The other day I got the chance to talk television with William Schindler, Panasonic's vice president for electrical engineering at the Panasonic Plasma Display Laboratory of America. (I'm surprised all that fit on a business card.) William and others from Panasonic demonstrated some of their newest plasma TVs in the the Ester Williams Suite of the Raleigh Hotel in Miami Beach.
With the curtains closed and lights dimmed, he played demonstrations on a plasma set next to an LCD set. It was clear to see that the image on a plasma was far better, and for several reasons. But those differences are not something that can be easily seen in a florescent retail showroom.
Try this test the next time you are gawking at the televisions at a big box retailer: The LCD screens are back lit, so if you tap the screen you can see the light. If you are looking at an LCD head-on, then it's very hard to tell the difference between LCD and plasma. But if you view it from an angle, the colors begin to fade.
That doesn't happen when you look at a plasma from an angle, because each pixel is its own source of light. Having each pixel emit it's own light also made it superior in contrast. With LCD being back lit, the black wasn't as true of a black as the plasma when looking at the sets side-by-side. Same with the colors.
Another interesting test was when he compared viewing fast motion simultaneously with a plasma and LCD side-by-side. As scenery began to zoom by, you could still make out a good portion of the detailed lines. But LCD couldn't keep up with speed as well as the plasma, and the scenes would blur more than they would in the plasma. For this reason, plasma is clearly superior for gaming.
Going to a briefing like this, it's clear that they wanted me to fall in love with plasma. But to give them credit, the presentation was not completely one sided. Panasonic does make LCD televisions -- just not as many -- so the meeting didn't become a complete LCD bashing session. LCD is a fine technology for a brightly lit room, and chances are you won't notice the differences unless you had both a plasma and LCD side-by-side.
So if plasma is so great and cheaper than LCD, why is Panasonic going to great lengths to prove to me that plasma is better than LCD? They tell me the general public thinks plasma is dangerous and are hesitant to buy it. The idea in many consumer's minds is that it can blow up since the light is from phosphors and gas mixtures, and that the image can easily burn on the screen.
William tells me the gas is "totally inflammable" and there are only a couple thimbles full of gas in each set. And as for images burning on the screen, he tells me the stories began when plasmas first came out and large companies would use them to display messages in lobbies -- like at an airport. But when that screen wouldn't change and would stay on 24/7, over time the image eventually burned. The same thing happened on other basic televisions, but those were cheaper to replace so companies didn't complain as much.
Panasonic is not getting returns for burning, he said, and that today's sets have improved technology to help that problem. In Panasonic press-release tech speak: "Newer Plasma designs radically minimize the likelihood of permanent images retention through improved xenon and neon mixtures and a more efficient cell design that allows for more light with less degradation in the phosphors. The less aging a phosphor exhibits, the less likely it is for permanent image retention to occur."
Panasonic is putting lots of resources into pushing plasma. They expect the demand for plasma TVs to top 25 million units in 2010, and have a new plasma panel factory -- the fourth -- at Amagasaki, Japan. The new facility, the company said, will increase Panasonic's production capability by 170,000 panels a month, bringing the company to making the equivalent of 592,000 42-inch panels a month.