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HDTV projectors take over the home

Today's home theater projectors can give you high-definition TV on a gigantic scale - but there's still a price to pay, and we're not just talking about the cost of the equipment.
The Panasonic PT-AX100U home theater projector produces a maximum true resolution of 1280 by 720 pixels, comparable to most flat-panel HD sets.Mark Lennihan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

So you just got a 42-inch high-definition TV set and you think you've caught up with the Joneses. Well, how about I tell you I was just watching a 90-inch image at home, with equipment that cost about the same as a plasma TV? Any buyer's remorse?

Maybe you should feel a little bit of regret, but don't take me too seriously. I've been trying out two new home theater projectors, each of which gave me sharp, gigantic images, at the cost of some significant drawbacks.

Projectors have been a bit overlooked now that HDTVs are starting to catch on in earnest. In part, I think this is because of inertia: people are used to watching a TV at home, and when they upgrade, they get something that fits in the entertainment center.

For manufacturers, that's a tough habit to break. But there are other reasons projectors have been skipped over in the home market that have to do with image quality and fan noise, and manufacturers have been chipping away at those issues. That was clear in the projectors I tested, Mitsubishi's HD1000U and Panasonic's PT-AX100U.

Both have a maximum true resolution of 1280 pixels by 720 pixels, comparable to most flat-panel HD sets, and the prices are in the same ball park. The Mitsubishi lists for $1,500, with street prices close to that. Panasonic's entry lists for $3,000, but can be found for $2,000.

Ahhh, blank walls
I took the chance to try them out after moving into a new apartment. Freshly painted walls with no pictures up yet would be the ideal testing ground, I thought, especially since Panasonic boldly claims that its projector is so bright that it will work well even with the room lights on.

The Panasonic projects an 8-foot diagonal image at 10 feet, and the Mitsubishi a 7-foot image, so having a lot of free wall space was essential. (Both models can zoom in to make the image smaller, but who wants that?)

So how did it work? Quite well. The projectors give beautiful, saturated colors, and the sheer size of the image was overwhelming. It's one thing to watch a clip of Shakira on a TV screen, a totally different one to watch her belly-dance nearly life-size across your wall.

Not your father’s projection TV
It's also clear these projectors are a far cry from the ones we're used to seeing in conference rooms, which usually have a very visible "raster," or grid pattern of pixels. This pattern is hard to pick out in the Mitsubishi's output, and practically invisible on the Panasonic. The company said it has reduced pixilation by adapting technology from its digital cinema projectors, the kind that go into movie theaters to replace film projectors.

The projectors are also reasonably quiet. Again, the Panasonic has a slight edge, probably because its large case provides room for a big, slow-moving (and thus quiet) fan. If the Mitsubishi is turned down to its low-power mode, which cuts light output, it's practically inaudible too.

For those interested in the innards, the Mitsubishi unit has a digital light processor, which is an array of tiny mirrors that move in response to an electrical signal, either bouncing light out through the lens or blocking it. The Panasonic shines light through a more conventional liquid-crystal panel.

Despite those fundamental differences, the output is very similar. The Mitsubishi has a contrast ratio of 1:2,500, and the Panasonic claims 1:6,000. This means a slightly blacker "black" and somewhat better shadow detail from the Panasonic, but the difference isn't noticeable unless you project the images side by side.

Drowned out in the light
And in any case, those slight differences in black levels are going to be moot if you have light on in the room, because ambient light will still drown out the nuances in the darker parts of the projected image. I could imagine watching projected sitcoms, sports or cartoons in a room with a few 40-watt lamps on, but movies, which often have dark scenes, would not be enjoyable.

There are ways of mitigating the problem. A gray, reflective screen as opposed to a matte white one or a white wall helps to keep the blacks black. Making the image smaller, either by zooming or moving the projector closer to the screen, improves contrast. A brighter projector helps too. As it happens, the output is commensurate to the price: the $1,500 Mitsubishi puts out 1,500 lumens, and the $2,000 Panasonic 2,000 lumens. The difference is noticeable, but not huge.

The Panasonic projector also has a light sensor that the company says adjusts the output to compensate for brighter ambient light, but I couldn't see that it had much of an effect.

Drawbacks remain
So ambient light remains the Achilles' heel of projectors, hampering casual viewing. Another problem: To enjoy a big screen, you really need high-definition input. Regular TV doesn't cut it, and even DVDs look quite mushy blown up beyond 3 feet or so. You need high-definition TV programming or, even better, the new HD DVD or Blu-ray discs.

The other reason I'd get a regular HD set before one of these is that I found myself trapped by TV-cabinet inertia as well: I'd have to rearrange the whole living room and get rid of the TV accommodate a projector and screen.

However, if I could afford to equip a second room for HD viewing, I'd definitely consider either one of these projectors to get some of that magic cinema feel into the home. And before I return these units, I'm going to watch Shakira shimmy a few more times.