Techno Toys

Going plasma

Plasma TVs are cool—and the hot new thing. They look so good you almost don't have to turn them on. What they're not, though, is simple. Remember when your biggest television purchasing decision was black-and-white or color? Now, when you're ready to step up to a big TV with plenty of bells and whistles, you have to deal with plasma vs. LCD, pixel count, contrast ratios, and a gaggle of other terms that'll have you pining for an AM radio. (For a quick review of the plasma-free options out there, see "The Unplasmas.")

Most experts agree that plasma TVs are the state of the art. They're big (up to 63 inches in screen size, measured diagonally) but thin (three and a half to five inches front to back), light, and sleek. They're based on digital technology in an increasingly digital world. They have the brightest, crispest picture you can get. They perform well in most lighting conditions and allow the widest available angle of viewing, so a screen can be seen by people scattered across the room, not just by whoever's sitting directly in front of it. They all have flat screens, which don't bend at the edges as traditional TV screens do, thus eliminating image distortion. And most are made for widescreen viewing, so the sides of movie frames don't have to be chopped off to fit the screen. But since they aren't cheap—prices range from about $4,000 to $35,000—you'll want to know what you're getting into before you buy.

Something to keep in mind: Plasmas are only as good as their source. A TV signal is broadcast at a specific resolution, and a plasma cannot make it much better. Watch The West Wing on one, and you might wonder what you spent all your money on (it won't look bad; it just won't look much better than it did on the TV you just tossed). On the other hand, DVDs and high-definition television (see "I Want My HDTV") take full advantage of plasma's ability to deliver eye-popping images.

What Are Plasma TVs?

In plasma TVs, an electrical current passing through plates of glass causes thousands of tiny chambers (called pixels) filled with the same inert gases found in fluorescent lightbulbs to release UV light; this light then "turns on" the phosphors that coat the back of the screen to produce the 16 million colors we see. While companies like Sony and Pioneer have begun making all-in-one plasma TVs, most units are sold as monitors, without tuners to receive signals (for that you need a cable or satellite box or a DVD player) or speakers to project them (requiring additional equipment or hookup to your stereo system).

Who Makes Them?

Because production costs are so high, only a few big Japanese companies make plasmas. As a result, a lot of sharing takes place among the dozen or so plasma brands, from Bang & Olufsen to Philips (whose 1999 commercial brought plasma TVs into the mass consciousness) to Zenith. For example, a Toshiba 50-inch uses glass made by Panasonic; all 61-inch glass comes from NEC. It's not a bad thing to buy from a brand that uses other companies' parts—BMW doesn't make its brakes or transmissions from scratch, and it still puts out some of the best cars on the road.

What Are You Paying For?

Two things: resolution and contrast. The former is measured in the number of pixels running across and down the screen (e.g., 1,024 x 1,024, or 1,365 x 768); multiply the numbers, and for best picture (and HDTV near-perfection) hold out for at least a million pixels. Contrast is expressed as a ratio of color variation between the blackest blacks and whitest whites (1,000:1, say, or 3,000:1); suffice it to say that the bigger the first number, the better. But don't just take the brochure's word for a TV's numbers, says Joel Silver, founder of the Imaging Science Foundation (an industry group that certifies dealers and technicians): "A good retailer will have color analyzers, test patterns—a whole mess of sophisticated equipment that shows exactly how well a plasma measures up." And don't just look at the DVD the salesman pops in, either—ask him to show you some test patterns, and see for yourself how good a plasma is. "With what you're about to spend on one of these things," says Silver, "you have a right to be demanding."

On the other hand, while it's easy to be persuaded by statistics, don't be, advises Lee Richman, technical-services director of Red Rose Music, a Manhattan supplier of ultra-high-end audio and visual equipment. Choosing a plasma is "an entirely subjective process," he insists. "Buy the model whose picture looks best to you." Are there plasmas out there that cost three times as much as the competition? Sure. Can you tell the difference? Maybe. Maybe not. "Don't get caught in the trap of comparing spec sheets," Richman adds. "Once you do, you're well on your way to spending more money than necessary."

What About Reliability?

There are rumblings now and then that plasmas will "burn out" and leave their owners high and dry. It's true—plasmas will fail at some point. Thing is, so does everything. Manufacturers variously claim their sets will last for 20,000 to 30,000 hours of viewing; at five hours a day, burnout's at least 11 years away. While plasmas haven't been in homes long enough to have many meaningful statistics (the first ones, from Fujitsu, hit stores in 1993 but were largely ignored until 1996), most professionals agree that a display that looks good on day one will look good over the life of the device (though brightness does fade over time) so long as you treat it right.

That means not jacking up brightness and contrast levels too much, not connecting the set to video-game consoles or PCs (static images tend to "burn in" on a plasma screen and leave "ghosts" of themselves behind that can be seen when you're watching something else), not using it to watch cable news channels all day (that ticker at the bottom of the screen does the same thing to a plasma that video games do), and turning off the set when you're not watching it.

Also, like a sports car, plasmas can be prohibitively expensive to repair. Says Andrew Singer of Sound by Singer, another Manhattan high-end audio-video retailer, "Many manufacturers offer an extended warranty, which will lengthen coverage from one year to five. Given that the alternative is a useless piece of black plastic and glass, it's well worth the extra thousand dollars."

