Plasma TVs on the Way Out; Still Best

This week has been somewhat of a traumatic week for plasma HDTVs and fans of the technology.

First in line to deliver bad news was Pioneer. A long time advocate of plasma technology, Pioneer announced that it will completely withdraw from producing plasma TVs by March. The announcement came to the surprise and dismay of many serious HDTV enthusiasts as Pioneer is considered to be the best maker of plasma TVs.

Why did Pioneer hold this acclaim? Its Kuro and Kuro Elite line of plasma panels are coveted among home theater enthusiasts due to their superior, inky black levels. While a panel's black level isn't an entire indication of its overall quality, it's a measurement taken very seriously by enthusiasts and greatly affects the quality of a movie. However, those who wanted the highly prized Kuro blackness had to shell out serious money for the displays, and even more for a Kuro Elite.

But don't be fooled. Simply splurging for a plasma over an LCD won't necessarily afford you deep, rich black. A plasma's black level is affected by the the necessity to go through a discharge reset when the display is illuminated. This means that for every moment a pixel is lit, a moment then follows where that pixel has to be discharged. This process adds a faint glow to the screen, which directly affects black levels. Obviously, this process is better on some plasmas--like the Kuros--than others. For those looking to pick-up a top of the line plasma that has the deepest of blacks, there's no better time than now to pick up a Pioneer Kuro before they disappear for good.

Pioneer's exit from the display scene won't be the only news to put a gloomy atmosphere on the HDTV market. Vizio announced this week that it too will ditch plasma technology completely. Vizio has gained significant market share in the U.S. since the brand launched a few years ago and positioned itself as the mainstream and affordable brand. While Vizio TVs aren't the creme de la creme of HDTVs, they are good value for many.

Despite the shake up in the HDTV market place and the announcement by various manufacturers to stop making plasmas, it continues to be, in my opinion, a superior technology for HDTV panels. While LCD panels are more affordable and more widely available, the inherent cons of the technology take away from the overall quality.

For example, backlighting on LCD panels remain on at all times, and light emission is controlled by a liquid crystal layer, which passes light through to a color filter at varying intensities to create the final image. While LCDs have improved significantly about being able to block light from passing through, it's still a primary draw back of the technology. LED based LCD panels that can turn off backlighting at specific screen locations help LCDs in this department greatly, but aren't yet available in very big screen sizes and are priced significantly higher than traditional LCDs.

Another area where plasmas edge out LCDs is in response time and problems with ghosting. LCD manufacturers try to combat this problem by decreasing pixel response times to very low levels, but most do it by applying more voltage to the liquid crystal gates. While the results do improve pixel response time, they introduce inverse ghosting problems, where certain colors will appear to be inverted.

For many consumers, the primary focus has been on LCDs, due to several factors, but mainly affordability. A quick visit to a retailer or even an online store will reveal that the majority of panels being sold are LCDs. So where's the saving grace for plasmas? Panasonic, the world's largest manufacturer of plasmas will still produce displays on the technology for the foreseeable future. Hitachi too, has its line of plasma TVs as well as other manufacturers.

If you're unable to pick up a Kuro display before they vaporize out of the market place, fear not. We're equally fans of Panasonic's line of plasma HDTVs. While they don't--yet--produce a Kuro's inkiness, they come quite close, and in some other areas edge out Kuros. The Panasonics also sell for way less, so check them out if you're in the market for a big flat panel TV. Of course, we're all in the market for big expensive TVs right now...