For the past 75 years, the vast majority of televisions have been built around the same technology: the cathode ray tube (CRT). In a CRT television, a gun fires a beam of electrons (negatively-charged particles) inside a large glass tube. The electrons excite phosphor atoms along the wide end of the tube (the screen), which causes the phosphor atoms to light up. The television image is produced by lighting up different areas of the phosphor coating with different colors at different intensities (see How Televisions Work for a detailed explanation).
Cathode ray tubes produce crisp, vibrant images, but they do have a serious drawback: They are bulky. In order to increase the screen width in a CRT set, you also have to increase the length of the tube (to give the scanning electron gun room to reach all parts of the screen). Consequently, any big-screen CRT television is going to weigh a ton and take up a sizable chunk of a room.
Photo courtesy Sony
A plasma display from Sony
Recently, a new alternative has popped up on store shelves: the plasma flat panel display. These televisions have wide screens, comparable to the largest CRT sets, but they are only about 6 inches (15 cm) thick. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll see how these sets do so much in such a small space.