Every Body Loves Plasma

Ever since that Philips commercial where a European-looking couple try hanging their thin TV in every room of a minimalist apartment, finally settling for a spot on the ceiling above the bed, plasma sets have been creating a stir. From airports to movie theaters to corporate boardrooms, these slimmed-down big-screen TVs draw stares from almost everybody. Unfortunately, hardly anybody can afford one.

A plasma TV typically costs more than two big-screen rear-projection HDTVs. But things have come a long way since 1997, when the first 42-inch plasma displays sold for $15,000. Today's sets produce much sharper images and start at about $6,000. At this rate, it'll still be awhile before the average American can hang a plasma set on the wall without taking out a second mortgage, though nearly everybody who sees one in action would love to take it home.

Gas Works The idea of using plasma gas to produce an image has been around since before those Euro-looking actors were even born. And flat-panel TVs have been on everybody's wish list since they came to symbolize the home of the future back in the 1950s. Plasma panels were co-invented by University of Illinois professors Don Bitzer and Gene Slottow in 1964. Bitzer assigned one of his promising students, Larry Weber, to study the tiny gas-filled chambers, or cells, at the heart of the panel. Companies like IBM soon recognized the potential of the technology and began their own research.

Weber eventually founded a company called Plasmaco to develop and market plasma displays. Plasmaco produced 10-inch monochrome screens for computer makers in 1989, followed by a 21-inch screen in 1991. Five years later, soon after demonstrating a working color panel, Plasmaco was bought by Panasonic's parent company, Matsushita. Today Panasonic is one of numerous major brands offering plasma display panels.

Unlike traditional cathode-ray tube (CRT) technology, which uses an electron beam to excite the colored phosphors that produce an image, plasma panels rely on ultraviolet light emitted by highly ionized gas to activate the phosphors. In this plasma state, the gas has a roughly equal number of positive ions and free electrons, making it an excellent conductor of electricity. Each panel consists of a few million tiny glass cells that contain the gas along with a red, green, or blue phosphor. Three cells, one for each color, combine to form one pixel, or picture element.

Plasma TV Shopping Guide