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

It’s fair to say, TV reviewers love plasma technology … because we love great picture quality. Year in and year out, publications like ours Plasma-Image-retention-small.jpgselectplasma 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.

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 THXcalibrator 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.

“Break in” Your Plasma TV
I’m going to steal a great quote from my colleague Geoffrey Morrison in his CNET article about burn-in: “Think of the phosphors in a plasma like kids. Once you get them riled up, it takes a bit for them to calm back down. Also like kids, as they age, they calm down much faster. As a plasma TV ages [after 100 hours or so], it becomes far more difficult to burn in.” In other words, during the first 100 to 200 hours of watching your new plasma TV, be more mindful about what you watch and how long you watch it. Avoid leaving static images – like network logos, sports/news tickers, and game/computer graphics – on the screen for an extended amount of time. Don’t watch a marathon of your favorite SDTV show with black sidebars. (Most plasmas now let you choose gray sidebars instead of black ones to help age the phosphors more evenly, but I personally find gray sidebars to be very distracting.) Enjoy watching the TV, but keep the content varied while the phosphors age. Many experts suggest that you set the contrast control even lower – under 50 percent – during this break-in period. Of course, you can speed up the aging process by running constant video on the screen; just make sure there’s nothing static within the video, or you will create the very problem you’re trying to prevent. Imaging Science’s Joel Silver recommends that you age a plasma TV for 200 to 300 hours before having it calibrated, because color shift and burn-in can occur more easily during that time.

Turn on the Pixel Orbiter
Most new plasma TVs have a feature in the setup menu called Pixel Orbiter that very subtly shifts the image to prevent static images from sitting in one spot for too long. In Panasonic’s 2013 models, this feature is turned on by default, but in older plasma TVs, you usually need to enable it. The Pixel Orbiter doesn’t give you a license to still (yes, I’m rolling my own eyes at that one); it’s not guaranteed to prevent burn-in, but it can be helpful with smaller static images, like channel logos or score boxes. The Pixel Orbiter won’t help as much with 4:3 or 2.35:1 bars that take up more screen area.

Screen Savers and Shutoff Timers Are Your Friends
Make sure the screen saver is enabled in source devices like DVRs and media players so that, in the event you pause a show, walk away, and unexpectedly get hit by a bus, the static image won’t sit on your screen during your entire hospital stay. Likewise, almost every plasma TV (and source component) has some type of automatic shutoff feature that will turn off the device after a designated amount of time. This feature is designed for energy savings and is often found in the TV’s Eco sub-menu, but it’s also a good way to ensure that your TV is not left unattended with stationary images. If your kid is playing a video game or watching TV and decides to leave the room with all the equipment still on (something kids are prone to do), then the automatic shutoff feature makes a good safety valve.

Understand When Plasma Technology Is the Wrong Choice

Just because we’ve picked a plasma TV as our display device of the year and all your videophile friends have told you that plasma performance is superior doesn’t mean that you should absolutely buy a plasma for your specific viewing needs. It’s our nature to want things to be stated in black-or-white, right-or-wrong terms – “XYZ is the best TV on the market and the one everyone should buy” – but the real world isn’t that neat. Both plasma and LCD technologies have their own strengths and weaknesses that suit them for different purposes.

When someone asks me what TV he or she should buy, the first thing I do is ask how and where the TV will be utilized. I have used a plasma TV as my primary display device for years and never had a problem with image retention of any kind, but here’s the thing: I only watch my theater-room plasma display for a couple of hours in the evenings, usually in a dim to dark room in a calibrated Movie mode that doesn’t need to be excessively bright. It’s rare that I leave my plasma TV on all day or watch a single channel for hours on end. It’s unlikely that I would even watch multiple 2.35:1 movies in one sitting, and I don’t play video games. Truth be told, my living-room TV is the one that gets extended daytime use, in the form of all-day football/ESPN watching or long sessions on a kids’ channel where a static logo might sit for hours. That TV has always been an LCD. Why? Because LCD is a better fit for my bright living room, and it’s also the safer choice for those types of extended viewing sessions. (By the way, LCD/LED TVs can also suffer from burn-in, but it’s even harder to accomplish.)

How do you plan to use the TV for which you are currently shopping? Is it going to be located in a bright viewing environment, where you’ll be tempted to crank up the panel brightness and/or contrast to get maximum light output all the time? Is it a family room where your kids are going to play a lot of video games or watch Cartoon Network eight hours a day? Are you looking for a TV that can pull double-duty as a large-screen computer monitor? Do you still watch a lot of SDTV with 4:3 sidebars? If so, then a plasma TV is probably not the ideal choice. If, on the other hand, the TV will generally be used for a few hours at a time for movie and TV watching, then you likely have nothing to fear in the burn-in department.

If you don’t want to worry about image retention, if you don’t want to have to monitor how long images are being left on your screen, it’s okay to say no to plasma. We won’t shun you. On the flip side, don’t blindly dismiss plasma because you’ve heard that image retention is a major problem, when it might not be a problem at all for you and your viewing habits. Make an informed decision, and you’ll save yourself a lot of worry (and perhaps money) in the long run.