LCD vs. LED vs. Plasma vs. DLP Television
There are many different types of televisions, but for most people the decision comes down to LCD or Plasma. Years ago there may have been strong reasons to choose one type over another, but this is less of a issue today. The major problems with both technologies have mostly been solved. Price vs. quality is now the biggest determining factor. In the past, LCD & Plasma each had their advantages: plasma had better contrast but also had burn-in issues; LCDs last much longer but also cost more. Today there is no clear winner in the LCD vs. Plasma battle unless you are determined to purchase the best TV money can buy.
Now that the lines have blurred between LCD and Plasma, it is more important to understand the different considerations when purchasing a new TV. Below are some of the things you should consider when looking at televisions. Note that many manufacturer specifications aren't completely accurate (if not completely made up), so find a good online review from a trusted source before making a purchase. Many sites get paid to write reviews, so I tend to stick with reputable sites like CNET or companies that also have printed magazines like Consumer Reports, Sound & Vision, Home Theater Magazine, Stereophile... Find what features are important to you and then do your research and be sure to do side by side comparisons at the store.
You should also be aware that there are options other than LCD or Plasma. It is hard to match the display size of a home theater projector, with the ability to project a 100" image for under $1000. DLP rear projection TVs are thicker than flat panels, but like projectors you can get a huge screen at low cost. LED backlit LCD screens are gaining popularity. These screens are even thinner than normal fluorescent backlit LCD panels and when done properly they allow for better contrast than you typically seen in a LCD panel.
Here is a table for quick feature lookup. Scroll down for full details...
|Price, Life Span, Power Consumption||LCDs are cheap enough that you won't find the other technologies in any sizes below 42". In the larger sizes LCDs are more expensive than other technologies, but not by much. LCDs last longer than most at 100,000 hours or more.||Plasmas are cheaper than LCD in the larger sizes, but their life span is about half that of a LCD screen.||In the very large image sizes (100"), projectors can't be beat on price. They do use expensive bulbs that must be replaced every couple of years.||DLP systems are also cheaper than LCD and plasma and are available in larger sizes, but the quality isn't as good. Like rear projection systems, they also use expensive bulbs that must be replaced.|
|Brightness, Contrast Ratio, Glare||LCDs are brighter and have better anti-glare features for well lit rooms. LED based LCDs can also have a good contrast ratio.||Plasma TVs tend to be darker and the glass is more reflective leading to glare problems in bright rooms, but they are better at showing detail in the darker areas of an image.||Obviously projectors are very bad in bright light and are usually only used in special home theater rooms.||DLPs have a good bright image and their non-glass screen coating eliminates most glare problems.|
|Color||The color quality of LCD panels is improving, but older and low end systems cannot match a Plasma TV.||Plasmas still generally have better color saturation and better detail in the low end.||Projector quality will vary with the manufacturer but at best can only match the capabilities of a LCD system.||DLP TVs have poor color saturation and poor detail.|
|Response||Some low end LCDs experience problems with motion trails. These issues have been almost resolved in newer models.||Plasma TVs naturally have a good response and do not suffer from motion issues.||Front Projection systems tend not to specify response times, but they are better than DLP.||DLP systems typically have a poor response and suffer from trailing issues.|
|Other Considerations||Viewing angle not quite as good as plasma, but probable good enough.||Plasma TVs can suffer from burn-in problems.||Need a home theater system for audio.||DLP TVs can suffer from burn-in problems. DLPs are very large and must rest on the floor and can require calibration when moved.|
