The View from the Floor
My wife Joanna was on a business trip last week, and she found herself in a hotel room with an LCD TV. As she was doing her daily stretching routine on the floor, she turned on the TV and noticed that the colors looked very weird from that angle, "almost like a color negative" as she wrote in an e-mail. "What's up with that?" she wondered.
Joanna had stumbled onto one Achilles' heel of LCD TVs—color shifting when viewed from far off axis. Of course, some LCDs are better at this than others, and the hotel undoubtedly bought the cheapest TVs available, which are certain to exhibit more color shifting than higher-end models. I saw the same thing on my recent trip to Japan—the personal LCD screens at each seat on the airplane looked just like a color negative beyond a certain angle as I walked by.
This got me thinking about the differences between LCD and plasma flat panels, which is one of the most common questions I get from readers and friends. So let's go over it step by step.
LCD Advantages: High brightness works well in environments with ambient light; screen reflections are diffuse, thus not as distracting as plasma screen reflections—again, good for rooms with ambient-light sources; no danger of image retention or "burn-in" from static images; 1920x1080 resolution more common in smaller screen sizes; generally consumes less power than plasma.
LCD Disadvantages: Off-axis color shifting and contrast reduction; black levels can be higher than plasma, especially with low-end sets—this does not apply to LED-backlit models; objects in motion often lose a lot of detail (except on sets with well-implemented 120Hz frame interpolation); large screen sizes generally more expensive than comparably sized plasma.
Plasma Advantages: No off-axis color shifting or contrast reduction; generally lower black levels and better shadow detail than LCD; generally less expensive than comparably sized LCD; motion detail generally sharper than LCD.
Plasma Disadvantages: Potential for image retention or "burn-in" (though this is much less of an issue in modern sets compared with early-generation models); generally not as bright as LCD, so plasma doesn't work as well in environments with lots of ambient light; screen reflections are generally sharp and well-defined, thus more distracting than LCD; 1920x1080 resolution less common than LCD; generally consumes more power than LCD; APL (average picture level) limiting causes bright objects to appear brighter in dark scenes and less bright in bright scenes.
Bottom Line: If you are primarily interested in watching movies in a light-controlled room, especially if some viewers will be off axis, I think plasma is the better choice, though I generally recommend a model with 1920x1080 resolution to avoid any possibility of scaling artifacts. On the other hand, if you want to watch TV in a well-lit room, LCD is the way to go, though the image on a cheap one might look like a color negative to anyone stretching on the floor.
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