LCD vs plasma TV buying guide

Buy the best TV. Find information on picture and sound quality, screen type, size and ease of use.
 
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01 .Back to basics

TV
Deciding between a plasma or LCD TV? Or perhaps you're after a HD projection system. Buying a TV in the 21st century is no mean feat. Even some lower-end models come with a confusing variety of features. Then there are all the different screen types to negotiate – not to mention getting your head around new technologies like 3D or digital TV.

Follow our steps to making an informed TV purchase. Then browse all our television reviews.

The four most important things to assess when buying a TV are:

  • Picture quality
  • Sound quality
  • Ease of use
  • Size

Picture quality

  • For starters, you'll want good picture quality.
  • Some TVs can give a good picture for certain scenes, but not for others. So when you're shopping around make sure you give the sets more than just a cursory glance – there are differences.
  • Check for realistic and natural colours, particularly for skin tones; picture clarity; and overall tints – sometimes you might see a greenish or yellow tint that can't be removed by adjusting the controls.

Sound quality

  • There are differences between models, so make sure you listen closely and adjust the volume to see how loud it is without distorting, though it can be hard to judge sound quality in a noisy store.
  • Also check the position of the speakers: some sets have them facing straight down from underneath the screen, which could muffle the sound if you’re intending to put it in a cabinet.

Ease of use

  • Play with the controls, especially the remote, and make sure the more commonly used buttons (volume, channel selector, standby and mute) are prominently positioned and easy to operate.
  • A good instruction manual is invaluable. Ask to see it, and check that it's well written and easy to read.

Size

  • Modern TVs can be very large, but how big is too big?
  • You can probably sit closer with high definition screens (around 3 times the screen's diagonal measurement). But remember they have to fit in your room and if you sit too close you’ll have to move your head to see the action, which can be tiring.

Video: TV buying guide

Chris Ruggles takes us through the ins and outs of choosing a new TV.

 
 

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Once you’ve determined that the TV you’re interested in has the basics covered, have a think about what else is important to your viewing experience.

  • Teletext: These TVs provide on-screen text information like the weather, time and a TV guide, as well as subtitles (closed captions).
  • Child lock: This locks some TV functions so a child can’ t readily operate it.
  • HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface): an all-digital connection for both sound and video in one cable. You may not have many gadgets with HDMI output at the moment, but we expect most will have them in the future, so it's worth looking for at least one HDMI socket.
  • DVI/VGA input: Essential if you want to use your TV as a computer display. You’ll need one with a DVI input for newer computers or a VGA input for older ones. An HDMI socket will do if your computer has an HDMI output, but not many do at the moment. DVI-to-HDMI adapters are quite inexpensive to purchase.
  • S-video input: This is an input socket for connection to the S-video output of a signal source such as a set-top-box, VCR, DVD or camcorder. It’s claimed this connection gives better picture quality than composite video input.
  • Component video input: This is another set of input sockets for connection to the component video output of a signal source such as a set-top-box, DVD or camcorder. This connection will give better picture quality again than either the S-video or composite video input connection.
  • Multiple tuners: having more than one tuner of a particular type (digital or analogue) allows you to have picture-in-picture features and may also be an advantage if the TV also has an in-built recorder.
  • In-built recorder: this feature is mainly restricted to TVs with a digital tuner. It's sometimes called a PVR and allaows you to record TV programs just as you would with a VCR or DVD recorder. Having it in the TV reduces the number of remotes you have to deal with and if there's more than one digital tuner you can watch one channel and record another at the same time.
  • Automatic tuning: This TV automatically scans the spectrum and tunes the channels to receive the strongest signals.
  • Picture setting memory: This feature allows you to program a preferred group or groups of picture settings for things like colour, contrast and brightness.
  • Previous channel: At the touch of a button this TV will switch back to the previous channel viewed.
  • Sound settings: This means settings such as voice or music that can be adjusted to suit different programs.
  • Multilingual: Some sets are capable of displaying onscreen instructions in different languages.
  • Manual tuning: You choose the channel number and then scan the spectrum until you come to a clear signal you want to store as that channel.
  • Manual fine tuning: The strongest signal stored by automatic or manual tuning might not necessarily give you the clearest picture or sound. This feature allows you to move the channel slightly up or down the spectrum, thus changing the signal that's received.
  • Channel skip: Your TV might have the capacity to store up to 200 channels. This feature allows you to automatically skip over channels that aren't picking up a clear enough signal, or no signal at all – that way you never have to flick through them when using the up and down channel-changing buttons on the remote.
  • Channel renumber: When auto-tuning is complete, you can reassign channels to different numbers. So, for example, you can set stations to correspond to the numbers you prefer (such as 9 for the Nine Network) or to be in sequential order (1, 2, 3...).
  • Auto off: Switches the TV off after a few minutes when no broadcast signal is received (such as when a station goes off the air or the DVD switches off)
  • Preset picture settings: Most TVs are factory-programmed with anything from one to four picture settings that can be easily recalled if you change them.
  • NTSC: Allows you to watch videos in the US television format.
  • On timer: This allows the TV to be programmed to switch on at a certain time. Some allow you to set this by a clock, others will switch on after a countdown from anywhere up to 12 or 24 hours. This is also referred to as a wake-up timer.
  • Off timer: This lets the TV be programmed to switch off at a certain time. This is also referred to as a sleep timer.
  • Reminder timer: This is when the TV can be programmed to flash an onscreen symbol or give a beep after a certain amount of time.
  • Channel recall: Allows for onscreen display of the current channel number.
  • Volume setting memory: Some allow you to store different volume settings for each channel, while others allow you to store one volume setting for all channels. Yet another will allow you to store volume settings individually for channels 0 to 11 and AV, and a single common setting for channels 12 to 79.
  • Mute: Most TVs let you turn the volume on or off with the push of a button. A few even have a half mute feature that will reduce the volume to 50% of its current level.
  • Remote can control VCR/DVD: If this interests you, remember to check that your VCR/DVD is compatible before you buy. Games: A few sets come with simple computer-style games. 
  • Internet connectivity this is usually through "widgets" which are on-screen links to on-line services such as YouTube, Picassa or weather services etc.. We expect there'll be a lot of development in this area over the next few years.

