Introduction to Plasma Display Technology

This first step is a brief guide to plasma display technology, starting with its history and leading into the main benefits and advantages of plasma displays.

Plasma Technology History

Plasma screens first entered the US market towards the end of 1999, but the concept has been around since its inception in July of 1964 at the University of Illinois. The first displays were nothing more than points of light created in laboratory experiments. The technology was developed and improved, and by the late 60's, it had become advanced enough to allow the scientists to construct geometric shapes. Today the progression in high speed digital processing, materials, and advanced manufacturing technology has made full color, bright plasma displays possible.

Digital television is now a realitybut you're not going to see it the way it was meant to be seen using yesterday's TV sets. Today, we're in the midst of a digital video revolution, thanks to HDTV, DTV, DVD-Video, digital satellite broadcasts and computer video. Plasma display technology is one way to fully enjoy the dramatically improved image quality of all these digital video sources.

Advantages of Plasma Displays

Some of the advantages of plasma technology include:

Higher Resolution
Plasma display devices have higher resolution than most conventional TV sets, and are capable of displaying full HDTV and DTV signals as well as XGA, SVGA and VGA signals from a computer. For example, a plasma display with a 1366 x 768 native resolution can display images from 1080i and 720p HDTV resolution, as well as 480i and 480p DVD video signals.

No Scan Lines
Conventional CRTs use an electron beam to scan the picture tube from top to bottom at regular intervals, lighting the phosphors to create the image. With standard (NTSC) TV, visible scan lines can be seen. Plasma screens have no scan lines due to the fact that each and every pixel cell has its own transistor electrode. This creates a smooth, evenly lit image across the entire surface of the display. Most current plasma displays also include built-in line doubling to improve image quality from low resolution analog video signals.

Exceptional Color Accuracy
Due to advances in both plasma panel technology and digital video processing, today's top-of-the-line plasma televisions can display billions of colors, resulting in smooth gradations between even very subtle shades, and an overall picture quality that is extremely lifelike and realistic. Plasma TVs in general boast the best color reproduction of any flat panel TV technology, and advances are made with each new model year in plasma production. For color accuracy, Plasma televisions are simply without compare.

Wide Screen Aspect Ratio
Plasma televisions have a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio, which was originally designed to match the natural field of view of the human eye. Of course you're familiar with the wide screen aspect from watching movies in the theater - and a widescreen plasma TV allows you to watch movies in the format the director intended. The 16:9 aspect ratio is also the chosen format for HDTV content, whether it's broadcast over the air or through digital cable or satellite TV.

But what happens when you watch a standard (4:3) TV program or a computer image? Choosing a plasma TV that scales images appropriately will give you the most enjoyment from your plasma, as well as extending its life. There are several algorithms used to scale incoming video signals to match the plasma's native 16:9 aspect ratio. All plasma screens can show the image in its original 4:3 format with bars (either black or gray) on the sides of the image, but there can be some variation among plasma screens in how well they convert a 4:3 image to the widescreen monitor. Manufacturing engineers accomplish a "best of both worlds" approach by limiting the stretching in the center of the screen, or by enlarging the entire image to larger than the screen size, and "cropping" the edges. This scaling technique allows the most stretching to be located on the edges of the image, thus reducing visible distortion.

So basically there are a number of ways to display an incoming "standard" 4:3 picture from satellite, VCR, or cable TV, and some plasmas do it better than others. It can be displayed as is, with the bars on the sides. In "Zoom" mode, the image will have very little distortion or stretching and will fill the entire screen area. However, this mode often cuts off too much of the picture around the edges, and can cause motion artifacts and pixelation - resulting in a "grainy" or jagged appearance.

Typically the best option for converting a 4:3 NTSC TV signal is the "Just" or "Full" mode - you'll see the same idea called different names by different plasma manufacturers. This aspect ratio option converts the 4:3 image with specially designed algorithms, which reduce the visible "stretching" as much as possible by using a combination of techniques, cropping very little of the image and situating any stretching or distortion to the outer edges where it will be less noticiable. If it's done well, you'll hardly notice any difference at all.

Perfectly Flat Screen
Plasma display monitors have screens that are perfectly flat, with no curvature whatsoever. This eliminates the edge distortion that can occur in CRT displays and also assists in allowing the wide viewing angles that are a trademark of plasma displays. The glass-encased plasma display element is most often protected by a Plexiglas layer; some of the better plasma TVs incorporate anti-glare coatings and special color filters to further enhance the picture quality and viewability of the flat screen.

