2013: Plasma's Last Stand?
Fall back or fight on?
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52Over the past 12 months, or so, rumours in the industry have abounded that the death knell for plasma technology was about to be rung.Numerous reports spilled from the Japanese press that the World’s pre-eminent supplier and proponent of plasma, Panasonic, was ready to pull the plug amidst dwindling sales and huge losses in the TV division. Whilst nothing wholly tangible ever officially emerged from Panasonic, noises from within the organisation gave some credence to these claims; back in July 2012, Panasonic chairman Fumio Ohtsubo was quoted as saying: 'We will shift our focus from selling TV sets and other electronics goods on a per-unit basis to marketing various systems and business solutions,’ although, of course, that’s a reference to the TV business as whole rather than a direct death sentence for plasma.
There’s no denying that plasma technology is ‘old news’ these days; it may surprise some to know that it was first conceived as far back as 1936 by Kálmán Tihanyi, a Hungarian physicist, electrical engineer and inventor but it took until 1961 before the first plasma display – a computer monitor - was produced and it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that PLATO Computer System’s neon orange monochromatic displays became popular but soon became usurped by CRT with its cheaper price levels. A milestone for plasma development came through pioneering work by Fujitsu who, in the early 1990’s, produced the first full colour Plasma display and a few years later – in 1997 - both they and Philips had retail models available; the Philips Plasma a was a 42-inch, 480p number carrying a rather astronomical $15,000 price-tag which should give some perspective on the prices the emerging technologies, i.e. Ultra HD and OLED, are attracting in 2013.
Most of the major TV manufacturers at least dabbled with Plasma TV development. As well as Fujitsu and Philips, other PDP makers soon included Pioneer, Panasonic, Sony, LG, Toshiba and Samsung amongst the ranks but most have now fallen away as the, cheaper to produce, LCD TVs steadily took away market share from Plasma. Industry data places LCD/LED as by far the dominant technology, with around 80% of the current market share and there’s no signs of plasma turning that around any time soon.
So what went wrong for plasma? It’s picture quality benefits over the rivalling LED/LCD technology are certainly well known – if not 100% accepted - amongst enthusiasts; higher contrast, better black levels, almost impeccable viewing angles and more fluid motion but yet, at comparable prices, LCD/LED continually wins the heart of the customer. Perhaps one of the reasons it struggled was inability of manufacturers to make plasma TV’s in more traditional sizes as the HD market exploded. There’s a manufacturing struggle to accommodate plasma cells in screen sizes below 40-inches, although LG did produce a short-lived 32” model. As the market developed and the inevitable will of the customers to seek larger than 26 to 32inch displays set in, most are likely to have stuck with the technology already known to them. There was also a fair amount of misinformation and misunderstanding of plasma in the early days – it leaked gas and needed topping up or you’ll get images burned in to the panel were common retorts over why to choose LCD over PDP. The first accusation is, of course, hogwash and whilst we will concede that image retention is a (minor) concern, actually permanent burn-in, is extremely uncommon.
Plasma’s decline goes deeper than a degree of consumer mistrust, however, it’s the will of the major CE companies that’s pushed LED/LCD more to the fore. Sheer numbers dictate part of the dominance – more manufacturers making LCD/LED equals more available models on the market but the reasons for the producers favouring it are fairly easy to see. They’ve found ways to fabricate panels very cheaply, they’re much lighter and therefore less costly to ship and – perhaps most crucially – they can be made very thin and sexy. OK, there are now some very slender plasmas on the market but it took a while for those to hit the shelves and they’re not like some of the ‘Size 0’ offerings we’ve seen from the likes of LG and Samsung.Looks certainly sell and for many years plasma has trailed on that front.We certainly try and avoid politics whenever possible but there’s no doubt certain legislative bodies haven’t done much to further the plasma cause. It’s no secret that plasmas consume around three times the electricity of equivalently sized LED lit sets and both the EU and the Californian Energy Commission laid down strict regulations concerning a TVs energy use. Again, the easy option here is for the manufacturers to favour LED/LCD although, to be fair, the three remaining manufacturers have sterling work in improving efficiency although some of the cost for that is that plasma TVs don’t have an earthly chance of shining as bright on the shop floor; we humans have a natural disposition to go for the shiniest object and plasma simply can’t compete in that department, either. Of course, many reading this will know, that particular advantage is often null and void once the TVs are in the home where they don’t, generally, need to be so retina-searingly bright.
