Bigger, bolder presentation monsters

GCN Lab director John Breeden, center, and lab technician Arthur Moser compare the text benchmark scores for three plasma monitors.

Rick Steele

Plasma monitors: Quality rises, selection falls

The GCN Lab takes a look each year at plasma monitors for large-scale presentations and information displays. This year, we received fewer submissions because plasma is facing stiff price competition from LCD and digital-light-processing monitors.

Plasma's chief advantages are a big, thin screen plus faster response for simulation programs than LCDs can provide.

Performance depends very little on room lighting'an advantage for plasma over just about every other monitor type, from CRTs to LCDs to projectors. Plasma looks just as good in a sun-drenched conference room as it does on an aircraft carrier's dimly lit bridge.

LCDs and DLPs do have a weight advantage over plasma units, which tend to weigh more than 50 pounds; some plasmas tip the scale at 100 pounds or more. Any desktop product that requires three people to lift it will likely be struck from some agencies' buy lists.

Plasma's biggest competition these days is coming from large-screen LCDs.

For example, the lab recently evaluated a 42-inch-diagonal Mitsubishi LCD that, unlike most plasma displays, made both text and graphics look great without any ghosting.

The competition has caused some monitor makers to drop their plasma divisions. Eizo Nanao Technologies Inc. this year stopped selling plasma, despite having one of the industry's best lines. Other vendors such as ViewSonic Corp. and Pioneer North America Inc. declined to participate in this review, citing de-emphasis of the plasma format.

Swan song?

Three vendors'Gateway Inc., NEC Solutions Inc. and Sony Electronics Inc.'did submit monitors that make it obvious plasma is continuing to evolve along with its rivals. Whether this will be the lab's last purely plasma roundup will depend on whether leading makers continue to embrace the format.

NEC has always scored among the top two in our plasma reviews. This year NEC submitted a 61-inch display that towered so high we had to move a desk back to view it properly.

If the NEC PlasmaSync 61XM3 had shown strong ghosting or bad color reproduction, its extra inches of viewable area might not be worth the extra cost. But the 61XM3 performed as well as NEC's slightly smaller displays in years past.

Setup was surprisingly easy for such a behemoth, except for having to screw in a support bar for the extra weight. We slid the 134-pound unit onto its large plastic feet but could have wall-mounted it if we had something sturdier than drywall.

Native resolution is 1,365 by 768 pixels'the highest in the review.

Like earlier NEC plasma monitors, the 61-inch PlasmaSync is a well-rounded performer in all areas.

NEC didn't engineer it with a specialized blue-to-black color range for video or white-to-gray for text. Still, it was surprisingly comfortable for typing over long periods. There was little ghosting, and letters were crisp and easy to read, as were Microsoft PowerPoint graphics.

On video tests, the PlasmaSync did well, although the Sony display surpassed it in some areas. The PlasmaSync optimized color depth as much as possible in all areas without falling short in any particular area.

DVD presentations were comparable to theater viewing. Quality stayed high regardless of whether images were light or dark'a pitfall for some monitors.

A potential problem: User-created images might look fine on a 15-inch screen but show a lot of flaws when blown up on the PlasmaSync. Also, users who sit close to the display could get dizzy or seasick.

The PlasmaSync 61XM3 costs $10,636 on General Services Administration schedule. It earned an A-, the highest grade in this review. Although it does not excel in any one part of the color spectrum, it does an excellent job overall.

For last year's plasma review, Sony submitted a prototype that wasn't quite ready [GCN, Sept. 22, 2003, Page 58]. This year it sent the 42-inch Sony PFM-42X1, ideal for agencies that need vibrant color but can't pay a fortune.

The PFM-42X1 does still suffer from some of the same drawbacks as last year's model in ease of setup and use.

One of our gripes about last year's PFM-42V1 was the difficult setup. This year, even the hefty, 61-inch NEC was easier to install than the PFM-42X1, whose stand attaches to a piece of metal that screws into the base.

