Ask LH: Can You Explain Different TV Screen Types?

Ask LH: Can You Explain Different TV Screen Types?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m planning on buying a new television, but I’m not sure what kind to get. I understand the difference in features, but I don’t know the benefits and downsides of different screen types. When should I buy Plasma instead of LCD? And what’s the advantage of OLED? I’m just not sure of the right type of panel for me, or if I should even care. Please help! Puzzled by Panels

Dear PBP,

The different kinds of flatscreen panels used in televisions are a detail that most people don’t think too much about because, when shopping in an electronics store, it’s pretty hard to notice any real difference. Nonetheless, there are a few things worth considering with each type of panel. Let’s go over the most popular and the pros and cons of each.

Plasma Panels


Plasma panels are on their way out because they have a couple of serious downsides. Primarily, they generate a lot of heat because they burn phosphors to display images. More heat generation means more power consumption, so they’re not as eco-friendly as other panel types. Also, static images on plasma panels can cause a screen-burn effect if left for too long. Earlier plasma TVs used to have shorter lifespans than LCDs, but this has since changed and only something you need to worry about when buying used. Either way, you can expect a minimum of 30,000 hours of use.

On the plus side, because plasma panels are used less and less their prices are down. If you buy plasma, you’ll generally be able to get a larger television for less money — you just might make up that cost with your electric bill. Plasma panels are also known for their better contrast ratios, rendering of rich colours and deeper blacks, and little to know ghosting effects when displaying fast-moving images.

LCD Panels


LCD panels are the most commonly used type of panel in flatscreen televisions today. They offer a lot of benefits, such as low heat generation, no static image burn (like you might encounter with a plasma-based display), and a greater brightness over plasma. LCD panels tend to be lighter in weight (than plasma), and you have a choice between active shutter and passive glasses when purchasing a 3D-capable model.

On the other hand, LCDs have never been great at rendering blacks or avoiding the ghosting problem with fast-moving images. Although the 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rate modes can help with this problem, this can make the motion in films look kind of like they were shot with a consumer video camera. If you’re OK with switching between these modes when you’re switching between sports and film, this isn’t much of a disadvantage. LCDs are also prone to dead pixels, and it’s fairly common to purchase a TV with at least one dead pixel. Generally many pixels have to die before a warranty claim can be filed, so if you have one or two dead pixels and it bothers you a lot you should exchange the TV before your exchange period runs out.

In-Plane Switching


LCD panels with In-Plane Switching (IPS) offer an advantage over standard LCDs and plasma panels. You may have noticed that when you walk to the sides of a flatscreen television the picture becomes lighter and, in some cases, begins to invert. This is because of the viewing angle is rather narrow on most TVs. LCD panels that offer IPS, however, generally have a viewing angle of 170 degrees. As a result, you can watch your TV from a greater angle and the picture will look about the same. If you’ve ever seen an recent Apple monitor, iMac or iPad, you’ve seen a LCD panel with IPS.

LED Backlighting


A standard LCD display is backlit by CCFLs, which aren’t as efficient or effective as LEDs. Not all LED backlit displays are created equal, meaning the evenness of the backlighting can vary, but that’s easy to see by displaying a pure black image on the television. This will allow you to see the evenness of the backlighting. That aside, LED-backlit displays offer quite a few advantages. They make thinner displays possible, consume less power, provide added brightness, and — what’s probably most important to LCD buyers — offer better contrast levels. They’re better at dissipating heat, too. You will, of course, pay more for LED backlighting, but it’s generally worth it.

OLED Displays


OLEDs are organic LEDs are pretty great. They’re thin, light, and don’t require backlighting. As a result they’re capable of very deep blacks and can offer a superior contrast ratio. OLED displays tend to offer images that look closer to reality because of their contrast capabilities. Where an LCD panel may look a little washed out with white when displaying dark images, you won’t see that problem with an OLED panel. Overall, the only real disadvantage of OLED is its higher cost and scarcer availability.

But How Do I Choose?

When choosing a type of panel, you really have to choose which kind offers the biggest advantages. If many people are going to be watching in a wide room from various angles, you’ll probably want to pick up an LCD with IPS. If you’re primarily watching sports, a plasma display or LCD with a faster refresh rate (of 120Hz or 240Hz) will serve you well, but a plain old LCD might not be the best option. Of course, if you can afford an OLED panel and can find a suitable television with one, that’s probably your best bet. But in the end, you’re going to need to figure out which features matter most for you and choose based on that. Happy viewing!


Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


  • Also, static images on plasma panels can cause a screen-burn effect if left for too long

    I stopped reading at that. Straight away you know what sort of article this will be.

    • Yeah, plasma burn-in hasn’t been an issue for consumers for about six years. Like B-ob said, if you’re having static images up for _hours_ at a time, there’s a risk, but you’re not likely to run into that issue if you’re using it in a non-public environment.

      And if you’re using it in somewhere like an airport, an LCD of some sort would generally be a better choice because of LCDs tend to do better in bright environments, if only because plasmas tend to pick up reflections incredibly easily.

    • They do burn, but in time frames that an average home user isn’t going to see. You need to hit commercial levels of usage (e.g. airport display) to have a risk of burn. The normal home user isn’t going to have any problems.

  • Plasmas dont screen burn? They do at my store. Anyway. Plasma if you want to primarily watch movies in the dark or thats more important. LED if you watch a lot of animated movies or for kids too because colours can be so rich or if you have have an already bright room and watch tv with lights in or a lot of light through the windows.

  • or wait for the LED tv to be released. Samsung have developed one. Rather then LCD with LED back light, each pixel is a red/green/blue LED light. Has the same benifits of plasma, with the brightness of LCD.

    Untill then, OLED all the way.

  • Having to toss out my $5k Loewe CRT TV after only 10 years of use, I think you can’t go wrong with the cheapest style on the market. Just bought a 50″ Panasonic Full HD 3D TV (5.5 energy star) for $850. How could you go wrong? Screen burn, power eff etc – Bah. Who knows what will be the latest and greatest in 5 years. This will more than do the job till then (and I’ll live with the extra $20 of electricity rather than pay $1-2k extra for another star)

  • Um, the information about Plasma screen’s is pretty outdated. Plasma’s still have better contrast, colours and motion compared to LED/LCD or LCD screens. And they’re cheaper to boot. Just take a look at the Panasonic VT30 or even the Pioneer Kuro TV’s from 3 years ago. They destroy the current top of the line LED/LCD TV’s on the market

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!