All About Plasma Televisions: A Buyer's Guide

Part One: Why go plasma?

Why go plasma in the first place?

Because the technology is there. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enacted legislation compelling the nation's 1600+ television stations to change the way they broadcast their programming-i.e., to start transmitting it digitally. Thus began the rise of digital television (DTV) in America. For now, the FCC has allocated an additional channel spectrum to the media. This has allowed the media to offer digital broadcasts in parallel with their existing analog ones, giving consumers the opportunity to watch regular TV while they make the switch to DTV.

Once the transition to digital is complete-by the year 2006 or by the time 85% of US households get digital feeds, whichever occurs later-the federal government will auction off the original analog channel spectrum. And DTV will be the new standard in broadcasting. Sure, you'll still be able to watch your favorite shows in analog like always, but you'll need to "update" your existing TV with a device that converts digital signals into analog ones. All of which begs the question: Why not just go with the digital flow?

What's the bottom line?

Broadcasters now can offer free, over-the-air television of higher resolution and with better picture quality than ever before. DTV is a reality-if you've got the right TV to see it with.

The technology behind plasma TVs has been around since the mid-60s, but the first displays were nothing more than points of light created in laboratory experiments. Recent advancements in high-speed digital processing and high-tech manufacturing processes have made compact, full color plasma displays possible, not to mention increasingly affordable for the average consumer.

What exactly is plasma TV?

Most people know plasma TVs as those unbelievably thin display monitors that can be hung on your wall just like pieces of video art. (To give you an idea of the space-saving advantages of plasma technology, consider this: A 40-inch TV may be two feet deep and weigh upwards of 150 pounds, while the same size plasma display might have a depth of, say, 6 inches and weigh half as much.) But this isn't your average slimmed-down television set. The display itself consists of thousands of "cells," which are individual glass compartments injected with neon-xenon gas suspended in plasma-hence the "plasma" appellation. These cells are the basic elements comprising the picture you see on your TV screen. When the gases are electrically charged, they strike red, green, and blue phosphors. Just like that, an image (which is nothing more than the sum of the aforementioned colored elements, commonly known as "pixels") is born.

Besides leaving space enough in your living room for, well, living, what are the advantages of having a plasma TV?

It's easier to watch. A plasma TV will perform exceedingly well under most ambient light conditions. A very bright light does not "wash out" its picture, nor does backlighting cause a glare on your TV screen. The beauty of these flat screens is that, unlike front view projections screens, you don't have to turn out the lights to see the image clearly and easily. Moreover, you can watch TV from almost anywhere in a room, since flat screens have a 160° viewing angle.

The picture is smooth, colorful, and (best of all) wide. Plasma TVs have none of those annoying scan lines that conventional sets do. This owes to the fact that each pixel cell has its own transistor electrode, which creates smooth, evenly lit images across the entire surface of the display. Many of the newer plasma displays also have built-in line doubling to improve the image quality of even low-resolution video signals. And they are saturated with color; some high-end plasma TVs are capable of displaying 16.77 million colors! Plasma sets offer superb color realism and exceptional gradations among colors. In fact, these color-saturated images are what give plasma displays an edge over other types of video displays in the eyes of many consumers.

Plasma displays have a 16:9 aspect ratio (i.e., 16 units wide to 9 units high), the proper one for viewing HDTV and for watching DVDs. But most television shows are still broadcast in the more traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, the one that more closely approximates the dimensions of conventional TV sets. Does this mean that you'll have to watch some shows where the image is distorted or stretched unnaturally? No. When displaying a "normal" or 4:3 picture image from satellite, VCR, or cable TV, the image can be viewed in a number of ways-in its original format (with black or gray bars on the sides of the screen), or in "full" mode (where the image is converted or "stretched" using specially designed algorithms to reduce the visible stretch marks as much as possible). This is only a temporary dilemma, of course: Since HDTV is shown in widescreen, this is the format of the future for broadcast television.

The display is multi-functional and long-lived. A plasma display is a television monitor, capable of displaying HDTV, regular TV, and home video. It's also a computer monitor. In fact, it can accept any video format. Plasma displays typically include inputs for (a) composite video, (b) S-video and component video, and (c) one or more RGB inputs from a computer. You can expect to use you plasma display in many capacities and for many years: The average lifespan of one of these displays is 30,000 hours. That's about 3.5 years of 24/7 usage! If watching TV was your full-time job, and you did it for 8 hours a day, it would take you more than a decade to wear out your plasma display.