LCD or plasma TV: which should you buy?

LCD vs plasma: brightness

No doubt about it - LCD TVs are brighter than plasma models. It's a facet that has surely helped LCD TVs sell in their millions in brightly-lit shops where plasmas can appear to be less than vibrant.

It's a false economy, though - take a plasma home and it looks just fine in a living room, producing arguably more cinematic pictures. The advent of LED tech is, however, enabling LCD TVs to challenge plasma in the 'cinematic' stakes.

LCD vs plasma: contrast

The innate brightness of LCD TVs can make them instantly appealing in shops, but there's a downside. A regular CCFL-backlit LCD TV (if it's cheap, it's CCFL) uses an always-on backlit across the back of the panel, which is capable of extreme brightness, but not darkness. Black areas of images can often look grey and misty.

LED-backlit panels, where thousands of lights are used that can be locally switched on and off according to what's showing onscreen, are starting to overcome this problem - but the tech is expensive and being constantly refined.

Unlike an LCD TV, which has to block out all the light from the backlight to reproduce black, a plasma panel simply cuts-off the electrical current to each cell. Plasma's ability to reproduce deep black makes it a popular choice for home cinemas.

LCD vs plasma: resolution

Put a still image JPEG on both an LCD and plasma screen and it will likely look brighter and slightly more detailed on the former. TVs, though, don't spend their time displaying JPEGS - and it's plasma tech that can more deftly display detail from moving images (surely a TV's main task).

So while ultimate Full HD resolution is generally more impressive on an LCD, the technology's problem with motion blur (see Motion handling, below) can render this skill rather pointless.

Plasma's slight lack of sharpness with Full HD does, however, have another plus over and above its skill with motion; versatility. Blu-ray images look detailed enough, but the real advantage is that Freeview, DVD and other standard definition sources are treated more kindly.

It depends on the size of the screen, of course, but those whose TV diet has a fair chunk of DivX files ought to consider plasma - a low quality DivX file on a 46-inch LCD TV can look exposed and be unbearably noisy.

However, if you want to hook-up a PC to your big-screen TV for desktop duties, a LCD TV has to be your top choice - especially given plasma's slight (and decreasing) issue with image retention or 'screen burn'.

LCD vs plasma: motion handling

100Hz, 200Hz, and now 400Hz - it's a must-have feature on a flat TV, isn't it? Actually, it's not; this only applies to LCD TVs.

Fast-moving images on an LCD TV often blur, meaning all that extra detail in a Full HD video image is lost. And movies, well, they move quite a bit! So LCD makers often double the scanning rate in an effort to increase the response time of a panel.

Like a lot of LCD TV technologies (including LED), it's catch-up technology; plasmas TVs do not suffer from this problem anywhere near as seriously. Plasma panels are much quicker, which may give them an advantage in the age of 3D TVs.

LCD vs plasma: 3D TV

TechRadar's full investigation of this issue lies here, though it's fair to say that plasma is beginning to look like it might get a reprieve on the back of 3D.

Although the 3D glasses used with Panasonic's 3D plasmas does cut out a lot of the light to produce a rather dim 3D image, it's clean - there's not as much crosstalk (picture echoes from one eye's image visible to the other) as on 3D LCD TVs.

Sony 3d tv

CROSSTALK: The first wave of 3D TVs using LCD tech have suffered from 'crosstalk' issues

As 3D TV is a first-gen technology, it's perhaps a tad early to draw definitive conclusions using the plasma Vs LCD argument. Ironically, rear-projection DLP TVs from the likes of Mitsubishi - chunkier sets than never caught-on in the UK because of our tiny living rooms - provides a superb 3D picture.

Plasma TVs: pros

  • Mature technology
  • The home cinema connoisseur's choice?
  • Traditional 'screen burn' issue overcome
  • Still accounts for a huge chunk of the over-fifty-inch TV market
  • Cleaner 3D picture than LCD
  • Better value-per-inch

LCD/LED TVs: pros

  • Sizes from 15-65 inches and beyond
  • LED-backlit models are slimmer than plasmas
  • Brighter and more colourful in daylight
  • Crisper pictures heavy on detail
  • 100Hz & 200Hz are creating smoother motion
  • LED backlights are improving contrast ratios
  • Extra detail for PC users and photographers