Friday, August 1, 2014

You should either buy this TV right now or wait two years

Another one bites the dust The Verge

Samsung announced today that it won't be making any more plasma TVs, which is more or less the end of an era. Plasma TVs were the first mainstream flat-panel televisions on the market, but over the last decade they've been overtaken by LCD TVs, which are vastly thinner, cooler, more power-efficient, and most importantly, cheaper. People basically buy the biggest TV they can afford, which is how Samsung and Vizio managed to completely disrupt Sony as a dominant TV maker: they poured millions into marketing gigantic cheap LCDs while Sony stayed focused on image quality and offered more expensive smaller sets. (At this point Sony's most profitable business is its insurance division; the TV division is such a dog it was spun off into its own company earlier this year.)

The death of plasma is an incredible success story for LCD technology, but it's also a sad reminder that disruption doesn't always meant the best products win: no LCD TV has ever looked as good as the best plasma TVs. Just go down the list: Pioneer's Kuro plasmas were so amazing that CNET still uses them as a review reference years after they were discontinued in 2008. Pioneer couldn't make any money and sold the Kuro technology to Panasonic, whose high-end plasmas were widely considered the best until late last year, when the company stopped making them in favor of LCDs. (The remaining stock is in high demand; used 55-inch sets are selling for $3,000 and up on Amazon six months later.)

And after the Panasonic plasmas went away, the next best TVs you could buy were Samsung's F8500 plasmas, which weren't updated this year and are now discontinued. If you absolutely want the best TV you can buy right now, you should pick up a closeout F8500; nothing better will hit the market anytime soon. The gap in performance is so big that review sites like The Wirecutter don't even recommend LCDs after the F8500; the site flat-out says "most people shouldn't" want an LCD TV if they care about picture quality.

But if you can handle waiting, you should let the TV industry breathe for a couple more years before spending any money. TV makers are dying to push higher-resolution 4K sets on people (which would kick off a hugely profitable upgrade cycle) but there's virtually nothing to watch on those TVs apart from Netflix series like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. There's no point in buying a high-res TV with so little high-res content available. And there's other interesting new technology in the works like Dolby Vision, which creates such stunningly bright images that I actually thought I felt the heat of an explosion when I watched a demo earlier this year. It was pretty cool. And maybe, just maybe, LCD sets will catch up with the quality of plasma.

Probably not, though. Kuro forever.

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