LCD vs. Plasma: Which HDTV Is Right for You?

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Plasma for Price and Picture

Should you buy an LCD set or a plasma set? Right now, plasma TVs get our vote because they offer better value. Three of the four least-expensive TVs we reviewed are plasmas, but so is the most expensive one (Pioneer's). In our formal PC World Test Center evaluations, three of the four top-scoring sets for image quality in our roundup were plasmas (the only LCD among the four was Vizio's).

The plasma sets' good showing is all the more impressive when you consider that 1080p resolution is only just becoming common on sets of this size, and at this point is far more common on LCDs. All of the LCDs we reviewed fully support 1080p, but the Panasonic is the only plasma that does.

Having 1080p resolution may seem like a strong argument for LCD, especially if a Blu-ray or HD DVD set is lurking in your future. But our jury tests indicate that, at least for TVs of this size, 1080p doesn't create a noticeable advantage--even with 1080i and 1080p source material.

So why would anyone buy an LCD TV? Because they're far less prone to image burn-in. Today's plasma TVs don't suffer from this condition as much as older models did, and the damage is less likely to be permanent, but it's still a danger.

Technically, images can't burn in to LCDs because LCDs have no phosphors. The display can still retain an image, but in conventional television use--a few hours a day, with brightness and contrast settings at reasonable levels, LCD image retention is almost unheard of.

Whether burn-in becomes a problem depends on your viewing habits. If you watch a lot standard-definition programs in 4-by-3 mode (the way they were meant to be seen), or if you spend most of your viewing time at stations that run a tickertape along the bottom of the screen, LCD makes the better choice.

One new technology that's starting to appear in both plasma and LCD sets is HDMI 1.3--and with it, the potential for better color. The 1.3 standard enables "deep color" by doubling HDMI's bandwidth, squaring the number of colors possible and thus allowing a more natural-looking image. (HDMI 1.3 also supports new audio formats, including Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio, but those are benefits for your receiver, not your TV). For you to take advantage of deep color, your TV's panel, its circuitry, and your Blu-ray or HD DVD player must all support HDMI 1.3. You also need discs that support deep color; as yet, to our knowledge, no such discs have been announced.

For a cheat sheet on the latest HDTV technologies, see "HDTV Technologies to Look For."

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