Q: I’m sweet on this one Philips plasma TV—50 inches of fun, man. But I wait and I wait, and the price is still on the wrong side of $5,000. Are plasma TVs ever gonna be affordable for us everyday folk? I don’t understand how prices can be dropping on digital cameras and laptops, but plasma sets remain so dear.

Hmmm, “affordable”—quite an imprecise term you’ve got Mr. Roboto pondering here. The conventional wisdom says, yes, prices on flat-panel TVs will drop a good bit in 2004, perhaps as much as 40 percent. But that means we’re not yet talking three digits, and even the lowest-end 42-inchers will still be upwards of two grand. Despair not, though, as there’s some flat-panel hope on the distant horizon.

Not sure if this’ll be any comfort, but plasma TVs are muy expensive for very rational reasons, rather than industry scheming. You see, plasma panels work sort of like neon signs, with bits of inert gas getting charged up by an electrical current. The agitated gas emits ultraviolet light, which phosphors then convert into visible light. Tough stuff, even for leading-edge electronics companies.

The other factor is scarcity. Only a tiny percentage of Asian factories are dedicated to plasma production, and American consumers have been snapping up pretty much everything that rolls off the line. Until there’s a flood of product floating across the Pacific, retailers really don’t have much reason to offer discounts. So next time you shuffle back toward your coach-class seat on an airplane, say something mean-spirited to the folks in the plush leather chairs up front—their Big Willy spending is helping to keep plasma prices up.

The game’s starting to change a bit, however, with computer mavens Gateway and Dell getting into the TV business. Struggling Gateway, getting its booty whupped in the PC market, fired off the opening salvo in November 2002 by peddling a $2,999 42-inch plasma TV. Not surprisingly, it’s now America’s numero uno retailer of plasma sets. The hope, as always, is that Gateway’s competitors will be forced to respond in kind. Huzzah for price wars!

No matter how heated the plasma wars get, though, no one with half a brain foresees prices dipping below $2,000. In fact, the current industry vogue seems to be for super-deluxe sets, rather than models priced for the common man. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, for example, South Korea’s Samsung wowed the crowd with an 80-inch plasma set. Got $70,000?

Keep in mind that plasma’s not the only way to go, and there are plenty of good reasons to look into competing flat-panel technologies. For one thing, plasmas don’t age well—after 25,000 or so hours of viewing, the display’s gonna be 50 percent dimmer than the day you bought it. Also, beware of the low-end models, which don’t boast picture resolutions to write home about. Mr. Roboto caught some Clippers action on a Gateway 42-incher over Christmas and wasn’t exactly blown away by the display quality (not to mention the Clippers’ lackluster rebounding).

Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) are the current chief rival to plasma sets, and some think they’ll soon be cheaper than plasmas, thanks to ramped-up production in Chinese and Korean factories. The downside’s that they’re not yet mega-sized like their plasma rivals, but bigger models are on the way—Samsung’s got a 57-inch LCD set coming down the pike. There’s a lot more pixelation than in a plasma display too, but at least you don’t have to deal with the dimming-over-time issue.

The most exciting news for bargain hunters is Intel’s recent announcement of a new chip, nicknamed Cayley, that can power high-definition, big-screen TVs for 50 percent less than current flat-panel options. Cayleys fit into a type of TV called Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCOS), which isn’t a true flat-panel—it’s still between seven and 14 inches thick. But when the sets debut in 2005, a 50-inch unit will retail for as little as $1,500. Considering that the picture quality is rumored to be better than any LCD, though not quite in plasma terrain, Mr. Roboto’s willing to bet that you can forgo the small pleasure of being able to hang your TV on the wall.

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