Giz Explains: Plasma TV Basics

In this week's Giz Explains—if you haven't noticed, it's a weekly series that breaks down a sticky piece of tech into something more digestible for people whose bellies aren't quite made of nerd steel—we're looking at plasma TVs. Plasma. It just sounds sci-fi.

The basic explanation of how plasma sets work is that they've got a cocktail of noble gases (think back to high school chemistry) in tiny cells crammed between two glass panels. The cells are zapped with electricity, which makes them light up. Phosphors coating the cells make the color magic happen. (The gas is turned into a plasma during the process, hence the name.) Since individual pixels can just be turned off (more or less), plasma can inherently produce much better blacks than LCDs,

For instance, the way Pioneer's ultimate Kuro tech manages to pull out some disgustingly deep blacks is that its cells require less and less charge to fire, so they keep cutting down on the pre-charge that results in glowing grays that you see in lesser plasma sets.

Plasmas have actually come a long way in the past 10 years or so, since they started going mainstream. The old problem of "burn in," where a picture is seemingly permanently etched on the screen if a static image is left up too long, is mostly mythical now. They're not totally impervious—leaving the Wachowskis' upcoming hyper-lush Speed Racer on pause for a few weeks might lead to some ugly results. But because the time it takes to reduce the panel's brightness by half (the half-life) can be 60,000 hours or longer, at least the same life as an LCD's backlight, it's now a non-issue when debating LCD vs. plasma.

The so-called "Denver" altitude problem is less of one now than before as well. See, plasmas aren't too fond of high altitudes, because it affects the gas inside (think baseball players visiting Coors Field, or the need to modify Betty Crocker recipes). Plasmas in higher altitudes can make annoying buzzing sounds. But new sets are able to withstand higher and higher altitudes, and Denver falls within the newest comfort zone of 7,500 feet. Sherpas still might want NEC's special "high altitude" models that'll work all the way up to 9,180 feet. Still, as Plasma TV Buying Guide suggests, you might just wanna stop by a Best Buy that sits at your same altitude, and see how their TVs are faring.

The one thing plasmas are losing though is bulk, both size and heft. (Unless you count the pictured 103-inch or 150-inch monsters from Panasonic.) Current models run as fat as five inches thick and 100 pounds, making self-installation a real pain in the dick. But sets shipping later this year and next will slim down to around an inch and around 45 pounds—but you will have to pay mightily for the new lightness, and may never be able to afford Pioneer's anorexic-model-on-coke skinny concept plasma.

Something we missed, or you still wanna know? Send any questions about plasmas (or anything else) to tips@gizmodo.com, with "Giz Explains" in the subject line.