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TV Buying Guide: LED vs. Plasma vs. CCFL

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With football season starting, now is a good time to do your homework on what type of TV to buy. This guide outlines the major differences and pros/cons of different types of TVs.

Types of TVs:

CCFL LCD: Cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (or CCFLs) are what you typically think of as an flat panel LCD TV. You probably own one already. The use an LCD panel to filter for the correct color, and a CCFL for the backlight.

These are the newest member on the block and use white LED lights to backlight the screen. They still use an LCD panel to make the color, similar to the CCFL LCD TVs.

Plasma: Each individual pixel is like a light bulb on these, so no backlight is needed. Different pixels

Let the comparisons begin!
Energy Consumption: 
Best to Worst: LED LCD, CCFL LCD, Plasma 
The main source of power drain is the light emitting part of the TV, and LED TVs are much more efficient than the other options currently available. Plasmas pull up a distant rear in this competition, with many of the larger plasmas consuming up to a half a kilowatt or more (2-3X an LCD TV). This seriously adds up over time on your power bill. Keep in mind that this is only for TVs of similar size, a 32” TV uses about half as much as a 52” TV.  

Best to Worst: LED LCD, CCFL LCD, 
Plasma LEDs take the field here too; they are much better suited for viewing in bright rooms. CCFL LCDs pull up a decent second, while plasmas struggle in this area.      

Viewing Angle: 
Best to Worst: Plasma, LED LCD & CCFL LCD 
Plasmas are generally the easiest to view from the side. If you have a lot of people over, or like to watch from another room, this is a nice feature. However, many of the better made LCD TVs have gotten to be very decent in this area.      

Black Level: 
Best to Worst: Plasma, LED LCD, CCFL LCD 
Given the fact that plasmas don’t have a backlight, they don’t have any bleed through when on a black scene. They are noticeably nicer for darker movies. It doesn’t make much of a difference if you mostly watch sports.      

Best to Worst: Plasma, LED LCD, CCFL LCD 
Similar to black levels, plasmas take the crown in contrast. LEDs make a strong showing though, and some of the newer LED backlights are very close in performance as they are able to selectively turn down or off in parts of the screen.      

Best to Worst: Plasma, LED LCD & CCFL LCD 
Since plasmas don’t have a backlight, they also have a more uniform brightness across the screen. Problems here are most noticeable on LCD panels near the edge of the TV. Some people don’t really care, while others are more bugged by unevenness.  

Biggest to Smallest: LED LCD & CCFL LCD, Plasma 
Generally, plasmas don’t come in sizes larger than about 65 inches. If you want bigger than 65”, an LCD is probably your best bet.      

Lightest to Heaviest: LED LCD & CCFL LCD, Plasma 
Due to the thick glass needed on plasmas, they are significantly heavier than LCD TVs. Once installed, this may not be an issue, but keep in mind that mounting and transporting 100+ pound TVs isn’t trivial.  

Longest to Shortest: Tie
Each of these TV types last about the same amount of time. Plasmas used to have problems in this area, but it’s only a moot point anymore as they have been significantly improved recently.  

Other Considerations: 
3D Technology: 
There several types of 3D displays, but the main categories are ones that require active shutter glasses, and ones that use different orientations of polarized light. The former requires the expensive glasses to be ‘synced’ to the TV while watching and is the most common technology currently available. The latter, polarized option, is more like what you see in the theater, and uses similar (passive) glasses. Click herefor more info about the two technologies. 

Another good option is a projector, if you have the space for it and can make the room dark enough (or afford a very bright projector). Projectors really excel at movie viewing, as opposed to daytime TV use. If you’re looking at a $100+ TV for primarily using with movies, you should probably consider a projector. 

Type of LCD panel: 
While I discussed the back-light technology, I didn’t elaborate on the LCD panel differences. Generally, and IPS panel is the best at reproducing a wide range of colors, while a TN type panel has faster refresh times.      

  • LED LCDs are better performing, but more expensive than, CCFL LCDs
  • Plasmas generally have the best image quality
  • CCFL LCDs are common & available, and you may be able to get a great deal on one
There’s no wrong or right answer to which one is best, it depends on what you want to use the TV for. So have fun picking and enjoy the game!  

Disclaimer: The average TV for a given type will perform as listed above. As with most things, the generalizations above aren't always true for a specific model. Many companies work hard to overcome the shortcomings of a particular technology, while other companies cut corners.  

maven3 posted Sep 13, 2012