The big picture

A ghost appears on the battlefields of competing technologies. It's the ghost of Beta, the home video technology that succumbed in the 1980s to rival VHS. It haunts garage sales where battered Beta versions of movies like Stripes and Police Academy bake in the sun alongside Peter Frampton 8-track tapes.

The ghost might have some company soon. Another home entertainment technology death duel is under way as two different TV technologies — liquid crystal display (LCD) and plasma — vie for dominance of the big-screen, flat-panel television market.

Until recently the technologies weren't really in direct competition, as plasma was more suited to bigger screens while LCD had the edge on smaller ones. Giant LCD sets were available, but they relied on bulky image-projecting equipment behind their screens, and thereby lacked the fashionable thinness of plasma flat-screen units.

But LCD technology is evolving as manufacturers turn out increasingly larger flat-panel units. LCD manufacturers can now make a flat-screen TV as big as 46 inches without compromising picture quality. And they say even bigger sets are in development.

LCD is now in plasma country, and this means war — a war some say plasma can't hope to win.

Electronics giant Sony stopped manufacturing plasma TVs 18 months ago. John Challinor, Sony Canada's general manager of corporate communications, calls plasma a "high maintenance" product.

"The (sets) offer a very good picture, a very bright picture," he says. "But they have serious problems as relates to burn-in." (Burn-in is where an unchanging image stays on your TV screen so long that it gets burned onto its surface.)

News source: Toronto Star

Challinor says the static on-screen layout of round-the-clock news channels, where the screen is divided into boxes, is especially problematic. The black bars on a widescreen movie can also burn into a screen.

Challinor describes some other problems:

Plasma sets are very susceptible to temperature fluctuation in a room;

You've got to have it in a location with a consistent temperature range.

They don't like direct sunlight — it distorts your ability to see the screen-face clearly.

The sets don't like to be moved from room to room, because of the sensitivity of the gases inside the screen.

Another factor in Sony's abandonment of plasma was its shorter lifespan. "Plasma has about a 40,000 hour life. LCD has about a 60,000 hour life."

Meanwhile, Challinor says, LCD manufacturers are rapidly correcting the product's deficiencies in the large, flat-panel format.

"LCD technology has advanced significantly in the last 18 months. There were issues with ghosting. LCD couldn't handle fast movement — in a hockey game you'd lose the puck. That's no longer the case."

Challinor is confident plasma's dominance of the flat-panel large-sized TV market is almost over. "LCD does not (currently) have flat panel in the 60- or 70-inch range, but a year from now you'll see that in the marketplace."

The outlook for plasma televisions isn't any sunnier in the office of John Birks, a home and consumer technology specialist at market research firm NPD Group. He points to big changes in Canadian television sales over the past 12 months.

Of overall television sales, 13 per cent were big-screen rear-projection units. These are too chubby to hang like a picture frame on your wall, Birks says, but they do have the giant screen.

Plasma sets, which achieve that elegant, slim look on huge screens, accounted for 6 per cent of unit sales. LCD sets of all sizes accounted for 18 per cent. (The rest of the sales involved other types of televisions, like the old-fashioned cathode-ray tube models and portable transistorized units.)

Birks says TV sales in general are up 9 per cent in the past 12 months, with 2.5 million sets sold.

"If you look at it from the standpoint of LCD and plasma, the percentage increase in plasma was 283 per cent. The percentage increase in LCD was 330 per cent."

Birks, however, warns that such comparisons must be put in context. Yes, LCD sales increased more than plasma sales. But LCD sets are currently smaller than plasma. Plasma competes in the large-size market, where sales are fewer.

Nonetheless, Birks says plasma is in trouble.

"Probably the best analogy people are using is Beta and VHS from the early VCR days," adds Birks. "Some people think that plasma is the Beta. The reason plasma sets exist is they were the only ones with big, flat screens, until recently. LCD (increasingly) offers big screen TVs with a nice format."

Birks says LCDs are a bit expensive right now, so there will be a transition period.

"There's a future for plasma, but I don't think it's strong," he says. If plasma endures, Birks sees it as a lower-cost alternative to LCD in the big screen sizes. "But you can also see prices on LCD dropping. So it's going to be competitive with plasma."

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