A FRIEND AND I HAVE a habit, during our lunchtime wanderings, of conducting the ritual of the plasma television price check at the electronics shops. 'Thirty-five thousand,' my friend will say. 'They're coming down.'
I'm sure we're not the only ones whose tongues wag and wallets cry every time we pass a plasma TV. There are two questions everyone who shares this plasma envy seems to have: why so expensive? And why are they always showing A Bug's Life, Antz or Shrek?
My instinct as to why plasma displays are so pricey is 'because this is Hong Kong'. TVs here are more expensive than in the United States, for example, where a 27-inch TV can be had for the equivalent of about HK$2,000. But plasma displays there cost about as much as here, if not more. The cheapest unit sold in the US costs about HK$35,000.
The high cost has to do with production. The technology involved in creating a plasma display is obviously far in advance of that required to produce a traditional TV. It calls for two pieces of glass with a complex electrode assembly between; the glass must be flat and flawless, the assembly dust free. Consequently displays are built in clean rooms that look like something at NASA rather than in a TV factory. Manufacturers expect about 20 per cent of units produced to be imperfect and unsaleable.
Although manufacturing plants are beginning to emerge in South Korea and the mainland, the major players, and those producing the best picture quality, remain Japanese: NEC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Sony, Panasonic and Philips. Their factories, however, can produce glass sheets of limited size only, and until those sheets become bigger or glass production increases, there will be no economy of scale.
Onto the most important question: why do electronics shops always show computer-animated movies? Well, the quality of a DVD disc is much better than anything your average 27-inch TV can show, but large plasma displays push the limits of the MPEG-2 format these discs use. The discs are further hampered by the fact that most use the American NTSC video system, which has a lower resolution than the PAL system used in Hong Kong. Computer-animated films have fewer colours and less detail than regular movies, so they compress better when recorded on DVD.
That means the picture is much cleaner and shows far fewer of the compression artefacts that may show up on large plasma TVs. And areas of the picture that are supposed to blend smoothly from dark to light often fail to do so on a plasma display. Such problems are less likely to be found in an animated film than one with human stars.
The following plasma-display TVs are among those available at a branch of
Fortress near you: Panasonic TH50PHW5H2 ($82,800); Pioneer PDP503HDE ($78,900); Fujitsu PDS4244WS ($52,800); and Sony PFM32CI ($34,880).
If you can fight your way past the naff slang, this article explains some of the pitfalls of plasma technology. It was written by a TV engineer who does a good job of explaining the technicalities.
This website is designed to convince you plasma TVs are the greatest thing since ... television. The comparison charts and numerous links to reviews should help you decide on a display.
Look for a large yellow box marked Latest Reviews by Categories and click on TVs under Home Audio and Video. You'll find a brief comparison of almost 450 TV sets. It is worth the effort to sample the heated debates on the merits of spending US$15,000 (HK$117,000) on a television.