The Bigger-Screen TV Offering twice the picture of plasma TVs at half the price, video projectors turn your home into a movie palace
(MONEY Magazine) – The next time you find yourself sitting in a dim conference room staring at a PowerPoint presentation, forget the message about market share and focus instead on that crystal-clear, 10-foot-tall pie chart. Now imagine you're seeing the towering walls of Troy and the clashing swords of mythic warriors. And now imagine all of it in your living room.
That's exactly what you can rig up if you had a video projector at home. Turns out, a new breed of video projectors makes bringing the big screen home possible. And you don't need a Hollywood budget to do it. The new projectors cost less than $2,000 (some under $1,000), which means you watch at twice the size of the biggest plasma screen on the market and pay half the price of the smallest.
The new models popping up in consumer-electronics stores are optimized for all the living room stuff: TV cable or satellite signals, DVDs, video games, even digital photos. They tend to be small, weighing under nine pounds.
To work best, projectors require well-darkened rooms and a couch or chairs set at least eight feet from your wall or screen, so you'll probably still use your TV much of the time. But lately projectors have dropped so much in price that they're worth thinking about on their own terms, if only for movie nights or the big game.
Most new home-worthy projectors coming on the market use the latest generation of Texas Instruments' digital light processing, or DLP, technology. They produce warm pictures with the high contrast that makes images take on the heightened realism people expect from movies on film at the theater. The high contrast makes up for the somewhat muted colors. (Colors will improve with the newest DLP chips, which appeared first in the $1,499 InFocus 4805, a hotly anticipated machine released too late for review here.) The competing liquid crystal display, or LCD, projectors, while a bit short on contrast, offer spectacular color.
You'll need to find the happiest medium between brightness and contrast for your room. Brighter lamps (measured in lumens) tend to wash some subtlety from images, while detail (a function of the contrast ratio, which rates the difference between the brightest whites and darkest blacks) comes at the expense of brightness and requires darker rooms.
We tried eight of the newest projectors. Here are three we liked best.
THE BARGAIN: BENQ PB6100 ($999; benq.com). Formerly known as Acer, Taiwan's BenQ has been pushing into the U.S. projector market with some impressive machines. Colors on the PB6100 are rich, and details are finely rendered. Make sure you order the $25 adapter that lets you connect the projector to the component video jacks on your DVD player (the three cables that are red, blue and green at the tips); otherwise your picture will be washed out. One shortcoming is bulb life. All projectors burn out their pricey bulbs, but the BenQ's is shorter-lived than others--it'll last about 1,000 movies--and at $400 is just as expensive. Also, the PB6100 can't be set to wide-screen mode, so you get black bars above and below the image with some movies.
THE PORTABLE: DELL 3300MP PROJECTOR ($1,699; dell.com). Small and bright, the 3300 is one of the new crop of DLP machines that weigh in at under four pounds. Even in well-lit rooms, the picture is bright enough to show a sales chart clearly. This is also the machine to pick if you plan to take it to a friend's house or show movies outdoors or anywhere you cannot control the light. Colors are a bit muted, but the picture is the sharpest of the bunch. The 3300MP's $280 bulb lasts 3,000 hours at full brightness but can run for 5,000 hours (or some 2,500 movies) in its mildly dimmer "econo-mode." Dell frequently discounts its projectors 10% to 20%, so keep an eye out for specials.
THE THEATER EXPERIENCE: EPSON POWERLITE HOME 10+ ($1,299; epson.com). This is the projector that worked best in our very dark living room. Epson is a leader in the LCD camp, and the 10+ shows why. Colors are remarkably rich, and the picture has a filmlike look. Designed first and foremost for DVD movies, the 10+ needs only eight feet--nearly half the distance of the other projectors --to cast an eight-foot-wide image. For movie lovers with easily darkened rooms, this is a dream factor. (The Epson, though large side, is the most thoughtfully designed, looking more like something for a stylish home than for a conference room.)
With any of these projectors, your screens matter. A matte white or light gray wall makes an adequate screen.
Or consider one from Da-Lite (da-lite.com), which makes handsome, lightweight screens that match the dimensions of wide-angle DVDs. The Theater Lite and Deluxe Insta-Theater lines start with screens that have a diagonal of 60 inches, for around $230.
The easiest way to get started: Hook up a DVD player or computer to the projector. If your home stereo is close, just run the audio cables from the computer or player to your receiver. If not, plug in some self-powered speakers, the kind commonly used with desktop computers. Surround-sound speakers from Creative Labs and Logitech deliver great bang for the buck.
Few retailers are equipped to show off projectors to their best advantage, let alone let you comparison shop. So make sure the store you buy from has a good return policy. You can keep up with new products at projectorcentral.com.
Troy comes out on DVD in October. Just imagine the size of that horse in your living room!