Technology Deathmatch: LCD vs Plasma vs OLED – TV Take Down

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Good afternoon grappling fans and welcome once again to the only show in the consumer technology universe where hardware, software and ware between the two rip each other chip from circuit board in the quest to find out who is the greatest of them all. Last week’s big event saw the iPhone 3G and BlackBerry Storm go five rounds trying to tear each other new recharge sockets and see who really was the smartest phone. The ringside gentry have only just managed to pick the solder out of their fur coats and the images of cracked WVGAs from their nightmares.

Today we’ve got a first for you as the specced-up smack down goes triple threat. We’ve gone three for the price of two to compete with all the other credit crunch bargain deals, not the we ever have any problem selling out the Deathmatch Arena. Yes, the -32nd floor of Shiny Towers is buzzing with anticipation this right now as we add a new twist to an age old debate.

Still half an hour before the fighters take the stage in our illegal den of high stakes and low morals but the mold soaked walls are already fit to bursting with the twice capacity crowd who’ve somehow pushed their ways beyond the gates and straight through our tech-tight ticketing system.

With viewing angle being of paramount importance in today’s bout we steep-raked the seating on all four sides but the extra numbers have filled the two metre ringside gully and now everyone’s on their feet. The back rows tell the front rows to sit down and the front rows shake their fists at the uninvited in the pit who push and bustle and shoulder and jostle to get elbows out of their ribs, heals off their toes and all for a better view of the action; a swarming sea of grey shirted arms and flat caps.

This crowd has come for quality, a final fight to the death and that’s exactly what they’ll get in the challenge to decide which is the superior kind of screen. Yes, ladies and gentleman, it’s the flat panel extravaganza, the home cinema hum dinger, the Technology Deathmatch TV Take Down.

The ring’s gone RGB today with the fourth turnbuckle a neutral grayscale. In the red corner, floating its way to the canvas above the swaying crowd supported by electrified neon and xenon gases is the bookies’ favourite, the winner of big screen match-ups gone by, the connoisseurs’ choice – Plasma!

Punching a path through the mob to get to the green corner, using the full weight of all the financial backing and commercial support, jaw breaking its way past any opposition from the crowd, crotch crunching and squeezing the life out of any resistance, is the contender with more sizes than a Clerks shoe, the people’s popular choice – LCD!

The two old adversaries square, or rather widescreen, up to one another; flat glass panels shining bright, impossibly clean under the Deathmatch swinging lights hung low from the vault of a ceiling tens metres above. So locked are they looking deep to see how the other has developed in the last 12 months, so transfixed are they as well as the crowd that all miss the third challenger, the new kid on the block, nipping its way past ankles until it flies on over the top of the ropes with its 11″ diagonal screen an abyss of absolute black. Yes, all the way from Minato Japan, seen only once before at CES 2008 and a handful of occasions since, in the blue corner is the manic organic – OLED!

Round One – Cost

There’s a very simple problem for people buying expensive television sets – they’re expensive. Horribly expensive. They’re one of the most expensive items in the house and that’s the first question on these fighters’ minds as they come together for the very first time.

Classically far cheaper than it’s more prestigious rival, the LCD runs to the centre to take an easy first swipe at the Plasma but as its shining acrylic frame comes down to make the first screen scratch, it’s met with the rock solid strength of the Plasma’s dark polished outer edge. The two stand quaking in this first show of nerve. Pulses of electrical charge ripple through their bodies, beads of liquid crystal and subliming gases permeate their innards, yet not so much as a moment of weakness on the outside for their opposite number to see.

The crowd roars its support depending where their heart or their money lies. Voices of encouragement pipe up from faces jammed between the bottom ropes, “Go on son, kick his glass in. Cut his tube open.”
The little OLED jumps up from its side of the ring flying head height at the other two, eager to get in on the fight, but it’s batted away into the far ropes with a backhand flick form the remote control of the LCD. OLEDs are hideously expensive. The only one sold at the moment is the 11″ Sony and that retails at around £1,700. For the same money you can pretty much buy a top plasma of around 50″ and several very good LCDs.

