A Baker’s Dozen, Plus One
Byline: Peter H. Putman, CTS
This year’s projector roundup represents a concession to the inevitable. In the past, the projector testing took place in August, and it was difficult to get access to the newest, post-InfoComm samples. Eventually, I got tired of hearing that the review units wouldn’t be ready until September, so I moved back the testing period to improve my chances of getting the projectors on time.
This year’s edition of the projector roundup, therefore, may seem late, but it is more comprehensive than previous editions. I expanded the field to 14 projectors – one company never sent its promised entry – and added some newcomers.
It seems that there are as many categories of projectors as there are models, caused by the incorporation of small imaging devices. Nine years ago, when I first started testing front projectors, anything with a handle on it was considered a portable projector. This included some 25lb. to 30lb. behemoths that cranked out an amazing 250 lumens.
Now there are portable, ultraportable, microportable, and even picoportable. (I suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone confuses a remote control for its projector!) The original portable models are now used as installation projectors, and many of the portables from four to five years ago fall into the desktop/installation category.
I also used brightness as a performance category. For years, the barrier was 1000 lumens, and then it became 1500 lumens. Now there are plenty of true portables (and more than a few ultraportables) that offer that kind of illumination. For this year’s roundup, I separated the entries into my own arbitrary categories, based on a complex formula of weight, brightness, connectivity, operating features, and a series of coin flips.
The Starting Lineup
There were three entrants in the small portable category. BenQ sent along the SL705X, a 3.8lb. DLP design. Epson entered the popular PowerLite 730c, which uses three 9in. LCD panels and weighs 4.3lbs. Optoma’s EZPro 735, another single-chip DLP projector, which weighs 3.3lbs., rounded out the category. All three projectors in the small portable category use a manual zoom lens.
The portable category included InFocus’ LP650, a 9.4lb. chassis with manual zoom lens; NEC’s LT260, which tips the scales at 6.5lbs. and employs manual zoom optics; and Toshiba’s TLP-T701, a 9lb. design with manual zoom.
The portable/desktop category was well represented with four LCD-based entrants. Hitachi’s CP-X990W weighs 14.3lbs. and features a power zoom and focus lens assembly. Mitsubishi’s XL30 ColorView projector is a 13lb. package with manual zoom. Panasonic entered the PT-L780NTU, with power zoom and focus design that weighs 13lbs. Sharp’s 11.2lb. XG-C50X uses manual zoom and focus.
Need something bigger? In the desktop/installation category, Christie’s 18.5lb. Vivid LX41 LCD projector includes power optics for zooming, focus, and lens shift. Sony entered the new VPL-PX40, a 16.5lb. LCD creation with manual zoom and focus (The review sample was a pre-production unit).
JVC’s DLA-G150CL, a 32lb. LCoS projector with power zoom and focus, and Sanyo’s 27.6lb. PLV-70 widescreen LCD projector, with power zoom, focus, and lens shift optics, comprise the installation category.
Price, brightness, weight, and size no longer solely determine consumer preference for projectors. To lure buyers, manufacturers have added extras to their products. The following are the bells and whistles that were on various projectors in this roundup:
Wired LAN connections: Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU, InFocus’ LP650, Christie’s LX41, Mitsubishi’s XL30 ColorView, and Sony’s VPL-PX40 offer a wired LAN connection.
Wireless LAN connections: Several models offer wireless LAN connectivity, specifically 802.11b WiFi ports for remote connection to a single PC or hub. Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU, Toshiba’s TLP-T701, and NEC’s LT260 all offer this type of port.
Color management systems: Mitsubishi was one the first projector manufacturers to praise the virtues of RGB color interfaces and full-blown color management systems. These adjustments are available on the XL30 ColorView, as well as Sanyo’s PLV-70, NEC’s LT260, and Sharp’s XG-C50X.
Digital inputs: Got DVI? Optoma’s EZPro 735, InFocus’ LP650, Hitachi’s CP-X990W, Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU, Christie’s LX41, Sony’s VPL-PX40, JVC’s DLA-G150CL, and Sanyo’s PLV-70 do. The interfaces vary – some are DVI-I (combination of analog and digital), while others are DVI-D. Check with your dealer to find out which DVI interface is available.
Other features: True 16:9 imaging is available with Sanyo’s PLV-70. Sharp’s XG-C50X has an anti-theft key code. NEC’s LT260 features three-axis digital keystone correction. Hitachi’s CP-X990W, BenQ’s SL705X, and Sharp’s XG-C50X have picture-in-picture mode. Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU and Toshiba’s TLP-T701 contain a memory card for showing of JPEG, BMP, and converted PowerPoint images. Toshiba’s TLP-T701 includes a built-in video copy stand. The input connections for InFocus’ LP650 are color-coded.
