Plasma TV, We Hardly Knew Ye

Earlier this week, Samsung introduced its newest, latest and greatest 2014 Smart TVs, to much fanfare — Ultra HD curved screens, with super-thin and energy-efficient LED panels. There was one particular technology’s conspicuous absence in all the glamour, though, as there will likely be in the upcoming announcements of LG and Panasonic — plasma is all but gone.

Full disclosure: I own a Pioneer KURO, the 50-inch LX509A. I am seriously considering buying a 60-inch Panasonic ST60A, if I can still find one — they’ve all but disappeared from store shelves (although I think I might be able to find one at a JB HiFi somewhere). I love plasma TVs. But for the most part, plasma is dead, and that’s a real pity.

Take a look on Samsung Australia’s television sub-site, and you’ll notice something missing: in the past few months, the Plasma TV section has disappeared. In 2013, Samsung had two plasma ranges, the Series 5 and the Series 8+, but this year, there are none. Panasonic still has its 2013 models listed, but they won’t be there for long.

To be fair, we’ve known about this for a long time. There’s no hiding the fact that especially in the last few years, plasma TVs have been overshadowed by LED-backlit sets — LED edge-lighting and fancy local area dimming means TVs can be thinner, brighter, and more vibrant. Plasma has always been technically superior for high-quality, critical movie watching, but time and sales figures have shown that people really just aren’t interested enough in that.

Power consumption has always been a big problem for plasma. There’s no denying that when you place a plasma TV next to an LCD and run the same two-hour film, the plasma will consume more electricity. Panasonic especially made huge leaps forward year-on-year with its NeoPDP technology — in one year, I remember the company announcing it had cut plasma power consumption in half while still maintaining the same brightness — but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the unassailable advantage of LED. When you’re running an entire screen’s worth of individual plasma cells, there’s no comparison to a few dozen ultra-bright white LEDs doing the same job.

There’s something magical about that warm, emissive glow of a plasma TV that you can’t quantify with words on a website — and to be honest, this is probably what killed them off. With both screens facing up against each other in a bright, fluorescent-lit retail store, LED’s higher maximum brightness and colour vibrancy makes them an easier sell for the time-pressed salesman on the showroom floor.

You can still buy a few plasma TV models — there’s a couple of Panasonics at JB, BigBrownBox has half a dozen including a Samsung and a LG, Dick Smith has two. But compare that to the number of LED LCDs on offer — JB has 54, across 15- to 70-inch sizes. It’s clear where the market is heading.

There’s some small salvation on the way, in the not-too-distant future, in the form of OLED. If the Korean and Japanese television manufacturers can get over their current strange obsession with curved OLED TVs, and offer a flat OLED panel at a reasonable price, I’ll shout about it from the rooftops.

OLED has a lot going for it, because it’s technically quite similar to plasma — individual pixels create their own light, rather than being backlit by a separate LED, and can entirely power off when needed to give the TV ‘true’ blacks alongside incredibly bright whites. OLED TVs are thin, don’t consume quite as much energy as plasmas, and have the ability to create an incredibly vibrant picture. But they’re still so expensive — LG’s bargain-basesment OLED, the curved 55-inch 55EA9800, is still $5999. This is a long way for the sub-$1500 you could find a 55-inch plasma for in years past.

For me, the start of this year has been a time of quiet disappointment. I really hoped that plasma would make some strides forwards in energy efficiency and power consumption — to bring those annoying niggles into line with its excellent, as-yet-unmatched picture quality and value for money performance. I’m still holding out hope that Panasonic might make a surprise announcement in the coming months about plasma’s miraculous rebirth — but you and I both know that’s just not going to happen.

We just have to count on the TV companies getting OLED right in the next few years. I might just buy that Panasonic ST60A and hope it lasts long enough for a new technology to match it for size, picture quality, and price.

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