Digital projectors worth the splurge.

Digital projectors worth the splurge.

Digital projectors worth the splurge.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Feb. 1 2007 7:01 AM

The Really Big Picture

Can a digital projector turn my living room into a screening room?

When it comes to consumer electronics, I dream big and buy small. My fantasy living room features a wall of 103-inch plasma screens, some terabyte hard drives to store my collection of Blu-ray DVDs, and a couple of sets of quarter-million-dollar German speakers. My actual living room has a 20-inch TV-VCR combo unit, an $80 DVD player, and an iPod docking station.

Two things have kept me from upgrading my dorm-room-quality gear. The first is an extreme aversion to spending money. The second is my small apartment. The living room is also the dining room and the guest bedroom, and my girlfriend doesn't want a gigantic TV dominating the space. Wall of 103-inch plasma screens: out. Table and chairs: in. What I needed was a cheap, smallish gadget that could masquerade as a fancy, expensive gadget. When a friend started crowing about a magical machine that converts any blank wall into a movie screen, I was sold. I had to get a projector, and fast—the Super Bowl was only weeks away.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s executive editor.

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Soon after succumbing to the allure of watching my beloved New Orleans Saints on the living-room wall, I remembered that I know nothing about projectors. What features should I look for? What technology is state of the art? What accessories—blackout shades? a screen?—would I need? My only requirements: It must be easily stowable, cost less than $1,000, and display DVDs, high-definition television, and videos that I've downloaded to my computer.

Over the past month, I tried out six such projectors. I must confess that I've fallen hard—I assure you, dear readers, that you will not regret letting one of these glorious machines into your life. But first, a list of the five most important considerations when shopping for a projector:

LCD vs. DLP. Many A/V connoisseurs believe DLP (digital light processing) projectors are best for home theaters. According to Evan Powell, editor of the invaluable Web site Projector Central, DLP projectors in the under-$1,000 price range generally produce  superior black levels and less visible pixelation than their LCD (liquid crystal display) counterparts—data that my testing confirmed. Some viewers complain that DLP machines create a horrifying-sounding "rainbow effect" in which the changes wrought by the projector's spinning color wheel become visible. Thankfully, I never noticed any rainbows.

Resolution. This is probably the hardest and most important concept to get down. Every device has both a "native resolution"—think of it as the projector's natural state—and a "maximum resolution"—what the projector's capable of if it really stretches itself.

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An example: The Epson Moviemate 30s has a native resolution of 854 by 480 pixels and a maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. This means the Epson has the capability to display an image that comes in at 1280 by 1024, but to do so, it must compress the image to 854 by 480, the projector's native resolution. The compression process can lead to a loss of detail and sharpness.

Why should you care? Projectors with a native resolution of 1280 by 720 can show 720p high-definition television without compressing the image, making them the best choice for HDTV fanatics. If you care only about watching movies, though, an 854-by-480 device works fine. American DVDs store video at 720 by 480 pixels, meaning that a 1280-by-720 projector won't make your flicks look any more detailed than an 854-by-480 projector. (Since the individual pixels on a 1280-by-720 projector are smaller, though, you might see less visible pixilation than on an 854-by-480 device.)

Brightness. Any projector, even a relatively dim one, will look great if you live in a cave. If your living room gets a ton of sunlight, however, no projector will generate a passable image. Somewhere in the middle? Then you need a projector with a high lumen output to keep your picture from looking washed out. Warning: Projector lamps typically peter out after 2,000 to 3,000 hours of use, and replacement bulbs cost $300 to $400. Budget accordingly.

Throw Distance. Your choice of projector will depend on the layout of your room. My projectors were 10.5 feet away from a blank wall space that's 8 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. Using the distance calculator on each manufacturer's Web site, it's easy to figure out which projectors will "throw" a picture that fits your space.

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Compatibility. Buying a projector is only half the battle; you also have to connect it to your set-top box, DVD player, and computer. Five of the six projectors have a VGA input for hooking up a PC and all six accept composite and component video cables. Using a component video connection (the red, green, and blue plugs) rather than composite (the single yellow plug) noticeably improves image quality. (Click here to read what I think about fancy digital cables.)

