Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Technological advance:

When you go into a middle of the road consumer electronics store (like Harvey Norman in Australia or Dixons in England) it is striking how much of the television section is now devoted to plasma screens, and LCD displays. These have the advantages of being flat panel displays. We have been promised for decades that televisions that you can hang on a wall like a picture are just around the corner, and they are indeed finally here. A low end 42 inch plasma screen costs a little more than a 40 inch CRT set (be it rear projecton or with a conventional screen) but the difference is sufficiently small that people are buying them in droves. (A high end plasma costs substantially more, and if you are after a 60 inch screen, then plasma is really your only option). People are also now buying smaller plasma screens: 32 inch for instance (although there are technical reasons why you cannot make plasma screens much smaller than this). I think the driving factor might be that plasma screens are cool when you see them in public places: in pubs, in airports and railway stations, and in an assortment of other places.

You also see lots of plasma screens in the electrical section of pretentious but actually slightly declasse places like Harvey Nichols where the staff wear black, look cool, and are totally unable to answer a remotely technical question, and where the customers wouldn't be deal buying an "old fashionded" television darling.

And in these places, you will seldom see the plasma screens showing anything other than the five Pixar animated movies (the two Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo) Dreamworks' Shrek or Fox's Ice Age, all computer animated.

However, if you go into a high end home cinema store you will see some but not many plasma screens, a few front and rear projectors, and lots of conventional CRT televisions, mostly from Sony, Phillips, and Panasonic. In such shops the demonstrations are typically live action: showing such things as watersports and beautiful women walking with spectacular scenery in the background.

The reason for this is of course simple: plasma screens deliver really crap pictures. They are very bright, so they are good in locations where people are viewing from lots of angles, where there is lots of ambient light and people are being constanty distracted, but from the point of view of sitting and watching a movie they are not great at all. Their colours are a bit dubious when it comes to showing subtle variations, and their contrast ratios and response times are nowhere near as good as can be achieved with CRTs. Old fashioned CRT televisions provide pictures that at their best are stunningly beautiful, and serious home cinema buffs know this and buy them. Plasmas are simply left in the dust by something like this. The reason that the demonstrations you see in shops are almost always computer animated movies is that these do not show up the weaknesses of plasma displays in the way live action with lots of subtle contrasts and people faces might. (CRTs are much better at showing beautiful women walking past spectacular scenery for instance).

LCD displays are getting better. At their best they certainly provide stunning pictures. (This is nice for instance). They don't score as well as plasmas in terms of viewing angles and brightness, and they traditionally have slow response times (although things are improving), but in terms of finesse they are clearly better. (Big ones are expensive for now though). Fairly soon they will be better than plasma for all but applications that require a really bright display. (For one thing they are a lot lighter and less fragile) Plasma will disappear after a short period of being a key technology, I suspect).

However, many of us are waiting for newer technologies that have none of the weaknesses of either plasma or LCD. This is quite promising, but for now I will be sticking with CRTs. That Panasonic I linked to earlier is quite an impressive object of technolust, actually.

Update: This post contained a broken link to the Apple 23" cinema display. It is now fixed.

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