The little OLED’s lucky to still be in the ring and still in the fight. Cracks start to jump their way in fits and starts across the plasma’s glass under the stress of the struggle; a sickening new crunch with every inch.

Plasmas may be a lot less expensive than they used to be but you still get more bang for your buck with an LCD. There are plenty of low quality versions of the latter for peanuts, and you’d do very well to avoid them, but for £600 you can get yourself a stunning model. Plasmas start at just under a thousand pounds and that’s just too much of an outlay for the average Joe, the above average Joe too.

The Plasma looks down in horror as the fissures in its chest open up exposing the glowing phosphors and only the bell saves any deeper damage as the referee separates the two fighters; the LCD unwilling to let go, a crazed look in its eye, madness wrapping its soul.

The OLED dusts the canvas grit of fights gone by from its pristine casing while its trainer massages back in some self-respect. Team Plasma patch up their fighter’s wounds with a stack of swabs and a roll of insulating tape. There’ll be time to make it look pretty later. The LCD sits and waits.

Round Two – Practicalities (Size, Longevity & Viewing Angle)

The three are up fast from their corners and those that could reach their mobile phones or their bookies in the interval have ceased their flurry of bets; shifting odds, notes stuffed into hands.

Having spent a fortune on a brand new TV, you want it to fit conveniently in your house and you want the thing to last. All three schools have something to say on the matter. Each has been told to go for the throat in this round, to finish it early. It’s going to be a blood bath of tiny pixels and fluorescent fragments; a nebula of gases on a slick of liquid crystal and organic polymer. The canvas will be dripping.

The noise in the arena is deafening as each fighter looks to the other wondering which way to turn first. Words from their trainers are lost in the echoing cacophony of insults and anger. Screwed up programs and lost bets fall like snow as they look to their corners; the mouths of their team moving but not sound can be heard. The three are on their own and all technique forgotten, they windmill in.

The first blow lands on the Plasma, a foot of the LCD straight to the thicker frame of its envied cousin. Plasma screens, although still a lot smaller than a CRT, are still the chunkiest of the three and always will be. They’re made of a network of pixel cell chambers filled with neon and xenon gases. Behind each one are the red, green and blue colour phosphors that make the picture glow.

There hasn’t been the same level of heavy investment in plasma technology in the last few years. Manufacturers have chosen to pile money into the more economically viable LCDs, so the Plasmas haven’t got any thinner the way LCDs have. Plasmas are heavy, thick and they use a lot more power than the other two.

The Plasma’s frame snaps off completely as the first blow connects square on. The exposed wires fizzle at the damp arena air . The second strike comes in; a knee straight to the middle of the screen. The patched up crack rips through the insulating tape and shatters the front panel corner to corner. It’s only held on by the glue at the sides of the frame.

The Plasma is on its knees, beaten. One hit and the glue will fail, the pressure of its own gaseous inside will tear it apart. It looks up to the heavens and closes its eyes; its final image, the orange stains on Deathmatch ceiling. But as the LCD swings down for the last cut, it’s knocked clean of its feet with a flying head butt into the jaw from the plucky little 11″ OLED.

With all the research and development pumped in, LCDs have got thinner and thinner – Sony’s new 9.9mm Bravia shown off at IFA, the thinnest – and they use 30% less power than plasmas but the OLEDs are thinner still – wafer thin, and they’re power consumption is very low too.

The little OLED jumps crunching onto the chest of the prostrate LCD and tears at its front glass panel; a furious pounding of its fist, one after another after another until it’s joined by the Plasma, landing with a flying elbow from the top of the ropes sending the LCD’s glass showering into the front row of the pit catching the light in a thousand tiny prisms.

The LCD may be thin but the Plasma has a better viewing angle – almost perfect over 180 degrees. There’s been considerable development with LCDs on this issue and they can manage up to 175 degrees or so but they still have a sweet central spot where the picture is best of all. You don’t want an angled position one.

The Plasma and the OLED work on the spluttering LCD as it chokes on its own rod shaped liquid crystals trickling from its chest into its mouth. It only manages to roll heavily away with the aid of the bottom rope and the exhaustion of the other two, leaving the remains of its front panel and frame on the now sticky canvas behind.

