I first prepared this Projector's Buyer's Guide for the January issue of SRO's sister publication, Video Systems. It was so well received that we decided to expand it and update it for the launch of SRO.
That original version of the Guide covered five categories: Microportables under 6 pounds, Ultraportables from 6 to 10 pounds, Portable/Desktop projectors from 10 to 15 pounds, Desktop/Installation projectors from 15 to 30 pounds, and Desktop/Installation projectors from 30 to 50 pounds.
For this edition, I've made a few changes. Given SRO's audience of rental and staging professionals, I've removed the Microportables category (at least for this issue; tell me what you think for future SRO Guides) and I've added two new categories. The first is Large Venue, 50 to 100 pounds, and the second is Large Venue, 100 pounds and up.
Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of each listing. Copies of the original guide were sent to each participating manufacturer for updates and corrections. In addition, I've made this guide as timely as possible by including many new projectors scheduled for introduction at INFOCOMM 2002. That's why you'll see the notation “TBA” in the MSRP column for some new models — pricing information was still to be announced at press time.
How to Read the Charts
I've standardized on a format that lets you compare products at a glance. Entries in a given category are first sorted by resolution, and then arranged in ascending order by weight. Where possible, I've listed the type of lamp(s) used, the number and type of imaging devices used, computer and video signal compatibility, lens type or lens options, digital signal inputs, and audio output format and power.
When compiling this table, several manufacturers pointed out I had left SECAM signal compatibility off the chart. To be honest, I haven't found a projector yet that won't sync up to a SECAM signal, but in the end I relented and added it to the listings. Objections about leaving Macintosh compatibility off the list were easier to deal with — any projector that supports standard VESA display rates also supports the Mac standards.
There were also questions about support for DTV formats. Note that I included the three most common ATSC formats - 480p, 720p, and 1080i - and did not include PAL standards like 576i. The few times I have seen a PAL DTV source in action through a projector, it was a model that also supported the ATSC rates - at least 480p and 1080i. Since I can't verify PAL operation here (like I can SECAM and Mac compatibility), I left 576i and 576p off the list.
I also see many claims for compatibility with unreasonably high scan rates, such as an SVGA projector with SXGA, or an XGA projector with UXGA. Granted, the projector may be able to sync up to the higher-resolution signal. But the resulting images may be illegible, particularly with fine text and lines of detail.
As such, I usually limit signal compatibility listings to the next higher standard resolution, unless I know the projector is capable of more. My advice to readers when it comes to scaling high-resolution content to a lower-resolution display is this: Caveat Emptor. If you really need to look at SXGA images on a regular basis, then for Pete's sake start with at least an XGA projector design, or better yet, buy an SXGA chassis and scale up your lower-resolution stuff.
The Ultraportable category is as crowded as the Portable/Desktop field used to be a scant two years ago. There are more than 60 listings for both SVGA and XGA models, most of which employ .7" or .9" LCD panels (some equipped with micro lens array). When you stop and think about it, squeezing 1500+ lumens out of a box that weighs less than 10 pounds is really quite a feat of engineering, and a few 800×600 entrants (Mitsubishi's SD200, Hitachi's CP-S370W, and Toshiba's TLP-380) have hit or exceeded the 2000 lumens barrier.
The field is even more crowded at XGA resolution, and I dare say this is the single most competitive category in the projector business. (Had there been a Projection Shoot-Out at INFOCOMM, this certainly would have been the largest category by far.) An even dozen models managed to hit or exceed 2000 lumens, topped by Hitachi's new CP-X430W, which claims 2500 lumens of brightness in a 9.9 pound chassis. That's amazing, as is the fact that Optoma and Mitsubishi managed to shave 3 pounds more and hit the 2K mark.
Portable & Desktop, 10-15 lbs (pg.64)
If the Ultraportable category is like Grand Central Station during rush hour, the Portable/Desktop grouping is a little less crazy. There were 24 entries in three classes of resolution, including the high-altitude SXGA bunch from JVC, Christie, and JVC. Support for SVGA resolution in this class is certainly dwindling, and given the performance of the Ultraportable designs, may go away altogether by this time next year.
Most of the projectors in this category exceed 2000 lumens, and a select few (Mitsubishi's X400, InFocus' LP790, Sharp's XG-C50X, and Hitachi's CP-X990W) have broken through to 3000 lumens and more. Just five years ago, it took a 250-pound projector to achieve that level of brightness. (Believe it or not, there are still a few large-venue projectors hovering around 3500 lumens!)