Uniform Screen Brightness
Unlike some rear and front projection televisions that suffer from uneven screen brightness - seen as "hot spots" in the middle of the screen or a darkening near the corners of the image - plasma displays illuminate all pixels evenly across the screen. This gives plasma displays their "smooth" appearance, and ultimately a more accurate picture.

Slim, Space-saving Design
Plasma display monitors are only a few inches in depth, providing installation options never before possible. Depth is usually measured at around 3.5 inches on 42" displays and 4" for 50" screens. In addition to table stand mounting, they can be hung on a wall or from a ceiling, allowing you to enjoy big-screen impact from a component that doesn't dominate floor space. Conventional CRT's, DLP TVs, and rear projection TVs take up far more space and are much more limited in placement flexibility.

Plasma monitors are constructed with a bezel that's not much wider than the actual display screen, giving the monitors an elegant, understated "picture frame" appearance that blends inconspicuously with any d├ęcor.

Because they eliminate the need for a front projection unit and a projection screen, plasma display monitors are also ideal for use in a wide variety of business and commercial applications where the use of a front projector would not be feasible.

Wide Viewing Angle
Today's plasma screen TVs offer viewing angles approaching - sometimes even exceeding - 170°, much better than rear-projection TVs and LCD displays. Coupled with the perfectly flat plasma screen, a good plasma TV even rivals a CRT TV in viewing angles. This allows a bright, clear picture for anyone in the room - no matter where they're sitting.

Universal Input Capability
Nearly all plasma monitors will accept standard video signals via composite video and s-video inputs, as well as higher-quality component video terminals. An important consideration in choosing the right screen for you, however, lies in what other inputs you may need. Many of the newer plasma TVs on the market include digital inputs such as HDMI or DVI, which can accept HDTV signals from your cable box or satellite - even some DVD players - in an all-digital format. Some plasmas also include a VGA or DVI PC input, allowing your plasma television to pull double-duty as a PC monitor.

And don't overlook some of the excellent plasma displays aimed at commercial broadcast installations, such as the Panasonics and Pioneers. Many of these models are equipped with interchangeable input boards, allowing you to configure your plasma display to meet your needs exactly.

Immunity From Magnetic Fields
Components such as loudspeakers that contain strong magnets can distort the picture if placed too close a standard TV. However, because plasma displays do not use electron beams, as conventional CRT displays do, they are immune to the effects of magnetic fields. Plasma displays can be placed in close proximity to any type of loudspeaker and not experience image distortion. This is also the case when crossing into the Southern Hemisphere. Boats may use plasma displays as they are not sensitive to the earth's magnetic fields.

Select your Plasma TV Screen Size

Plasma monitors are measured diagonally across the screen, as are other television sets and monitors. Plasma screens start at 32" and increase in size up to 63". The most typical sizes are: 37", 42", 43", 50", 61", and 63". Most screens smaller than 37" use LCD Panel technology, and anything larger than 63" are typically rear-projection televisions.

If you have a set installation in mind, the first stage in selecting the desired plasma screen size should be to measure the space it's going in. When recessing the unit in a space, allow at least 3" of open space at the top and adequate ventilation space behind the unit to allow heat to escape. Remember to allow an additional 3-6 inches on either side of the monitor if you wish to attach speakers to your plasma TV.

Size of Room/Viewing Area

Make sure you have adequate viewing space between you and the TV. With Plasma TVs becoming more and more popular - and cheaper - these days, the temptation to purchase the largest screen possible is hard to pass up. However, you must have the proper distance to have the most pleasing viewing experience.

Rough recommendations are as follows: 32-37" screens may be viewed from 6 to 10 feet. A 42" plasma display may be optimally viewed from 10-14 feet. A 50" plasma display will look best from 12-16 feet, and you should have at least 15 feet to work with when installing a 61-inch or 63-inch plasma screen.

Is HDTV Plasma Worth the Extra Money?

One of the key determining factors in selecting your plasma screen should be its resolution. HDTV (high definition TV) plasma screens are always more expensive than EDTV (enhanced definition TV screens) due to the fact that it costs manufacturers much more to make the plasma display element.

A high-resolution monitor may or may not offer a better picture than an EDTV resolution monitor: it all depends upon the input signal and the quality of the Plasma TV manufacturer and model. An HDTV signal may actually appear better on some EDTV resolution plasma screens, depending upon the quality of the display and its internal processing circuitry.

Generally, when comparing a high-resolution plasma display with an EDTV plasma - both from the same manufacturer - with an incoming HDTV signal, you will see a better picture from the HDTV unit. An EDTV plasma, however, may perform better with lower end video signals such as regular cable or satellite TV, as well as DVD. This is because they have less converting to do from input to display. Overall, a quality brand-name plasma display with robust video processing will ensure the best picture from any source, whether the plasma has an HDTV or EDTV native resolution.

