Buying a new HDTV should be a very thorough process. You must first decide on how much you are willing to spend. Once you have a realistic budget, then you can proceed from there.
If shopping for a plasma panel, the first thing you need to be aware of is the lighting in the store. Is it bright? You should know that a typical store with industrial fluorescent lights is the last place you would want to judge the picture quality of a plasma. Many reputable stores counter this by only displaying their HDTVs in a darkened room, or in a room with soft lights comparable to the lighting in most people’s homes. However, I have been to many stores that clearly don’t know what they are doing. They have plasma displays front and center, under harsh, bright fluorescent lights. Those are conditions in which no one watches a TV, so do not make a judgment under those circumstances. Ask the manager or an employee to see if they can dim the lights, if they can’t, then go to another store. It may seem a bit melodramatic, but if you are going to spend your hard earned money, then the store should accommodate you if they are not displaying their wares in an optimal environment.
Once you have the lighting situation covered, the next important thing to look for in a plasma is the black level. This is extremely important. Think of black as the foundation of all colors. Whenever you see LCD marketing, they often use contrast ratio as some indicator of how impressive the set is, touting contrast ratios like 1,000,000:1. All that is irrelevant, and it is the concept of their brilliant marketing departments. To simplify things, think of contrast ratio as the ratio of luminance between white and black. That is all it is. Be wary of manufacturers touting high contrast ratios in their displays for several reasons. The primary one being the fact that there is no industry standard of contrast ratio, so numbers are meaningless. Some companies use a measurement based on a static image, which is pointless since we do not watch static images. Your room lighting can affect contrast ratio too because light can be reflected from hard surfaces and your display screen. Ideally, you want your display to be in a darkened room. An environment that is perfect for plasmas.
Take note however, not all plasmas are equal. A Vizio plasma is not a Pioneer Kuro or a Panasonic Viera. Before you make the purchase, take some reference video material to test the depth of blackness. On letterboxed titles, the black bars should be black (or pretty close to it!). They should blend into the bezel. A movie I recommend you use to test black levels is Sin City on blu-ray. The movie gets pretty dark. Of course you are not limited to that movie, but I do recommend that you stick to blu-ray movies. They are a lot sharper and crisper, and you are buying a plasma, stick to HD sources.
The third thing you need to do is make sure that the settings on the plasma are fine. Settings differ on different displays, but one thing many stores do is increase the sharpness, color and contrast levels. This might sound like a good idea, but it usually is not. You would want the sharpness and contrast to be at moderate levels. Adjust the color to make sure skin tones and bright colors are natural looking. If they look orange like CSI Miami in HD, then you know something is off. You should use a blu-ray disc with limited post processing and/or directors intent to skew hues and colors. Something good to use as a test disc is Planet Earth on blu-ray.
After you’ve made your plasma purchase, I fully recommend you get it ISF calibrated. ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) calibrators are professionals that can go into the service menu of your plasma to adjust the colors even more accurately since we cannot access the service panel. It will run you several hundred dollars, but it is well worth it.
If ISF calibration is too much for you, then you could always use a blu-ray calibration disc. The best blu-ray calibration disc in my opinion is the Spears & Munsil disc. This can get you pretty close to perfect, without shelling the cash for a professional ISF calibrator.
There you have it. If you follow these steps, you too will have a plasma display that will provide an optimal image that will satisfy you for years.