The LCD is a fighter. It’s in it for the long haul and it will last for 60,000 hours of watching guaranteed. Plasmas were criticised for their short lives in the past but the modern day sets are built to stand the test of time almost as well as LCDs.

Even the screen burn that plasmas can suffer is really not an issue any more. They only occur with static images left on the screen for more than four hours at a time and they’re not even permanent should they happen. They fade in a few days. It’s an old and pointless argument.

On the other hand, LCDs can suffer pixel death, not too much of a crime if very small and few but if a they happen in the same place, then you’ve got some really annoying dead spots on your very pricey flatscreen TV.

As the Plasma and the LCD regain their composure and their feet, they turn to the OLED together and issue a swift double boot straight to the little screen sending the tyke crunching into the far turnbuckle, where it slides down to slump on the canvas below.

In terms of size, both plasmas and LCDs have a good product range; lots of variety. However, the only OLED around at the moment is tiny and, although other, larger models will soon be made, they’ll remain hugely expensive. Their construction is simpler than LCDs and plasmas but still they have a lower factory yield with more ending up failing quality tests. Worst of all though, is that they have the shortest life span – not good when combined with the highest price. The blue pixels of OLEDs tend to lose their brightness quickest of all, meaning not only a short life but a bloody annoying colour imbalanced when they’re on their way out too.

The bell goes just before the count on the OLED gets to 10 and it’s dragged to the corner for the acrid sharp shock of the smelling salts while the other two teams try to work miracles on their tortured sets; battered, broken and spilling guts, the three meet for the final round.

Round Three – Picture Quality

The Plasma makes straight for the LCD, sparks flying from its semi-exposed honeycomb structure knowing that this is the round it can win. LCDs may have a better natural resolution than plasmas but the picture quality, no matter how much it’s been worked upon, simply cannot compete.

Contrast is the key and for TVs that comes down to the blacks. The blacker a background you can make, the deeper your palate of colours against it can be. LCD displays are constantly backlit either by LEDs or fluorescent tubes. This light leaks through the pixels meaning that LCDs just cannot capture proper blacks. The phosphors of a plasma are the source of the light and the colour and so dark blacks can be achieved.

The second big issue for LCDs is the refresh rate. The switching on and off of the pixels takes a certain amount of time, even if it’s a matter of milliseconds and any lag in this on/off time results in blurring or ghosting of the picture. You’ll notice it on LCDs in fast action films. Some LCDs are much better at disguising this effect these days – those with a signal response rate of 100MHz are best of all – but none of this is a problem for plasma technology.

The pixels are not switched on an off with plasma. The plasma gas is in contact with the pixel chambers at all times and those areas will light up when electrified. It does mean that plasmas do not quite have that same punchy look as LCDs but they tend to produce better, deeper, more natural looking pictures.

The LCD limps back from the centre of the canvas, trying to circle its way out of trouble but it’s impossible to dance with your guts dragging along the floor. With its final reserves, the Plasma scoops up the remains of its rival and holds it high in the air for the baying crowd to see. Light shines from the remains of the broken body in the darkness of the Deathmatch Arena. The Plasma turns in theatrical repose, its partner aloft in the ballet but before it can bring its auld foe down onto its knee, the arena goes dark. The bulbs fade to an orange filament glow and disappear . The crowd is silent

The last image that anyone can see is tiny OLED flicking the switch on its battered frame. The picture powered on, and the world went black.

The OLED can create blacks deeper than any other before; absolute blacks, blacks deep, hypnotic, blinding. You simply have to witness the depth of colour on an OLED TV to believe it. Jaws will always drop, sharp breath is always drawn. Stunning is only word to describe it.

The OLED works on electrically charging an organic polymer layer which itself creates the light. There are no back bulbs and there is no always on effect that even though slight, you do still get with plasma technology and the on/off refresh rate is timed in microseconds, not milli ones like the LCD. The picture is flawless.

When the lights finally come back on in the arena. the once seething crowd cling on to each other for safety. Stock still they sit, faces fixed in horror. In the ring lies a pile of dust where the Plasma once stood with the LCD in its arms.

