RIP Plasma

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Plasma used to be the thing to watch content. However, their sales peaked in the mid 2000s, and their decline won’t reverse.

Why was it so good?

Plasma screens were favoured by us geeks, mainly because of the quality of its black pixels (a pixel being the individual light dot on a screen). To understand this, we need to understand how they work; Plasma screens are made up of an array of “discharge tubes” (like miniature bulbs) where each pixel was an individual discharge tube. When a tube was switched on it emitted light, but when off it emitted no light at all, i.e. totally black.

LCD screens – Plasma’s competitor – could never reproduce the total black because LCDs used a backlight that was always on and the LCD would seep a tiny bit of the light no matter how much it tried not to.

Plasma enthusiasts used to glare lovingly at the screen chanting “look how dark the darks are”. In reality, the human perceives differences between light and dark, so the very dark grey (that was the “black” in LCD) simply looked black because other screen elements were brighter. You could only perceive the difference when a Plasma screen was next to an LCD, which didn’t often happen in the home.

Why were only big screens using Plasma?

The main market for Plasma screens was at the big end, usually 40″ plus. It was easier to “scale” the screens (i.e. to make bigger ones) with Plasma than it was LCD. But – it was also because it was tricky to shrink the size of each plasma pixel. So, to make a High Definition screen – which needed a lot of pixels – you needed a minimum size to cram in all the pixels.

Heaters in disguise

Because of their plasma discharge make-up they needed a lot more power than LCD. And so they got hot, sometimes quite hot indeed.

The decline of Plasma

So Plasma had obvious benefits over LCD, but LCD wasn’t about to give in and eventually LCD won the battle. Here are some of the bigger nails in Plasma’s coffin:

  1. The modern OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) screens can easily produce the same intense blanks as Plasma. As is the case with Plasma, when an OLED is off, it really is totally dark.
  2. OLED screens use a fraction of the power and don’t get very warm. LED screens also use less power.
  3. The manufacturing processes for LED-lit LCDs improved and so they could better scale at the bigger screen size.
  4. OLED screens are basically printed just like an inkjet printer. It is easy to scale that manufacturing process up to very large screens that are very thin, light in weight, low power, and more environmentally friendly that e.g. LEDs.
  5. As TV resolutions increased, it became increasingly difficult to make the pixels/tubes small enough to make screens that weren’t stupidly big. An OLED pixel can be way smaller than a Plasma pixel, so it’s possible to create very high resolution OLED screens in a very small surface area.

RIP Plasma. It was fun whilst it lasted.

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