LED vs. Plasma vs. LCD TV

Are you being faced with the dilemma of choosing between a plasma TV, an LCD or one of the latest LED HDTVs?

A Comparative TV Technology Guide and Checklist

Plasma vs. LCD (and LED TV) is a much-debated issue and a dilemma faced by many when buying a flat-panel TV. And by end of 2012, we will also have OLED TVs in the overall HDTV decision equation!

Often, sales rep seem to imply that LED TVs are better than LCDs and even more so than plasma TVs. But is it really so? Is it always worth paying the extra premium for an LED TV?

In this TV display technology comparative guide, we present you with a summary of the pros and cons of both plasma televisions and LCD TVs; where applicable, we also point out the differences between CCFL and LED LCD TVs; this should help you better determine where the different flat-panel display technologies fit best.

We conclude this article by presenting a LED vs. plasma vs. LCD TV checklist to serve as quick reference when choosing your flat-panel TV display technology.

Which is better: Plasma, LCD, or an LED HDTV?

The plasma vs. LCD TV debate has been going on since the two first appeared on the market. Yet, things started to get complicated for the HDTV buyer just about five years ago when 40 to 50-inch plasma and LCDs became relatively affordable.

The advent of LED TVs has further complicated the overall HDTV technology equation, to the point that for many, it is becoming almost beyond understanding.

Panasonic VIERA 55-inch TC-P55ST60

The problem few realize is that LED TVs are in effect LCD TVs; the only difference is the use of an LED backlight instead of the traditional CCFL light source found on conventional LCD TVs. Admittedly, this leads to a few differences but once you know about them, the whole TV selection becomes once again plasma vs. LCD TV.

And what about OLED TVs?

Well, OLED TVs were supposed to be with us sometime during 2012 but seems to have been postponed to 2013. In any case, while OLED display technology is capable of the best TV picture you can expect, this technology still has to prove itself in the long term. So far, OLED displays have suffered from long term stability issues with the organic material used for the blue color, leading to a much shorter lifetime than the red and green light colors.

TV makers are saying these problems have been resolved but unfortunately, it has become common for the industry to put on the market technology that was not yet ready to reach store shelves; a recent case was the releases of 3D TVs in 2010.

Yet there is an even major problem with OLED TVs; the 55-inch OLEDs to be released later this year are expected to sell at least two to three times the price of high-end LED HDTVs! We believe that till OLED TV technology will be more within reach of the average household budget, for many, the whole TV equation will remain one of plasma vs. LCD TV.

A Display Technology Dilemma

This plasma vs. LCD TV technology dilemma arises because a flat-panel TV, irrespective of whether that being a plasma, LCD or an LED HDTV, represents a most compelling option for home entertainment. It is their slim profile—often less than three inches deep—that is the culprit. And if being slim is your priority, the latest ultra-slim plasmas and LED TVs come at just an inch thick!

Being so slim means you can literally hang a plasma or LCD TV on the wall, on the ceiling, or anywhere else you feel like watching your new HDTV!

Yet there is more to complicate this plasma vs. LCD TV selection process than just a similar slim-style package. Plasma televisions, LCDs and LED TVs are all capable of similar picture performance, with bright, colorful, crystal-clear pictures. In addition, with the latest energy-efficient 600Hz plasma display panels and superior 120Hz and 240Hz CCFL and LED LCD TVs, the difference in performance between plasma and LCD TVs is becoming more product dependent than display technology dependent; and this is the way it should be.

Despite these similarities…

Plasma and LCD (CCFL and LED) display panels process the image in a completely different manner. More specifically, there is no relation what-so-ever between the different technologies driving these displays.

Plasma displays use a matrix of tiny gas plasma cells that are charged by precise electrical voltages to emit light and create the picture image. In other words, each picture element in a plasma TV display acts as a miniature light source.

[More information is available in our How-it-Works Guide to Plasma Display Panels.]

Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD) panels work by trapping a liquid crystal solution between two sheets of polarized glass. When an electric current passes through the liquid crystals, the crystals rotate causing a change in the polarization of the light passing through. This affects the amount of light passing through the polarized glass to reach the face of the display.

