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Geek Guide: Projectors

Volume Number: 24
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Geek Guide

Geek Guide: Projectors

by Dennis Sellers

To project and to serve

Projectors here, projectors there, projectors, projectors everywhere.

Forgive my lame verse, but it pretty well sums up the projector situation. A dozen-plus companies make said devices, which certainly come in handy. But how do you know what projector to buy? Is a projector that's great for a sales presentation a good one for watching movies? Should you buy a portable or stationary model? And what the heck is a lumen anyway? Be patient. MacTech is here to explain it all.

Weighing in

First up, let's look at one of the major factors in picking out a projector: weight. If you're mounting a projector in a home theater setting or stationary office environment, weight won't matter that much. If you're pushing it from office to office or classroom to classroom, weight becomes more important. And if you're a road warrior, lugging the projector all over the country or around the world, you're going to want a small model. The most svelte portable projectors weigh around three pounds.

Resolution

Lots of laptops come with XGA screens these days so, for those on the go, a portable projector makes sense. XGA, or Extended Graphics Array, is an IBM display standard that usually means your laptop supports 1024 x 768 pixel resolution or better. A projector with 1024 x 768 resolution is more than adequate for PowerPoint, Keynote, text presentations and the like. For presentations and general office tasks, there's little need to spring for an SXGA (1280 x 1024) projector. On the other hand, unless money is really tight, don't drop down to the SVGA (800 x 600) models unless your needs go no further than PowerPoint/Keynote slides and simple graphics illustrations. On the other extreme, unless you're into very high-resolution workstation applications, there's little need for an UXGA (1600 x 1200 resolution) projector. Few products on the market have this native resolution, at least as compared to the other resolution options mentioned.

Be the brightest in the room

When you're considering an office projector set-up, you'll need to factor in the size of the room you're presenting in, the screen size onto which you'll be projecting and lighting conditions. The general rule of thumb is to pick a projector that's rated with 1500 lumens or above. A lumen (see, we told you we'd explain) is a unit of measurement of light. ANSI (American National Standard Institution) lumens represents the amount of light emitted by a light source, such as a light bulb or, for our purposes, a projector.

Projector brightness, though one of the most important features considered when buying a projector, is still a somewhat elusive standard. Because the brightness of a projector is largely a function of its lamp, lens, and optical engine, it will vary from projector to projector, even in projectors of the same make and model, or with one projector, depending on the age of its lamp. But as a general rule of them, if you're using a really big screen in a really big room, or are using it for more than 20 people, you should give serious consideration to a projector with at least 2000 lumens.

Connections for the future

When it comes to picking out a projector-however you're going to be using it-you'll have a choice of connectivity options: composite video, S-video, analog computer (or VGA), DVI digital inputs and wireless LAN connectivity. When making your choice, decide which devices you'll be using it with both now and-this is the important part-in the future. A low end projector with a few basic connectivity options may look like a sweet deal now, but that could go sour if you find that, down the road, you need to hook it up to other devices with which it's not compatible. Plan ahead.

Wireless projectors are becoming more and more popular. There are several benefits. You don't have to deal with cables. It's easier to switch between multiple computer sources. And presenters have more flexibility in arranging their set-up.

There are two main types of wireless projector. With "real time" wireless projectors the projector has a constant link to its source over a wireless link. The projector displays the source image in real time. With"upload" wireless projectors, files are uploaded to the projector over a wireless link. The uploaded files are later displayed by the projector so you don't have to have a computer on hand.

Which is better? Here's some advice from the Projector Point web site (http://www.projectorpoint.co.uk): "In most cases, you will find real time wireless projection to be a more useful technology. 'Upload' wireless projectors are only really useful where the same presentation is shown repeatedly using the same projector. Since this advantage is only applicable to a small minority (most users, at some point, want to make last minute changes to their presentation) we would generally recommend real time wireless capability.

'Upload' wireless projectors do, however, give you the advantage of being able to project without a PC. For this to be useful, however, you still need to have your PC within range of the projector at some point, whether it's at your office before you go to a presentation, or whether it's at the presentation itself. In the former case, you may as well use a cable. In the latter case, you need to have your PC and projector in the same place anyway, so the advantage is nullified."

All-around good guys

For most of us, multi-use projectors, which are designed to handle work presentations and DVD movie playback at home, will suffice. Reasonably priced, these projectors usually offer a good compromise of weight and features. Look for one with user-selectable screen aspect ratios. Most multi-use projectors come with two user-selectable aspect ratios: 4:3 (standard) and widescreen (16:9). The former is what you'll want to use for computer presentations; the latter is a must-have for letterbox movies.

The higher the contrast ratio, the richer the black appears on the image. If you're using your projector for video purposes, choose one with a high contrast ratio to deliver high quality images. Digital Light Projector (DLP) technology is typically found in multi-use projectors because it offers significantly higher contrast ratios (about 2000:1) than LCD (400:1). As a rule, DLPs have the best light output of the smaller projector types. They have a better contrast ratio so get darker blacks and whiter whites. They have more contrasts and they also provide a more "film-like" image.

It surprises most people, but if you're going to be using your projector simply for viewing movies, a 1000 lumen model will serve just fine. Why? You're most likely going to be viewing a film in a dark or semi-dark room. In this case, a 1000 lumen projector can cast a sharp image up to 100 inches wide with no problem.

