How To Shop For A Front-Projection HDTV
By Adrienne Maxwell
Big-screen HDTVs are a big-time commodity right now. The combination of higher-quality video sources and falling HDTV prices is just too tempting to ignore. While flat panel HDTVs get the lions share of the attention as plasma, LCD manufacturers duke it out to see which one can release the biggest panel for the least and an 82-inch LCD may inspire oohs and aahs on a trade-show floor, the reality is somewhat less spectacular. Many of these giant flat panels wont see the light of day at retail, or if they do, theyll be accompanied by a hefty price tag. Panasonic will reportedly sell its 103-inch plasma for $80,000.
The simple truth is, if you want a big screen I mean a really big screen, in the 100-inch-and-above range front projection still offers the best value and the best performance in the business. Many people hear the words front projection and envision million-dollar theater rooms and behemoth, six-figure CRT projectors that weigh more than their teenage sons, but thats just not the case any more. The proliferation of DLP and LCD projectors has opened the doors of the high-end home theater and invited the rest of us into the party. Even the higher-end three-chip DLP projectors come in at around half the price of that 103-inch plasma panel, and a mid-level projector can serve up a gorgeous image on a 70- to 80-inch screen for much less than $10,000. But, as is always the case in life, theres a tradeoff. Purchasing and installing a front-projection system requires more research and effort up front than an all-in-one TV, but it can also reap a greater reward for the video lover ready to embark on the journey.
Choosing the Projector
These are confusing times to purchase a display device of any kind. In the analog era, screen size, price and brand loyalty were pretty much the only things that influenced your purchasing decision. Now you also have to think about things like resolution, viewing environment, type of technology and the number and type of inputs. Rather than offer up a complete diatribe on every issue you might encounter when shopping for a projector, Ive decided to focus on the four primary questions you should ask yourself before leaving home.
What resolution do I need? If youre creating a DVD-only entertainment space, you might not need to invest the extra money in an HD-capable projector. An enhanced-definition model, with a resolution of 1024 x 576, 800 x 600, or 854 x 480 (or any resolution in which second number is less than 720), can show all of the detail available in DVD. Manufacturers like Toshiba, Optima and InFocus sell ED models amazingly for less than $1,000. Its important to point out that these projectors will accept a high-definition signal, but they downconvert it to match the projectors resolution, meaning you wont see all of the detail inherent in the image. To get that extra detail, you need to step up to a true high-definition model. Happily, stepping up doesnt necessarily require breaking the bank. You can find single-chip DLP and single-panel LCD projectors, with a 720p resolution, for as little as $1,500; nowadays, $3,000 can get you a fantastic performer. If you want the highest resolution possible, be prepared to pay for it, as the initial crop of 1080p DLP, LCD and LCOS projectors are priced around $10,000 and up.
Can I control the light in my theater room? Viewing environment is an important consideration when purchasing any digital display, but nowhere is it more critical than with a front projector. Generally speaking, projectors can render a deeper black than a flat-panel or rear-projection HDTV, which allows them to create wonderfully rich images in a darkened room. The downside is that projectors arent nearly as bright as other digital displays, and light control is always something to keep in mind. Are you building a dedicated theater space that will be completely dark, even during the day, or are you incorporating this system into a family room that consistently has some measure of ambient light? The more light in your room, the more important the projectors brightness or light-output measurement becomes. I use a first-generation Epson LCD projector, with only average light output, as my primary living room display. As gorgeous as the image is at night, it loses a lot of saturation during the day. In my case, thats okay, because I dont watch much TV during the day. If you do, youll want a projector with better light output. Unfortunately, you cant rely on a manufacturers stated brightness and contrast ratio numbers. Your best bet is to visit a specialty retailer and request a demo of the projector youre considering, in a viewing environment similar to your own.
How big an image do I want to project? A projectors spec sheet should provide a maximum recommended image size, and the owners manual will often approximate how far the projector needs to be from the screen in order to create a certain image size. The bigger the image, the farther away the projector needs to be, which leads to the inevitable question: is your room big enough to support the screen size you want? The inclusion of a zoom feature can alter the numbers slightly, but it cant work miracles. The resolution and light output questions also come into play when we discuss image size. Youll need a projector with greater brightness to render a well-saturated image on a 12-foot-wide screen than on a six-foot-wide screen, and youll be more aware of the difference in resolution between an enhanced-definition projector and a high-definition one on a larger screen. Image size may even determine which HD resolution you select. Should you stick with 720p or go ahead and invest in 1080p? To me, 1080p isnt as important with smaller flat panel and rear-projection televisions, because your eyes cant resolve the extra detail at a normal viewing distance. Thats not the case with a huge front-projected image; your eyes can clearly see the improvement, so it might be worth it to select a 1080p model, if you can swing it in the budget. 1080p models also allow you to get the most from HD DVD and Blu-ray. Currently, only Blu-ray can reproduce 1080p, yet you can scale 1080i from HD DVD to 1080p to make a pretty damn fine picture on a 1080p system. Sources like your HD TiVo or an HD DVD player can look quite good in these situations.
Where do I plan to put the projector in my room? The more ergonomic features your projector has, the easier the set-up process will be. If you plan to mount it on the ceiling, make sure it has threaded inserts to accommodate a mounting bracket and that it includes a feature to flip the image. If you plan to set it on a coffee table or shelf, look for adjustable feet that let you aim the projector up at the screen. Seldom is a projector positioned at the exact height and distance to produce a perfectly rectangular image that fills the screen. Some physical tweaking is almost always required, and its much easier to do so when the projector includes test patterns that you can throw up on the screen during set-up. Horizontal and vertical lens-shifting features make it easier to center an image on the screen without distorting its shape. Some distortion is almost always inevitable, and thats where keystone correction comes in. Keystone tilts the image to fix the trapezoidal shape that results when the projector is placed too high on the ceiling or too low to the ground. My advice is to avoid keystoning and too many digital adjustments. Do a little research before you make your investment by downloading the manual and figure out the math of where your projector is going to go and what size screen you can accommodate. This really helps you get the most from your projector without pushing it with any digital correction.
Some final thoughts in the features department: projectors seldom have as many input options as a TV, and they never include an internal ATSC tuner. If you want to watch over-the-air HDTV, youll need an external ATSC tuner. If you want to feed a lot of different video signals into the projector, you might need an external switcher that can accept multiple high-quality inputs and feed one output signal to the projector. Some projectors use louder fans than others, which will be more of an issue if you plan to set it on a table or shelf close to the seating area. While some AV preamps have all the switching you would ever need, many systems today have as many as five or six HD sources, thus creating the need for HDMI or component video switchers. There are a number of fine units on the market today that can help you manage your HD and non-HD sources, along with your AV preamp.