So why make plasma displays with higher resolution which cost more? Aside from the increase in quality from HDTV sources, a higher resolution allows for much better display of computer XGA signals (1024 x 768), currently the most popular PC display resolution. This is especially the case with text or numeric data displays, which may be distorted and unreadable if scaled improperly.

To figure out which plasmas are high resolution displays, all you need to do is look at the screen's native pixel resolution:

Standard EDTV Resolution

853 x 480: typically found on 37", 42", 43" & 46" plasma screens

High-Definition HDTV Resolution

1024 X 768: found on 42" & 43" plasma screens
1280 X 768: found on 50", 61", & 63" plasma screens
1365 X 768: found on 50", 61", & 63" plasma screens

Generally, a plasma TV screen is considered "High Definition" if the second number of the resolution is at least 720 pixels.

Almost all plasma screens today are considered "HDTV compatible" or "HDTV ready," meaning that they will accept and display an incoming HDTV signal, be it 720p or 1080i. Note: Since the terms are often used interchangeably, they may or may not describe whether or not the TV has an HDTV tuner built in.

Plasma TV Mounting Options

One of the major benefits of plasma TV is the flexibility they afford in mounting and installation options. Here are a few you might consider:

Flat Wall Mount
Flat Wall Mounts are the most common mounting option for Plasma TVs for home or business use. This option is the least expensive and allows the plasma monitor to remain closest to the wall, adding under 2 inches to the depth. It is used in the home theater, living room, or company boardroom to achieve the sleek appearance plasma TVs are known for.

Tilt Wall Mount
This mounting option is used when placing the plasma TV higher than the desired eye level. A tilt wall mount typically allows 15° to 20° of tilt, depending upon the brand. Commonly used above fireplaces or on the bedroom wall, a tilt wall mount is also just the thing for overhead displays in retail or industry, with or without an attached ceiling bracket. A tilt wall mount typically adds from 4" to 6" to the overall depth of the plasma display when mounted.

Table Stand
Most consumer-oriented plasma TVs come with their own matching table stand, used wherever there's enough table-stop space to support the TV. These units are custom made to manufacturers specifications as each plasma display has its own requirements regarding how the stand fits the plasma. The stands will generally the plasma TV 2.5 to 4 inches from the table. The table stand allows for a surprisingly sharp look and allows for maximum flexibility, as nothing is permanently affixed to the wall.

Plasma TV Cart
Typically used for business applications, this display solution is used for trade shows as well as in-house presentations. It is used often in a courtroom setting or to mobilize up to the edge of a boardroom table for maximum visual presentation. It may include a platform for placing a DVD player, laptop computer, or VCR.

Articulating Wall Mount
This apparatus uses a swivel arm which folds up when not in use, allowing the plasma to be "flush mounted" like the tilt wall mount. It adds between 3 to 4 inches to the depth of the plasma mount depending on the manufacturer. It is used for maximum flexibility in Sports Bars, library studies, and commercial display operations. Most articulating wall mounts can turn 120° to either side and tilt up to 10-15°

Ceiling Mount Options
A ceiling mount arm is normally used with the tilt wall mount and provides an attractive mounting options for airport displays, check out counters, hospital rooms, and bedrooms. Though the ceiling mount can be used with flat wall mount tilting the unit downward is normally necessary. Lengths of ceiling mount poles are variable depending upon customer needs. Standard lengths are 24 to 43".

How and Where to Buy a Plasma TV

Your first choice in where to buy a plasma TV is between a traditional "brick and mortar" retail store, or a an online dealer.

Brick and Mortar Retailers

There are many positives with going with an actual local store:

Number 1: they are almost always authorized and therefore the manufacturer's warranty will be intact.

Number 2: they sometimes have more lenient return policies (though they are becoming tougher about restocking charges).

Number 3: You can actually view the display that you are thinking of purchasing, which is at least an advantage for aesthetic reasons if nothing else (I'll explain this further).

There are also a number of negative aspects of purchasing from retail locations:

Number 1: Price: Not very competitive; prices at or near Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) policies.

Number 2: Sales Tax.

Number 3: They tend to side with one manufacturer over another based not on the merits of the product but instead on which manufacturer is giving the best spiffs, or getting them the most product. The retail stores I visit normally have and promote two brands of plasmas and otehr TVs; these are the brands they carry and they really do not want to carry more or do proper comparisons of the product, choosing instead to just rehash whatever the manufacturers tell them.

