Review: Projectors Come With Pros, Cons

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 4:00 PM

NEW YORK -- 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.

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.

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.

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