two channels at once, one in a small picture alongside the full-screen image. A single-tuner TV requires another device with a tuner, such as a VCR or cable box, to display two programs at once; dual-tuner models can display two programs simultaneously on their own.
Most TVs have several types of inputs that handle varying levels of quality. A cable/antenna, or radio frequency (RF), input is the most basic connection, and it can be used with almost any video source. A composite-video input will give you slightly better picture quality and is often used with a VCR or regular cable box. An S-video input lets you take advantage of the still-better picture quality from a digital-cable box, a satellite-dish system, a DVD player, or a digital camcorder. A component-video input offers superior quality, making this a good choice for progressive-scan DVD players, high-definition satellite receivers, and HD digital-cable boxes that have the corresponding output. HDTVs have DVI or HDMI inputs, which provide a high-quality digital connection to devices such as DVD players, digital-cable boxes, and satellite receivers. These connections allow the content providers to control your ability to record certain programming. Many sets have more than one of a given type of input. Having two or three S-video or component-video inputs is a plus. For a camcorder or video game, front-panel A/V inputs are helpful.
Audio outputs let you direct a stereo TV's audio signal to a receiver or to self-powered speakers. An automatic volume leveler compensates for the jarring volume jumps that often accompany commercials or changes in channel. Some plasma sets have a separate control unit--a video receiver, in effect, that accepts connections more easily than a panel you've had mounted onto a wall.
If you watch many movies, look for a Film mode feature on ED and HD sets. This feature is also called 3:2 pulldown compensation or brand-specific names such as CineMotion. This can make moving images that were converted from film to video look less jerky, with less jaggedness around the edges. On 16:9 sets, stretch and zoom modes will expand or compress an image to better fill the screen shape. This helps to reduce the dark bands that can appear around images if you watch content formatted for one screen shape on a TV that has the other shape. (The picture may be distorted or cut off a bit in the process of stretching and zooming). Those bars make the picture slightly smaller and use the phosphors unevenly, which may leave ghosted images on the screen over time. This "burn-in" may be also a risk with any images left on the screen for long periods--say from a stock ticker.
HOW TO CHOOSE
Decide whether you want true HD or the next best thing. HD sets generally perform better than ED sets with all types of signals. They may be worth the higher cost if you're a purist who wants the best image quality. Most ED plasma sets can down-convert an HD signal to fit their lower resolution, so you can still enjoy HD programming. While it won't be true HD quality, it can be very good. Minor differences in resolution between two HD sets or two ED sets won't necessarily determine overall image quality. Other factors affect the picture, such as the way a TV converts a signal to fit the screen and its ability to render subtle shading. Note that the shiny surface of a plasma TV can produce annoying reflections, especially in brightly lit rooms. Many of these sets look best in low light.
Weigh screen size against price. If you're buying a plasma TV, an important question is how much screen you can afford. All other things being equal, the bigger the screen, the bigger the price tag, and the greater the viewing distance you need to see optimal picture quality. You'll enjoy the best viewing experience if you sit at least 6 feet away from a 42-inch HD set, and a little farther from an ED set or larger screen.
Beware of burn-in and burnout. Plasma TVs are prone to burn-in, much like CRT-based rear-projection TVs. Over time, static images from fixed items displayed for long periods (such as a video game or a stock ticker) can leave permanent ghosted impressions on-screen, so minimize the risk as much as you can.
You may have seen reports, in print or online, suggesting that plasma TVs may not last as long as other types of TVs. Overall longevity and reliability is an open question because the technology is so new. Major manufacturers now tout 60,000 hours of use or more before a recent-model plasma screen loses half its brightness. Even in heavy use (40 hours a week), that's about 29 years.
Don't get hung up on specs. Ads touting high contrast ratios and brightness (cd/m2, or candelas per square meter) may sway you to one set or another. Don't pay much heed. Manufacturers arrive at specs differently, so they may not be comparable. Try adjusting sets in the store yourself to compare contrast and brightness.
Determine what's included when comparing prices. Most other types of TVs come with speakers and a tuner at least for standard channels. (A digital tuner for HD isn't included with any HD-ready or ED-ready set.) Some plasmas are purely monitors only, sold with no sound capabilities whatsoever; they don't include speakers or a tuner for any type of TV signal. You won't have to pay for a tuner if you'll be using a cable box or satellite receiver, which would serve as the tuner for all programming. Otherwise you'll need a set-top box to work with an antenna. You'll have to pay extra for optional speakers unless you plan to connect the set to your existing sound system.
Consider the logistics. Ads for plasma TVs may not show any wires, but you'll probably be connecting a cable box or satellite receiver and a DVD player, and possibly a VCR and audio receiver as well. You can tuck wires behind the TV if you place it on a stand. With wall-mounting, you can run the wires behind the wall or through conduits, a task that might be best handled by a professional. Often weighing 100 pounds or more, plasma TVs need adequate support and ample ventilation because of the heat they generate. Ask the retailer to recommend an installer or contact the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (800-669-5329 or www.cedia.net). Figure on $300 to $1,000 for labor, plus a few hundred dollars for mounting brackets.
Weigh the merits of an extended warranty. While extended warranties aren't worthwhile for most products, they may be for high-priced devices using new technologies. Because plasma TVs are costly items that haven't yet established a track record for reliability, check into the cost of a service plan. Find out whether in-home service is covered and whether a replacement is provided if a set can't be repaired.
For the latest information on this and many other products and services, visit www.ConsumerReports.org.
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