It's significant that three companies are now offering lightweight SXGA projectors, all using 1365×1024 Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) designs. Until recently, LCoS technology was found in large, bulky models and the price tag was pretty scary. Like everything else in this market, economies of scale in production, engineering advancements, and plain and simple aggressive pricing have pushed true SXGA imaging under $10,000.
Desktop & Installation, 15-30 lbs (pg.66)
You'd think that having 2000 to 3500 lumens in a sub-15 pound housing would put a damper on sales of small installation projectors. Ain't so, Joe! This was the second-most populated category in the Projector Buyer's Guide with nearly 40 entries spanning XGA to SXGA resolution. (No SVGA allowed here!)
Brightness levels are pretty much clustered in the 3000 to 3500 lumens range, thanks to the liberal use of micro lens array LCD panels. There are even a few overachievers, such as Sanyo's new PLC-XP46 (4100 lumens) and Toshiba's just-released TLP-X4000 (4000 lumens). In the high-res crowd, Panasonic's PT-L6600U LCD projector tops the field at 3500 lumens, with the rest of the pack claiming between 1500 and 2500 lumens.
As befits the category, many of the entrants offer interchangeable zoom and fixed projection lenses, and more than a few provide a pure digital video interface ranging from DVI-I and DVI-D to IEEE-1394. All but four models have on-board audio reinforcement too, and with a bit of oomph, several projectors sport 5-watt speaker systems, which makes them useful for a variety of roll-around, breakout room, and small staging applications.
Desktop & Installation, 30-50 lbs (pg.66)
This is one of the smallest categories in the Projector Buyer's Guide. Given that it is now commonplace to achieve over 3000 lumens of brightness in a 15 to 30 pound projector, there just isn't much interest in 30 to 50 pound chassis'. They're still too small for true 3-chip DMD imaging with a Xenon lamp (although that will probably change by the time you read this), and by adding another 20 - 30 pounds at the high end, you can pump up the light levels even more.
In the XGA grouping, Barco's IQ 300 merits attention, as it has a built-in seamless switcher and image tiling system. That means you can eliminate an external black box and a bunch of cabling and switching. (Watch how fast the other players in this grouping jump on that idea!) In both categories, the Proxima, Sanyo, and Christie offerings are all playing around 5000+ lumens thanks to a dual-lamp design. (Sharp's 10-series boxes aren't too far behind.)
Every projector here comes with some sort of digital signal interface, and most of them have built-in audio reinforcement; a feature you can pretty much kiss goodbye in the next two groupings. You'll also have your choice of lenses and full mechanial lens shift control for perfect registration and stacking.
Large Venue, 50-100 lbs (pg.66)
The 50 - 100 pound crowd is just a bit bigger than the previous grouping, and is dominated by Digital Light Processing products using xenon-arc lamps. In the XGA group, Christie and Sanyo have two LCD products, while Sony makes its only appearance in the SXGA large-venue arena with the VPL-FE110 LCD projector.
Surprisingly, some of the models shown aren't much brighter (if at all) than a few of the 15-30 pound LCD designs. In fairness, I should point out that the LCD designs are using 2 or 4 lamps to hit higher brightness levels as opposed to a single short-arc xenon lamp driving a 3x DMD array. And if you really want true UXGA imaging capability, here's the place to find it with Sanyo's PLC-UF10 and Christie's Vivid White projectors.
There is no such thing as a “standard” lens here — everything is optional. In addition to full signal compatibility and plenty of digital inputs (including support for HD-SDI), you're pretty much on your own when it comes to audio reinforcement. But these babies were meant to be hung, stacked, or flown at some distance from the viewing audience.
Large Venue, 100 lbs and up (pg.68)
This is the land of lift trucks, the domain of dollies, the country of cranes. 100 pounds is a fair amount of projector to lift, let alone 200+ pounds. If you're looking for enough light to incinerate a few stray bugs, here is the place to find it.
In the XGA grouping, light output ranges from 5000 lumens (that's considering “idling” for these big boys) to Digital Projection, Christie, and Panasonic monsters churning out 10,000 lumens, while the SXGA grouping is topped out by Barco's 300-pound, 17,500 lumen ELM R18 Director. (That'll keep your crew warm on an outside job.) Every projector in this category uses DLP imaging technology, and you'll have beaucoup lens options plus every conceivable digital interface you can imagine to choose from.
Peter Putman, owner of ROAM Consulting in Doylestown, PA and author of The Toastmasters Guide to Audiovisual Presentations, reviews large-screen displays and computer/video interfaces. He is also a senior contributing editor for Video Systems and Sound & Video Contractor.