Number 4: Product knowledge ranges widely, from exceedingly poor at your "big box" retailers to very good at some specialty home theater stores.

Basically, there are two flavors of brick and mortar retailers: the first is the "big box" retailer with poorly qualified, low-paid sales clerks with dubious product knowledge at best. They usually sell less expensive merchandise from what I would call low grade to middle grade. They will usually have the best prices of the brick and mortar retailers and sometimes good specials, due to their volume buying policies.

The second category includes the smaller home theater "boutiques" and the mid-sized specialty chains like Tweeter that have salespersons that know the product fairly well - or really well, depending. They typically sell a bit better equipment, and offer different models than the big box outfits, but sometimes unnecessarily more expensive. They can also convince customers to spend more on higher end products, which for some customers is fine: at you know you're are paying more for merchandise that will last, and it comes recommended by someone that knows something about it. But is it worth the extra cost?

Online/Internet Dealers

There is a wide chasm in the quality of dealers online. Much can be ascertained by the professionalism of the web site, the depth and breadth of specification information given, and whether or not the online web site advertises that they are authorized dealers of a given brand. Prices will be much lower than those of brick and mortar retailers, but there are some important questions you should ask: I would want them to be authorized by the manufacturer. I would test their knowledge and ask questions about "what if" the unit I receive is defective, "what if" the unit goes bad after 6 months, etc.

Here's Some Tips that will Help you narrow your choices:

Authorized Dealer Status

As already mentioned, most brick and mortar retailers are authorized dealers, but what about Internet companies? Not the case. Some are, but its not common. In most cases, Internet e-tailers are not authorized. Being authorized is a difficult process for Internet companies. To get set up with manufacturers is a painstaking process in which the manufacturers verify the standards and credit-worthiness of the dealer. In many instances, manufacturers will require a technical service center. In almost all instances they will require a showroom for the product and a warehouse for stock. Most Internet companies drop ship product from distributors or other dealers, and thus have no power to replace defective merchandise, get the customer a needed part, handle a return, give you technical assistance with the unit. Lastly, an unauthorized dealer cannot guarantee that you will receive the manufacturers warranty nor even an extended warranty if purchased. An unauthorized dealer cannot even guarantee you whether the unit will be new, unopened, and unused since they have no control over the shipping of the product.

Address Information
I always check for the physical address of an online company from which I am seriously considering ordering. No P.O. boxes. No international addresses. No New York addresses. I might even go as far as verifying the address information with the Better Business Bureau (if the BBB insignia is posted on the web site). Reason? If I have a conflict I can get to them with certified mail, FedEx, or a law suit if need be. If a company is trying to hide this information I would not purchase from them. Basically, ask yourself "are they up front with who they are and where they are?"

New York
Online dealers operating from New York addresses have a bad reputation in the industry for peddling "gray market" goods: products which may have the same model numbers, but were not intended for sale in the U.S., and which are therefore not covered by U.S. manufacturers' warranties.

Secondly, the salespeople are often selling you a box and understand little about the product (if there is a problem with the product or order, i.e. I get a defective unit or one with technical problems, who are you going to call?). Thirdly, from what I have found, the shops are not dealer authorized though they will swear they are. Next, purchasers have complained that they have received repackaged or refurbished merchandise in place of new product (also called B-stock). And of course, they don't actually stock the product and may be a sort of electronics clearing house from distributors. The New York e-tailers do typically have very low prices listed, but beware of those shipping and warranty charges. This is just one person's opinion, but I would not order a big-ticket item over the Internet from a New York e-tailer - it's just risky business

Pricing Portals
Beware the pricing portals, such as Pricegrabber.com, Dealtime.com, Nextag - there's an assortment of them. Why? A plasma TV is a highly technical piece of electronic equipment, not a CD or a book. Many of the companies represented on pricing portals rarely if ever have inventory, product knowledge, clearly written return policies, the ability to replace defective merchandise, manufacturer relationships, good warranties - the list goes on.

And a strong word of caution here on the pricing portal "dealer reviews." I would be highly suspicious of any dealer who only receives 5-star reviews. If there's never anything but glowing recommendations, it's very likely those shady dealers are reviewing themselves! Those "dealers" pay the pricing portals in various ways, so it behooves the portal to allow these bogus "reviews." Buyer beware!

Free Shipping Can be a Negative
Obviously somebody must be paying for the shipping - so they must be making up for it somewhere else: by inflating the sale price, or cutting corners elsewhere in the process. If they are shipping it for free then they must be shipping it as cheaply as possible, which is fine for a book. However, with a plasma television, shipping via the cheapest method possible could cause major headaches and hassles down the road should your screen be damaged in shipping. You should expect to pay a reasonable shipping charge when ordering a plasma TV online; it's worth it in the long run, especially if you're saving yourself the sales tax on the item.

