Thursday, March 27, 2008

Plasma TV vs LCD TV

Despite assurances by manufacturers that the technology has improved, consumers are still complaining of ghost images on their screens after displaying still images

Jamie bought his Pioneer plasma television in January and, after playing Guitar Hero 2 on his Xbox 360, noticed faint residue images of the game's score meters on his screen. He was told that leaving the TV on overnight on a static channel with no transmission would solve the problem.

"This has reduced the screen burn slightly but I can still see it, especially when a light image is on the area of burn," he wrote on the message board in June. "Does anyone have any other ideas on getting rid of the burn or am I stuck with it?" he asked.

So far, only one respondent has given Jamie any advice — he should try the pixel shift or "other fancy things" on his television, replied a poster known as "me."

Jamie's problem, known as plasma burn or more technically as "image retention," is considered rare by television manufacturers, with some even labelling it a myth. But if Jamie's and numerous other posts on various technology forums are any indication, the issue is real and contributing to a general mistrust of plasma televisions.

"Here I am stuck in a rut where the only the thing [the] owners manuel [sic] says about screen burn-in is that it's not covered under your three-year warranty," wrote Joey M of his new Dell plasma television on the message board earlier this year. "All I can say is that I hope the pixels [completely] go out before my three-year warranty is up so I can exchange it and start over. Please, don't do what I did."

"There is no such thing, almost, as burn. You have to as an end user almost intentionally try … very hard to burn a set."

— Barry Murray, director of marketing for the audio-visual group at Panasonic Canada Inc.

Team Xbox, a website devoted to Xbox games run by entertainment and video games site IGN, says the problem extends beyond video games.

"Plasma televisions, despite being sexy as hell, are highly susceptible to burn-in from static images, including station identification tags that you see on TV broadcasts and [heads-up display] images like those found in most video games," writes editor Rob Semsey on the site's discussion forums. "There's no doubt that it stings after you've dropped anywhere from $2,999 [US] to $19,999 [US] on a new plasma HDTV, only to notice burn-in after marathon sessions of Madden NFL 06 or any other game."

The instruction manuals for the televisions themselves warn of the problem.

"Do not display a still picture for a long time," reads the manual for the Panasonic Viera, which lists channel numbers, logos and video games as typical examples.

Issue overblown, say manufacturers

The manufacturers, however, say the issue has been overblown and is often misunderstood. In a plasma television, static electricity heats the phosphors in the screen, which then produce the lights that make the picture. Ghost images on plasma televisions appear when those phosphors are used unevenly, such as when they are heated continually by displaying a still image.

Panasonic, which is the plasma screen market leader, says the term "burn" is a misnomer because the image is not actually burned into the screen.

"There is no such thing, almost, as burn. You have to as an end user almost intentionally try … very hard to burn a set," says Barry Murray, director of marketing at the audio-visual group at Panasonic Canada Inc.

Short-term image retention can happen, Murray says, but it usually goes away after watching a few minutes of full-screen video.

"It's fairly common but 100 per cent reversible just by watching other video programs."

Today's plasma screens have numerous technologies built into them to prevent permanent image retention, Murray says, including "pixel wobble," which detects static images such as station logos and moves them subtly in a way that is imperceptible to the eye and prevents overuse of the same pixels.

Many televisions also have a "whitewash" function, which blankets the screen in a static white image that resets the static charge in all of the pixels.

Phil Joly, central territory manager for Samsung Canada, says the most important way to avoid plasma image retention is to set up the television properly. Most sets seen on store floors are set to "vivid" modes with high brightness and contrast, which is not how they should be viewed at home.

"If your TV gets set properly once it's in the house and has its contrast toned to say 75 per cent or even 65 per cent, the possibility for burn in for something like that drops by as much as 80 per cent," he says. "The biggest mistake the consumer can make is not setting up the plasma properly."

Consumers who do suffer image retention that doesn't go away quickly can try buying a whitewash DVD, if their set does not have the function built in. They can also try setting their television to a static channel overnight, as Jamie on the Gadgetopia message board did.

Still, some consumers — such as Joey M on Ecoustics — are upset that even after enacting preventive measures and possible cures, their sets aren't covered for image retention issues under warranty.

Panasonic's Murray says this is because the onus is on consumers to watch how they use their television.

"If somebody overtly abuses their set or uses it in a wrong application — one that we don’t recommend — that's why it's not covered under warranty," he says. "If somebody came to us and said, 'Look I have an issue here, I can't get rid of this,' we do have 48-hour in-home service on those things under the warranty period. Even outside of the warranty period, chances are we would look after the customer."

Ideal for gaming

Still, Murray says plasma televisions are ideal for video gaming because they present much deeper colours than rival LCD screens. LCDs are slower than plasmas, which means they can get blurry when displaying fast-moving images.

Samsung's Joly admits that LCD screens are slower than plasma, but they are catching up. LCD technology is also proving to be the choice of gamers because of the threat of plasma burn, he says.

"Gamers are pretty well educated, so most of them will go with LCD because there's still that primal fear of burn-in that's out there."

LG Electronics, one of the top sellers of both television technologies, says the motion blur on LCD screens has improved to where it almost imperceptible by the human eye.

"Most people can't detect it," says Frank Lee, manager of public affairs for LG Electronics Canada.

LCD televisions, however, are themselves not immune to burn in, but this is "even more rare" than with plasma, according to consumer electronics website

In any event, consumers in general are increasingly opting for LCD over plasma, according to statistics from NPD Group, which tracks trends in electronics. Both types of screens are growing rapidly, but over the past year LCD televisions have accounted for 61 per cent of flat-panel sales in Canada, versus 39 per cent for plasma.

Prices on flat panels have come down 30 per cent in the past year and the cost of plasma and LCD sets between 40 and 44 inches, the most popular sizes, are now almost identical, NPD says.

In the end, LG's Lee says plasma is better for watching movies in a home-theatre environment while LCD screens are generally more versatile.

"LCD is really the way to go for gaming," he says.

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