TV over a home network

Video content from the Internet is becoming an increasingly important part of our entertainment viewing mix. However most of us want to watch video in the loungeroom rather than in the study or home office. The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) has been formed to help bridge the gap between content stored on a PC or home network and your regular TV. Companies supporting DLNA include Microsoft and Nokia, as well as home electronics companies such as Panasonic and Sony.
The goal of the alliance is to allow TVs and other home entertainment products to more effectively deal with content stored on a home network or streamed from the internet. Initially, those TVs that support DLNA, include a network cable (ethernet) connection, where the TV appears on the home network as a device. Future models with wireless capabilities will connect to a wireless or Wi-Fi router and play video, music and images stored on the home network or internet.

For people with a disability

 An occupational therapist from the Independent Living Centre pointed to these design features as being important for people with a disability:

  • Look for clearly labelled, uncluttered and easy to press panel controls that stick out from the set, rather than those that are hidden within a compartment.
  • Some have buttons that are either too small or stiff – are least useful. Also look for headphone sockets and front AV inputs.
  • Remote controls should be well spaced and labelled – say, with coloured function buttons and large symbols. Ones that are cluttered are not a good choice.

Most of us are used to CRT screens (cathode ray tube). They've been around since television began. But what about the other screen types now on the market? Your choice will depend on price, size, design and darkness of your viewing room and how much you’re prepared to pay for running costs.

 Liquid crystal display (LCD)

LCDLCD TV Pros:
Thin and light
Can be wall-mounted
Very low risk of burn-in of static images, compared to plasma
Some can double as a computer display
High brightness, but some may lack contrast.

Cons: 
Can be relatively expensive, particularly in the larger sizes.
Images can dim as you angle away from the centre of the screen.
Some may have motion blur with fast moving objects on the screen.

CHOICE verdict:
Sleek and trendy, with decent picture quality, but normally more expensive than similar-sized plasmas.

Plasma

plasmaPlasma TV Pros:
Thin and wall-mountable
Screen can be very large
High brightness and contrast.

Cons:
In the past theve been relatively big energy eaters, but they're getting more efficient
Generate lots of heat and may have fan noise
Burn-in of static images a concern if you tend to leave static images on the screen for extended periods
Relatively heavy, and wall-mounting can be costly 

CHOICE verdict:
Big, bright, flat screens, but they are the heavy weights.

Rear projection

Rear projectionRear projection TV Pros:
Big screen at a comparatively low price, but hard to find.

Cons:
Work best in darker rooms
Heavy and fragile (many need regular lamp realignment)
Lamp replacement expensive.
Viewing angles have improved, but you still need to be pretty much directly in front of the screen to get the best picture.