Usually, the number of connections increases with size and weight. There were, however, a few pleasant surprises this year. In Focus’ LP650 had one of everything, except BNCs, in a compact portable/desktop/installation package. Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU offers a rack of BNC jacks, in addition to DVI, 15-pin, and video inputs. Sony’s VPL-PX40 includes a 5xBNC jack field. JVC’s DLA-G150CL also has one of everything, and Hitachi’s CP-X990W supports two 15-pin multi-signal jacks plus a separate DVI connection.
Mitsubishi gets extra credit for including a 5xBNC jack field. Christie’s LX41, which has Sanyo parentage, does not include a 5xBNC jack field, but Sanyo’s PLV-70 does. Both projectors provide DVI-D interfaces.
The tiny portables had the fewest inputs. The BenQ and Epson entries each had one composite, one S-Video, and one RGB input. In contrast, Optoma swapped out the 15-pin analog connector for a DVI-I interface that also supports YPbPr DTV and DVD formats.
All but one review model, JVC’s DLA-G150CL, have an on-board audio amplifier, with either mono, dual-speaker mono, or stereo audio outputs. Power levels range from 1W on the small models to 4W on InFocus’ LP650. The sound from most of the review projectors only carries in small rooms, and there are no tone controls.
The quietest fans are in the models from InFocus, Sony, BenQ, Hitachi, Sharp, Christie, and JVC. The Panasonic and Epson projectors were louder than expected, and the Optoma was too noisy for tabletop operation. The Optoma, despite its noisy fan, and BenQ projectors heated up during operation.
Operation and Menus
The small remote for the Optoma EZPro 735 was impossible to read, making it easy to hit the wrong button. The small remote for BenQ’s SL705X could only scroll down through menus, not up. Toshiba’s TLP-T701 remote had hard-to-read text and tiny buttons, and Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU remote buttons were too small and the navigation system was confusing – I used the buttons on the projector instead. Epson’s PowerLite 730c came with a credit card remote with small, tactile buttons.
InFocus’ LP650 came with two remotes with varying functionality that ranked high ergonomically. Hitachi’s CP-X990W remote featured good button size and adequate labeling for easier reading. Sharp’s XG-C50X remote had large buttons, large text, and an intuitive layout. Christie’s Vivid LX41 remote was large, with minimal buttons and behind-the-back operation. The remote for JVC’s DLA-G150CL had clean layout, large buttons, and was easy to read. Sanyo’s PLV-70 had good design, but a sloppy MouseDisk. Sony did not provide a remote with its prototype entry.
Why toggle through unused inputs when you only need to switch between two or three sources? Direct input access isn’t a difficult feature to implement, but few projector manufacturers provide it on their remotes. Models that include direct input access were Sanyo’s PLV-70, JVC’s DLA-G150CL, Sharp’s XG-C50X, and NEC’s LT260.
InFocus has consistently tried to make its projectors easier to use, but the LP650 uses a slow input selection circuit that unnecessarily scans for signals each time the user changes inputs. It missed several active inputs. Toshiba provided one input button on its remote and a scroll menu, creating extra work. Hitachi and Panasonic broke RGB and video input into groups for scrolling.
Most of the entries were compatible with digital-television signals, such as 480p, 720p, and 1080i, connected through a 15-pin jack or separate component video connections. But, not all of the review units support DTV signals in RGB mode. BenQ’s SL705X could not handle 1080i as RGB. Toshiba’s TLP-T701 required aspect ratio tweaking. Sony’s VPL-PX40 did not accept any RGB DTV input, and the Epson PL 730c RGB DTV signal came up as 4:3. On some models, the aspect ratio settings had to be changed in the menu to get the correct image size.
The best menu designs – logical icon placement, fast navigation, and range of adjustments – were found on NEC’s LT260, InFocus’ LP650, Sharp’s XG-C50X, and Sony’s VPL-PX40. The Sanyo and Christie menus were identical in appearance and offered control over the image, but the Sanyo MouseDisk navigation was sloppy – I found myself inadvertently jumping from one menu item to another.
Toshiba’s remote brought up four small menus that have to be navigated with the MouseDisk, which was sloppy and tricky to master. The Panasonic menu was confusing, and Optoma’s menu blocked about 25% of the screen, a hindrance when trying to adjust contrast and brightness. BenQ’s menu was better designed; it sat lower in the image. JVC’s menu was small and located in the corner. Some menus have selectable transparency, allowing the projected image to be seen behind them.
From the Test Bench
This year, I wired new equipment for the performance and image quality tests. For RGB signal sources, I used my Pentium III with Diamond Stealth video card (sorry, no DVI this time around), an Extron VTG200 test-pattern generator, and an AccuPel HDTV test-pattern generator with RGB and YPbPr output.
