Projecting a good image

Use these three buying criteria to make your short list for multimedia projectors

Many government offices depend heavily on multimedia projectors for internal training and other presentations. Those in the market for a new projector have plenty of good news. Prices have dropped, feature options have increased, and new technologies and enhancements to older technologies have improved performance and image quality, while cutting the size and weight of projectors.

However, selecting the right projector is going to take a little work. If you’re planning to start your selection process by scanning product specification sheets, be sure to have eye drops and aspirin on hand. Comparing sheets filled with small-print specifications can make even the most technologically savvy buyer dizzy.

But there is a relatively simple way to make your initial cut. “The first questions I would ask are, ‘What are you planning on projecting?’ and ‘In what types of locations will you be using the projector?’” said Bruce Pollack, associate director of marketing in Sharp Electronics’ LCD Products Division.

He and other experts said the answers to those questions primarily affect three aspects of projectors: light output, weight and resolution. Once you’ve decided on those factors, you’ve narrowed the list enough to dispense with the aspirin, if not the eye drops.

1. Bright ideas
The amount of light output a projector can produce has a major effect on image clarity and is the primary determinant of how large a projected image can be. If light output is not sufficient for the size of the room, the image will appear washed out or, at worst, be virtually invisible to viewers.

Light output is measured in units called ANSI lumens, which in most of today’s business projectors range from about 1,000 to 5,000. Like money, lumens is one of those things you can’t have too much of. Many projectors allow you to adjust the light level, which can be handy for situations when you don’t need maximum output because it lets you reduce the projector’s fan action and lower the noise from a hum to a whisper.

“When evaluating how bright a machine you need, room size and environment are the most important considerations,” said James Chan, director of projector product marketing at Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America.

He said that if most of your presentations will take place in offices, conference rooms or standard classrooms, 1,500 to 2,000 lumens will usually suffice. For larger conference rooms and small auditoriums, you’d probably want a projector with 2,500-lumen output. And for larger auditoriums or very large classrooms, you’ll need to consider buying a machine rated at 2,600 to 5,000 lumens.

Environmental factors, such as how dark you can make the room and whether the image will be projected on a reflective screen or a wall with a matte finish, also play an important role in how much light output you’ll need, Chan said.

Finally, the types of images you’ll be displaying affect how much detail users need to see. Generally, viewers watching Microsoft PowerPoint presentations with no fine print might be satisfied with slightly washed-out images, unlike those who would be forced to squint to read rows of spreadsheet numbers under the same conditions.

When considering the light output you want, the primary trade-off is cost. Generally speaking, the higher the light output, the more expensive the machine.

2. Weighty decision
Projectors’ weight can range from less than 1 pound to more than 20 pounds. Heavier machines tend to be permanently installed in auditoriums, so weight considerations are most important at the low end and in the middle of the scale.

You can use projectors in the middle range — say, 8 to 15 pounds — in off-campus settings or roll them on carts within a building or campus.

If you don’t plan to travel with the projector, you can put weight near the bottom of your list of criteria.

However, lighter machines will please traveling employees. Trade-offs include light output, cost and functionality.

Ben Smith, marketing director at InFocus, said lightweight machines — less than 5 pounds — are designed for people who travel frequently and need a reliable, portable projector to take to meetings.

But he added that smaller projectors sometimes skimp on features such as wireless connectivity or the type and number of inputs allowed, partly because of the lack of room. “It is important to look at the projector’s input/output features to make sure it can accept integrated data, video and audio,” Smith said.

So far, Mitsubishi offers the lightest projector. The $800 PocketProjector weighs 1 pound and fits in the palm of your hand. But its 250 lumens and low resolution render it useful only for presentations in small rooms.

If you don’t want to sacrifice functionality, you’ll have to pay. “Generally, companies charge extra for the miniaturization efforts,” said Evan Powell, editor of ProjectorCentral.com. For example, InFocus’ Work Big LP70+ weighs about 2.5 pounds, has XGA resolution and features light output of 1,500 lumens. It costs $1,400, while the company’s 6-pound Work Big IN26 with similar resolution and light output costs only $1,000.

There are a few high-output projectors in the midweight category, but they will cost you. For example, Sharp’s 3,000-lumen XG-MB65X weighs 8.6 pounds and costs around $3,600. The lightest 3,000-lumen device is the Panasonic PT-LB30U, which weighs only 5.5 pounds but costs $3,800.

3. A good resolution
As most people know from buying computer displays, resolution is a measure of the number of pixels displayed. The more pixels, the sharper the image.

Higher-resolution projectors also have smaller pixels, so you might be able to project a larger image without the picture breaking up into dots.

Most projectors sold today are either SVGA, which has a pixel density of 800 x 600, or XGA, with a density of 1,024 x 768 pixels.

Both resolutions will provide adequate clarity, but to optimize your presentations, you’ll need to consider how you plan to use the projector.

“My rule of thumb is if most of what you present are computer-created images such as PowerPoint slides, you can save money by buying an SVGA projector,” Powell said. “But if you’re doing higher-resolution work, you should move up to XGA.”