Unlike plasma panels, LCDs do not generate light; rather they filter or subtract light produced by a CCFL or an LED backlight to create the image.

[For more information, please refer to our guide How-it-Works: Liquid Crystal Displays.]

It is not the scope of this plasma vs. LCD TV article to go into details of how these display technologies work. What matters in the end is not what is going behind the display panel but how these different display technologies perform as a TV screen. At the same time, one cannot but remark that it is these same technological differences that give each display technology its strengths and weaknesses, and therefore render one more suitable than the other under a different environment.

LED vs. Plasma vs. LCD TV:

Which TV display technology is right for you?

We approach this LED vs. plasma vs. LCD TV debate by looking at the three main areas of concern, namely price and sizepicture related issues, and functional considerations.

We discuss each of these main areas in significant detail under separate articles to help better bring out the main differences between these display technologies; this should make it easier to decide where these different display technologies fit best.

However, for the scope of this article, what we present here is a summary of the conclusions arrived at in each of our detailed discussions. Still, the information presented here is in itself complete; we still advice to go through our detailed plasma vs. LCD TV comparative guides for additional information.

To access the detailed comparative guides, please follow through the links below:

Plasma vs. LCD TV: Price and Size Considerations

Screen SIZE and PRICE represent the two most basic issues one should look at before any other consideration when buying a TV.

Plasma vs. LCD TV: Picture Quality Matters

Discussing issues like differences in contrast ratio, black level performance, color accuracy, viewing angle, supported picture detail, 3D, and picture quality in general.

Plasma vs. LCD TV: Functional Issues

Is one display technology better than the other when it comes to issues like image retention, computer use, lifetime, bad-pixels, response time, and power requirements?

Plasma vs. LCD vs. LED TV Size and Price Comparisons

Size ADVANTAGE: None

Samsung UN60F8000 60-Inch 1080p 240Hz 3D Ultra Slim Smart LED HDTV

Both technologies are playing on level ground, however, when it comes to the consumer market, there are a few differences.

Plasma TVs are available for screen sizes ranging from 42-inch to 65-inch.

CCFL LCD TVs cover anything from 19- to 65-inch; however the traditional CCFL LCD lineup is shrinking fast as LED TVs are taking over. The result is that major TV makers are limiting their CCFL LCD TVs up to around 46-inch screen size. LED TVs cover a wide range of screen sizes from 19 to 65-inches; most come as edge-lit LED TVs. Premium 46-inch LED HDTVs often use some form of improved zone dimming edge-lit backlight technology, while a few flagship LED TVs within the 46-inch to the 55-inch category use the superior full-array local dimming.

Price ADVANTAGE: Plasma but…

Up to not long ago, plasma was the obvious choice for all screen sizes where collision between the two technologies occurred; this is no longer the case. Plasma still carries a price advantage especially with respect to LED TVs. However, plasma’s price advantage becomes significant mainly at the bigger screen sizes – 54 inches and upwards, irrespective of whether you are dealing with CCFL or LED LCD TVs.

At screen sizes less than and including 50-inch, the plasma vs. LCD TV price difference starts to become a non-issue – to the point that for CCFL LCDs, it almost vanishes at the 42-inch size for 1080p HDTVs. Even in the case of 1080p 42-inch LED HDTVs, the price difference with an equivalent plasma TV is just less than 9%.

The only minimal price advantage for plasma TVs at this screen size is for 720p HDTVs. These still yields a great picture at the 40 to 50-inch domain but at these screen sizes, 720p LCD and LED TVs are practically non-existent; in other words, your only readily available 720p HDTV option is a plasma TV.

Plasma vs. LCD TV Picture Quality Considerations

Overall Picture Performance ADVANTAGE: Plasma

Both plasma and LCD/LED TVs are extremely close in this respect, with an excellent picture quality, characterized by bright, crisp clear images, high contrast levels, and excellent color reproduction. Yet our thumbs up in this plasma vs. LCD TV analysis go to plasma televisions. Plasma TVs still have an edge when it comes to overall black level performance especially when displaying subtle shadow detail in images with light content over a predominantly dark background.

