Screening the competition: plasma monitors

The top-ranked FlexScan P5072 showed this closeup with the least distortion of letters on the shoulder patch.

Olivier Douliery

The NEC PlasmaSync 42VP4 edged the FlexScan slightly in color performance.

Gateway's Plasma Display distorted lettering and images a bit more than the top two monitors.

Sony's PFM-42V1 prototype also showed distortion, as well as pronounced ghosting.

Ghosting and legibility are factors that really show how plasma measures up

Plasma monitors are becoming dramatically more affordable. From once costing as much as a car, they've dropped to the price of a high-end television.

The GCN Lab reviewed four plasma monitors from leading vendors. We also invited Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Philips Magnavox Consumer Electronics to participate, but neither sent a product by the deadline.
All plasma monitors have a couple of defects in common: image ghosting, caused by use of phosphorus in the screen, and poor text representation. Regardless of the monitor's price, phosphorus always leaves some residual image when an object moves or a file closes. And text on a plasma screen never looks as crisp as on a CRT or LCD monitor.

The lab team graded the four monitors on how well they overcame those two defects, as well as on picture contrast, clarity, ease of setup, form factor and overall price.

Form factor and ease of setup go hand in hand. Because of the big size and weight of plasma monitors'not to mention their fragility and cost'the ideal plasma should need very little moving around to set up. One little slip could waste thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, we found it necessary to do a lot of moving around to assemble some of the bases and rotate or lift the monitors to connect power and computer cables.

One of the easiest to set up was the Eizo Nanao FlexScan P5072. Four built-in metal handles let us easily lift the 97-pound, 50-inch behemoth and rest it on a well-made, sturdy stand.

Eizo Nanao Technology Inc. smartly left the rear ports open so that all we had to do was reach around for a moment to hook up PC and power cables.

We also liked the fact that the cable ports were close together. Often the two are separated, forcing the user to stretch awkwardly around to the right and then the left.
The FlexScan P5072 was the most expensive plasma in the review and also the top performer in almost every category. Microsoft Word text, regardless of font size, came up clear and straight. On some other units, text looked fuzzy or wiggly.

Likewise, when we left a black image up for a long time and then closed the window, the ghosting was brief and hardly noticeable.

What especially impressed us was that Eizo Nanao could produce good text and minimal ghosting on a monitor four to eight inches larger than competitors.

Quality, clarity, contrast and composure of every picture were excellent, although the competing NEC Solutions America monitor had a slight edge in this area. The FlexScan's images seemed to jump out, and movement was never faded or distorted.

A one-touch automatic adjust feature could maximize the image'valuable for users working with simulation software or video.

One negative about the P5072 was its remote control. Compared with the other plasma remotes, particularly Gateway's, the P5072 remote's center wheel was awkward for navigation, and the trigger feature took some getting used to. Despite a mouse feature for presentations'a good idea'we felt as if we were using a projector and not a monitor.

Even so, the Eizo Nanao FlexScan P5072 deserved the Reviewer's Choice designation and an A- for overall performance.

Presenting clear images

The NEC PlasmaSync 42VP4 at $4,495 was the second-most expensive monitor reviewed, but it had the clearest image quality and would make the best presentation monitor.

Like the Eizo Nanao, the 42VPAD showed minimal ghosting effects. Unlike the Eizo Nanao, it couldn't reproduce text well. Words looked eye-achingly wavy and blurry, particularly in smaller fonts.
Despite an eight-inch size difference between the NEC and the Eizo Nanao, the most noticeable thing about the NEC's form factor was that its connection console was conveniently placed on the side. That small difference shaved minutes off setup and made connecting the monitor to multiple devices far easier than it was for the Eizo Nanao.

Likewise, the NEC's bipedestal base was elevated to make power access the simplest of the units we reviewed. The others didn't allow enough room between monitor and base.

The only negative about the chassis design was its lack of handles for moving. Handles are a must with such costly equipment.

The 46-inch Gateway Plasma Display was a newcomer in this product category. Although the display has some major flaws, Gateway Inc. also got a lot of things right.

Setup was fairly easy. A stable, single-piece base merely needed to be slipped under the monitor, a two-person job. The stand struck the best balance in this review between stability and ease of use.

At $3,799, the Gateway was the least expensive display reviewed, $4,000 less than the costliest model and $1,000 less than the next most-expensive. That's a pretty big price difference.

Gateway made the monitor user-friendly by supplying a huge remote with a button for just about everything. We could zoom in on the fly, even during a movie, without degrading the image. And a button touch made the display glow blue for dark rooms.

The Gateway had all the standard inputs: VGA, DVI, RS-232, NTSC RF, S-Video, and Component Video and Audio. Although the power plug connected conveniently to the side of the monitor, the rest of the inputs were arrayed underneath, which made them hard to access.

Once we got them connected, a picture of the plug type for each active connection appeared on screen, which is a help to anyone who doesn't know the names of the various inputs or can't recognize them on sight.

Image quality for both video and still pictures was quite good, though the video detail levels were not quite as astounding as on the NEC. The Gateway was more on a par with the Eizo Nanao in video quality.

Text quality was not good, however. The monitor seemed geared more toward viewing images or TV programming than for use as a computer monitor. That's OK unless you plan to use it for word processing. We had to make the letters very large, because they blurred at normal sizes.

Ghosting was a big problem with the Gateway. Granted, all plasmas are prone to some ghosting because of their phosphorus, but the Gateway showed legible text for several minutes after a file was closed even if the file had been open for as little as 45 seconds.

Strong ghosts of pictures displayed on-screen hung around for a long time. This happened even when we turned the monitor off for several seconds.

The Gateway display received a C+; that's not too bad for a vendor's first crack at a new piece of hardware. The price is low, so Gateway just needs to improve the display.

Back to the drawing board, please

The 42-inch Sony PFM-42V1 was a preproduction unit, so we made some allowances in testing and did our best to work around the flaws. Sony insisted on sending the unit for review because it said the PFM-42V1 is going to be a great display once it's completed.

We hope to see the finished product because the display as-is is a marginal performer.

There is one selling point: The video quality is above-average. With a DVD and a digital signal, we could see slightly more detail than on the Eizo Nanao, but less than on the NEC.

Text quality, however, is very bad. Any input going through the analog cable was subpar, too, which was one of the issues Sony had warned us about in this preproduction model. So we didn't count it against the score.

The PFM-42V1 showed slightly less ghosting than the Gateway. The ghosts were highly pronounced but faded faster.

The Sony monitor was the most difficult to set up. The stand had to be built from scratch by screwing together metal plates for a base and back panel. Then the monitor had to be maneuvered and dropped into place by fitting four metal pegs into holes'not an easy task with a heavy monitor. A person standing in front of the monitor can't see the pegs in back.

All the inputs were not only under the monitor, but behind the metal panel once the monitor was mounted. Every time we needed to switch inputs to test another component, we had to dismount the monitor and hold it while we changed cables.

The kindest thing we can say about this procedure is that it gave the lab staff a good workout.

The PFM-42V1's quality was average, and we hope will improve in full production. But our test unit had a small screen, difficult setup and only so-so quality with anything but DVD video through a digital signal.

Price is important but not at the expense of performance, especially with a technology as complex as plasma. At this point it pays to buy at the high end.

GCN Lab assistant Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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