Methodology

If you're thinking about buying a digital projector, you might want to go whole-hog—upgrade your sound system and DVD player and get the best screen you can afford. But I'm a cheapskate. I tested each projector with my second-rate DVD player and iPod speakers. I did try an adjustable screen for a while, but it took up lots of space and didn't noticeably improve image quality. My apartment was also dark enough that I didn't have to consider any kind of blackout shades. I did have to buy a few things to watch high-definition TV, however. Click here if you want to know what I needed.

Along with lots and lots of Saints games, I evaluated each projector with three different DVDs. I used the snow-filled Fargo to test how they handled whites, the sunless sci-fi flick Dark City for blacks, and Finding Nemo for colors. I also critiqued how well each displayed videos from my computer. I had planned to assess the difficulty of getting each device hooked up, but they were shockingly easy to use. Don't worry if you're intimidated by electronics—projectors are nothing to be afraid of. Unless you're trying to mount one to the ceiling. I'll admit, that does seem frightening.

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The Projectors

InFocus Play Big IN72

InFocus Play Big IN72, $795 Specs: DLP; 900 ANSI lumens; 854-by-480 native resolution. Resembles: Pudgy flying saucer. Features: The InFocus' best attribute is a gyroscopic base that makes it a breeze to position. But it loses points for plug-and-playability. It comes with only a puny composite cable, meaning you'll have to schlep to Radio Shack for cables to connect your DVD player and PC. The InFocus is also worst in show for zoom and focus. The circular dials are hard to budge, making fine control difficult.

Performance: For the cheapest of the bunch, the InFocus holds up well. It was the surprise winner of the Dark City test, where its rich, dark blacks outshone a sea of greenish competitors. It didn't do as well with HD football games, which looked dull and lacked fine detail, and the image was unacceptably washed out with the lights on. The InFocus' picture—a maximum of 82 inches diagonally from 10.5 feet away—is enormous compared to any TV screen. But this was still the smallest of any projector. It takes more than 82 inches to impress me these days.

Recommended for: Movie buffs who don't care about HDTV. It's also a great option for the budget-conscious: As of this writing, you can get the InFocus and a 92-inch screen for $599 after rebate.

Epson Moviemate 30s
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Epson Moviemate 30s, $999.99 Specs: LCD; 1,200 ANSI lumens; 854-by-480 native resolution. Resembles: Overgrown breadmaker. Features: This mega-appliance jams a home theater into a gigantic (15.4 pounds!) all-in-one cube. Thanks to its built-in DVD player and speakers, you can pop in a disc and start watching—no cables or external devices required. Equally handy are the dials that let you adjust the picture's placement without moving the projector—a thoughtful feature, considering you're liable to get a hernia lifting this beast.

Performance: The Epson aced the Finding Nemo test, producing a more vibrant, vivid coral reef than others. Plus, big things come in big packages: It generated by far the biggest picture, a ridiculous 134 inches diagonally from 10.5 feet. Perhaps due to the size of the image, HD football broadcasts looked pixelated and suffered from a lack of sharpness.

Recommended for: Tech neophytes; anyone who wants an extremely simple all-in-one system.

Panasonic PT-P1SDU

Panasonic PT-P1SDU, $1,199 Specs: LCD; 1,500 ANSI lumens; 800-by-600 native resolution. Resembles: A projector, only much, much smaller. Features: Panasonic claims that this 2.9 pounder is "the world's lightest and smallest LCD projector." It's certainly small enough to carry around all day, or tote in a suitcase. It wouldn't shock me if it also had the world's smallest remote control (it resembles a large cracker) and the world's loudest fan (it sounds like a tiny outboard motor). For digital photographers, there's a built-in SD slot. Drop in your memory card, and you can bore the kids with a slide show in seconds.