LED TVs with intelligent zone dimming or full array local dimming can also exhibit a deep level of black that compares with that of the best plasmas but intelligent LED dimming backlights still do not provide the same localized dimming as that possible with plasma TVs. This is only possible with OLED TVs. In addition, LED TVs suffer from a far restricted viewing angle beyond which black levels—and hence perceived image contrast and color saturation—fall sharply. Furthermore, when it comes to picture quality, more important than the level of black a display can achieve is the overall black level performance when handling both dark and bright areas shown simultaneously. This is an area in which plasma TVs delivers better.

Another issue is screen brightness uniformity, or rather the lack of it across the entire screen area when it comes to LCDs and LED TVs.

And for those interested in 3D, plasma TVs provide a better 3D experience with hardly any image cross between the images intended for the left and right eye thanks to the faster pixel response of plasma TVs.

At the same time… While plasma color richness and naturalness will generally prevail in rooms with controlled low to normal light levels, LCDs generally perform better in brightly lit rooms mainly due to a somewhat brighter image with respect to plasma TVs and their inherent anti-glare technology.

Yet, we have to remark that image brightness is not much of an issue with most of the latest plasma TVs.  In addition, LCDs and LED TVs with a shiny screen suffer from the same screen reflection issues under a brightly lit environment as plasma TVs.

Viewing Angle ADVANTAGE: Plasma

What used to be a clear advantage for plasma displays is becoming less important with the latest generation of CCFL-based LCD televisions. Some of the first LED TVs used to exhibit a poorer viewing angle than their CCFL counterparts but this is hardly an issue with the latest LED HDTVs.

However, when comparing plasma vs. LCD TVs, plasmas still have an edge in this respect. The tendency is that the deterioration in picture quality with off-axis viewing, mainly in the form of a lowering in contrast and color saturation, is more accentuated with LCDs than with plasma displays due to the polarization layers used in CCFL and LED LCD display panels.

Viewing Distance ADVANTAGE: None but…

None carries any advantage with viewing distance as long as you are within normal viewing range for your screen size. [More on viewing distance can be found in our article TV Viewing Distance guide.]

Still, when it comes to comparing plasma vs. LCD TVs, the overall pixel structure in an LCD and LED TV set tends to be less visible than the gas-cell structure in a plasma display panel. This helps LCD and LED TVs render what appears to be a ‘smoother’ picture than that produced by an equivalent size plasma display, making LCD/LED TVs more suitable for closer viewing applications such as for computer use.

Picture Resolution ADVANTAGE: None but…

Up to very recent, LCD televisions used to deliver more in terms of pixels per unit screen size. When comparing plasma vs. LCD TV sets, it was only at the extreme larger end of the scale that plasma and LCD display resolutions met.

However, things changed; both plasma televisions and LCD/LED HDTVs are readily available with full 1080p screen resolution at screen sizes where collision between these display technologies occurs. As things stand today, you have better choice at 1080p than at the lower 720p resolution. In addition, 720p LCD TVs have become almost inexistent for anything above 32-inch.

Still… While neither display technology has an advantage when it comes to resolution, the pixel structure in an LCD or LED display panel renders LCD displays better where high resolution images have to be viewed at close distance, such as in PC generated graphic applications.

Part 3: Plasma vs. LCD TV Functional Matters

Image Retention ADVANTAGE: LCD/LED TVs

LCD/LED TVs enjoys a technological advantage; they are not prone to burn-in. In other words, you can display a bright image for any length of time without ever worrying about burn-in. Instead, LCD TVs suffer from image sticking; but in the majority of cases, this is completely reversible, and in any case, unlikely to take place under normal home use.

But… Burn-in is no longer much of a concern with most plasma TVs as it used to be up to the recent past, especially for people with normal TV viewing requirements.