Plasma TVs are typically cheaper than LCDs at the same size, but if you find a good sale the prices can be comparable. The best times to purchase a television are not when you would expect. The big Black Friday and Super Bowl sales are good but you can do better. Retail stores typically have the best prices in the month leading up to Thanksgiving. In the week before Thanksgiving the prices go back up so that the Black Friday sales seem good. This isn't saying that Black Friday sales are bad, but you can do better. The prices between Black Friday and Christmas fluctuate depending on the economy and how the stores are doing financially. Sometimes you can beat the Black Friday sales. Sometimes not. The stores will again raise prices in the week leading up to Christmas in an attempt to get more money from last minute impulse buyers. These higher prices tend to hold steady past Christmas and through the Super Bowl and end about a two months after the game.Brightness
Brightness is simply a measure of how much light is generated by the monitor. Brighter screens are easier to see in a well lit room. Brightness is one of those manufacturer specs that are never realistic, so check the reviews. LCD screens are typically brighter than Plasma. Projectors require a dark room to be able to see the picture and are most popular in basement home theaters.Glare
The anti-glare features of a television can be more important than brightness. If you have ever tried to watch TV on an old tube TV when the sun was reflecting off of it, you understand why glare can be an issue. LCD screens deal better with reflected light vs. plasma and again projectors don't work when there is lots of light.Contrast Ratio
This is a ratio between the brightest white and the darkest black that the monitor can display. Obviously, if a television is brighter then it can have a better contrast ratio, but this measurement is used more to determine how easy it is to see fine detail on the screen, especially in the darker areas of an image. Plasmas typically have the best contrast ratio because they have better detail in the black colors. This is because a plasma monitor can turn the plasma cell off to create black colors, while the fluorescent tubes or bulbs in other technologies are always on full brightness even when showing black colors. Some (not all) LED based LCDs are the exception to this rule because they can turn off parts of the screen when necessary allowing for better blacks and a better contrast ratio.Screen Size
Previously, Plasma TVs were more expensive than LCD TVs in the larger sizes, but now the prices have leveled out and it is more of a quality issue. There are large 55"+ low end LCD panels for under $1000 while plasma TVs now tend to focus on the higher end market. DLP and Projectors tend to focus on the larger (80"+) sizes that cannot be achieved with LCD or Plasma which still maintaining a low price.Resolution
Today almost all TVs are 1080P or True HD, which translates to a 1920x1080 pixel resolution progressive scan. This means that there are 1,920 X 1,080 = 2,073,600 individual colored dots that make up the image. More pixels mean a better quality image. You may find some small (42" and less) low end LCDs that are 720P, which oddly enough is a 1366x768 pixel resolution. Unless you are getting a small TV for a bedroom, kitchen... I would stick with 1080P only.Color Saturation
Color saturation measures the amount of gray in a pixel. More gray means a lower color saturation. Plasma typically has better color saturation for the same reason that it has a better Contrast Ratio. It can completely turn off pixels for a black image instead of letting light leak through for a grayish black. LED based LCDs also have a better Color Saturation over standard LCD panels.Viewing Angle
Plasma TVs are also better at off axis viewing with good TVs letting the viewer see the picture from any angle - all 180 degrees in front of the TV. LCD TVs may claim 175 degree viewing, but usually some of the colors start to drift well before then. Be sure to see for yourself in a store before making a purchase. Projectors also have very good viewing angles because the light is directly projected on the front screen. The viewing angle on DLPs vary, but are typically not as good as an LCD screen.Burn-in
Burn-in refers to leaving the same image displayed on a TV too long so that the image is permanently displayed on the television. This can happen when a movie is paused, when a TV station displays their logo on the screen in the same spot for hours on end or when playing video games. Plasma and DLP TVs are the only types that will experience burn-in. Most problems with burn-in have now been resolved. Any DVD or TiVo systems when paused will go into a screen saver. Station logos are now animated or semi-transparent to prevent burn-in. Also, the TVs themselves have some internal protection against burn-in. Still it is possible to damage a Plasma TV by leaving the same image displayed on it too long. If you are going to play a lot of video games or use the TV as a computer monitor, then it is suggested that you get a LCD TV.Lifespan
