Who thought up that maxim about form following function? Was it Henry Ford? Albert Einstein? Tiny Tim? I can’t remember, but whoever it was, he was a hell of a bore—the kind of guy who would go on and on about how his 1979 Honda 750 with duct tape all over the seat can humiliate your Harley in the quarter mile. Those of us with more balanced perspectives on life know that there comes a time when form is so seductive that it is perfectly acceptable to ignore function altogether.
You had to have that attitude if you bought one of the first flat-screen plasma TVs in 1998. You couldn’t ignore the appeal of a hang-on-the-wall TV, even if you had to ignore the mediocre video quality, the dim picture, and the big box of electronic entrails that sat tethered a few feet from the screen.
Plasma TVs have come a long way since then. The best now rank with the best tube-type sets. Form and function have a balance achieved by no other type of TV.
The mere existence of the first plasma TV sets was a near-miracle—plasmas were the flat televisions that the industry had been promising were “about 10 years away” ever since the 1950s. It took heroic effort, millions of dollars in R&D and plant investment, and engineering genius to get those first sets to market. They were not good, but they worked, and they looked 100 times cooler than any TV before them. That was enough to get them selling quickly, even at prices five to 10 times higher than those of conventional TVs.
Unfortunately, the first plasma TV pictures looked more like something you would see at Wal-Mart than what you would find at a high-end audio/video dealer. “They look best when you turn them off,” went the standard joke. What do the best sets look like three years later? From perhaps 12 feet, you might be hard-pressed to decide whether the picture looks more like TV or like the view from the window. They are that good.
Hook up one of today’s finest plasma TVs to a high-definition satellite TV tuner, and you will see a picture so sharp and realistic that you may not believe it is video. You’ll get that same great-looking picture no matter where you are sitting in the room, even if you are far off to the side. You can’t say that about the old-style projection TVs.
The picture improvement is important, but almost everything else about plasma TV has also improved. Most noticeable are improvements in the digital circuitry that processes the picture. Every plasma TV has what is called a “native resolution,” such as 1280 x 720 or 1024 x 1024, that tells you how many pixels (or pixel elements) run horizontally and vertically across the screen. Most video coming into the TV (from a DVD player, a VCR, a cable box, or a computer) must be converted from analog to digital, then “upconverted” to the native resolution of the plasma screen. In the past few years, the integrated circuits that do this processing have improved. With the older sets, pixelization and aliasing effects made curved edges look jagged and gave TV images that blocky, grainy effect you would expect from a video game. Some of the early sets even divided black areas into sep-arate visible blocks. Thanks to new video processing chips, those effects are almost entirely gone.
Some of the earliest plasma TVs also suffered from a digital picture artifact called “banding,” which turned smooth color gradients into a series of solid-color bands. Mind you, this effect was really trippy and cool when I was 16 and saw it in a Led Zeppelin concert video, but it did not work for me two decades later when I was trying to watch Lawrence of Arabia on an early plasma TV. Fortunately, none of the plasma sets I have seen recently showed even the slightest trace of banding.
As with early projection TV sets, the embryonic plasmas exhibited a somewhat washed-out appearance. The blacks were never quite black. A couple of years of fussing with the makeup of the plasma screen has largely fixed this problem. You will still find a few plasma sets that look a little washed-out, but today’s best plasma TVs have blacks nearly as black as what you would get with the best tube-type TVs. In fact, you would never notice the difference unless you compared them side-by-side. Plasma pictures have always been reasonably bright—generally brighter than those of projection TVs—but now they are bright enough that the picture will still look good in a well-lit room.
High-definition plasma sets used to be rarer than sunny days in San Francisco. Manufacturers threw away up to 95 percent of the first sets early on because so many were defective. If only a couple of the pixels didn’t work, the whole set was thrown away. Today, you will find plenty of high-definition sets capable of showing every last speck of detail that high-def video can produce. Even when you are not watching high-definition, improvements in digital processing and screen manufacture give today’s best plasma sets a picture far sharper than you have probably ever seen.
Looking at the first plasma sets, I remember thinking that TVs could not get any sexier. But they have. They are slimmer and lighter now, and the newer sets do not require the tacky external electronics box that made the early sets cumbersome to install.
With plasma sets now up to 61 inches, there is a model for any room from the bedroom to a home theater. They may be the most perfect blend of form and function that the electronics industry has ever produced. If the first plasma sets were the Brad Pitts of the audio/video world—slim and sexy, but less competent than older models—today’s best plasma sets are like Brad Pitt with a drama degree from Yale and a Ph.D. in econo-mics from MIT.
You will find more similarity among plasma sets than you would with conventional TVs because most are designed to work as part of a full audio/video system. However, few plasma sets have TV tuners built in, and some do not include speakers. Most, however, can connect to both audio/video gear and a computer.
The biggest difference is in resolution. Basic models such as the Philips 42FD9932 and Runco PL-42cx have a resolution of 853 x 480 pixels. That is enough to make DVDs look great, and it is plenty for a bedroom. For the living room or a home theater, though, move up to a high-definition set. High-definition plasma sets have a resolution of at least 1280 x 720 pixels.
Smaller high-def sets include 50-inch models such as Pioneer’s PDP-505HD (1280 x 768) and Fujitsu’s PDS-5002 (1366 x 768). But the hot ticket is the new 60-inch range, including Marantz’s PD6120D and Runco’s PL-61cx (both 61 inches, 1366 x 768 resolution), and Zenith’s 60-inch DPDP60W (1280 x 720). These sets give high-definition pictures as large as you would get from the biggest projection TV sets—but at only about 5 inches deep.
If you already have a plasma set and are not satisfied with its picture quality, you can add an external processor to improve it. Faroudja and Runco have introduced video processors that have superior circuitry designed to make fixed-rate displays (like plasma TVs) look their best.
Brent Butterworth is the former editor of Home Theater magazine.