Common Misconceptions About Plasma TVs

Reviewer: Robert Wiley

Despite a seemingly endless stream of consumer enthusiasm for those sleek, super-model-thin plasma television displays, some "rumors" stubbornly persist. Since the inception of plasma technology research is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year (yes, it has been around for forty years!), it's time to debunk some persisting myths. Hopefully, by giving you the hard facts about plasma displays and dispelling some of the more pernicious half-truths and flat-out untruths about them, I will be doing my part to help keep the plasma rumor mill in check.

Misconception #1: Plasma TVs need to be "serviced,"
or have their plasma changed out, every couple years or so.

Perhaps the only compelling thing about this idea is that it resonates with good auto maintenance know how. To many people, plasma displays are like cars: You know how to use them, but you don't know a whole lot about how they work. Which is surely how this Urban Legend gained its foothold in the popular imagination in the first place. It has certainly been utilized by any number of unscrupulous TV salespeople to push extended warranties on otherwise unknowing "marks" -- people who have already spent a few thousand dollars on a new TV and would have no compunction about shelling out another $250 more, provided it will help safeguard their investment. While purchasing some additional "insurance" against mechanical defects might be worthwhile, especially when you are buying something this expensive, using scare tactics to ring up extended-warranty sales is unethical.

Not to mention bogus: The idea that the ionized gases inside plasma displays either (a) need to be replenished periodically or (b) can be refilled is patently untrue. You simply cannot change out these phosphors every 3,000 (viewing) miles. However, with a current rating of 100,000 hours to half life on some of the top tier plasma brands, it this really an issue any more? If you watch the plasma television for 4 hours a day on a medium contrast setting, that's over 68 years of use.

Misconception #2: The Higher the resolution the better the picture on a Plasma TV

This misconception has been perpetrated by manufacturers, who want to move more expensive (i.e., higher-resolution) product, and by retailers, who are repeating whatever the manufacturer tells them. True, Super HD (1080p) plasma displays are more expensive than their HD counterparts. The reason is that increasing the resolution on a plasma screen means fitting more pixels in the plasma display element (glass). A simple eyeball test will tell you, though, that this is not necessarily money well spent. First and foremost, there is very little content available in 1080p resolution. Blu Ray DVDs and Blu Ray gaming technology are it right now. Secondly, a 1080p plasma or LCD does not look any better with an 1080i or 720p incoming signal than does a regular HD plasma due to the fact that the latter is capturing and displaying every line and pixel of resolution. In this case the 1080p plasma or LCD will have to upconvert the signal to its native resolution, thus increasing the odds of motion artifacts.

Misconception #3: Plasma TVs are like shooting stars—
brilliant but short-lived.

With a current rating of 100,000 hours to half life on some of the top tier plasma brands, it this really an issue any more? If you watch the plasma television for 4 hours a day on a medium contrast setting, that's over 68 years of use.

One important tip to remember when you first hook up your plasma TV is to turn the contrast down from that peak setting. The darker the average room light, the lower you can afford to set the contrast ratio setting (sometimes called the Picture settting).

Running your plasma television on the peak contrast setting will significantly reduce the life of the product as well as cause the plasma to dim much faster. This is not a huge concern with the current hours of longevity of the product, but my contention is that you will actually enjoy the viewing experience more when you reduce the contrast to a calibrated level.

To learn more about the longevity of plasma displays and steps you can take to prolong the life of your television, see our article, "How Long Do Plasma TVs Last?"

Misconception #4: Owning a good plasma TV
is cost-prohibitive

This is really two misconceptions rolled into one. The first has to do with the pricing structure of plasma displays. We all remember, some of us too well, the days in the mid-90s when plasma TVs started at $10,000 and had virtually no price ceiling. Well, things have changed. The growing demand for plasma displays, coupled with advancements in production efficiency ("yield rates"), have conspired to bring plasma TV prices back down to earth. You can get larger, better performing plasma TVs for a fraction of the price you might have just a couple years ago. (Nowadays, you can buy an 42" HDTV Plasma for less than $1000) This is partly because fully 9.8 sets in 10 come off the production line ready for sale, compared to just 5 in 10 in 1999 and fewer than 2 in 10 in the early 90s. Further suppressing prices is the fact that the defect rate of Japanese-made plasma TVs in the U.S. has fallen to less than 1% of the total product import.

Just because plasma TV prices have come down over the past few years, though, does not necessarily mean that this pricing freefall will continue well into the future. As we have all seen this spring, manufacturers are producing less of the standard HD plasma product in favor of the higher priced 1080p product.

In short, plasma display technology has never been more affordable -- not to mention reliable -- for the average consumer.

Misconception #5: Plasma TVs are engineered to have
the best possible pictures right out of their boxes.

