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The five

What are the five key points I need to look at?

Size and Picture

Plasma TVs offer larger screen sizes and a higher picture quality than LCDTVs. The brighter picture of a plasma TV is viewable from a wide angle and can be watched in a brighter room. Plasma TVs look their best from a longer distance than cathode or rear-projection sets.

Image Burn

Static images from video games and TV broadcasts can be permanently etched into the pixels of a plasma TV. If a video game console will be used with the television, it’s best to avoid a plasma set.

Say Yes to 1080p

Although this high-resolution HDTV format isn’t in use yet, it’s a wise investment if you want to get the most out of your plasma TV investment in the coming years.

Additional Features

Extra HDMI inputs are a must, and a built-in QAM cable tuner may reduce the number of remotes you need to use your plasma TV. Don’t pay more for advanced sound if you’re using a surround-sound system at home, and only pay extra for picture-in-picture if you need the feature.

Leave Installation to the Pros

Plasma TVs are heavy and their screens are fragile. Unless you’re an experienced builder, have your plasma TV professionally installed on a load-bearing exterior wall with a VESA-compliant mount.

Shop talk

What are the terms and definitions I need to know about?

ATSC Tuner

A built-in tuner that can receive digital television signals over the air.

Comb Filter

A physical or software filter that reduces objectionable color patterns that can cause strobing or color bleed.

Contrast Ratio

The difference between the brightest white and darkest black pixels in a plasma TV display. A higher contrast ratio delivers a sharper picture.

EDTV

Enhanced definition television. This is the 480p display format used on some plasma TVs. Although the picture is superior to standard display television (SDTV, which appears as a 480i picture), it’s not considered “true” high-definition television (HDTV).

HDMI Inputs

High-Definition Multimedia Interface is the new standard for connecting high-definition components. It uses a single cable package and can carry more data than other types of connectors.

NTSC Tuner

An analog television tuner that allows a plasma TV to receive standard broadcast television signals.

QAM Tuner

A built-in tuner that can decode cable signals. This tuner will not provide free cable channels, but it may allow you to bypass the cable box and control channels directly from the plasma TV’s remote.

Plasma TV versus LCDTV

Because plasma TVs generate their own light with phosphors, they don’t need the extra illumination that LCDTVs require to make the image viewable. This means that plasma TVs can generate truer blacks, sharper images, and higher contrast than LCDTVs. The brighter picture on a plasma TV can also be viewed from a wider angle than an LCDTV. These performance enhancements come at a cost. Plasma TVs require more electricity to run and they run hotter than other types of HDTVs, especially when they display bright images. One overwhelming advantage of plasma TV is its brightness. While an LCDTV can look washed-out in a room that’s sunny or has strong ambient light, a plasma TV will deliver a bright, crisp picture. (Read Pronto’s LCD TV Buying Guide.)

Bigger is better, right?

While a bigger screen may increase the IMAX feel, a giant plasma TV is a poor choice for a small room. Flat-panel televisions are designed to look their best from a longer distance than CRT or rear-projection sets. Get too close to the screen, and you’ll see motion blur and edge correction caused by pixels struggling to keep up with fast-moving images. Know where you’ll put the screen, and measure the distance from the screen to where you’ll be watching. Here’s a general rule of thumb: For smaller TVs, 32”-37” view from eight to twelve feet away. Both a 42” and 50” will work in the 10 feet to 15 feet range. For 60” plus, allow 15 feet or more. Remember plasma looks great from far away, so if you need to add a few feet to the guidelines above don’t stress. The key is don’t watch too close.

Plasma TV buyers at high altitudes, 5,000 feet and above, should also consider the performance of an individual model. The gas encased in a plasma TV becomes pressurized at high altitude, causing the set to draw more power to turn the pixels on and off. This can lead to more fan noise or a buzzing sound from the electrical current, an effect that is magnified on larger sets. If you’re in the mountains, be sure to test the Plasma TV at altitude, and watch it with the sound muted, listening for any fan noise or buzz.

1080p or 1080i?

1080p, sometimes called “True HDTV,” is the highest possible resolution available. Native resolution is a measurement of the screen’s pixel display capacity, and any signal that varies from the native resolution is either up-converted or down-converted to the native resolution.

There are five standard HDTV formats. In order of quality from lowest to highest, they are 480p, 720i, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p. The letter after the resolution tells you the display method, either “i” for interlaced, or “p” for progressive. An interlaced image is redrawn frame by frame in its entirety. A progressive image compares two frames and only draws those parts of the image that change. Progressive scan images have less motion blur than interlaced images because fewer pixels need to be redrawn.