TVs can vary so check your manufacturer specs, but typically LCD TVs will last twice as long as a Plasma TV. This means that the back lighting on an LCD TV will last twice as long as the plasma cells on a Plasma screen. Note that this does not indicate if any other electronic component will break first. This is based more on manufacturer reputation and known quality. LED backlit LCDs screens should last even longer than conventional LCDs due to the long life of the LEDs themselves. Also, if one LED burns out it will be less noticeable than an entire fluorescent tube failing. Projectors and DLPs are lit by replaceable bulbs which need to be replaced every couple of years.Refresh Rate
The refresh rate is the number of times a second that a new image is drawn to the TV. A faster refresh rate typically means a sharper image and less motion blur. Note that motion blur is typically not a problem on plasma televisions, but some plasma still feature 120Hz rates anyway. LCD TVs are available in 60, 120, and 240Hz. 120Hz and higher is a minimum requirement for 3D Shutter technology.Response Time
This measures the time it takes for a pixel to go from active to inactive to active again. A faster response time means less motion blur. These times usually measure from 10-30ms (thousandths of a second), although some TVs and LCD monitors claim 3ms response times. Here the manufacturer is usually referring to only one color that can flip at that speed and is not true representation of the TV. Plasma technology has a natural advantage over LCD technology in that it naturally has a low response time, but LCDs are catching up. DLP TVs typically have a poor response time more due to the low price point vs. capability. Projectors perform on par with LCD screens.Power Consumption
Plasma TVs consume a lot more power than LCD TVs. So much so that some countries have considered banning large plasma televisions. LCD and projector power consumption will be based on screen size and brightness.Thickness
LCD thickness is typically around 2" and plasma TV thickness is usually around 3". LED LCD screens can get down to 1". In all cases, they are much smaller than old tube based TVs and any DLP televisions. If screen thickness is important to you and you are mounting the TV on the wall,, then you will also want to get a wall mount that is as thin as possible. Many wall mounts are 2-3" thick, but you can find some that allow the TV to be 1" from the wall. In any case, nothing can beat a projector screen when it comes to thickness.3D Capabilities
All TV technologies are capable of supporting 3D but LCDs TVs have the most models available. See our 3D Theater and 3D TV guides for more information. For LCD panels, a 120Hz or 240Hz model is required for 3D Shutter Glasses to provide 60 frames a second for each eye.Sound
The speakers on Plasma and LCD TVs are very small due to the fact that the TVs themselves are so thin. A typical flat panel TV will not be as loud as most tube based TVs - sometimes not loud enough to hear if there is a lot of noise in the room. Many people use a sound bar or a full stereo system for audio. Many projectors don't even have speakers and a stereo will be required. Even if they did, the sound would be coming form the projector and not the screen. DLP TVs are deep and have room for large speakers. Some even put sub-woofers under the TV.Extras - Smart TV
Some TVs offer extras like Widgets (small Internet applications that show the weather, sports scores...), web browsing, hard drive storage for movies, USB Drive ports for showing pictures or home movies, or the ability to view movies from the web using YouTube, Netflix, Blockbuster...Mounting
When mounting a LCD or Plasma TV, I like to get a wall mount that allows the TV to be as close to the wall as possible. Plasma TVs tend to be heavier than LCD screens and may take several people to mount it to the wall. DLP TVs are not mounted - they sit on the floor and they take up a lot of space. Projectors can be portable and sit on a table, or they can be mounted to the ceiling. Permanent wiring will be an issue with any type of wiring. For more information, see our TV Wiring Guide.Environmental Considerations
Plasma displays can be affected by high altitudes. The altitude causes the gas inside each pixel to be stressed forcing them to work harder. In high altitudes, either go with an LCD or look for a special high altitude capable Plasma. All types of TVs can be affected by the weather and should not be used outdoors. TVs can usually be stored in hot or cold weather, but be sure to allow the TV to reach room temperature any allow any excess condensation from rapid temperature change to evaporate before using the TV. This means if you are storing a TV in a cottage over the winter, let the cottage warm up for a day before plugging it in.