Plasma TV Prices Plummet

Plasma HDTV sets just keep getting cheaper and cheaper. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the average cost of a 50-inch plasma is $300 less than the average cost of a 50-inch LCD. One reason is improved manufacturing technology. Paul Gagnon, an analyst at DisplaySearch, observes that "plasma manufacturers continue to wring out price improvements."

"The plants are more efficient," adds Joel Silver of Imaging Science.

But cheaper manufacturing costs don't always translate into lower price tags. Another essential factor is serious competition--and the struggle for sales between plasma TVs and LCD TVs has plasma producers feeling plenty of pressure.

Last year, according to DisplaySearch, North American consumers purchased about 10 million 40- and 50-inch LCD TVs versus about 3.8 million plasma sets of the same sizes. (You may have seen an even more imbalanced statistic--30 million LCDs versus 4 million plasmas--but those numbers don't reflect true head-to-head popularity: Most HDTVs sold have screen diagonals of less than 40 inches, which is the smallest size in which plasmas are available.)

Both Pioneer and Vizio stopped making plasma TVs this year, leaving only LG, Panasonic, and Samsung in the business. And as the sagging prices suggest, business for plasma display panels hasn't been good.

Last month, Panasonic reduced the list price on its 46-inch plasma models by $200. And today consumers can choose between two 50-inch models (the Samsung PN50B450 and the Panasonic TC-P50C1) that go for a street price of $900. Not bad if you're in the hunt for a large-screen HDTV.

LCD's Edge

Not so long ago, no other technology could match plasma for image quality. But in the past two years, LCD has caught up.

"LCD has dramatically improved image quality," notes iSuppli analyst Riddhi Patel, and this has put the two technologies "pretty much on par in terms of performance."

Though Joe Kane of Digital Video Essentials believes that high-end plasmas produce a superior image, he says that the quality advantage vanishes in the budget category. In Kane's opinion, $5000 plasmas outperform similarly priced LCDs, but "inexpensive plasmas don't look very good."

LCDs have other advantages in the marketplace, though in some instances those advantages are more a matter of perception than of reality. Since LCDs can display a brighter picture, they look better than plasmas in a showroom's bright ambient lighting. This has nothing to do with how suitable the set will be for home use, but it's a huge sales advantage.

Meanwhile, plasma displays continue to battle consumer misconceptions. Some prospective buyers worry about plasma burn-in-once a serious problem for plasma technology, but a rare occurrence today.

"The perception that burn-in is still an issue plagues the plasma category to this day," says DisplaySearch's Gagnon. Not that the problem has been entirely eradicated. Imaging Science's Silver believes that "LCD will always have the advantage" in avoiding burn-in. He advises gamers and others who are likely to have a static image onscreen for many hours at a time to avoid plasma sets.

Another popular criticism of plasmas is that they use more electricity than LCDs. This is true, but--depending on what you watch--the difference in consumption may not be very great. Whereas an LCD TV uses the same amount of power to create a dark image as to create a bright one, a plasma TV uses less for the dark image. As a result, the plasma will use more power on the first 117 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia than on all 117 minutes of Blade Runner. So if your tastes run to film noir, a plasma set may not impose much of an energy penalty. (Like plasmas, LCDs with LED backlighting use less power for dark images than for light ones--and they also use less power all around.)

Plasma's Future

If the current trend in the technology battle between plasma and LCD continues, plasma displays probably don't have a long future.

Patel of iSuppli sees a prospect of short-term success, if manufacturers can continue to keep plasma prices lower than LCD prices. "Plasma's focus will shift to 50-inch and larger sizes, where LCDs are still more expensive," he says. "Plasma will still have an advantage there for a couple of years."

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