16 Nov 2019

Whatever happened to plasma displays?

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The Pioneer PDP-436SXE 43in Plasma television. The Pioneer's were often seen as the best plasmas available until the company decided to discontinue television production in 2010 The Pioneer PDP-436SXE 43in Plasma television. The Pioneer's were often seen as the best plasmas available until the company decided to discontinue television production in 2010 Pioneer

Plasma displays were once the creme-de-la-creme of television technology. With deep blacks and great colour, they could rival CRTs at a time when a lot of the LCD technology at the time was often seen as less than inspiring. But did the plasma display ever have a real future?

Having new ideas is lovely. The problem is that they’re invariably pitched up against old ideas, which have the benefit of experience behind them.

Consider some technological almost-greats of the last few decades, just in the field of film and TV. Anyone have a plasma display on the wall at home? No? There was a time when the writing was on the wall for CRT displays and the writing did not say “TFT-LCD”. It said “plasma display panel”. Plasma displays are made, quite literally, of tiny cells full of ionised gas. Early types were filled with neon which glowed the characteristic red-orange when a high voltage was applied, creating the bright orange flat panel displays found in early 90s laptops.

This image reveals the structure of the Pioneer PDP-V402 plasma display panel. There's a mesh over the front of the matrix of cells to provide electrical conductivity and not great fill factor

Full-colour plasma displays are filled with a gas mix including mercury which, as in a fluorescent tube, emits ultraviolet radiation when excited. The UV light excites coloured phosphors which glow with colour performance very much like that of a CRT. Crucially, if we turn the power off to a particular cell, it is thoroughly and completely off and the light output can be zero. That means that plasma displays can achieve almost OLED-like black levels. Many don’t, as a consequence of less-than-ideal electronics, but the performance was a bit better than most LCDs.

The BenQ PV3200PT is a good example of a modern TFT-LCD display. Notice the higher fill factor and lack of mesh

The problem was, it wasn’t a lot better than the best LCDs, because LCD was a maturing technology. Plasma as a full-colour display dates back perhaps to a 21-inch Fujitsu panel in 1992, though they didn’t become consumer products until the late 90s and they didn’t become really practical until a few years after that. Conversely, researchers at Westinghouse created the term “active matrix” in the 1970s to describe what would become TFT-LCD. In the end, manufacturing techniques for big TFT-LCD panels improved enough to outsell plasma in the mid-2000s.

Large plasma displays were being shown at the big shows as recently as ten years ago, but, in the end, they were a technology that was quite literally outshone by a more experienced incumbent.

Images of the Pioneer PDP-V402 plasma display panel appear courtesy of the people at Rarevision LLC, whose enthusiasm for retro technology is exemplified in the VHS Camcorder application.


Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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