However, because the price differential between SVGA and XGA has dropped to about $200 or $300, “XGA is the most common business and government projector resolution today,” Pollack said. “If the customer is working with very high-resolution sources like imaging, simulation or design, they might consider a projector that has an even higher native resolution.”

These include UXGA (1,600 x 1,200) or SXGA (1,280 x 1,044). If you need that capability, you’ll have to dig deep into your budget. Sanyo’s 7,000-lumen PLC-UF15 UXGA installation projector weighs about 80 pounds and costs about $26,000. Some SXGA projectors cost more than twice as much.

It’s important to note that you can project a higher-resolution image using a low-resolution projector. For example, you can display an XGA PC screen through an SVGA projector. However, the technology to accomplish that, called scaling, varies greatly from machine to machine.

So if this is your intended application, “make sure you see how the image looks before buying the projector,” Powell said.

Once you’ve shortened your list based on light output, weight and resolution, you still face a number of decisions.

“Customers are increasingly looking at details like flexible warranties, lamp life, customer support and remote management,” said Paula Gill, Hewlett-Packard’s worldwide product marketing manager.

Finally, there is the look and feel of the projectors and the images they present. After narrowing the field to two or three, take the time to test the projectors with the applications and in the environments in which you intend to use them. You’ll want to make sure that the controls are easy to see and use, that the image is clear, and that the projector fits comfortably in whatever conveyance — briefcase, car or cart — in which you will be transporting it.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

Reviewer’s smart pick:
Light bright

Projectors are boring, you say? Not anymore. Thanks to new features, such as support for high-definition TV, some projectors can more accurately be described as multifunction entertainment centers.

One such projector is the PJ458D from ViewSonic, a svelte 4.9-pound projector compact enough to travel easily, especially with the included carrying case. Measuring 10 inches by 3.8 inches by 7.9 inches, the projector isn’t tiny, but it is portable.

And it’s not just the size that makes the PJ458D flexible enough for use in multiple settings. You can simultaneously connect it to two computers or to a computer and a video or Super-Video source. It also supports HDTV signals.

The brightness rating of 2,000 lumens makes the projector easily viewable in daylight, as we discovered when testing it in a bright, sunny room. We could see the projected image clearly without dimming the lights, and the native XGA 1,024 x 768 resolution projected a clear, crisp image.

The PJ458D uses Digital Light Processing technology, which produces sharp, daylight-viewable images thanks to small mirrors housed on a special microchip inside the projector.

We liked the manual zoom lens and digital keystone correction that together allow a high level of image adjustment. The keystone correction ensures that the image is projected as a rectangle rather than a distorted parallelogram.

The on-screen menu is easy to access and navigate via a menu/enter button and four navigational buttons on top of the projector.

The ViewSonic PJ458D carries a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $1,099.

— Michelle Speir Haase

DLP vs. LCD: Does it matter?

When shopping for a projector, one issue related to resolution is the technology used to display images.

LCD projectors use three separate LCD glass panels, one each for the red, green and blue components that create colors. Digital Light Processing (DLP), a proprietary technology developed by Texas Instruments, uses tiny mirrors of a single pixel each, which wobble back and forth to reflect colors from color wheels into or away from the lens.

DLP projectors are most plentiful in the lower light output categories because the technology does not allow as much light throughput as LCD. DLP projectors are also more common in the smaller format sizes because the technology uses less space than LCD.

Traditionally, DLP provides greater contrast and eliminates the “screen-door effect,” an LCD projector phenomenon in which the image looks as if it is being viewed through a window screen.

On the other hand, LCD displays have greater color saturation and slightly sharper edges, making small numbers more readable.

Ultimately, both technologies have benefited from regular advances in the past few years, and the differences between the two are probably a tossup for buyers.

“Unless you’re looking at images from these projectors side by side, it’s hard to tell them apart,” said Evan Powell, editor of ProjectorCentral.com.

— Larry Stevens

Big light output a pricey luxury

The primary trade-off for a projector’s light output is cost. Most 2,000-lumen machines fall in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, while those below 2,000 ANSI lumens often cost less than $1,000.

For example, Mitsubishi’s 1,700-lumen XD110U XGA projectors cost $899, while the company’s 2,000-lumen XL8U costs around $1,800.

Big price jumps are also possible when you move to 2,500 lumens. For example, Sharp’s 8.6-pound, 2,500-lumen XG-MB55X costs $2,500.

The lighter it is, the heavier it is

As a projector’s light output increases, so will its weight. For example, Epson customers looking for a 3,000-lumen projector must be willing to tote a 10.5-pound PowerLite 830p.

If you want to save wear and tear on your shoulders and instead buy Epson’s 8.9-pound PowerLite 821p, the light output drops to 2,600 ANSI lumens.

Companies have recently made great strides in increasing light output while keeping weight down. Epson broke the 4-pound barrier with its 3.9-pound, 2,000-lumen PowerLite 755c projector, which costs $1,600.

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