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What’s the Difference Between LCD and Plasma TVs?

Plasma, LCD, LED, 1080p – what do all these terms mean? Tech Talker teaches you about different types of TVs and how to choose the perfect one for your home.

By
Eric Escobar,
February 1, 2012
Episode #015

Today I’m going to tackle the two main types of TVs out on the market, LCD and Plasma. I’m sure almost all of you have heard of these two types, but with all the options out there, knowing which one is right for you can be tough to figure out. In this episode, I will outline the strengths and weaknesses of these two types of televisions so that you can make an informed decision the next time you’re staring blankly at a wall full of TVs at your local electronics store.

But before I start comparing, let’s go over some quick terminology:

High Definition, 720p, and 1080p

You will see this type of designation on many TVs in the current electronics market. These aren’t just arbitrary numbers made up by TV manufacturers to intimidate you. Rather, they have to do with the resolution of the screen and how large you can increase an image before it gets fuzzy. A pixel is a single dot of color that you can see on a TV or computer screen if you get close enough. The 720 and 1080 stand for the number of lines of pixels in the vertical direction of the screen. So for bigger TVs, you’ll most definitely want a 1080p because it will produce a higher definition than that of a 720p. If you get a very large screen with 720p, it is more likely to stretch the image and look pixelated (aka fuzzy).

A high definition screen means that there are far more pixels in one frame than in a standard definition television. A 1080p screen will have approximately 2 million pixels, whereas a standard definition screen would only have 1/5 of that, about 400,000 pixels!

Viewing Angle

Viewing angle is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the angle from which you watch your TV. Some TVs allow for a much wider angle of view so that you can be farther off to the side of your TV and still see a great picture. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but it might matter quite a bit if it means having a bunch of friends over and only 3 or 4 of them have a really good view of the screen. That scenario definitely won’t go over well if you’re having a Super Bowl party.

Size

TV screens are generally measured in inches here in the USA and this measurement is done diagonally (from the bottom left corner to the upper right). Both plasma and LCD TVs come in many different sizes, so this is more of a personal decision and is definitely not a “one-size-fits-all” situation (pun intended). Do you want to have a 60-inch monster or a more modest 27-inch screen in your home? That’s up to you.

Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio is basically the difference between your brightest whites and your darkest blacks. This keeps shadows and texture on the television sharp. Movies such as Batman that use lots of dark colors will have the shadows and textures washed out if your TV’s contrast ratio is very low. This feature is one of the most important to consider and often the hardest to research. That is because each television manufacturer rates their contrast ratio differently from other brands, so unlike viewing angle, screen size, and pixels, contrast ratio is not uniform across all types of TVs. My advice is to check out a floor model to see the difference and decide on whether or not it really matters to you.

Refresh Rate

Refresh rate is generally measured in Hertz, which is the number of cycles per second. This cycling refers to how many frames per second your TV can display. For a new TV, anything over 120Hz is probably overkill. I say this because most movies on DVD play somewhere around 30 frames per second, and Blu-Ray movies play somewhere around 60 frames per second. So having a TV that has the ability to play 120 frames per second really won’t do you much good. In fact, if you have ever watched a movie in high definition and noticed that all of the scenes seem to moving differently, it’s because the Blu-Ray movie is adding double the frames in the same amount of time.

However, if you watch a lot of action movies or sports, you need to keep the refresh rate in mind. A TV with a high refresh rate can catch fast moving scenes while keeping them crisp.

All right, now that you are an expert on the main things to look for in a TV, let me get into the differences between Plasma and LCDs. The main distinction is this: Plasma TVs use ionized gas to create an image and LCDs use liquid crystals. Each of these technologies has their own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Plasma TVs tend to be heavier, thicker, and use more energy, but have much better contrast ratios. This means they have very dark blacks which look great in a dark room. They also have wider viewing angles and higher refresh rates.

  • LCDs on the other hand, are more energy efficient, much thinner, and much better for use in bright rooms. (And as a side note, LED TVs are exactly the same as LCDs. The only difference is that an LED TV uses LEDs as a light source instead of another type of lamp! So if a TV salesman tries to sell you on a pricey LED TV by claiming that it’s some brand new fancy technology, you can clue him in.)

Here are the 4 Quick and Dirty questions you need to ask yourself before picking out the perfect TV:

  1. What will you be using your TV for (movies, sports, video games)?

  2. What’s the size of the room and the angles from which people will be watching your TV?

  3. How well lit is your room? Is this TV for the man cave or for the sunny upstairs loft?

  4. How does initial price and electricity usage affect your choice?

So if you plan on having the guys over for Monday night football or the Die Hard trilogy every week and don’t mind spending a few extra bucks on electricity, then I’d go with the Plasma. On the other hand, if you have a bright room, with a couch that faces the TV directly and you want to save a little money on your energy bill, then the LCD is probably the way to go.

Well that’s all for today!

Have a question about anything in this episode? Or a suggestion for a future podcast? Send me an email at techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on the Tech Talker Facebook wall.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

LCD TV and Plasma TV images courtesy of Shutterstock