The OLED puts on its coat and walks out past the frozen people.

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Daniel Sung

7 comments

  • Good article with correct points. Energy consumption is really a challenging task to compare LCD and Plasma technologies (none of the screens consume fixed energy all the time; it changes according to darkness, contrast, light of the picture, lit pixels, etc.). An authority needs to make very precise tests with different materials (for example:1 hour football match + 10hours standard definition TV broadcasting + 1 hour DVD film + 1 hour DVD cartoon etc. etc.) with panels connected to energy analysers and use exactly the same material to test all the panels each time and than announce the energy consumption of each panel (or may be give them A, B, C, D, F etc grades). That will surely be done in the future.

  • Great article. I got a chance to take the Sony XEL-1 home for a week. Amazing picture, but not a realistic product yet. Top marks to Sony though for coming out with the first OLED TV.

    The way LCD is progressing however, OLED has a long way to go to get into consumers homes.

  • Another trend (boxing match style) article, written in the worst tabloid style rather than a technical review worthy of note.

    This article is tedious in the extreme and also has a biased viewpoint which lends me to suspect that the author did not do a side by side review in the style of Which? (UK comparison magazine). It forgets to mention Plasma TV’s are not capable of as many colourscolours as LCD due to the nature of the Plasma generation(a high voltage spark) and that plasmas have poor black levels as they need to maintain the plasma even when zero (black) is present giving a low level grey and not true black. in fact the pictures of LCD are truer than plasma its simply that plasma have an artificially brightened picture which in cartoons may appear more vivid but in real life scenes the picture looks more like a computer monitor changed form millions to thousands of colours.. vivid but false.

    Although OLED may be the way of the future the overall content of this review was technically flawed and badly written (I may not be much better but then I am not paid as an author).

    • I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy my piece, Mike. These articles are not meant to be technical reviews on the subject. There are many posts all over the web that will deliver that in a much more straight forward style.

      The first thing I should say is that I have done side by side comparisons of LCDs and plasmas, many in fact, and had a good look at Sony’s OLED as well, and I disagree with you on the quality and life-like natural look of LCDs vs plasmas. I think most people would concur that plasmas give you a more organic effect whereas it’s the LCDs that tend to look more like monitors. It was, after all, for that purpose that they were first developed.

      As for the blackness of plasma screens, I did actually mention the always on effect in the third to last paragraph.

      I appreciate that this piece may not have been to your taste but I do believe I get both the salient points of the debate and the important levels of technicality into my writing, all be them surrounded by paragraphs of fighting fiction. I can only apologise for my one confusion, as pointed out earlier, in this instance.

  • Congrats on this humourous and informative article. There’s little doubt that OLED will win in the end (though Laser may have its niche I suppose).

    I haven’t seen an OLED yet, but I’ve heard how the green is so much more green like than LCD (I think the blue may actually be slightly less saturated than LCD/Plasma at this stage however).

    In any case, that contrast ratio is one to die for!

  • You have muddled the description of refresh rate and response time a bit. Refresh is the number of frames displayed in a second, response time is how many milliseconds it takes for a pixel to change. Basically, the higher the refresh rate, the smoother the action is, the lower the response time the less ghosting and blurring you get. However – a high refresh rate does NOT imply or guarantee a low response time.

    For example, a 100hz television changes frames 100 times per seconds, but if on a cheap panel it takes 33ms for the new frame to fully update (1/3 of the total frame time) ghosting would be fully apparent.

    While we are at it, the best refresh rate is in fact a multiple of 24 (120hz for example) as this means you dont need to do pulldown for 24fps cinema transfer such as on HD blu-ray movies.

    • Thanks Daniel. You might have guessed I’m a big fan of the OLEDs. It knocked my socks off when I saw it and I’d love to say they’ll be affordable soon but I think there’s a whole bunch of licences and patents owned by Sony to break through before they reach any normal person’s budget. Part of me does wonder if some other technology will overtake them before they ever get out of the blocks.

      Also, thanks Andrew for clearing up my refresh rate/response time confusion. That was a much better explanation than I’ve ever heard from any experts. Much appreciated. I suppose the next question is which make and model TV would you buy?

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