For video sources, I used a Sony DVP-S7000 player (for 480i composite and S-Video) and a Panasonic DVD-RP56 player (for 480p component). For DTV sources, I used Samsung SIR-T150 and T151 ATSC set-top receivers and a JVC HM-DH30000U D-VHS deck (for 480p, 720p, and 1080i DTV). The signals were switched to each projector through an Extron 16×16 RGBHV matrix switcher.
In the small portable group, Epson’s PowerLite 730c took top honors with 1843 ANSI lumens, almost twice that of BenQ’s SL705x. With only half a pound difference between the two projectors, and not much more juice in the Epson projection lamp, the Epson offers more lumens per dollar.
In the contrast competition, the two DLP-engined boxes performed best, with the BenQ SL705x topping out at 290:1 RGB contrast, 241:1 video contrast, and 740:1 peak contrast. Because of lower black levels, this is an area where DLP technology usually bests three-panel LCD-imaging engines.
The color balance was best on the Epson, which offered a color temperature slider in its menu that is close to the actual measured temperature. The red, green, and blue drive can also be tweaked. Even though BenQ has adjustable color temperature, its lamp burns cool. Optoma’s projector is positively cold at close to 9500 degrees K.
At around 2300 ANSI lumens, the InFocus LP650 topped the brightness test in the portable category and took top honors for RGB at 433:1 and peak contrast at 882:1, the highest peak contrast measurement in the roundup.
Toshiba’s TLP-T701 measured 1711 ANSI lumens and achieved the best video contrast ratio at 286:1 (not bad for LCD imaging). In addition, the color temperature out of the box was 7776 degrees K. In contrast, NEC’s LT260 measured 10280 degrees K and didn’t have as much horsepower at 843 ANSI lumens, but did have the second-highest peak contrast measurement at 732:1.
In the portable/desktop crowd, all four entrants used three-panel LCD imaging, and the resulting brightness measurements spanned 380 lumens. In first place was Hitachi’s CP-X990W with a reading of 2298 ANSI lumens. Mitsubishi’s XL30 ColorView came in a close second with 2290 ANSI lumens, and Sharp’s XG-C50X came in third with 2261 ANSI lumens. Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU rated last with 1918 ANSI lumens.
Hitachi won the contrast categories with readings of 264:1 RGB, 274:1 video contrast, and 382:1 peak contrast. It also had the highest brightness uniformity score at 89%.
The desktop/installation projectors varied in brightness. Christie’s Vivid LX41 took first place with 3639 ANSI lumens, more than five times brighter than JVC’s xenon-lamped DLA-G150CL. The Vivid LX41 turned in 325:1 RGB and 299:1 video contrast scores. Sanyo’s PLV-70 had the best peak contrast at 561:1. The JVC DLA-G150CL had the most accurate out-of-the-box color temperature readings, measuring 6706 degrees K. Using a xenon correction table for my CA-1 color analyzer (courtesy of Cliff Plavin at Progressive Labs), I tweaked the JVC reading closer to D6500.
I used a series of text patterns and grids to measure overall lens sharpness, lens distortion (uneven focus), and pincushioning while zooming the lens. Nine projectors rated “excellent” for the quality of projected images: Optoma’s EZPro 735, Toshiba’s TLP-T701, Hitachi’s CP-X990W, Mitsubishi’s XL30 ColorView, Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU, Sharp’s XG-C50X, Christie’s Vivid LX41, Sony’s VPL-PX40, and Sanyo’s PLV-70.
The image quality on the BenQ, InFocus, and Epson projectors was average. NEC’s LT260 scored even lower in this area because of problems with soft focus. JVC’s projector came with a 2:1 to 3:1 power zoom lens with a fine, slow motorized vernier adjustment. It was difficult to tell when this projector was focused correctly. In contrast, I found myself overshooting the sharpest image on the Panasonic PT-L780NTU because of its high-speed power zoom and focus.
This year’s results indicate that the majority of projector manufacturers can make a functional autosync circuit. Only the Panasonic PT-L780NTU and BenQ SL705X set up fewer than 20 out of the 25 RGB fine-text test signals with no adjustment.
Hitachi’s CP-X990W tied with Sharp’s XG-C50X, correctly setting up 24 signals, and scoring 25 usable signals after adjustment. Sanyo’s PLV-70 correctly set up 23 without adjustment, and scored 25 usable. It’s not surprising, judging from past performance, that Sharp and Sanyo once again scored in the top three. Mitsubishi’s XL30 Color View, Christies’s LX41, and JVC’s DLA-G150CL earned honorable mentions by setting up 24 usable signals.