Few people realize that some consumer electronics manufacturers ship their TVs "hot" -- that is, preset to compensate for higher-than-average ambient light levels, like the ones found in most electronics superstores. Most homes are nothing like these harshly-lit retail bazaars, so it is a good idea to take a look at the various PICTURE/CONTRAST settings already built in to your TV and identify the right one for your home, i.e., the one that looks best to you. Reduce contrast until the picture seems a little too dark, then give it some time to get used to it and you will be much happier with the image over time.

You might also try your hand at calibrating the picture yourself, using any one of a number of user-friendly video test discs. See our article on calibrating an HDTV here. A properly calibrated picture will yield more natural coloration and deeper black levels.

Misconception #6: Plasma TVs are difficult to install.

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The country's love affair with sexy-sleek TVs began with Philips's 2002 "It's Getting Better All the Time" ad campaign, which featured conspicuously wall-hung plasma TVs. Since then, Americans have had it in their minds that plasma displays need to be installed -- either by professionals or intrepid do-it yourselfers. Nothing could be further from the truth. While you can certainly mount your plasma on just about any wall in your house, it is equally as easy not to install your TV at all. No technician necessary. Simply attach your new display to a tabletop stand and place it wherever you want. Even mounting your plasma TV on the living-room wall has gotten easier, with a growing number of consumers opting to go it alone and hang their plasmas themselves. From our statistics gathering, we are finding that between 50 and 60% of plasma display owners choose to install a wall mounted applied plasma TV themselves.

For more information about plasma TV placement options, see "How To Buy A Plasma TV," Step 5: Select your mounting options.

Misconception #7: Plasma TVs give off a lot of radiation.

This rumor just might be the most outlandish of the bunch, especially considering the fact that the monitor you're reading this on -- assuming it is a CRT -- gives off considerably more radiation than a plasma display ever could. While plasma monitors do generate a tiny amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, it is essentially negligible because this radiation extends no more than an inch outward from the screen. Because individual pixels are illuminated, the radiation is "contained" to the pixels themselves. This is not the case with tube-based TVs, which utilize an electron gun that shoots radiated light toward the screen in order to illuminate phosphors thereon. This projects small amounts of radiation sometimes more than 12" outward from the screen. Not to worry: Both plasmas and CRTs comply with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for TV radiation emissions, which have been in place since 1969.

Misconception #8: Plasma TVs are plagued by problems with burn-in.

Burn-in, or image retention, is the result of a damaged pixel, whose phosphors have been prematurely aged and therefore glow less intensely than those of surrounding pixels. The reason is that the damaged pixel has developed a "memory" of the color information that was repeatedly fed to it, causing it to glow in a static manner for a sustained period of time. This phosphor color information can actually become seared or etched into the plasma-screen glass, and in some rare cases it can become permanent. Once these phosphors are damaged, they cannot produce the same levels of light output as the other phosphors around them do. But pixels do not suffer burn-in singly. Burn-in occurs in the shape of a static image that linger on TV screens -- things like network logos, computer icons, Internet browser frames, etc.

In like manner to advancements that created the 100,000 hour life span, there are similar improvements in burn-in prevention. One improvement is the green phosphors which last longer and are more resilient to burn in issues. Another more prevelant prevention method is the advanced image placements (also called Wobbling) systems which unnoticeably constantly moves the picture ever so slightly.

In addtion to prevent phosphor image retention and burn in the following features of some plasma televisions also in inhibit uneven phosphor aging:

White Scrolling Bars: White bars move across the screen from left to right at regular intervals
Screen Reversal: Displays images with the black and white reversed. Good for text/computer displays.
Side Panel Adjustment: Lightens the black bars on the sides of the screen when displaying images in the 4:3 format.
Wobbling: Shifts the image's position by several pixels at fixed time intervals.
Peak Limit Mode: Lowers the peak brightness level (image contrast) by 30%.

Someone would almost have to be trying to burn in a plasma TV (at least the best brands) to do so.

In the end, plasma TV burn-in is not an issue that should cause undue concern in the average user. With a modicum of caution, most plasma TVs will probably never have a problem with image retention. A viewer may experience temporary ghosting, but this is certainly not cause for alarm. In truth, carelessness -- i.e., not paying attention to what your TV is displaying and for how long -- is really the leading "cause" of permanent burn-in.

For more information on plasma screen burn-in and steps you can take to prevent permanent image retention on your display, see my article, "Plasma TV Screen Burn-In".

Misconception #9: Plasma TVs are excessively fragile things.

Fragile, yes - as two sheets of glass are compressed together to form the plasma display element. While they must be handled with care, the main consideration is keeping them upright. The plasma glass is weighty and can crack if a plasma television when laying face down is jarred or dropped. Aside from that there is nothing really to be concerned about that you would not ordinarily consider.

To read more myths about plasma TVs compared to LCD TVs, check out an article called "Setting the Record Straight: How Plasma TVs Really Match Up Against LCD TVs".