So, from the evidence we have so far, the cards are stacked against plasma and reasons to be cheerful waning. To summarise, in comparison to LED/LCD: they use more power; they can’t go as bright; they’re generally not as sexy; they cost more to ship and they lack some consumer trust. Add in the fact that OLED is coming, which is assumed to be taking the picture quality crown from plasma - although has yet to prove itself and, of course, there’s a bunch of Ultra HD (4K) LED TVs about to steal more of the limelight away so perhaps time is finally up? Like that old champ who’s taken one too many blows to the head, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel? We hope not.Whilst there’s no doubt we’re excited about OLED and UHD - not to mention the two combined – it’s not quite a realistic technology just yet.We don’t doubt that, one day, 4K and/or OLED will be mainstream but that transition won’t happen overnight. You can slap in a pre-order for either right now and it may well be that in 12-24 months time, you’ll be able to put down your deposit for a 4K OLED but your pockets will need to be deep and your patience long as there will be a lack of content, initially, to fully utilise the extra pixels inside so 1080p isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. Looking at it pragmatically, if your primary concern is Blu-ray and Broadcast HD and you’re not made of money, plasma still offers the best bang for buck in terms of picture quality and that’s not likely to change for the next 3 to 4 years. Fortunately, it looks like two manufacturers concur.
We have to admit going in to CES 2013 we feared at least one of the remaining 3 PDP manufacturers would be pulling the plug but that didn’t happen. Admittedly plasma was given only the briefest of mentions by LG but they will still carry a few models even if it’s patently obvious they lost any real interest in developing the technology 2-3 years ago. Both Panasonic and Samsung trimmed their plasma range but, hearteningly, announced two new plasma TVs aimed squarely at the enthusiast market, i.e. those that know what makes up a great picture. Panasonic already had the VT series which was the first consumer TV to grab our Reference Status Award in nearly 4 years and Samsung’s E8000 ran it extremely close in 2012 but the engineering teams of each seem equally intent on taking the crown with their new flagships.
The announcement of Samsung’s F8500 wasn’t a surprise, in itself, but the amount of press material space and the hyperbole used to describe it were. In recent times the Korean’s have certainly been pushing the LED message far more vehemently so this public, almost tacit, acknowledgement that plasma bests it, picture quality wise, was quite refreshing. Samsung is extremely confident in the F8500 and say it’s designed to become the new industry standard for plasma TV excellence. They’re claiming the deepest blacks and the brightest picture available, with the same brightness levels and eight times the black expression of regular LED TVs. All of which is made even more interesting by Panasonic’s, extremely similar, claims for their new ZT60 top-tier plasma.Panasonic says the ZT is ‘the new Reference’ with Kuro killing picture quality and astonishing black levels.For those that don’t know, the Kuro, from Pioneer, hasn’t been available for around 4 years but still possesses the deepest black levels yet seen for a domestic TV. If both the ZT60 and F8500 live up to even half the hype surrounding them, we’re probably in the most exciting year yet for plasma TV and the fact that Panasonic does have a 4K Plasma in the stable – albeit at a ridiculous screen size and associated crazy price-tag – might mean it’s worth keeping an eye on what they announce for the domestic market at IFA 2013 or CES 2014.
If 2013 is to be the last hurrah for plasma, it’s looking like it’s bidding farewell in fine voice but we don’t honestly think that it will be the case. Despite the increasingly niche sector of the market the technology finds itself in, there looks to be plenty of life in the old dog yet and the advancements - and therefore financial investments - of Samsung and Panasonic mean they’ll likely keep it around for a few years, at least. In fact, we can’t see either sending PDP out to pasture until OLED prices are able to be brought considerably south; there needs to be a choice for the videophile who isn’t made of money and, for many, LED TVs just don’t cut it – 4K or not. It seems like recent reports of plasma’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
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