The projectors were tested for composite, S-Video, and component video quality with a mix of DVDs. I started with Video Essentials for setup and calibration, and then changed to The Who in Concert, The Fifth Element, Apollo 13, Toy Story II, and Men in Black for general comparison. To test HDTV, I used programming from NBC (The Tonight Show), CBS (The Young and the Restless, NCAA basketball), and ABC (Alias) recorded off-air to D-VHS. RGB signal quality was evaluated with fine-text patterns and a series of generic images and desktops.
For RGB images, the projectors were limited only by the projector’s internal autoscaler and/or projection lens. Optoma’s EZPro 735 won in the small portable category with a contrasty and evenly illuminated image, plus the optics kept text and fine details crisp across the image. The projector’s only drawback was a high color temperature.
Toshiba’s TLP-T701 had the best RGB image quality in the portable category. It has good optics and its factory setting of 7776 degrees K was fairly neutral (high color temperatures tend to turn many saturated colors into pastels). NEC’s LT260 tested poorly because of lens problems, and InFocus’ LP650 also needed help with its optics.
The four portable/desktop entrants performed well with RGB images, but Hitachi’s CP-X990W won thanks to a neutral color temperature setting and excellent contrast and brightness uniformity. Among the desktop/installation projectors, Sony’s VPL-PX40 pre-production model and Christie’s Vivid LX41 were tied for RGB quality. Sanyo’s PLV-70 had the best RGB images in the installation competition.
Most of the projectors had sub-par composite video performance, probably caused by ineffective comb filters or the use of notch filters. There were some exceptions, and these models had excellent component video image quality. I liked the video from InFocus’ LP650, despite a weak comb filter. With a better lens, this box would have excellent video quality.
Hitachi’s CP-X990W looked good with component video, although its comb filter was also ineffective. In progressive mode, it exhibited some interlaced motion artifacts. Sharp’s XG-C50X also did well with motion compensation and had great video in component mode, but its comb filter left something to be desired.
Christie’s Vivid LX41, with an effective comb filter for composite sources and outstanding component video performance with great flesh tones, good contrast, and not much noise, had some of the best video in the group. Sony’s VPL-PX40 also had good performance in component mode, but its four motion-correction modes left artifacts on the screen.
Sanyo’s PLV-70 worked best with component or S-Video sources. It had good color saturation, nice white balance, and some motion artifacts. There were some false contours in low-level scenes, also a problem with JVC’s DLA-G150CL. Since the JVC had great color rendering, perfect white balance, and nice grayscale tracking, I would have liked to try it with a few other lenses to see if it could produce crisper pictures.
Panasonic’s PT-L780NTU had the best composite video performance. Its comb filter left no color moire artifacts and preserved detail in 300- and 400-line Zone Plate test patterns. It also cleaned up most motion artifacts on the flag-waving sequence in Video Essentials.
Not all of the roundup projectors have sufficient bandwidth for HDTV. I used chrominance and luminance multiburst test patterns from the AccuPel HDG-2000 generator to gauge detail preservation at 18.5MHz and 37.5MHz.
Toshiba’s TLP-T701 and JVC’s DLA-G150CL were the only projectors to display full-bandwidth luminance and chrominance detail in both 720p and 1080i modes. Most other projectors smeared out, filled in, or had noise problems with the 37.5MHz and sometimes the 18.5MHz patterns. BenQ’s projector didn’t work right with HD signals.
Some projectors look alike, so you have to investigate them to notice the real differences. The majority of projectors are becoming true plug-and-play devices, as far as connecting RGB sources, but video and HDTV are another story.
Manufacturers need to improve menus and remotes, many of which are simply too small and difficult to read. Direct input access should come more easily, as well as menus that take up less room. Optics must be improved.
In the small portable category, I liked a lot of things about the Optoma EZPro 735, but its fan was too noisy. Epson’s PL 730c was the brightest, but it had problems with video and HDTV sources and needs a larger remote. BenQ’s SL705X scored well, but the menu did not function easily, and the projector had problems with HDTV signals.
Toshiba’s TLP-T701 was my pick in the portable class. It had good video performance and image quality, as well as nice optics, but the menu and remote need better design. If the InFocus LP650 had a better lens, it would have gotten my vote.
The competition was close in the portable/desktop category, but in the end I liked the Hitachi CP-X990W best. It swept the bench tests, had great optics, and its video performance was adequate. This projector also has an excellent autoscaler circuit. Christie’s Vivid LX41 received my approval over Sony’s prototype VPL-PX40 in the desktop/installation group, largely due to Christie’s outstanding video performance and great optics.
I found plenty to like about JVC’s DLA-G150CL and Sanyo’s PLV-70. Although they’re horses of different colors, they both do their jobs well. The JVC unit has great white balance and good video performance, but could use more horsepower and has an expensive lamp (close to U.S. $1,000). The Sanyo projector turned in great test-bench numbers and uses upscale Canon lenses, but still needs help with video scaling and deinterlacing.
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