The other plasmas in the review had two composite feet and needed little fiddling to assemble. The Sony PFM-42X1 stand took 17 minutes to assemble plus three more minutes to mount the display.

That was four times as long as for the NEC unit, which is almost twice as large as the 40.7- by 24.8- by 4-inch Sony.

Another drawback was Sony's menu interface. The monitor settings do not progress by percentages but by random number sequences. That made it difficult to establish comparable settings for the lab's benchmarks. To change contrast or brightness, we also had to take extra steps to create a unique user profile.

Coupled with the lengthy setup, this would have given the Sony PFM-42X1 a lower score if not for its excellent DisplayMate benchmark results (see box above).

At first, we thought Sony images had a slight reddish tint against white backgrounds. But when we ran the benchmarks, we realized that the monitor delivers a tint that leans more toward black. It scored the highest color depths with black, blue, green and red. It was above average in yellow; most plasma monitors tend to make yellows look green or greens look yellow. The PFM-42X1 clearly distinguished those colors.

Getting it right

An impressive black is difficult to achieve with plasma, and when done right'as Sony did with its monitor'images really pop off the screen.

The PFM-42X1's most impressive achievement was its gray toning, the hardest shade for any plasma or LCD monitor to achieve. Grays looked even better than on the NEC, which stayed on par with the Sony in most categories.

The PFM-42X1's lowest scores were for text and white reproduction, leading us to conclude that Sony designed it more for pictures than for print.

In our misregistration test with moving images, the Sony scored average, lower than the Gateway but higher than the NEC. The test displays a green grid with certain segments that flash red. On a perfect monitor, the reds and greens join in solid lines. The Sony rendered the red lines somewhat off the green lines, but only when we looked really closely.

At times a video clip would appear a little too red or too dark, but overall the vibrant colors and smooth pixel reproduction make the Sony well worth the $3,747 GSA price.

Setting up the Gateway GTW-P42M403 plasma monitor was as easy as lifting it out of the box and placing it on the stand. Although it has a complicated remote control, with an intimidating 58 buttons, the menu interface was the most logical of the three monitors. It was just as easy to adjust contrast and brightness for benchmarking as it was to set the display on the stand.

The Gateway weighs 68 pounds, about half as much as the NEC, with effective handgrips in back.

The 40.9- by 25.5- by 3.7-inch P42M403 is about an inch larger than the Sony PFM-42X1, which means you can grasp the base to move it without getting fingerprints on the screen.

The GTW-P42M403 outperformed the competition on fast-moving color images and the misregistration test. And it has a great price of $2,799. But ordinary TVs get top scores on the misregistration test, and the GTW-P42M403 is better-suited for watching TV than for showing PowerPoint slides.

It earned the lowest score for text display. Letters looked scrambled and fluttery, more so at the top left even when we optimized settings for text. Because we connected the three plasma monitors to our test computer with a signal splitter, some signal strength was lost, but neither of the other units had as much trouble with text.

On the DisplayMate benchmarks, the GTW-P42M403's colors looked washed-out. Black and red were faded, yellow looked green, gray had a reddish tint and blue appeared purple.

One improvement we'd like to see in both the Gateway and the Sony units would be one-touch auto-adjustment like the NEC's.

A final problem with the Gateway was the same thing we cited last year: If we used the on-screen menu and then turned it off, an outline of the menu box remained noticeable for about a minute.

Ghostbuster needed

If we ran the menu for more than a minute, we could even read its ghost afterward. Such plasma ghosting artifacts worsen with time. So here's a warning for long-winded presenters: A strong ghost of the last slide is going to haunt each new slide.

Gateway is about to release a new plasma unit that should be more suited for business applications. Though none was ready in time for this review, we hope the new monitor will have a more effective ghostbuster. Given a couple of such tweaks, the inexpensive Gateway plasma could become a top contender next year.

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