Just when plasma televisions looked like a reflection in the rearview mirror, the following reader email arrived:
"I was wondering if you could offer any advice regarding an upcoming decision. My 8-year-old Dell 42-inch plasma TV is going to need replacing one of these days, and I am having trouble finding something acceptable to replace it with. Compared to my old beat-up Dell, the newer LCD and LED TVs look almost cartoonish and one-dimensional.
"Maybe I'm just used to it, but my plasma TV looks so much richer and deeper. Are plasma TVs going the way of Betamax? There don't seem to be many of them out there anymore. What would you replace an old plasma TV with?"
First, I continue my crusade against mislabeling and misunderstanding. There is no such thing as an LED TV. The LEDs are not the pixels (picture elements) unless you're viewing a Jumbotron. Most new TVs are LCD TVs using LEDs for the light source. Before the arrival of affordable LED illumination, we did not call LCD TVs "Cold Cathode" TVs, even though cold cathode fluorescent tubes lit the liquid crystals.
With that off my chest, I suspect you consider the picture reproduced by LCD TVs (no matter what their light source) as "cartoonish and one-dimensional" because they are so far out of adjustment. Nearly all retailers, even those who should know better, display LCD TVs at maximum or nearly maximum brightness and contrast.
Since most of the viewing public is less discerning than you are, that sells TVs. If you work with a knowledgeable person to custom adjust all the picture settings on a good LCD TV, you might still prefer plasma, but you won't call LCD sets cartoonish and one-dimensional.
My LCD TV is 4 years old, but the dealer from whom I purchased it spent considerable time fine-tuning the picture for movie viewing.
At the same time, plasma does look different, and to some viewers, superior to LCD. The plasma cell that creates the pixel that you view emits its own light, as compared with an LCD pixel that opens and closes to pass the light behind it or at its edge.
Plasma TVs naturally display a dimmer picture than most LCD TVs, which some viewers prefer. Thus, they can't be turned up ultra-bright like most LCD sets. This dimmer picture looks deeper and more "authentic" than many of the misadjusted LCD screens.
Until the past couple of years, plasma far exceeded LCDs in reproducing true black in the TV picture. The LCD pixels when "closed" never fully block light. Better LCD technology and the use of LEDs reduces the difference between LCD TVs and plasma TVs.
Unlike cold cathode light sources, LEDs can be pulsed, which means they turn on and off instantaneously. Some manufacturers use individually addressed banks of LEDs that instantly turn off in the dark areas of the picture and turn back on when light is required. This greatly improves true black reproduction on LCD TVs.
Research and development of plasma technology leveled off shortly after Pioneer left the business. Panasonic bought much of Pioneer's technology and hired many of its plasma engineers. If you plan to stick with plasma, choose a Panasonic TV.
Plasma comes with its own set of problems. Although the "burn in" problem of a static image permanently burning (creating) a ghost image on the screen is largely solved, it's not impossible. My biggest issue with plasma TVs is environmental. While LCD TVs with LED illumination grow more energy efficient, plasma TVs contribute more than their share to Ameren's bottom line.
Plasma TVs also radiate a considerable amount of radio frequency interference.
Find a local dealer who knows TVs and ask for a custom demonstration of a premium LCD TV adjusted for viewing movies. Then decide which technology you prefer.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.