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The Rise of OLED TV’s and the Fall of Plasmas TV’s

Panasonic quits plasma TVs: The latest victim of LED/LCD’s rise to display supremacy

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Another one bites the dust. Panasonic is departing the plasma TV business after being its biggest champion for two decades. The business story is that TV and display manufacturing has become a near-commodity business that belongs to the Koreans and Chinese, not the Japanese. But for fans of high-end TV, the personal story is the loss of one of the best choices in the mid- to high-end range – plasma – as long as you can control for room brightness.

Plasma has three clear-cut advantages because of its technology. The pixels are illuminated by charged gases inside each element; LCD is lit from behind or the side by fluorescent tubes or LEDs. This means a plasma display has excellent contrast with deeper blacks, a wide viewing angle that’s helpful when 20 people crowd your tiny living room to watch the Super Bowl, and essentially no motion blur. A fourth advantage is the big one: Good plasma sets have dazzling picture quality.

You liked Panasonic. Reviewers liked Panasonic. And still…

When PCMag.com readers rated HDTV brands in the 26th annual Service and Reliability survey last fall, the Readers’ Choice award went to Panasonic, Samsung (also big in plasma) and Sony. Actually, plasma stalwart Pioneer scored higher, but that was really readers’ fond farewells to a company that hadn’t made TVs in two years. LG, the third vendor with significant investment in plasma, was next in the ratings.

Panasonic plasmas are also rated highly by others such as Consumer Reports. Nine of the top 12 (including ties) 60-inch or bigger TVs in CR’s current ratings are plasmas and five of the nine are Panasonics. So it’s not user satisfaction or picture quality that’s killing the plasma business for Panasonic. It’s the difficulty of making money when the volume isn’t there and when LCD is good enough for most users. Plasma now accounts for just one in 20 TV sales.

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LCD killed the rear-projection TV, and now it’s killing the plasma as well.

What died: Panasonic TVs or the Japanese TV business?

The reports, not yet confirmed by Panasonic, have the company exiting the plasma TV business by March 2014, the end of its fiscal year, according to Reuters and others. But Panasonic isn’t alone in scaling back. Pioneer is already out of plasmas (its only TV offering). Among makers focusing on LCD, Toshiba and Hitachi, among others, outsource their TV production business to factories outside Japan. Much of the TV technology lies in the quality of the LCD or plasma panels — but there’s not much panel production left in Japan: a two-year-old plasma plant owned by Panasonic, and three Sharp LCD plants that have partial foreign ownership. Imagine: Panasonic may be willing to walk away from a plant that’s virtually brand new because the plasma business is a money-loser. Panasonic reportedly wants to concentrate on business and industrial products such as automotive electronics and infotainment, batteries (each Tesla has several thousand Panasonic lithium-ion batteries), semiconductors and climate control systems, backing away from lower-margin consumer products.

The TV market is soft and it’s price conscious. By 2012, most everybody who was switching from CRT or rear-projection TV to flat panel TV had already done so. When I took my 275-pound Sony rear-projection TV to the town recycling center this summer — nobody on Craigslist showed interest even at $50 — the shed only included a couple of rear-projection sets, a lot of 19- to 27-inch CRT TVs, and already a sizable number of flat panels being put out to pasture. The shipment of TVs worldwide in 2012 fell by 6%, according to IHS iSuppli, the first drop in TV shipments in a decade. Plasma shipments fell 21% in 2012, according to NPD, versus a 1% decline for LCD TVs. As the market became more price-conscious, Japan found itself the high-cost provider of TVs. Japan killed the European and US TV industries a generation ago. Now Korea and China are returning the favor to Japan. Korea’s Samsung has been No. 1 in TV sales since 2006. Before that it was Sony.

