Monday, May 04, 2009

Pulling the Plug on Plasma

A superior technology that offers higher quality, an enhanced user experience, and better value gets killed off by a technologically inferior rival. VHS killed Betamax. Plain old CDs outlasted Super Audio CDs. Vista wiped out Mac OS X. Wait. There are exceptions to the rule. Still, there's every reason to think it's happening again.

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The current economic crisis is hurting the entire electronics industry, but television manufacturers are literally running away from plasma HDTVs. A research report released by DisplaySearch this week showed plasma shipments in the first quarter are down 22 percent from last year, and few industry analysts think plasma will rebound. And that's a shame.

Plasma technology has a lot of advantages. Its fast-motion performance is perfect for watching sports, its darker black levels are great for watching movies, and in larger sizes (think 50 inches and up), plasma sets have typically offered more competitive prices. Yes, they use more power than LCDs of similar size, but this is hardly a key factor for most HDTV buyers. Despite the best efforts of the editors at and, most people don't know or even care how much power a prospective HDTV uses. Yet vendor after vendor is pulling the plasma plug.

Just look at the last few months. Vizio, the number two flat-panel television vendor in the U.S., decided it was ending its plasma production to focus exclusively on LCD HDTVs. Vizio made its mark selling affordable sets direct and at retail, so perhaps it's to be expected that the company wouldn't hang in with premium plasmas, which tend to come in very large sizes. For sets under 42 inches, LCD TVs have always had an edge in terms of price, so it makes sense that a value player would choose to focus on that segment of the market. But that doesn't explain Pioneer.

A couple of years ago, Pioneer released its KURO line of plasmas, probably the most advanced HDTVs ever made. Last year's Pioneer KURO PDP-5020FD has a contrast ratio of 8,809:1, and our review included the terms "flawless" and "utterly stunning." It was the best 50-inch HDTV you could buy, and it still is. But earlier this year, Pioneer decided it would stop making KUROs. Or any other plasma HDTVs, for that matter.

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So if plasma HDTVs can't find a market on the low end, and they can't find a market at the high end, where do they fit in? The answer seems to be nowhere. The technology is simply losing steam. How did this happen?

First of all, LCD panels got larger. Plasmas used to have a size advantage over LCD TVs, but now LCD owns the 40-to-42-inch sweet spot, dominates all sizes under 50 inches, and seems poised to compete even at 60 inches in 2009. Second, growing LCD volume has meant there's a lot more manufacturing capacity, which has kept prices down. Finally, plasmas in the segment where the technology still have an advantage, massive 60-inch-or-larger HDTVs, are just too damn expensive when your 401K looks like a 16K.

Declaring plasma dead may seem a bit premature. To be fair, you can still walk into a Best Buy, CompUSA, or Fry's or hop online to buy a plasma HDTV. As I mentioned earlier, some manufacturers, among them LG, Hitachi, Panasonic, and Samsung, are sticking with plasma, and sets will be available for a while. And we'll keep reviewing them. Still, these companies all make LCDs too, and I have to wonder how long it will be before more of them give up on plasma. My bet is at least one will be out by the end of the year.

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Finally, let me say a few words about OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology. To read the gushing prose of the technical press, you would think that OLEDs will rise up to replace every existing screen technology as early as end of the year—that OLEDs will appear on everything from your cell phone to giant wall-size HDTVs. There are just two problems with that. First, OLEDs are still years away from practical, affordable commercialization. Second, the largest OLED display available today measures 11 inches diagonal. As we saw with Sony's OLED-based XEL-1, picture quality is superb, but you shouldn't plan on watching the big game on an OLED set anytime soon.

Now, I'm not saying I wouldn't buy a plasma right now. HDTVs last for years, and bargains abound. The Pioneer KURO PDP-5020FD, arguably one of best HDTVs ever, cost $4K when it launched six months ago and is now selling for less than $2,000 online. An amazing deal on an amazing TV; but you have to act quickly, because this plasma, like all the rest, isn't long for this world.

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