Bright Future for Plasma?

Lots of analysts — including myself — are a bit pessimistic about the future of plasma HDTVs. The increased efficiency of LCD panel production has led to the routing of plasma in HDTV sizes up to 50″, and LCD is making gains at that size as well. It’s easier to make 1080p resolution panels with LCD than with plasma, which is helping power the shift as well.

There is one development in plasma technology that is worth noting, however, and this could rearrange everyone’s forecasts. Research is discovering ways to get more light from a plasma panel with the same amount of power. These gains and their implications are detailed in a white paper, “The Future Still Looks Bright for Plasma TVs”, that is available at the Panasonic Web site. At present, plasma panels have a reputation for being power hogs, which is hardly a benefit in this “global green” conservation-minded environment. The typical panel produces about 2.5 lumens of light per watt of power. Prototype panels have already been built that double this output to 5 lumens per watt, and commercial products should arrive as early as the second half of 2008. Test panels have also been created that double effiency again, up to 10 lumens per watt; these could come to market by 2010.

Doubling the efficiency has many benefits. First, you can get the same brightness levels with half the power consumption, which is a strong “green” selling point. (The plasma makers are more likely to “spend” this advantage to get more light at the same power level, so that they can compete better with the LCD sets that tend to be brighter.) Along with this comes other savings, however. The components required to drive the panel are smaller and less expensive, which helps drive down production costs. The white paper predicts that a 50″ 1080p plasma panel with 10 lumen per watt efficiency could cost a little more than a third the cost of a 50″ 1080p LCD panel. If this prediction comes true, then plasma will have a decided advantage. LCD technology is not sitting still, however, so there is room for lower production costs there over the next three years as well.

Still, this is a good explanation for why Matsushita, Panasonic’s parent company, has decided to double its plasma panel production capacity. We may see a resurgence in plasma’s fortunes in the coming years.

November 1, 2007 Addendum: Okay, no sooner do I write something positive about the plasma market, Pioneer comes out with a dismal financial report. Next to Panasonic, Pioneer is the most committed to a plasma product strategy. Well, the company is closing a production line and cancelling plans to build a new factory. It is lowering its sales forecasts, and planning to cut production by 12%. And the company expects its plasma business to remain unprofitable in the coming fiscal year as well. If one of the main boosters of this technology is so pessimistic, it’s hard for the rest of us to remain optimistic.