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Flatpanel Roundup

Oct 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

A comprehensive look at the LCD and plasma flatscreens available in 2006.


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Charts
Panels 20in. and smaller
21in.-35in. panels
37in.-49in. panels
Panels 50in. and larger

It's been a long time coming, but the long-awaited battle for flatpanel supremacy may finally be afoot. After years of watching LCD encroach on plasma in terms of size, LCD panels have now effectively reached price parity with plasma. Now, it all comes down to the technology.

In 2006, Panasonic launched its monster 103in. plasma flatscreen, the TH-103PF9UK.

For years, experts have predicted that LCD was ready to dominate plasma. That may prove to be the case. Historically, according to Rosemary Abowd, vice president of flatpanel and RPTV research for Pacific Media Associates, each time LCD has entered a size category it has replaced plasma, becoming the dominant technology. Much of that is simply because LCD economies of scale are so much larger than those of plasma.

On the other hand, much of that history also has to do with the straightforward emergence of alternatives. It was just a few years ago that 30in. meant “big screen” to LCD makers, leaving plasma as the only technological show in town for 35in. and up conference room monitors, airport flight information displays, kiosks, and public signage. However, those are specific sectors where LCD technology — due to its higher native resolution, sharp lines and text, even burn-in across the screen, etc. — make it an inherently better choice. In that way, it's no surprise that LCD would eat into plasma market share.

By most accounts, and dependent on specific products and manufacturers, plasma still retains a quality advantage when it comes to displaying motion video. Colors are still generally more accurate and motion tends to be smoother. What's more, burn-in (assuming specific images aren't constantly displayed, as would be the case for airport flight information or a news ticker on the bottom of the screen) has essentially become a non-issue. However, as this chart shows, LCD and plasma are now going head to head in the 40in. and above size category, with prices on par depending on features.

The wild card in the LCD vs. plasma battle may be other flat technologies that exist in rear-projection monitors, including DLP, LCD, and, increasingly, LCoS. Generally speaking, rear projection beats both LCD and plasma in terms of price, and with products like Optoma's 100in. BigVizion, gives nothing away to plasma in size. While rear-projection monitors don't have the thin appeal of flatpanels, price/performance is often the trump card.

UNDERSTANDING THE CHARTS

In past years, this Flatpanel Buyer's Guide has focused on professional AV-oriented panels, and several manufacturers have listed only pro AV products and not included products that are sold through retail. However, it's getting very difficult to make a clear distinction between professional and consumer product lines, and many companies make no distinction at all.

While it's generally true that professional products have communication ports, like RS-232 or Ethernet, they are hardly a requirement for displaying presentation slides. You'll rarely find BNC connectors on consumer displays, but many professional products use RCA jacks for component video. The inclusion of a built-in TV tuner used to be a clear indication of a consumer focus, but NTSC tuners are so inexpensive that some companies simply include them across their entire product line (not the case with more expensive ATSC tuners). After all, businesspeople may watch cable news during the day.

The biggest problem with drawing a fine line between professional and consumer products is that over the last few years the consumer sales significantly topped pro AV displays sales by more than 3-5:1, depending on size segment. That's the opposite of a decade ago, when professional displays drove R&D; now, new technology arrives in consumer products before it does in professional products. For example, Sharp released its pro version of the 65in. more than a year after the same size Aquos TV. Bigger volumes on consumer products translate to lower prices, compared to pro AV versions, and that often will convince professional buyers to accept a TV tuner and RCA instead of BNC.

In general, our chart lists by size, then by manufacturer in alphabetical order, then by price within a given manufacturer's offerings. There is a wide range of prices for what may appear to be similar products. These price differences typically begin with native resolution. However, they can also be attributed to technology generation, additional features like connectivity or audio/speaker support (or other features that are beyond the scope of this chart), price/performance, and just the anomalies of MSRP pricing and dealer channel discounts.

PANELS UP TO 20IN.

If you consider all of the desktop computer monitors, laptop computer screens, and small consumer TVs, there are far more LCD monitors in this size range than any other. For the most part we've excluded those from in our chart. All panels listed here must at least have a video (composite, S-Video, component, or SDI) input and that eliminates most of the desktop monitors. However, there are a few crossover consumer TV monitors from Polaroid, Sharp, and Viewsonic, since those companies do sell into the pro AV market.

