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Plasma Burn-In: Is It Still a Cause for Concern?

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Plasma-Image-retention-small.jpgIt's fair to say, TV reviewers love plasma technology ... because we love great picture quality. Year in and year out, publications like ours select plasma TVs as our best-of in the TV category, because plasma TVs usually do a better job than LED/LCDs at reproducing the deepest black levels and best real-world image contrast to render a gorgeous film image for a home theater environment. This year, Panasonic has truly outdone itself with its ST, VT, and ZT Series plasma lines, and Samsung has significantly upped its game with the F8500 plasma series. It's a great time to buy a plasma, yet whenever we review one, a few readers inevitably chime in and say there's one reason why they simply will not consider buying a plasma TV: image retention. They usually go on to ask why we never talk about image retention. So let's talk about image retention.

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Plasma image retention comes in two forms. Short-term image retention (also known as image persistence) is a common plasma artifact that's caused when the phosphors that create the image continue to glow after being in an excited state for a given time. The result is that a trace of the image temporarily lingers on the screen. The brighter the image, the more excited the phosphor becomes, and the more likely it is to continue to glow for some amount of time, be it a few seconds, minutes, or hours. Sometimes, when reviewing a plasma display, after working with a bright test pattern for a few minutes, I'll switch to dark one and see a lingering hint of the bright pattern for a few seconds. It's much more difficult to notice this effect with real-world moving images. Leave a bright, static image on a plasma screen for a full day, however, and you'll very likely see a trace of it for a while afterward. But the trace will fade, and most new plasma TVs have anti-retention tools like screen wipes to help "erase" an especially tenacious bit of short-term image retention.

When most people express concerns about image retention, they are talking about permanent image retention, also known as burn-in. This occurs when the phosphors have aged unevenly and created a permanent outline of an image on the screen, one that will not fade over time. Burn-in was a major concern in the early days of plasma TVs and could occur quite easily. Today's plasma TVs use phosphors that are faster in action and decay and more efficient, so the technology has evolved to a point where permanent burn-in is harder to achieve ... but not impossible. Let me say that again: it is still possible to burn images into your plasma panel if you're not careful. Read your plasma TV manual, and you'll still find a warning in it about burn-in, which is not covered by the manufacturer's warranty precisely because the manufacturer considers burn-in to be caused by improper use of the display.

This brings us to the all-important question: how can you avoid plasma burn-in, as well as nasty cases of short-term image retention? Sometimes, people think that an image is permanently burnt into their screen because it has been there for weeks, only to discover over time that it does gradually fade away. Still, even short-term image retention can be an annoyance, so it's better to take the necessary steps to avoid it. Reviewers (myself included) don't often talk about image retention in our reviews because, again, it's rarely an issue that presents itself as a performance limitation during our time with a particular TV. If I do notice that a certain plasma tends to hold on to images very easily and the effect is obvious with real-world content, I will certainly say so ... but, frankly, I haven't noticed that in quite some time. Beyond that, I just mention the anti-retention features that are available and move on. Some people have suggested that I should try to actively create image retention to see how easily it might occur. That's like asking me to slam a sledgehammer into the panel to see how resilient it is. I'm sure there are websites out there that run those kinds of resiliency tests, but I have no intention of actively trying to damage a review sample. I don't consider that to be a wise or cost-effective review methodology. What I can do is give you some recommendations on how to minimize the likelihood of burn-in.

Avoid the Dynamic/Vivid Picture Mode and Turn Down the Contrast Control
Plasma TVs no longer come out of the box in a ridiculously bright, exaggerated picture mode. In fact, in order to meet energy standards, plasma TVs usually come out of the box in a ridiculously dim and equally undesirable Standard mode. When you switch modes (as you should), don't go to Dynamic or Vivid, even though those are usually the brightest options. In addition to being the least accurate, these modes usually crank up the contrast to 100 percent and run at a high panel brightness, which is a surefire way to overly excite the phosphors, especially with a brand-new TV. We generally recommend the Cinema/Movie mode, which will likely have the contrast preset to a lower level. I'm most comfortable with a contrast setting around 85, as long as it doesn't adversely affect image accuracy (and it usually doesn't). Having your TV professionally calibrated by an ISF or THX calibrator is a good way to get proper settings for your TV and room. If you constantly feel the need to push your plasma TV's contrast and light output to the maximum in order to enjoy a well-saturated image, you may have purchased the wrong display type for your viewing environment.

Click on over to Page 2 to learn about breaking in your plasma TV and more . . .

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