The opportunities that remain are mostly upgrades, from smaller or older flat panels to bigger TVs. You can buy a decent 75-inch flat panel TV for $3,500. To move up from 42 inches on a first-gen flat panel TV to 55 inches runs as little as $500 but more often $750-$1,000. The new LCD TVs will likely have LED not fluorescent illumination, wider viewing angles, and 240 Hz or 120 Hz refresh to reduce blurring. All those counter the advantages of plasma. More have WiFi built in with an upgradeable web browser, not the clunky first-gen WiFi that took you to the vendor’s portal where you could jump to AOL, MySpace, YouTube, and weather.

Next: How much better is plasma than LCD?

How much better is plasma?

When you walk into PCMag Labs or another facility set up with properly calibrated TVs side by side (this would not always be a TV showroom), the eye can pick out the underperformers and test gear makes even finer distinctions. But when you take almost any flat panel TV home and sit directly in front, it looks good enough. The new TV invariably looks better than the TV it replaced.

Plasma also had long-ago perceptions, mostly solved, that may have stuck. Plasmas were considered energy hogs; Panasonic says current TVs use a third as much power as five years ago. (Power draw for plasma is higher if you leave it in store mode or in brightly-lit scenes.) They were considered best suited for shaded rooms with no daylight streaming in because of screen glare, although most plasma screens have an anti-glare finish now. (Plasma is still not the best choice in a sunny room when the windows face opposite the screen.) Burn-in and short panel lifespans are non-issues now. A decade ago, Panasonic said LCD technology was fine for up to 37 inches and above that, plasma reigned. Now there are 90-inch LCD TVs. The biggest flat panel TV ever shown was Panasonic’s 150-inch plasma at CES in 2008, followed by a 152-inch panel.

152-inch Panasonic plasma TV

What to do if Panasonic exits

Assuming Panasonic does exit the business, it’s still half a year away. New Panasonic plasma TVs will probably be on the market a year from now. Amazon.com shows year-old 2012 models still available in fall 2013. It’s unclear if Panasonic would continue its LCD TV business or if it would contract for the manufacture of TVs bearing the Panasonic name.Samsung, the world’s largest TV maker, and LG will still be in the plasma business. They may try to build higher-quality plasma TVs — halo products — to enhance their reputations. Over a couple years, mainstream plasma sets will rise to match the bests plasma TVs of today. That’s Moore’s law applied to image quality. Another option, the most likely if plasma wanes, is watching LCD TVs improve.

OLED is the likely successor to plasma in terms of dazzlement, but the organic light-emitting diode technology is costly. The first ones, 55-inch OLED sets, are in the range of $9,000-$15,000, or 2-3 times as much as the costliest plasma set. Give that a couple years to come down from the stratosphere. OLED, like plasma, employs internally lit pixels.

 

LG's 55-inch OLED TV

LG’s 55-inch OLED TV

You might also be drawn to 4K (Ultra HD) sets with four times the resolution of today’s HD sets. Ultra HD doesn’t just blur the line with PC monitors; it blows right by. The highest common PC resolutions are WQHD, 2560×1440 at 16:9 aspect ratio, and WQXGA, 2560×1600 at 16:10. The current highest mainstream TV resolution is FHD (Full HD), 1920×1080 at 16:9. The most common Ultra HD resolution is 4K HD or 2160p, with 3840×2160 resolution. There are also industry standards, if not panels, for 8K HD called 4320p, or 7680×4320, and 16K HD, called 8640p, or 15360×8640. (See: 8K UHDTV: How do you send a 48Gbps TV signal over terrestrial airwaves?)

You can buy 4K Ultra HD sets of 55 to 65 inches now for as little as $4,000-$6,000 after recent price cuts. They are LCD displays with LED illumination. The problem with Ultra HD is that, price cuts or not, there’s not much content available: no over-the-air broadcasts, cable or satellite, only a small amount available online. (Read: Xbox One and PS4: Analyzing their support for 4K video and gaming.) In the meantime, 4K TV used as a PC monitor makes a great Photoshop editing display. You can almost forget about the zoom tool.

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