Computer Use ADVANTAGE: LCD/LED TVs

Despite that plasma panels were originally developed way back in 1964 as computer displays, LCDs are better suited to display computer images. The higher resolution of the latter at smaller screen sizes renders LCDs capable of displaying detailed graphics better. In addition, their non-susceptibility to burn-in makes them better suited to display the relatively static images associated with many computer applications.

Plasma vs. LCD TV Lifetime ADVANTAGE: None

This is a non-issue with plasma, LCD or LED TVs. Manufacturers’ quoted display panel half-lifetime for any of these display technologies stand at around 100,000hrs. Even if this were just 40,000hrs, it would imply more than 15 years of use at 7.5 hours a day. And this when the average household in the US replaces their TV set every 7 years!

In other words, both plasma and LCD TV sets are based on extremely stable and reliable display technologies. Rather, lifetime is more dependent upon product quality and associated electronics inside the set than upon the display technology itself.

Bad Pixels ADVANTAGE: Plasma

Plasma televisions have a definite advantage because even though some manufactures are offering a zero bad pixel policy with their LCD TVs, yet when comparing plasma vs. LCD TVs, LCD displays still have a higher tendency of developing bad pixels during use.

Image Blurring and Pixel Response Time ADVANTAGE: Plasma

This is another advantage in favor of Plasma, because even though LCD technology has improved to the point that this is less of an issue, LCDs and LED TVs still have some way to go to achieve the same level of pixel response times and complete blur-free images as phosphor-based displays. This also partly explains why plasma TVs perform better in 3D TV applications.

[More on LCD TV response time can be found here: LCD Response Time.]

Panel Noise Advantage: LCD/LED TVs

A soft buzzing noise is typical of all plasma displays because of the way these operate; this however would be hardly audible even with the sound switched off unless you are with your ears just a few inches away from the panel. In either case, if what you are after is complete quite operation, LCD is the way to go.

Plasma vs. LCD TV Power Requirements ADVANTAGE: LCD and especially LED TVs

Thought power requirements of video displays are highly dependent on picture settings, LCD HDTVs carry an advantage especially as one moves towards the bigger end of the scale. It is true that the latest energy efficient plasma display panels have brought about significant improvement – to the point that energy consumption is hardly an issue.

However… If one were to compare even the latest plasma vs. LCD TVs, CCFL LCDs still consume at least 20% to 30% less power than corresponding plasma HDTVs. In addition, if what you are after is a truly eco-friendly TV, nothing beats an edge-lit LED TV; these consume typically 50% less power than corresponding plasma TVs for the same screen size.

Plasma vs. LCD TV Checklist: Here is a convenient Plasma vs. LCD TV display technology checklist in PDF format which you can download for your personal use. It highlights the main pros and cons (in table format) of plasma, CCFL LCDs and LED TVs.

Plasma vs. LCD TV Sets: Making the Choice

So, who wins this ‘Plasma vs. LCD TV’ battle? In reality, there is no winner; there is a market for both plasma TV sets and LCD/LED HDTVs:

Plasma HDTVs give you a bigger screen for your dollar, better black level performance, better pixel response times, and better 3D performance.

CCFL LCD TVs do not suffer from burn-in, use less power than even the most energy efficient plasma display panels, and for anything smaller than 42-inch, LCD is your only way forward if what you want is something slim and stylish.

LED TVs: These carry the same pros and cons as their CCFL LCD counterparts except that LED TVs come with a slimmer profile, lower power consumption, and deeper blacks; however, LEDs demand a higher price.

In the end, picking up the best TV display technology is all a question of knowing what are the advantages and limitations of each with respect to your specific needs.

Buying Options for Plasma and LED HDTVs

Amazon.com offers an extensive range of HDTVs, often at significantly reduced prices. While at amazon…

Check the customer feedback to see what others had to say for a better insight about the product and customer experience.

Plasma vs. LCD TV – Comparative Summary

To help you correlate the conclusions presented here with the respective detailed guides, we are sub-dividing this comparative summary list in three parts, with each relating to the respective detailed guide.

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