TECHNOLOGY: May 05, AU Edition

Television-showroom.jpgMUST-SEE TV
Josephine Cooper reports that Pioneer’s latest plasma TVs are finally living up to the technology’s promise
Plasma screens are the trophy wives of the television world. Seductive in their shiny slimness, deep-pocketed men (often in league with their partners) have been damning the cost and throwing over their old, boxy boob tubes for these new, younger, skinnier models from almost the first day they came on the market.
But that doesn’t mean these new relationships have always been happy: along with the initial entry price, flat-panel plasma units generally require expensive accessories such as tuners to get them out of bed in the morning. What’s more, while they start out as bright young things, the dirty little secret of this wall candy is that they are also subject to burnout: leave it on too long, or with the contrast set too high, and the bright, vibrant colours of the unit’s first heady days start to go drab and fade. Furthermore, from their first day out of the box, plasmas have a problem handling dark colours, especially black, properly: because every gas cell in a plasma unit is on all the time, and because there is no black backdrop as in a standard TV, it takes a lot of power to come close to displaying the dark range of the spectrum properly. Even at the best of times, plasma owners have for years had to live with blotchy being the new black.

Plasmas have what might be called a long memory as well; many users report that just a couple of weeks of watching, say, CNN is enough to burn the network’s logo into the screen for good. (Think of how a bank’s logo and welcome message is always faintly visible in an ATM screen, no matter what is being displayed. Now imagine having spent several thousand dollars for the privilege of that burn-in.) Part of this has been avoidable by keeping contrast set low and the channels flipping during the first few weeks of a unit’s life, when such burn-in is most likely to occur, but until recently, it’s also just been a problem that plasma users have had to either learn to live with or figure out tricks to avoid.
And in what may be the ultimate insult, many plasma buyers are discovering that despite all the money they spent on them, their new loves aren’t really up for a long Sunday afternoon watching sports.
Although manufacturers have been struggling with the problem for years, until recently, most plasma units suffered from all sorts of unpleasant (and unpleasant-sounding) syndromes when they tried to handle fast-motion action of sport, such as jitters and smearing.
Unlike a standard TV, the plasma screen simply can’t keep up with the action, which means that on many units, a flying football or cricket ball will appear like a comet, complete with tail. It can also mean problems with lip-syncing: depending on the quality of image
being fed it, sound doesn’t always keep up with motion, and everyone starts to look like they’re in a poorly-dubbed old Japanese movie.
On the flip side, the good news is that this young technology is great with the kids: plasmas are absolutely tailor-made for digital productions such as Pixar movies, which explains why flicks like Finding Nemo and Toy Story get so much play at the electronics retailers.
It’s all almost enough to make a plasma buyer want to go back, tail between his legs, to his old conventional unit: ‘I want you back. I’m sorry I dallied with that new technology. Remember all the great times we had watching the Ashes together?’
Or, as one online commentator put it recently, ‘Plasma TVs cost a hilarious amount of money, and are ridiculously non-durable. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to my still-good-looking, several-years-old rear projection big screen TV.’
Plasma screen manufacturers have started to realize that they have a real problem, both in terms of the real limitations of their product and, just as if not more important in the tough world of the marketplace, reputation. Makers of plasma units at all price and size levels are all waking up to the fact that they need to either lift their game, or get out of it. Sony, for one, has reportedly decided to withdraw its plasma screens from the market, and Fujitsu has sold half its own plasma business – there were just too many problems.
On the other hand, electronics maker Pioneer has decided to take things in the other direction and break through some of the barriers that have become all too apparent in the flat-panel market and create what might be called next-generation plasma TV. And it seems to be working: their latest models, (the PDP505HD and PDP435HD, coming in at 50 and 43 diagonal inches respectively) received top honours from EISA, the largest editorial multimedia organisation in Europe.
Pioneer has so far succeeded by tackling head-on the biggest problems of plasma TVs thus far. For one thing, the whole issue of colours and skin tones and natural-looking reproduction has been solved through what they call their ‘Advanced Super CLEAR Drive System’: basically, this means that their panels can recreate a ridiculously huge number of colours, 2.79 billion to be exact. This is a huge advantage when it comes to faithfully reproducing colours at the dark end of the spectrum, ensuring that blacks are truly black. Unlike previous plasma units, which were great only for certain limited types of programming (especially those demonstrated at the shop), these are screens that really are good for everyday TV watching.
A second advantage of Pioneer’s new product is that they have ditched the traditional glass panel filter that traditionally sits on the front of plasma units. Because the glass filter often had the annoying side effect of creating multiple reflections between the filter itself and the display unit, Pioneer developed ‘direct colour filter’ technology that not only is crisper (and lighter) than old-fashioned glass panels, but also improves contrast, making images clearer in bright locations.
One more thing that Pioneer has done right: They’ve recognized that there are more places for a flat-panel unit to go then just on a wall, and as such have come up with a pretty schmick-looking stand to hold the thing. Free speakers are a nice extra touch, too, even though the recommended retail price of the two units have just dropped by a thousand dollars a piece – the 43-inch model clocks in at $6,999, while the top-end 50-incher will set you back $8,999.