What the best plasma TV has

  • Great performance. Plasma technology's main appeal is its tremendous picture quality compared to LCD and LED sets. Black levels outstrip comparable TVs of other current technologies, and even budget and mid-range plasma TVs can compete with all but the highest-end and highest-priced LED sets on that front. Colors of the best performers are so accurate and well saturated that they look natural on-screen. Likewise, viewing angles are typically far wider than with LED sets and screen uniformity is better, meaning no stray bright spots to ruin the technology's great black-level performance. Brightness can be an issue, however, and many plasma TVs look their best in dimly lit rooms. In addition, many less expensive plasma TVs have fairly reflective screens.
  • Extras that add value. Many plasma TVs -- including some budget options -- offer 3D and streaming features. With 3D, look for sets that offer good picture quality and artifact-free performance. Ghosting is typically well controlled, but you may need to change a setting or two to get the best 3D picture. Internet streaming should include a good selection of content and the specific content you want; not all providers are available on all sets. Some sets offer only a pared-down version of the streaming features found on more upscale models. Unless you have a wired network (Ethernet) connection nearby, built-in Wi-Fi is a definite plus. Some very high-end plasma TVs offer even more advanced features such as motion-sensitive remotes, gesture control and the ability to add new features down the line.
  • Design means more than great looks. Plasma technology doesn't allow for the super-thin sets possible with LED, but many plasma TVs add subtle styling touches that are often well received. More important are factors like the adequacy of connections to handle your home theater setup. Likewise, remote controls aren't exciting -- at least when it comes to standard clickers -- but they should be comfortable to hold with a button arrangement that's easy to use, even when the lights are low. High-end sets may include a touchpad to make navigating smart features easy. Some love these; others say that touchpad remots require a bit of a learning curve to master.

Know before you go

How big a screen size do you need? Plasma TVs come in fewer screen sizes than LCD sets. Although more screen sizes are available than before, the smallest current plasma TVs are 42 inches, while the biggest ones sold to consumers are 65 inches. LCD and LED TVs, on the other hand, can range from just a few inches to 90 inches in size.

How big a screen do you really want? Because plasma HDTVs have much higher resolution than conventional TVs, you can sit closer than you formerly could. That means you can get away with a bigger screen in a smaller room. Even so, a very big screen could look great in a showroom but overpower a living room or family room. A lot of websites offer advice on screen size. THX provides some suggestions, as does Audioholics.com.

What's the lighting like in your viewing room? While some plasma TVs do just fine in brighter areas, most look their best in dimmer settings. The great blacks plasma TVs are known for can become washed out in rooms that are brightly lit. Many plasma screens are also prone to glare because they're more likely to reflect any light sources. If you want a plasma TV for a room that's not perfectly light-controlled, only consider sets with higher brightness and special glare-fighting screens; appropriate sets are identified in our reviews. Otherwise, consider LED/LCD technology.

Are you concerned about energy efficiency? Plasma TVs are more energy efficient than they used to be, but they still trail LCD TVs by a wide margin. Despite improvements in the latest generation of plasma sets, LCD televisions are typically far more efficient to operate. In most cases, only the smallest plasma TV screen sizes in a given series are Energy Star qualified.

Is streaming worth worrying about? Streaming offers additional entertainment options when your TV provider disappoints. Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, Vudu, CinemaNow, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Pandora and more are among the major streaming apps. There are hundreds of others, but the lineup of streaming partners will differ by manufacturer. Most sets with streaming do provide a varied roster of sources, although some less expensive sets might have only a handful. Built-in Wi-Fi is a must unless you have a hardwired network connection.

Is 3D of interest? 3D is available in most high-end and some mid-range plasma TVs. Plasma sets do a good job with 3D for the most part, although some issues like ghosting do crop up from time to time. Keep in mind that current plasma sets exclusively use active-shutter technology, which pleases purists more than it does lots of typical viewers. On the plus side, active shutter glasses cost a fraction of what they used to, and many manufacturers include free ones in the box.

Should you be worried about burn-in? Caused by damaged pixels that leave a permanent ghost of a static image on the screen, burn-in was a problem with early plasma models. However, new technology reduces this risk, and experts generally say burn-in is no longer a concern with most sets. LCD TVs have no burn-in risk, although temporary image retention is a similar but less severe problem. In this case, a static scene leaves behind an annoying ghost that takes several minutes or more to completely disappear. Most plasma TVs include anti-image-retention features to get rid of temporary image shadows more quickly. Reports say that temporary image retention seems to decrease as a plasma display ages.

What about the warranty? Check the manufacturer's policy before buying online; some have strict policies regarding authorized dealers. In those cases, if you buy your plasma TV from an unauthorized dealer, you'll probably violate the terms of the manufacturer's warranty, although the retailer might offer a substitute. While there can be a substantial difference in price between authorized and unauthorized dealers, if you plan to buy from the latter, be sure to calculate your threshold for risk on such a large purchase and ask the dealer about warranty coverage.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Dollar for dollar, plasma TVs cost less than LED sets of equal screen size, picture quality and features. The trade-off is that plasma's unique characteristics require you to consider where you'll use the TV when determining if plasma is right for you. If you plan to watch your set in a room that's often well lit or that has inconveniently placed windows, an LED set might ultimately provide more satisfaction. Plasma also uses more energy than an LED TV, so the annual cost of ownership will be a little higher. Many manufacturers have introduced unilateral pricing policies that limit the lowest price at which their sets can be sold by authorized dealers. As a result, the TV will cost the same whether you buy it online or from a brick-and-mortar retailer, even during major discounting events like Black Friday.

What's to come

In early October, reports surfaced -- again -- that Panasonic will soon be leaving the plasma TV business. This Reuters report pegged the end date as March 2014, saying that's when the company will close its last plasma-panel manufacturing plant. Panasonic has neither confirmed nor denied the report, saying only that the decision has not yet been made.

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