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Performance: Big things come in small packages, too: The 110-inch picture was second only to the Epson. The Panasonic probably would have done better in a bigger room, or with an Excel spreadsheet. It was overmatched by high-definition football—the game looked pixelated, the colors oversaturated. A whiteout snowfall in Fargo turned blue around the edges, and Dark City had a greenish hue. The Panasonic's picture controls—brightness, contrast, etc.—don't offer much range for tweaking, either.

Recommended for: Traveling salesmen.

NEC VT695

NEC VT695, $999 Specs: LCD; 2,500 ANSI lumens; 1024-by-768 native resolution. Resembles: George Foreman Grill. Features: Lightning-fast auto detection ensures that your movie will pop up as soon as you plug in the DVD player. The zoom and focus are very easy to adjust, and there's a loud (if tinny) internal speaker that eliminates the need for an external sound system. The biggest deficiency here is the on-screen menu system. The interface is not intuitive to navigate, and worse, the gigantic, opaque menu boxes sit in the middle of the screen, making it impossible to tweak the picture while you're watching. The NEC comes with a carrying case and handle, but its claims of portability seem far-fetched—it's too beefy to cart around for long periods of time.

Performance: At 2,500 ANSI lumens, this is by far the brightest of the lot. The luminous picture, which topped out at 106 inches diagonally, makes the NEC a joy to watch with the lights on. Consequently, it's an excellent choice for business types who need to light up a large conference room and homebodies who don't want to watch movies in total darkness. The superior brightness did wonders for Fargo—the whites looked their whitest—and for Finding Nemo, in which subtle tonal variations popped out. It didn't do as well with football, which suffered from the LCD projectors' chronic pixelation problem.

Recommended for: Movie watchers who want to give the occasional PowerPoint presentation; adults who are still afraid of the dark. 

Optoma HD70

Optoma HD70, $999 Specs: DLP; 1,000 ANSI lumens: 1280-by-720 native resolution. Resembles: Ionic air purifier. Features: The Optoma is almost worth buying for the lovely light-up remote, which has dedicated buttons for each aspect ratio and source (HDMI, component, computer, etc.). It also comes with its own component cable—you can plug in and start watching DVDs right away. Each machine I surveyed includes a "keystone" control to straighten the picture when the projector's pointed at an angle. The Optoma's keystone, however, is one of the few that does a credible job fashioning the onscreen image into a rectangle. The focus dial is a bit sticky, making it hard to make adjustments without jostling the projector.

Performance: The projector's 1280-by-720 resolution did wonders for football—the picture was noticeably sharper than the competition. It was the worst of the pack on flesh tones, though. White faces took on a yellowish cast in television programming and in Fargo. The screen size—a max of 92 inches diagonally at 10.5 feet—was at the bottom end of the range, but I still got a nice big image when plugging in my computer.

Recommended for: Sports fans who watch lots of YouTube videos.

Mitsubishi HD1000

Mitsubishi HD1000, $995 Specs: DLP; 1,500 ANSI lumens; 1280-by-720 native resolution. Resembles: Bose Wave radio. Features: The Mitsubishi remote is even better than the Optoma's, with dedicated buttons for each source, aspect ratio, and individual picture controls (contrast, sharpness, etc.). It also has the best keystone controls of any projector; it's possible to get a rectangular picture from even a sharp angle. Handles on the zoom and focus dials make it easy to adjust the picture size.

Performance: The Mitsubishi blew away the competition on the football test—the sharp picture allowed you to pick up subtle details the other projectors missed, like stitching on a white knit cap and the players' jock-strap lines. (Or so I'm told.) Its superior contrast made a big difference on Dark City, revealing shadowy minutiae that were lost on the other machines. Since it's not as bright as the NEC, the whites didn't sparkle as much in Fargo, and I couldn't see as many of Finding Nemo's colors. My biggest disappointment with the Mitsubishi was that, despite having the same maximum screen dimensions as the Optoma (92 inches diagonally), the videos on my computer only showed up at two-thirds the size.

Recommended for: Me, and anyone else who's obsessed with sports. The Mitsubishi doesn't outshine the competition when it comes to DVDs, but since it laps the field on HDTV, this is your best bet if you want a machine for watching both movies and high-definition television.