So Which One Should I Buy?

An interesting thing about plasmas: Cheaper ones are brighter than more expensive models. The minute you try to increase color accuracy and resolution, you sacrifice brightness. It's just one of those zero-sum problems of the technology. In a space with ample light control, this isn't an issue, but if you're planning to install one in the sunroom, say, you might want to move down in price to get a set that will work better there.

To get you started—and again, there's no substitute for comparing models in person—here are some plasmas that have been widely lauded and that provide image quality closest to what you'll find in a theater.

In the competition for largest screen, Samsung's HPM6315 ($19,999) is the reigning champ, at 63 inches. Runco's PlasmaWall PL-61cx ($29,995), though, is still considered the best plasma on the market: For about the price of a C-class Mercedes, you get a 61-inch plasma with the industry's highest contrast and resolution ratings. The 50-inch Pioneer PRO-1000HD ($12,000), an award-winner at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, is regarded as an industry benchmark. You don't normally think of Zenith when you think of high-end electronics, but maybe you should: Its new 60-inch P60W26 ($15,000) is an even better version of its award-winning PD60W, and a lot of inches for the dollar. Fujitsu's PDS-4242 ($7,999) has a stellar 42-inch display—the best-selling size in plasmas.

Keep in mind that as demand rises, plasma prices fall, faster than the NASDAQ on a bad day, so our manufacturers' suggested retail prices may be a lot higher than what you find in the stores.

Where Do I Put It?

Many people think that a plasma can be hung like a picture over the mantel, but that's contrary to our accustomed way of watching TV—either straight on or looking slightly downward—and may not make for comfortable viewing. If you're going for the largest screens, they pretty much need their own wall. Also, plasmas generate high heat, so flat-mounting requires hollowing the wall out some to allow the heat to safely dissipate. And finally, a larger plasma can weigh in at 150 pounds or more, so make sure what you're mounting it on can support it. Most models offer pedestal stands, and interior designers are busy creating new ways of incorporating big TVs into room decor, from mounting them on poles to creating systems that retract the set into a cabinet or a ceiling compartment.

How far should you sit from a plasma? The industry guideline is about twice the diagonal measurement of the screen, so with a 61-inch model, for example, you want to be eight to ten feet away.

A stand-up retailer will address all these issues. A good way to find one is through the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (800-669-5329; and the Imaging Science Foundation (561-997-9073;, industry associations that certify dealers to a higher standard than what you'll find at the local electronics warehouse.

I want my HDTV

WHAT IS IT? HDTV (high-definition television) is the most talked-about form of digital television (DTV), the new standard of TV-signal transmission to which the government has mandated that broadcasters must convert (from analog) by 2006. Already most networks offer programming in HD (on separate channels), as do PBS, HBO, Showtime, and DirecTV's HDNet channel.

WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT IT? HDTV lets you get every last ounce of performance out of your plasma screen. Along with six-channel surround sound and the widescreen format, you get images so sharply defined that they have almost a 3D effect, practically jumping off the screen.

HOW CAN I GET IT? First you need a TV that can process HDTV; this includes all front-projection and flat-panel (plasma or LCD) TVs made today, plus some direct-views and rear-projections. Unless your set has a built-in digital tuner (and new FCC rules require that all new sets 13 inches or larger will by 2007), you'll need to buy one; currently they cost about $500, though the price will no doubt dwindle. Whether you can then receive HDTV channels is another matter. Only about 5 percent of U.S. cable systems carry digital signals at the moment; ask your provider about availability in your area. Some satellite systems (like DirecTV) also offer HDTV.

The Unplasmas

A quick primer to help clear up the static on the current state of TVs:

DIRECT-VIEW The original and still most popular TVs. They're inexpensive, provide good picture, and work in almost any light. Since most use CRT (cathode-ray tube) technology, they're also fairly bulky and only go up to about 40 inches.

REAR-PROJECTION That box as big as a refrigerator you've seen, in which the image is projected inside the box onto the rear of the built-in screen. These TVs aren't terribly expensive ($1,000-$10,000) and come in large screen sizes (40 to 70 inches), but the image quality generally is good only when you're sitting directly in front of the screen; view at an angle, and both color and definition diminish. Recent innovations inside the box include LCD and DLP projectors to reduce the bulk and provide higher-definition images.

FRONT-PROJECTION This system, in which a projector flashes the image onto a screen several feet away, requires lots of space (so you can sit a suitable distance from the screen), complete darkness (a windowless room or blackout shades), and up to $250,000 for a top-of-the-line projector alone (though PLUS's fine HE-3200 Piano projectors are a steal at $3,299). Best if you're planning to build a media room where you can sit back in mogul fashion and watch movies in all their glory.

LCD FLAT-PANELS The other kind of thin-screen ("flat-panel") TV besides plasma is based on LCD (liquid crystal display) technology, long used in computer monitors. While plasma still has the edge on image quality and viewing angle (which can be very narrow in larger LCD TVs), LCD panels weigh much less and last longer because there's no burnout. In size, LCD TVs ($120-$6,000) pretty much end where plasmas begin: LCDs start at about 10 inches and max out at 30, while plasmas range from about 32 inches to 63. Bottom line: If you want a good-looking, space-saving TV for the kitchen or bedroom, LCD makes sense. Otherwise, plasmas rule.