CHOICE verdict:
A lot of the bugs have been ironed out — they now generally have better viewing angles and are available in smaller sizes. Ongoing maintenance costs can be considerable.

Overhead projection

Overhead projectionOverhead projection TV setting Pros:
Biggest screen size of all.

Cons:
Can be difficult to set up
Difficult to watch in anything but a dark room
Require regular cleaning
Lamp replacement expensive.

CHOICE verdict:
Great for the nearest thing to a cinema experience at home, it probably works best in a dedicated, dark media room. It requires additional sound equipment and ongoing maintenance costs can be considerable. 

What is plasma?

A plasma screen is made up of very small gas-filled cells, called sub-pixels, which emit ultraviolet light when an electric current is passed through them. They’re arranged in groups of three, each coated with either red, green or blue fluorescent material that glows when the gas is excited. These groups of three are called pixels. It’s the small size and large number of these cells that give the plasma screen a more detailed image than the more traditional TV screen.

Pros

  • Picture quality is generally good and cm for cm they're usually cheaper than LCD screens
  • They’re very thin (often less than 10 cm) for their width and height
  • They have a flat screen, which means no distortion at the edges
  • Uniform screen brightness when they’re new and probably for life if properly cared for.
  • They can be wall-mounted in some situations.
  • The 16:9 aspect ratio is well suited to both DVDs and digital TV broadcasts.
  • No image distortion from speakers. A plasma screen is unaffected by strong magnetic fields, so you can put your speakers as close as you like.
  • They can accept a wide range of input signals, including most TV signals (PAL, NTSC and SECAM) and have a number of input types, such as standard RCA jacks, S-video, component video and HDMI. Also, most will accept output from a computer via RGB inputs.

Cons

  • Check warranties and how much help you’ll get installing it at home.
  • Pixels aren’t repairable. If one or more cells stop working and you find it noticeable, you may have to have the whole thing replaced.
  • Plasma screens can suffer from ‘burn-in’. This is where a static image on the screen for long periods can become semi-permanent. It is more likely to be a problem early in the screens life but may be reversible by displaying an even grey screen for a time. Also, if you watch a lot of 4:3 aspect ratio TV (including free-to-air TV) on a plasma screen, the cells in the middle will age more quickly than those on the edges, which in extreme cases could lead to uneven brightness over time.
  • They’re heavy despite being thin. Typically a 106 cm screen (measured diagonally) weighs anything from 29.5 kg to 45 kg, the latter about the same as a normal 68 cm TV.
  • They produce heat when operating and may have a built-in fan to help with cooling. Listen to it with the sound off in a quiet room to make sure it isn’t distracting in quiet sections of a movie.
  • If you live in a very hot part of the country, be aware that most manufacturers suggest operating temperatures below 35°C or 40°C.

How long will plasma last?

  •  Estimates vary from as low as 10,000 to more than 60,000 hours.
  • At around four hours’ viewing a day that equates to seven and 41 years respectively, which is more than you’d expect from a normal TV. However, these figures are based on an even loss of brightness and don’t take into account the possibility of one group of cells aging more quickly than those around them, which would result in an irreversible darker spot. This is a real possibility if you were to watch a lot of free-to-air television or play computer games in 4:3 format.
  • Generally warranties vary from one to five years and most exclude pixels that malfunction (unless there’s more of them than the manufacturer deems acceptable), burn-in and heat-related problems.
  • The number of dead pixels that’ll be covered isn’t always stated. Since the other warranties we’ve seen are vague in this area, using phrases like “within normal commercial tolerance” to describe pixel failure. The retailer should explain the manufacturer’s pixel policy before you buy a plasma screen. If they don’t and you find noticeable dead pixels, they’re obliged to replace the screen.

What is LCD?


Liquid crystal displays are also made up of sub-pixels, but unlike plasma screens the LCD sub-pixels don’t emit light, they act like a blind allowing light through from a backlight in varying degrees. Colour is produced by filters in front of each sub-pixel to produce red, green or blue.

Pros

  • LCDs are slim and relatively lightweight compared to plasmas. Most LCDs can be mounted on a wall, occupying less space and keeping them out of toddler reach. You may need to buy a wall-mounting kit though.
  • LCDs can be quite bright which makes them suitable for well lit rooms.
  • LCDs can be made at quite small sizes and most TVs less than 106cm are LCD these days
  • With the introduction of LED back lighting some LCD TVs have become very efficient on terms of power usage when operating 

Cons

  • LCDs don’t have as good blacks as plasma because the backlight tends to leak through somewhat. However, this problem is being addressed and is generally less apparent with newer models.
  • Dead pixels: This is the main drawback of LCDs. LCDs are made up of hundreds of thousands of them, and if one gets stuck in one particular form (say as a particular colour) it’s said to be dead. While you won’t see one dead pixel from a normal viewing distance, a clump of them in one area would be visible as a spot on your screen. It’s worth checking manufacturers’ warranty conditions for dead pixels when you’re buying.
  • LCDs are relatively expensive, but getting closer to plasma costs all the time.

