[FoRK] Breakthrogh in HDTV projector pricing

Rohit Khare Rohit at Khare.org
Tue Jul 13 18:39:38 PDT 2004

Projector offers sharp alternative to giant-screen sets
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By Mike Langberg
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Mercury News
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What if you could buy a 100-inch giant-screen TV that cost only $1,500, 
showed nearly flawless high-definition video and weighed only six 

It sounds like science fiction, but you get all this now in a newly 
emerging category: low-cost home-theater projectors.

These small boxes, also called front projectors, look somewhat like 
old-fashioned carousel slide projectors, and they throw an image onto a 
screen just like you'd see in a movie theater.

Front projectors will work with just about any video source, including 
standard and high-definition cable and satellite-TV receivers, DVD and 
VHS players, and even video-game consoles. They're small enough to tuck 
unobtrusively on a shelf or hang from a ceiling bracket.

The size of the picture is limited only by the size of your wall; even 
in a small room it's easy to get an image exceeding the 60 to 80 inches 
that is the maximum for today's conventional televisions.

Until the last year or so, front projectors designed for home video 
cost $3,000 or more. Lately, the entry price has fallen in half, driven 
by heavy demand for all types of electronic projectors, and should drop 
under $1,000 by year end.

I took a look for myself by calling Optoma Technology of Milpitas 
(www.optoma.com) and asked the company to stage a demonstration, as 
well as lend me its Optoma H30, a home-theater projector that sells for 

Optoma Technology has a fancy screening room in its offices, and 
several marketing and engineering executives graciously set up two 

First, they put an H30 next to an Optoma H77, a much fancier 
home-theater projector that sells for $9,000. The two projectors were 
connected to the same video source -- a high-definition tape of ``The 
Tonight Show with Jay Leno,'' with the wide-screen H30 picture above 
the wide-screen H77 picture.

The H30 did an outstanding job of delivering a sharp image of actress 
Charlize Theron, with realistic flesh tones and rich colors. The H77 
did somewhat better, with a picture so detailed I could easily read the 
lettering on Jay Leno's coffee mug. But, to me, the H77 was only 
marginally superior. In other words, the H30 provides almost as much 
quality as the H77 for one-sixth the price.

Second, the Optoma crew put the H30 up against my own front projector, 
which I brought from home: a Dell 2100MP, which I purchased in April 
2003 for $999; a model since replaced by the Dell 2200MP at $899 
(www.dell.com). The 2100MP is what's called a ``crossover'' projector, 
designed for connecting to a notebook computer for work tasks such as 
displaying a PowerPoint presentation, as well as for home 
entertainment. Crossover projectors, while less expensive than 
home-theater projectors, aren't optimized for video.

This shoot-out was no contest -- the H30 immediately and obviously 
outshone the 2100MP. The level of detail was the same, but the 2100MP 
fell short in both contrast and color. Shadows were deep black with the 
H30, only grayish with the 2100MP. The multicolored ``Tonight Show'' 
backdrop looked pale with the 2100MP, vibrant with the H30.

At home, substituting the H30 for the 2100MP in my family room to 
project on a 100-inch diagonal screen, I had the same response. Scenes 
that were cold and flat with the 2100MP were suddenly warm and rich 
with the H30.

I now had a full-blown case of early adopter's remorse. I'd liked the 
2100MP until making the comparison with the H30. Now I realize I could 
have gotten something much better by waiting a year and spending a few 
hundred dollars more.

Beyond the Optoma H30, choices in the affordable home-theater category 
include the InFocus ScreenPlay 4805 at $1,499 (www.infocushome.com), 
the Sony Cineza VPL-HS3 at $1,499

(www.sonystyle.com) and the Toshiba TLP-ET1 at $1,299 
(www.tacp.toshiba.com). Benq is promising to push price points down 
even further in October with the PE5120 at $999 (www.benq.com).

Sorting through all the features and specifications for front 
projectors is daunting, and I don't have room to explain all the 
details. So I'll stick to a few key points:

??Don't chase after lumens. The brightness of front projectors is 
measured in lumens, with projectors under $2,000 typically offering 
from 800 to 2,000 lumens. Brightness, however, is less important for 
home-theater viewing than contrast and color depth. What's more, home 
theater projectors have lower lumen ratings than crossover projectors, 
even when the actual brightness on the screen is the same. You only 
need 800 to 1,000 lumens for a home-theater projector.

??Get a screen. You can project a movie on a white wall, but the 
picture will be blurry. To get the most from a front projector, you 
need a home theater screen. There are many choices, running $300 and 
above, in both portable and fixed screens. The two biggest 
manufacturers are Da-Lite (www.dalite.com) and Draper 

??Avoid the DLP vs. LCD debate. There are two types of imaging 
technology inside front projectors: liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels 
and digital light processing (DLP) chips. Video engineers get into 
fierce debates about the relative merits of each. Cutting to the chase: 
LCD offers richer colors, DLP more contrast. Either is a good choice, 
although DLP looks like the long-term winner.

??Know what you want. If the main reason you want a front projector is 
watching video, then you skip over the sub-$1,000 crossover category in 
favor of home-theater models. Crossovers are the best choice for those 
who need to regularly make presentations from computers, because they 
render computer text more sharply and are more portable.

??Projectors aren't for everyone. You need a room with enough space to 
position the projector behind you and put up a screen. Black-out shades 
or heavy curtains are required if the room has windows and you want to 
watch in daytime. You also can't move around while watching a front 
projector, because you'll block the light. One final gotcha: The bulb 
in a typical front projector lasts 2,000 to 4,000 hours, then costs 
$200 to $400 to replace.

With all that said, home-theater projectors can deliver an awesome 
experience. For about $2,000 -- the combined cost of a home-theater 
projector and a screen -- you can get a bigger picture than sets 
costing thousands of dollars more.

After I return the borrowed Optoma H30, I suppose I'll readjust to the 
weaker colors and contrast from my Dell 2100MP. But I'll be itching for 
an excuse to replace the 2100MP with something better.
Contact Mike Langberg at mike at langberg.com or (408) 920-5084. Past 
columns may be read at www.langberg.com. 

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