Published in August 2003

LCD & Plasma Displays: A Comparison
By Kirt Yanke

Editor’s Note: The author takes us through a comparison between LCD and plasma displays here. However, one caveat is that LCDs are not as available in the larger sizes at this point, so the 30- to 40-inch size is the only direct comparison. LCDs and plasmas will co-exist for awhile, until LCD manufacturers can achieve sizes as large as plasma’s 70 inches (and growing!)—and unit pricing becomes more equitable. Improvements are constant on both sides, and have been for years.

     Plasma displays have been utilized for information display applications for many years and have provided users with several benefits. However, with the growing popularity of larger-screen liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) in this market, users now have a choice to make for their visual-display needs. Here, we’ll explain the many differences between the two technologies.

Image Production
     LCD and plasma displays incorporate different fixed matrix technologies that provide superior clarity and definition when used at their native resolution. How the two displays produce an image, however, is quite different. An active matrix LCD’s light source normally is generated by small fluorescent bulbs
(Figure 1). The light from these bulbs is diffused to create uniform light across the back polarizer, which allows light to go in through only one direction. Individual cells are turned “on” and “off” by applying a small electric charge to the thin film transistor (TFT) located in each sub pixel. This small charge causes the liquid crystal to “twist,” allowing light to be passed through the color filters and the front polarizer. If the LCD cell is not turned on, then the light doesn’t pass through the front polarizer, which is perpendicular in respect to the back polarizer.
     A plasma display (Fig. 2) is composed of two parallel sheets of glass, which enclose a mixture of discharged gases composed of helium, neon or xenon. Dike-like barriers, or ribs, keep the glass plates parallel and separate. Groups of electrodes sit at right angles between the panes, forming rectangular compartments, or cells, between the glass sheets. Phosphors embedded within each cell individually emit red, green or blue light and collectively create a single color pixel when excited.
Selectively applying voltages to the electrodes causes them to generate a discharge in the panel’s dielectric layer and on its protective surface. This generates ultraviolet light that excites the phosphors, stimulating them to emit light. This principle of operation is similar to that of a fluorescent lamp. In this sense, it is possible to think of a plasma display as a screen incorporating thousands of miniature fluorescent lights of different color. An LCD display absorbs much of the ambient light, while a plasma reflects more of it.

Brightness and Contrast
     The specifications for LCD and plasma displays are measured differently for brightness and contrast. LCDs measure brightness according to the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) Flat Panel Display Measurements (FPDM) Standard Version 2.0 (June 1, 2001), by using a full-screen white pattern. Contrast ratio according to the VESA standard is measured as the difference between full-screen white and full-screen black in a dark room.
Plasma display specifications usually are measured in the same way a cathode ray tube (CRT) would be measured. The brightness is specified by using a peak value rather than a typical value. This is done by generating a small white square on the screen, concentrating all of the display’s energy in this small area. The contrast ratio is calculated as the difference between the small white area and the black area surrounding it.
     The VESA FPDM standard is more of a “real-world” test because there aren’t many applications that use a small portion of the screen while leaving the rest blank. In a true comparison using the VESA FPDM standard method (Fig. 3), typical results in dark room conditions might be as indicated in Table 1.
     LCD displays also generally perform better than plasma displays under higher ambient-lit conditions (Figure 4). The contrast of both displays is reduced under these conditions, but it is reduced to a much higher degree for the plasma.
Figure 5 indicates that plasmas operate better in darker rooms, while LCDs are better in brighter environments.

Color Reproduction
     The improvement of the NTSC color spectrum (Fig 6) has been the target for all display technologies. Currently, plasma displays have a larger color spectrum than LCD displays, but new technologies are being developed that will soon improve the color spectrum of LCDs. With new color filters and backlighting technologies, the color spectrum of an LCD may soon meet or exceed the NTSC color spectrum.
The color spectrum of a display affects its ability to reproduce colors accurately. The color spectrum of displays varies between LCD and plasma manufacturers, and is also affected by other devices (DVD player, computer video card, etc.) in the graphics system. Based on all of these factors, as well as the perception of the human eye and the application being used, usually it is left to the user to determine preference and calibration.

Brightness, Color Uniformity
     Because LCD displays use backlights that consist of many fluorescent bulbs, many precautions have to be designed into the diffusion layer to distribute light evenly. To prevent “shading” or “hot spots,” many bulbs and more than one diffusion layer are used.
The result is a uniform image in both brightness and color, which is different than the LCDs of the past, and comparable to the uniformity of a plasma display.
     There are many concerns with both LCD and plasma displays when using a static image. LCDs can exhibit a phenomenon known as “image retention.” This is caused by a pixel being in the “on” state for an extended period of time, causing a small charge to remain in the cell in the “off” state, similar to a memory effect. However, this phenomenon is not permanent. To reduce the chance of this phenomenon, many advances have been made in the liquid-crystal material itself, and the display may include a “screen-saver” pixel-shifting technology to further reduce the risk.
Plasma displays use phosphor and can suffer from phosphor burn-in just like CRT products that use phosphor. Some manufacturers include pixel-shifting technologies to reduce the chance of this happening. When phosphor burn-in occurs, the phosphor material is damaged and this cannot be removed.
     The amount of time required for both image retention and phosphor burn-in is almost impossible to calculate because of all the variables involved. The color of the image, the pattern, the display’s brightness setting and many other factors can affect the time before this occurs.

Altitude Limitations
     There are some concerns with using plasma displays at high altitudes. Most plasma manufacturers have an operational altitude specification between 6500 and 9500 feet, while an LCD’s operating altitude specification is more than 13,000 feet. This allows LCD technology to be used and transported in some areas where plasma displays cannot be used because of this limitation to the technology.
     The energy cost to operate an LCD or plasma display can be a determining factor in large installations. The power consumption of desktop displays has always been an advantage for LCDs when compared to CRT technology. Large-screen LCDs continue to be the more cost-effective solution related to power consumption when compared with plasma as well. See Figure 7 for an example of the operational energy costs.

     Although the viewable image size of an LCD or plasma may be identical, the native resolution can be quite different. Many of the 40-inch to 43-inch plasma displays have a native resolution of 853x480, and others have a native resolution of 1024x768. LCDs are capable of higher resolutions within the same size parameters and have a native resolution of 1280x768. The native resolution affects how much information can be displayed on the screen at one time.

Note: This material is based on information current as of March 2003. All facts, figures and comparisons are general in nature and are used to illustrate the theoretical differences between LCD and plasma technologies. Technical information is subject to change.

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