However, while all those desktop monitors and laptop screens aren't germane to this buyer's guide, they are important to the R&D that drives LCD panels of all sizes. That steady stream of business is what makes the LCD industry so much larger than that of plasma, and ultimately gives it a long-term advantage over plasma in terms of volume costs and amortization of new product development and manufacturing. Those small panels, while not listed, are a significant reason why LCDs continue to encroach into larger size categories that were once the exclusive domain of plasma.

And, much to the contrary of the baseline quality of commodity computer monitors, this size category also has some very high-quality production video monitors. Sony's 9in., 15in., and 17in. Luma series monitors have quality that now rivals CRTs for all but the highest level of imaging production, as do panels from Panasonic and JVC. Dell and HP, known for those generic computer monitors, also now have high-quality video-capable monitors suitable for nonlinear editing stations.

21IN. TO 35IN. PANELS

Not surprisingly, all of the panels in this size range are LCD, rather than plasma. Still, there is a wide range of products and, indeed, technologies represented in this category. It is the most difficult size category for sorting professional monitors from consumer TVs, largely because it remains the sweet spot for consumer TV purchases. That means a huge volume of products and like the smaller panels above, those size volumes continue to help bring LCD panel prices down across the board. And even more than the smaller panels, this size category provides the effective funding and initiative to improve LCD image quality for video content due to the large LCD-TV market.

On the other hand, there aren't just consumer products here, this is the size where you'll find the widest difference in quality — ranging from some of the most affordable TVs to extremely high-quality color reference monitors. Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Dell, and HP all have larger versions of their production-oriented panels, and they range in price from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Yet, there are even high-end products from Cine-Tal and eCinema (Brightside has a similar 37in. product) that range in the tens of thousands and deliver color performance and sharpness that better CRTs.

37IN. TO 49IN. PANELS

By volume of products, this is the largest size category and the large majority of products are 42in., with a handful of 37in., 40in., and 46in. panels. That's because 42in. remains a sweet spot for plasma in terms of size vs. price, as well as comfortable size for many users — both for consumer living rooms and business conference rooms. And that makes this size category the main battleground between LCD and plasma. Except now, LCD and plasma are effectively at price parity, which leaves users to choose technology based on need.

One surprise is the lack of progress, in terms of actual products, for LED and alternative light source LCDs. Brightside Technologies continues to offer its 37in. DR-37P, which uses an array of red, green, and blue LEDs to deliver a purer white. NEC has a 21in. LED backlit LCD monitor that does not make our list due to the lack of video inputs. Other manufacturers like Sony and Samsung have demonstrated LED-backlit LCDs recently, but have yet to ship a product. It may be only a matter of time before more products do arrive, particularly since there have been major leaps in LED brightness capabilities. Yet meanwhile, manufacturers — particularly the Cine-Tals and eCinemas, but also Sharp, with four- and five-wavelength CCFLs, and others — are continuing to enhance the capabilities of traditional light sources to achieve truer colors from LCDs.

50IN. AND LARGER

In past years this size category has been exclusively plasma, save last year's inclusion of Sharp's large, but clearly consumer-focused 65in. Aquos TV. Panels of 50in. and above are still predominantly plasma, but this year we have four Sharp models, including a solidly pro AV version of that 65in. panel, as well as three smaller Aquos models. There's also a 57in. LCD from pro AV and digital signage expert Clarity Visual Systems. Samsung and LG Electronics did not wish to list their large consumer LCD-TVs that would also fit this size category.

With LCDs now solidly in the 40in. to 50in. range, this larger size is really the last stronghold for plasma. Whether that continues, or not probably, depends mostly on whether manufacturers find any serious demand for the largest models. If the demand is there, LCD makers are almost certain to push for larger panels. However, while prices continue to come down across the board, models of 60in. and above are still often five-digits (the exceptions are Pioneer and NEC, each with a roughly $8,000 60in. model, Pioneer also has one for $7,000) and that limits the potential market.

The largest panel in our chart is Panasonic's 103in. plasma, which is available for purchase ($70,000) and is being delivered, including two to the studio of NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcast. The 84in. Orion plasma, last year listed by Akira, is a bit of an anomaly here in that it is not actually a single 84in. panel, but rather a matrix of four 42in. plasmas inside a single bezel. With very little space and almost no perceivable lines, this 2×2 set of panels visually functions like a single panel.



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