LCD with LED

There's some confusion over what LED really means for television. Currently most LCD TVs have a backlight which is similar to a compact fluorescent light called a CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamp). This is a reasonably efficient light source, but once the TV is turned on it remains at the same brightness and draws power at pretty much the same level regardless of what's on the screen. This has the effect of making it harder to get a good black because light tends to "leak" through the LCD panel.
LED backlighting has two main advantages: 
    1. It appears from our testing so far, to use less power. 
    2. It's possible to vary the light intensity very quickly so light levels can be reduced in dark scenes, which in turn produces better black levels.

However, LED actually comes in two forms: 
    • Side lit LED where the light source comes from an array of LEDs around the screen. This is the cheaper option and can have some issues with evenness of lighting and viewing angles. 
    • Back lit LED where there's an array of LEDs across the back of the screen. This is claimed to produce a better picture quality, but there are very few TVs of this sort in the market at present and they tend to be expensive.

OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) is a technology that may make its way into mainstream TVs in the future. Currently there's only one in the market and it's an 11inch (28cm) Sony model priced at around $7000.

The ‘nits’ and bolts

  • Screen brightness is usually referred to in units of measurement called candelas per square metre (cd/m2) or sometimes nits (1 nit = 1 cd/m2). The more nits, the brighter the picture.
  • A normal TV has a screen brightness between 600 and 800 nits. If an ordinary TV looks OK in your room, a plasma screen of similar brightness will probably be OK. Be careful, though: some manufacturers don’t list the screen brightness and we’ve seen some as low as 300 nits.
  • Resolution is often quoted because plasma and LCD TV screens can have more 'dots per inch' than normal TV screens and can therefore more accurately represent DVD and digital TV broadcasts. If you want the best in high-definition digital TV (HDTV) you’ll probably opt for a more expensive screen with 1920 x 1080 pixels. However, lower definition 1024 x 768 can still do the job nicely. 
  • Display: A standard-definition digital TV (SDTV) signal has 576 lines per screen, each made up of 720 pixels. It’s sometimes referred to as 576i and any plasma screen is capable of displaying it. This signal is displayed on a normal TV using a system called interlacing (hence the ‘i’ in 576i). Each picture is created with two passes of the TV’s electron gun, each pass of the gun covering only half the lines on the screen. One HDTV signal (called 576p) has the same resolution as SDTV but without interlacing, so you get the whole picture in one go.
  • Plasma and LCD screens don’t have guns and passes, and they usually display the image all in one go. However, you may get varying image quality depending on the source and the screen’s resolution. If the number of pixels from the source (such as a TV broadcast or DVD) doesn’t match the resolution of the screen, it will be converted by the screen’s onboard scan rate converter to match. This may result in slight variations in quality from one source to another.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions on digital and high definition TV. Also read our comprehensive guide to digital TV.

For information on digital TV and the closing down of the analogue TV service across the county see the Government's Digital Switchover Taskforce website.

What is high definition?

  • Higher definition or resolution essentially means you get more detail, but not necessarily a better overall image.
  • Some TVs are ‘HD ready’. This means they can display a high-definition signal, but they may display it at different resolutions. If not, to receive HD you'll have to buy an HD set-top box (currently the most common digital set-top boxes are standard-definition, and a high-definition box will set you back a little more).
  • Theoretically, HD provides superior-quality pictures with better definition via several TV channels.
  • But from what we’ve seen, at smaller screen sizes (under 94cm) the difference between standard and high definition doesn’t seem to warrant the extra expense, particularly given the range of extra channels in the HD format remains limited.
  • In fact, the chief advantage of HD currently seems to be that it can broadcast Dolby Digital sound (as favoured by the movie industry). So if you have a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround-sound system or home theatre hooked up to your HDTV set-top box, you’ll be able to take advantage of programs broadcast in that sound format.

Video: Digital TV switch - what you need to know.

With broadcasts going digital between now and 2013, Chris Ruggles tells you what you need to know about the DTV switchover.

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