Neither LCD nor plasma TVs are clearly superior, as you can see from our Ratings (LCD and plasma TV Ratings are available to subscribers), which include excellent sets of both types. But each technology has advantages. (For more information about how to choose an HDTV, see our TV Buying Guide and LCD or Plasma TV report.)
LCD sets offer a wider choice of screen sizes and a bigger selection of 1080p models than plasma sets, especially in smaller sizes. An LCD is the better choice for daytime viewing because the screens are usually brighter and less reflective than a plasma's. They also use somewhat less power. Some models have improved black levels and viewing angles, which have been traditional LCD weaknesses. Some Panasonics in our Ratings (available to subscribers) stand out as the only LCD TVs we've seen that look fine from any angle.
Plasma technology also has a lot going for it. Plasma TVs generally cost a bit less than LCD sets of comparable size and quality, especially in the largest sizes, and 1080p models are less expensive and more plentiful than they were a year ago. Our tests have found that the best plasma TVs are capable of deeper blacks and better contrast than LCD sets, resulting in rich, lifelike images. Plasma sets are usually better at handling fast motion than LCD sets, which tend to blur images. And plasma TVs have an almost unlimited viewing angle, so the picture doesn't degrade if you watch the TV from off-center. That's a plus if several people watch from various spots in a room.
The size of your room and your budget are important factors in choosing a screen size. A 40- to 47-inch TV is a reasonable choice for a main TV that you'll watch often in a midsized room. For a large room or a home theater, consider a 50-inch or larger TV; for a bedroom or small den, a 32- to 37-inch set. Smaller screens are generally best suited for casual viewing in a kitchen or an office.
A 1080p set has a native resolution of 1920x1080, indicating the number of columns and rows of pixels, or picture elements, the screen can display. A 720p set has up to 1366x768 pixels. Because a 1080p set can display far more pixels, it can make the most of the fine detail from high-quality HD sources. You can appreciate that most on a 50-inch or larger TV, but the improvement might be noticeable on smaller sets, especially up close. If you plan to connect a computer to a TV or view digital photos, you'll appreciate 1080p resolution even on a small set.
No TV programs are currently broadcast in 1080p, though the satellite companies promise 1080p video on demand this year. You can enjoy true 1080p content now, though. A 1080p set can present the 1080i HD signals of film-based movies shown on TV as true 1080p and upconvert video-based 1080i (most prime-time news and TV series) to 1080p. Blu-ray high-def DVD players also provide true 1080p content from high-definition movies on disc.
With price becoming less of an issue, we'd recommend a high-scoring 1080p set over a comparable 720p TV. But a 720p set can still be a smart buy; some top-rated models in our Ratings (LCD and plasma TV Ratings are available to subscribers) offer very good value. And with typical HD programming, the picture quality of a top 720p TV can be difficult to distinguish from that of a 1080p set.
Ads touting high contrast ratios, fast response times, and high brightness might influence your choice, but manufacturers often arrive at specs differently, so they might not be comparable (see Tech talk: Contrast ratio). To ensure that we compare TVs on a level playing field, our engineers adjust all sets before assessing attributes such as contrast, brightness, color, and more. So use our expert judgment of picture quality to guide you.
Plasma sets, especially 1080p models, use more power than LCD TVs. A 50-inch 1080p plasma TV costs about $125 a year to run, compared with $80 for a 52-inch LCD. (Costs are based on 8 hours a day with power on and 16 in standby mode, typical usage in U.S. households. Costs are averages for type; some sets are more efficient than others.)