Home theater projectors also don't require the maximum resolution (resolution is the number of dots of light that appear on a screen or a projection to make up a projected image in a given space). Lots of movie projectors in the market today are 480p models; they're good enough for DVD movies, TV broadcasts and some game consoles. However, you'll probably want to invest in a higher-resolution projector if you're into Blu-ray or High Definition Television (HDTV) signals, or if you want to "future-proof" your purchase.

Though relatively few projectors come with wide screen support, this is the wave of the future, Ben Joy of InFocus says. High def video conferencing is becoming easy to use and an increasing attractive alternative to travel with the cost of plane tickets and oil, he adds.

Living color

When picking out a projector, you'll want to make sure the color quality is up to your standards. When you see a demonstration of a projector, examine how each model lets you change or enhance colors. Are there adjustments for each of the major color inputs: red, green, and blue? And what about the other colors in the technology palette-cyan, magenta, and yellow? Be sure you can adjust each of these six colors independently to increase the hue of the colors intended, without skewing the other colors. What's more, a saturation adjustment can allow users to simply intensify certain colors more precisely, bringing images into a vivid and vibrant piece of art. Adjustments should be menu-driven and user-friendly so that you can easily get the desired color output quickly.

Why is color consistency important? Electronic devices such as projectors, LCD monitors, digital cameras, laptops, and printers usually display colors based on individual manufacturers' presets, says James Chan, director of Projector Product Marketing, Presentation Products Division, Mitstubishi. This means that the same color presented on each device (or over the Internet) can look vastly different than the actual image.

Brightness uniformity is also important. Uniformity is the percentage of brightness carried from corner to corner and edge to edge of your image. A higher uniformity rating means better consistency throughout your image. For the most consistent images, look for a uniformity rating of 85 percent or better.

On the other hand there's such a thing as too much brightness. Too bright a projector in a darkened room can lead to eyestrain. With that caveat be sure to get one that can project an image at the size you'll need and which will still be bright enough to stand up to the ambient light you'll normally use it with.

The roar of the the fans

You'll also want to consider fan noise. The constant humming of a noisy projector can get old quickly. Before purchasing check the Fan Noise rating. Each of the projectors listed in the Projectisle database (at http://www.projectisle.com.au/projector-guide-choosing.asp) have their Decibel ratings listed when published by the manufacturer. The average noise level of today's projectors is 35dB, but if you can spring for a 25dB model do so. They're noticeably more quiet.

Through a glass, brightly

Two other factors to consider when choosing a projector are lamp type and the lenses. The most common types of lamps now used in projectors are UHP (Ultra High Performance) and UHE (Ultra High Efficiency) lamps, although some models still use metal halide, as well. Lamp life will be rated for any projector you buy, and typical lifespans are between 1,000 and 4,000 hours. Replacement bulbs ain't cheap and will generally set you back $250 to $600.

BuyerZone.com says that knowing the replacement cost of the lamp can help you determine your future spending on a given projector. If you're comparing two projectors of the same brightness, ask about the wattage of their respective lamps. If there is a difference, go with the projector that has a lower-powered bulb. Also look for projectors that have an "economy mode."

BuyerZone.com says this setting reduces the power consumption of the projector, cutting brightness by about 20 percent in exchange for less noise, reduced electricity usage, and longer lamp life spans. Some models have a bulb lifespan of 3,000 hours in economy mode, as opposed to 2,000 hours in standard mode.

Zoom lenses are pretty much the standard on modern projectors; you'll want to check how much a lens' f-number (the smaller the number, the more light) changes at different zoom settings. If the change is minimal your image will remain uniformly bright regardless of lens position, notes BuyerZone.com.

If weight isn't an issue, try to find a machine with an all-glass lens (some are made with lightweight plastics). Glass is the optimal filter for projecting images and will give you a clearer picture, but adds a lot of heft to a projector.

Also, LCD projectors have filters that have to be cleaned regularly. DLP projectors have no filters so you don't have to worry about cleaning them.

Projecting your budget

So what can you expect to pay for a projector? Following is a pretty good summary from the Projector Central web site (http://www.projectorcentral.com/home_theater_buyers_guide_6.htm):

  • $1,000 or less: Even under $1,000, there are some solid home theater projectors available. The least expensive ones are the 854x480 models (also known as 480p). They display DVD very well, and some (but not all) are capable of delivering very good HDTV also. However, there are some 1280x720 (or 720p) models that have dropped below $1,000 as well. This is the most versatile resolution to get into if you are just starting out and can afford it, as the 720p models are much better with HDTV, HD DVD and Blu-ray than are the 480p models.
  • $1,000-$4,000: If you have anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 to spend, you're in the price bracket dominated by 720p projectors. Many of the most popular projectors on Projector Central fall into this price bracket, including highly flexible 720p LCD projectors and single-chip DLP projectors with superb contrast.
  • $4,000 and up: There are, naturally, lots of high-performance 720p projectors available at or beyond this price, including some three-chip DLP projectors. However, once you cross the $4000 line, the next step up in resolution, 1920x1080, becomes attainable. The new 1080p projectors, when coupled with high-definition signal sources, offer the ultimate in HD home theater, at least for now.

Then, of course, there are plenty of extras and options that may prove useful to your particular situation: Onboard memory card readers for image viewing, security features, wireless connectivity, built-in dual-channel sound speakers, etc.

LCD projector warranties range from one to three years on parts and labor depending on the manufacturer. When offered, standard bulb coverage tends to be for 90 days.


Dennis Sellers is a long time journalist. He started in the newspaper business, but has been in the online journalism business for the past 15 years. He's the editor/publisher of Macsimum News (http://www.macsimumnews.com)

 
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