A plasma lover's guide to LED LCD

With the slow demise of the beloved (and despised) technology, what's a plasma fan to do when faced with a future of LED LCDs?

CNET

If you're fan of plasma TVs, last year's announcement by Panasonic that the company was no longer going to make them likely came as quite a blow.

So now what? What do you do if you want a new TV but want the picture quality of a plasma?

This guide leads you though all the available options. Some good, some bad, some painful. Welcome to the TV world of 2014.

If you're on the fence about what technology to get, check out LED LCD vs. OLED vs. plasma. Also, a shout-out to reader Joe F., who asked for this very article.

Samsung and LG
For 2014, both Samsung and LG have announced they will continue to sell plasmas. Past that, who knows?

LG has already announced its 2014 line at CES, but it's not that exciting. And historically, LG's plasmas run a distant third to Samsung's and Panasonic's for picture quality.

As of this writing, we still don't have firm news about Samsung's 2014 line. Our latest inquiry to the company, spurred by an alert AVS Forum reader tipping us off about a plasma set, has gone unanswered. Rumors point toward some new models that may fill in the gaps from companies' 2013 plasma lines (like a solid midrange TV to replace Panasonic's ST60).

Will these be as good in terms of picture quality and value as Panasonic's excellent 2013 models? We doubt it. We'll have to wait to see for sure, but since it's doubtful a lot of R&D money was spent, our guess is they'll be similar to the 2013 LG and Samsung plasmas, but probably not better.

Wait for OLED...
...though it might be a long wait. After all the excitement last year with OLED, we heard very little about it at CES. Sure, LG had some new models, but the push was for bigger and weirder LED LCDs. The difficulty in getting OLED up to 4K resolution (a problem the technology shares with plasma), is apparently one of the reasons we're not seeing OLED TVs in greater numbers. Based on figures from analysis company IHS, it's unlikely OLED will become affordable until 2018 at the earliest. Frustrating.

Stick with what you've got
Why do you need a new TV? If you bought a plasma in the past few years, it's probably pretty good, and better than most new LED LCDs. Newer doesn't always mean better. If you want something bigger, or your TV is getting a little old, then this next section is for you.

OK, fine: LCD
Just as not all plasmas are good, not all LED LCDs are bad. For each of the major drawbacks LCDs have compared with plasma, there are technologies, Band-Aids if you will, to bring LCD performance close to plasmas. Unfortunately, you're going to have to pay a premium for them. Here's what to look for.

Local dimming
One of the main drawbacks with LED LCDs is a lower native contrast ratio than plasma gives. The main way LCDs can augment their contrast ratio is with local dimming. Not all local dimming works the same though. The best is full-array local dimming, where there are many zones across the screen that can be dimmed individually. Edge-lit LED LCDs offer a version of local dimming, and while these can work pretty well, they're not as good as the best full array.

Check out LED local dimming explained and LED LCD backlights explained.

High refresh rate
Though high refresh rate is not a cure for motion blur in itself, high-refresh-rate LCDs have features that can reduce or nearly eliminate motion blur. The first -- inserting new, created frames in between the original frames -- can cause the dreaded (but occasionally beloved) Soap Opera Effect. I'd like to see a Venn diagram of plasma fans and SOE fans. I'd be shocked if there was much overlap.

For a deeper explanation of this, check out What is the "Soap Opera Effect"? and What is refresh rate?

Even better is black frame insertion. This inserts a black (or partially black) frame in between the original frames. Not all of these work perfectly, but those that do work great. There's no flicker, no serious drop in light output, and best of all, basically no motion blur.

Check out What is black frame insertion? for more.

Not fixable, so far
There are three aspects that plasma still has over LED LCD: off-axis viewing, uniformity, and price. Most LCDs look different when you're not sitting dead center. If you move to either side, or above or below the center of the screen, colors can shift, the contrast ratio decreases, and so on. If you have a wide viewing area (in other words, a big couch), this can be an issue. Some LED LCDs use IPS-based panels. These don't have the same off-axis problems as other LCD technologies. However, they also don't have as good a contrast ratio. That's a pretty big penalty. At the moment, there's no fix for this.

Plasmas generally have perfect screen uniformity, meaning they lack the brighter patches, corner "flashlights," discolorations, and other inconsistencies common to LED LCDs, especially edge-lit ones. Direct- and full-array LED LCDs are usually more uniform. Check out Is LCD uniformity a problem? for details.

As for price, an LED LCD with local dimming and high refresh rate isn't going to be cheap. The biggest disappointment of Panasonic dropping plasma is losing one of the best picture-for-price deals on the market. Hopefully Samsung or LG can fill that gap.

Bottom line
You can thank the push toward 4K, and how difficult it is for plasma to match that resolution cost-effectively, as one of the main reasons why we lost the most important champion of plasma last year. For plasma fans looking for a new TV, all is not lost. There are some excellent LED LCDs on the market, if that's the way you want to go. As we start receiving 2014's plasma offerings from Samsung and LG, one of them will certainly have some great options.

But in the future, if you don't want LCD, here's still hoping for OLED...


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.

About the author

Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer/photographer for CNET, Forbes, and TheWirecutter. He also writes for Sound&Vision magazine, HDGuru.com, and several others. He was Editor in Chief of Home Entertainment magazine and before that, Technical Editor of Home Theater magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling first novel, Undersea, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere.

 

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