1080p is the future of HDTV, but no one is currently broadcasting in this format. If you plan to keep the TV for five years or more, you will want this feature to get the most out of your plasma TV investment. If you’re not obsessed with picture quality, you can save money by getting a set that lacks the higher resolution, but if you’re planning on owning the set for five years or more, it’s worth paying extra for 1080p.

Screen Life

All televisions wear out over time. The phosphors used in traditional cathode ray TVs and plasma TVs degrade with use, causing the picture to lose sharpness and color. It’s not uncommon for plasma TV manufacturers to include screen life in the specifications for the set. This can range from 50,000 to 60,000 hours or more. Does this mean your plasma TV will wear out too soon?

Here’s the math: If you watch TV for eight hours a day, every day, that’s 2,920 hours a year. A plasma TV with a 50,000-hour screen life would last you a little over 17 years. If you calculate based on the time the plasma TV is in your home, regardless of whether it’s turned on, it would age 8,760 hours a year, and wear out five years and nine months from today if it had a 50,000-hour screen life.

The fact is that no one knows how long the screen will last, because the technology is so new. In theory, a plasma TV will give you years of enjoyment, and you’ll probably be ready to upgrade to a newer set before your plasma TV starts to fade. Plasma TV screens are also susceptible to image burn, which occurs when a static image, such as a map icon in a video game or a network logo, is displayed continuously. This same problem can occur with cathode ray sets and rear-projection TVs, but it is of particular concern with plasma TVs, which seem to be more sensitive to static images. Warning: It’s best not to choose a plasma TV if video games will be played on the set.

Tuners and Stands

Early plasma TVs were simply monitors that required an external tuner, such as a cable converter or VCR, to receive broadcast signals. Built-in tuners are standard on most plasma TVs sold today. At a minimum, try to find a plasma TV with a built in NTSC tuner that receives analog broadcasts and an ATSC tuner that receives digital and HDTV broadcasts. Some sets will also include a QAM tuner that can display encrypted cable channels. Plugging the cable into these sets will not give you free cable, but it may allow you to control cable channels with the plasma TVs remote. Check with your cable provider to see if this feature is supported.

One hidden cost of plasma TV is the stand or VESA mounting bracket. Unlike LCDTVs, many plasma TVs do not include a stand, as it is assumed that you’ll mount the set on the wall. Be sure to find out if a stand or wall mount is included, and learn the price of additional stands or mounts before making your choice.

Additional Features

Plasma TVs tend to have fewer model variations than their LCDTV counterparts. Most manufacturers are striving to deliver the best possible picture, so there’s little chance of you having to choose between a plasma TV model with advanced image correction features, such as edge correction and comb filters, and one without. Features to look for are the contrast ratio (the difference between the brightest and darkest pixel settings—a higher contrast ratio delivers a sharper picture); comb filters, which prevent colors from contrasting too much and creating color bleed; and edge correction, which smooth out the moving parts of an image. Let your eye be your guide when evaluating these features, and try to watch programming similar to what you’ll be viewing at home. Fancy audio features are seldom worth a premium price. No plasma TV can replace the sound you’ll get from a Dolby 6:1 receiver and quality speakers. Dual-tuner picture in picture (PIP) is another feature of questionable value. If you don’t spend a lot of time watching two channels at once, don’t pay for it unless you’re getting a great deal on the plasma TV.

Professional Installation

Professional installation of your plasma TV is a must unless you’re an experienced builder. Plasma screens are heavy and fragile, and they should be mounted only on exterior load-bearing walls using a VESA-compliant mounting kit. VESA, the Video Electronics Standards Association, develops policies for electronics manufacturers. You can learn more about them at www.vesa.org.

Experts say

  • CNET - “Antiglare screen reduces reflections; produces deep blacks with excellent shadow detail; accurate initial color temperature; slick styling. Deep black levels and a new antiglare screen make the 50-inch Panasonic TH-50PX77U Plasma TV one of the top choices among plasma HDTVs.” Source: CNET.com
  • HDTV Lounge - “The Pioneer PDP-5080HD Plasma TV is the mid size 50-inch Kuro which offers a 1366×768 pixel resolution for 720p and 1080i HD and uses Pioneer’s very latest technology for very impressive black levels and colors along with ASIC video processing for both optimal HD and SD image quality.” Source: HDTVlounge.net
  • PC World - User reviews at PC World rank the Samsung 50-inch Widescreen HP-T5064 Plasma HDTV “superior”, saying “straight out of the box the picture quality was great. The menu structure for picture adjustments was easy to use and simple to manage,” and “I spent hours and hours on-line researching Best Plasma TV's for the money and Samsung HP-T5064 came out first….no question it’s one of the best in its class.” Source: PC World