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.

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.

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.)

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