Not so long ago, the video projector was an expensive and mysterious beast presided over by corporate audio-visual experts. But in the past few years, it has become a standard tool in the kit of ordinary folks who give presentations. And if manufacturers are right, easy-to-use projectors may soon be making their way into many home-entertainment systems.
I looked at two new projectors. One, the ScreenPlay 110 from InFocus (www.infocus.com), is the first of a new breed designed to display movies or TV shows rather than PowerPoint slides. The other, the two-pound V-807 Series from PLUS Vision (www.lightware.com), takes projector portability to a new level.
Just about any projector can take input from a DVD player, set-top box, or other video source and throw it up on a screen. But projectors designed to work with computers don't do a very good job. They are optimized for the sharpest display of text and graphics, not video.
The ScreenPlay 110, however, has been heavily modified to improve video performance compared with its stablemate, the workhorse InFocus LP500 that is widely used for business presentations. The rotating filter wheel used to generate screen colors in projectors using the Texas Instruments Digital Light Processing system has been redesigned to give purer colors and higher contrast. The color temperature of the display has been lowered to remove the blue cast typical of data projectors and produce the warmer colors of broadcast TV. Special circuitry is used to produce a true high-definition TV progressive display when connected to an HDTV source, and the image is the 16:9 widescreen ratio used for movies and HDTV. The projector also accepts just about any video connector: digital and analog computer output, S-video, and composite or component (red-green-blue) video.
In a data projector, the brightest possible lamp is desirable because it allows use in normal conference-room lighting. But a home theater can easily be dimmed, so the ScreenPlay uses a lower-output lamp than the LP500. The result is a quieter system, because there is less need for cooling, as well as longer lamp life.
The sum of these changes is a superior system for TV or movie projection. The images lack the harshness of data projectors and are free of the shadows and block pixels that often mar other projector images, especially in fast action scenes.
The biggest drawback is the $4,999 cost. At a time when you can buy a 60-inch high-resolution projection TV for around $3,000, that's pricey. But the ScreenPlay can throw a high-quality image with a 12-foot diagonal onto a plain projection screen that costs a few hundred dollars. If you ceiling-mount the projector, which also gives the best image quality, the system takes up virtually no space in a room. And InFocus plans to drive down the price of home video projectors sharply. By later in the year, it hopes to offer a consumer projector for less than $2,000 that will offer bigger and probably better (because of the advantages of front-projection) images at a lower price than projection TVs.
Unlike the uncompromising, special-purpose ScreenPlay, the PLUS V-807 has to make a number of sacrifices in exchange for maximum portability. There are only two video inputs, computer and composite. There's no zoom lens, and it's less bright than even the ScreenPlay, so you'll probably want to dim the lights. It's relatively noisy, and you'd probably be better off using the mediocre audio from most laptops than the V-807's tinny sound. (The ScreenPlay provides decent sound, though hooking it up to a home sound system is better.)
The payoff for the PLUS V-807 is a versatile projector that is not only light but tiny. And at $2,295 ($3,195 for the higher-resolution V-1080), it's a relative bargain in a market where smaller often translates into more expensive. And while it won't project video as well as the ScreenPlay, it's small enough to tuck into your briefcase and use over the weekend to project a movie or ball game onto a big screen.
This is good news for both mobile executives and would-be home-theater owners. Increasing capabilities, greater ease of use, smaller packages, and lower prices are turning projectors into mainstream products.