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Buying advice: Plasma TVs

More—and bigger—screens are adding variety to the category

Plasma TVs make a blockbuster first impression. A scant 6 inches thick or less, these sleek, flat panels display bright images on screens measuring 42 to 60 inches or more diagonally. Given those large sizes, plasma TVs have become a viable alternative to rear-projection sets for anyone seeking a jumbo screen.
A plasma screen is made up of thousands of pixels containing gas that's converted into "plasma" (ionized gas) by an electrical charge. The plasma emits ultraviolet light that causes phosphors to glow red, green, or blue, as dictated by a video signal.

Because of improvements in plasma technology, the best sets have excellent picture quality. They also offer a wider viewing angle than most LCD TVs and rear-projection sets, with deeper blacks and smoother motion than you typically get with LCD sets.

But the shiny screen of a plasma TV can produce annoying reflections, especially in bright rooms. Many plasma sets have screen coatings to reduce reflections. Plasma sets are vulnerable to screen burn-in, although new screen-saving technologies minimize the risk.

Plasma TVs with 1080p resolutions are now common, especially in sizes 50 inches and up. Manufacturers are working on new sets that are even thinner and lighter, with lower power consumption, than the plasma TVs now on the market. These could arrive on the market in the near future.

There's growing evidence that plasma TVs are highly reliable products requiring few repairs during the first three years of use.

What's available

Among the leading brands in the plasma TV category are Panasonic, Hitachi, LG, Pioneer, and Samsung. Sony was a leading manufacturer but has stopped making plasma TVs to concentrate on LCD sets. Prices have dropped sharply over the past year or two. HD models with 42-inch screens generally range from about $800 to $1,500. Most TVs with 50-inch screens sell between $1,000 and $4,000, and 58-inch models start at about $2,600 to $4,000 or more. In each size, some sets with the latest technologies and design sell for hundreds more than these ranges. The lowest-priced sets are often from emerging brands, such as Maxent and Vizio.

Look for prices to fall further as the technology matures and plasma faces increasing price pressure from LCD HDTVs.

Some 42-inch plasma HDTVs have a resolution of 1024x768, but more now have 1920x1080 resolution; most 50-inch and larger sets do as well. These so-called 1080p TVs have the potential to display all 1,080 lines in the most common high-definition format, called 1080i. The improvement is most noticeable on large screens, say those 50 inches and up.
Since March 2007, all new TVs sold in the U.S. have been required to include a digital tuner. This enables them to receive free digital TV, including high-def programming, via an over-the-air antenna. But, some sets are sold as "monitors," meaning they have no built-in tuner of any type. These require a cable box or satellite receiver, or set-top box and antenna, to receive any programming, not just HD content.

How to choose

Decide on screen size

The size of your room and your budget are key factors in choosing a screen size. Generally, a 42-inch plasma set is a reasonable choice for a main TV that you'll watch often in a midsized room. For a large room or a home theater, consider a 50-inch or larger TV.

With any set, make sure you sit at the appropriate distance. Run-of-the-mill non-HD programming tends to look better and more natural if you sit at least 5 feet from a 42-inch set and 6 feet from a 50-inch or larger TV. If you're closer, you're likely to see the screen elements making up the picture along with any flaws in the images, such as graininess or video noise. With a good TV displaying top HD content—say, from a high-definition Blu-ray player—the finer detail and superior quality allow you to sit closer so you can more fully enjoy the impact of a larger image.
While those screen sizes might sound enormous, keep in mind that big-screen plasma sets are just a few inches deep, so they aren't as imposing as you might fear. Be sensible, though. Measure so you don't overdo it.

Consider a 1080p TV first, but don't rule out 720p sets

Another major decision point involves a TV's native screen resolution, which indicates the number of pixels, or picture elements, on the screen. The more pixels, the finer the detail a screen can display. You can appreciate that level of detail most on a 50-inch or larger TV, but you might see subtle improvements on a 42-inch screen, especially when viewed up close.

A 1920x1080 set will convert current HD signal formats (720p and 1080i) to match its native screen resolution. If the TV does the job well, the picture quality can be outstanding. In addition, Blu-ray players provide true 1080p content from high-definition movies.

If price is not an issue, we'd recommend a high-scoring 1080p set over a comparable 720p set. But don't assume all 1080p sets are superior to 720p models; resolution alone doesn't determine picture quality. Some of the top-rated TVs in our Ratings are 720p sets. Also, with typical HD programming, picture quality of a good 720p set can be almost indistinguishable from a 1080p set's, especially if it's smaller than 50 inches.

Beware of burn-in, but don't worry about burnout

Older plasma TVs have been prone to burn-in. Over time, static images displayed for long periods (such as a video game or a stock ticker) might leave permanent, ghosted impressions onscreen. Most new plasma TVs have screen-saver features and use other technologies to minimize the risk of burn-in, but don't push your luck by leaving static images onscreen for prolonged periods.

You may have seen reports suggesting that plasma TVs might not last as long as other TV types. Ignore them, as there is no evidence to that effect.

Consider reliability

Our most recent survey found few repair problems during the first three years of use for plasma sets from most major brands. Detailed plasma TV reliability findings are available to subscribers. Given that plasma flat-panel TVs have been very reliable for the time covered by many extended warranties, there's little sense in spending several hundred dollars for such a warranty. You can also get longer coverage on your set without paying a cent for it. Some premium credit cards add up to a year to your warranty at no cost when you buy a TV with their card. Some retailers do, too. Costco, for instance, offers a two-year warranty for sets purchased in its warehouses or on its Web site.

Don't get hung up on specs

Ads touting high contrast ratios and brightness (in cd/m2, or candelas per square meter) might sway you to one set over another. But don't let this be the deciding factor. Manufacturers arrive at specs differently, so they might not be comparable. Also, TVs are often optimized for bright retail environments, not home viewing, so it's hard to assess differences in picture quality accurately in stores. The scores in our Ratings are based on settings you would normally use at home.

Determine what's included when comparing prices

A few plasmas are monitors only; they don't include speakers or a tuner for an over-the-air TV signal. You won't have to buy a tuner if you'll be using a cable box or satellite receiver, which will serve as the tuner for all programming. Otherwise, you'll need a set-top box to work with an antenna. If the plasma TV has no speakers, you'll have to buy them separately unless you plan to connect the set to your existing sound system.

Think about the logistics

You might want to consider having your plasma TV delivered, especially if it's one of the larger sets. The cartons can be heavy and awkward to carry. You might be able to handle a basic hookup of a cable box or satellite receiver and a DVD player on your own. If you'll be connecting more devices—a DVR, DVD recorder, VCR, and digital receiver and sound system—it gets trickier, so you might want to consider professional installation at some point.
Though ads for plasma TVs often show no cables or wires, they are a factor in installation. You can tuck wires behind the TV if you place it on a stand. With wall mounting, you can run the wires behind the wall or through conduits, a task that might be best handled by a professional (wires that run in walls and ceilings require a different UL rating). Many plasma TVs weigh 100 pounds or more, so they need adequate support. They also require good ventilation because of the heat they generate.