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Farewell to the big-screen plasma TV

Say goodbye to the plasma TV, outdueled by the lousier LCD technology
Plasma TVs are better, sharper, clearer -- but harder to make -- so they're going the way of the Betamax

Via Reuters comes the news that Samsung, one of the last major manufacturers of plasma TV screens, will shut down production by the end of November. Panasonic had already stopped making plasma panels, and South Korea's LG will end production soon.

To many aficionados of video image quality, this news comes as a dagger in the heart. Plasma has yielded to LCDs, which are cheaper, more energy-efficient and cooler. But compared to a plasma screen, LCDs look like garbage. Says John Gruber of daringfireball.net, the owner of a 2008 Pioneer model, "I’m generally appalled when I see LCD TVs, and never impressed."

Same here. I still remember our family's search for the best large-screen flat-screen TV in 2009. (Was it that long ago?) The quest brought us to Best Buy's Magnolia store-within-a-store, where it was hard to overlook how the sales staff kept pushing LCD models with the pitch that this or that one was "almost as good as a plasma."

Suspiciously, they didn't display the LCDs next to the plasmas, presumably because then we'd see how "almost" wasn't "not really." Plasmas were brighter, created a better sensation of depth, and displayed motion without blur. They were also more expensive, by perhaps 30%, but given that we were investing in at least eight to 10 years of viewing, it seemed worthwhile to buy the real thing, not something struggling to be like the real thing. Like Gruber, we're generally appalled when we have to watch something on an LCD TV. And the bigger the screen, the lousier.

The TV industry would like us to think that LCDs have closed the gap since 2009, but if so, it's probably not by much. CNet's LCD/plasma bake-off last November (updated from 2011) found plasma still outperforming LCDs in black level, contrast ration, motion blur and viewing angle. LCDs won in energy consumption, but that's about it. When Panasonic announced the end of its plasma business, CNet hosted a wake with eulogies from 20 video reviewers and professionals. Sad reading.

This is another case in which the victor in a commercial rivalry is the inferior technology. (VHS versus Betamax, anybody?) The problem appears to be that plasma, although better for big video displays, is less flexible than LCDs as a manufacturable product. CNet observes that plasma screens smaller than 42 inches can't be made economically, whereas an LCD factory can turn out screens for big-picture TVs, tablets and cellphones.

What's next? Nilay Patel of Vox says it's probably the 4K LCD, models of which already are on the market. The problem is that there's very little content available today to take advantage of 4K's advances in resolution. Patel recommends waiting a couple of years for the video and broadcasting industry to catch up. Meanwhile, the rest of us can brood over yet another instance in which industry has moved us no steps forward, and two steps back. 

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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