Warranty
Ask any Internet dealer what their standard warranty policy is. They should give a 30-day guaranteed replacement policy for defective units - it does you little good to save a few bucks on your plasma television only to be hit with the cost of returning the product and paying to ship a replacement. Many Internet dealers drop-ship the product from distributors, so they really have no control over the returns or replacement process for defective merchandise: as a result, you could end up having to ship the defective unit to a repair center even though it was a new purchase. Always try to purchase from a dealer that buys direct from the manufacturer and stocks the inventory - you'll be glad you did.

Remember: There is only so much protection your credit card gives you. The policies of the dealer must be observed in the credit card purchasing process. Don't count on your credit card to replace a defective unit if the dealer has no policy in place.

Extended Warranties
A quality retailer will sell a quality extended warranty from a well known brand. After an extended warranty is purchased it is out of the dealer's hands. Beware of "fly by night" extended warranty companies - if they go out of business so goes your warranty. Make sure the warranty offered by your dealer protects you no matter what.

Physical Warehouse
I would ask the customer representative at the online dealer if they have a physical warehouse; i.e., if they stock the products they sell. Many companies will claim to have a physical location but are truly working out of an apartment, house or small office with little to no control over the process once the transaction has been made. Ask them if you can visit the showroom or store location where they stock the product. It's also a better sign that your online dealer is truly authorized by the manufacturer who makes your plasma TV.

Corporate Clients
Besides customer references and reviews, it's reassuring to see corporate client listings. If a company is selling to corporations, schools and government agencies, then I feel they must have their act together.

Yahoo, Lycos or Ebay Internet Stores
As often as not, these are prime examples of Internet dealers that just drop ship from distributors. They have no control over the process of shipping, replacing, repairing, or taking back defective merchandise. Forget about "Service after the sale" from these outfits.

Policies
Make sure you can access the policies on the dealer web site with regard to returns and every other aspect of the transaction. Is everything covered?

Tech Support
Ask the company representative you speak with some specific questions about the product before ordering. Make sure they can give you some after-purchase technical assistance and guide you in the purchase of accessories such as mounts, cables, etc.

Advice
Look for knowledgeable, unbiased advice on which products may best suit your needs.

Generally, you are looking for a well established, specialized dealer who will give you a good price AND good service and support. The better the e-tailer knows its products, the smoother the ordering process will be. It is possible to buy a plasma TV online, and save money in the process! You will definitely find the best prices online, and there is also good customer service to be found from online dealers. Using these steps, you should be able to avoid a bad online ordering experience.

Find an Online Plasma Dealer

Based on our extensive research and feedback from thousands of Plasma TV owners, The Plasma TV Buying Guide can confidently recommend the following online plasma TV dealers:

Online Retailers

  • Plasma TV at DTV City
  • Plasma Depot
  • Best Buy
  • Office Depot/School.com
  • Circuit City
  • Net TV - Digital Displays
  • Good Guys
  • Fry's Electronics
  • DTV Express
  • HDT Vision
  • Plasma Display Group
  • Naturally Wired
  • Info Tech America
  • One Better Buy
  • iGadget
  • Giant Savings

    Plasma TV Manufacturers

  • BenQ
  • Hitachi
  • LG
  • Marantz
  • Mitsubishi
  • NEC
  • Panasonic
  • Pioneer
  • Philips
  • Sampo
  • Samsung
  • Sony Electronics
  • Viewsonic
  • Zenith

    Plasma TV Accessories

  • Plasma TV Accessories
  • Plasma Screen Television Installation

    One common question people have regarding plasma is, "is the plasma TV hard to install?" The short answer is, no. Installing a plasma TV is relatively easy, there are just a few things to consider

    When mounting the plasma on the wall with one of the various wall mounts, there will be a few things you will need. You will need a stud finder in order to locate the studs in the wall. Once you've done that you are ready to anchor the mount on the wall using a drill and four screws. During this procedure, it helps to have at least two people present to help out with this process. Now all you have to do is hang the plasma on the wall and you are ready to go.

    Running the cable behind the wall becomes a bit more complicated and depending on your carpentry skills may require some professional installation. There are also ways the cables can be concealed aesthetically without damaging your walls

    If you are planning on placing the plasma TV on the table stand, it is very easy. It is just a matter of lining up the two holes on the bottom of the plasma with the supports on the stand. The cables run behind the unit and are generally concealed behind the furniture that the plasma is resting on.