Selecting the Right Business Projector: An In-Depth Look 2004

This article is designed to provide a good, basic, understanding of what�s important in choosing the right DLP projector or LCD projector for business or educational use. Home theater users will find advice elsewhere.

They say �a little bit of knowledge is dangerous�, so prepare to become VERY dangerous!

Table of Contents:
There are seven major issues to consider:

  1. Projector Resolution
  2. Projector Brightness (and lumens)
  3. Ease of Use, what to look for in projectors
  4. Projector Reliability and Warranty
  5. Projector Image Quality (Data and Video)
  6. Price and Price/Performance
  7. Advanced projector features (including networking)

QuickTip: A word to the wise, while brightness is important, don’t get caught chasing a few hundred extra lumens – there are far more important issues.

While the order of importance of these seven areas varies from shopper to shopper, I�ll deal with them in the order they appear. Or, you can jump around to any section from the pull-down above.

In the course of this (and other) Advice and Info articles, I will mention specific projectors as examples. Generally, if I’m mentioning only one, or a few, I try to select products that I consider a “cut above.” (Most will have previously won Hot Product Awards, or in some cases are likely to do so in the next Portable Projector Report.) Conversely, if I need a long list of examples, those will primarily be chosen from projectors I am familiar with and cover a wide range of manufacturers, but they would represent a cross section, and not necessarily “exceptional” projectors.

Projector Resolution

First of all, by Resolution, we are referring to native resolution, and we are focusing on presentation of data, as opposed to video. Native resolution means the true resolution of a projector, be it DLP or LCD.

All projectors are designed to support resolutions below and above their native resolution, but native is where you get a razor sharp image. Unfortunately when a projector works with source material that is higher resolution than its native resolution, there is degradation of image quality, sometimes rather significant. More on that later.

What native resolutions are out there?
I�ve organized this into thre resolutions:
SVGA Projectors(800×600)
XGA Projectors(1024×768)
Projectors with Higher than XGA resolution (SXGA, SXGA+, UXGA)

In addition, there are now wide aspect ratio projectors sporting 16:9 ratio (width to height) instead of the traditional 4:3 used by most computers, TV�s etc. The 16:9 ratio is used by HDTV and is the preferred configuration for home theater, and we are starting to see significant numbers of wide screen laptops

Ideally you want your new projector�s native resolution to be the same as your computer�s. The only reason you wouldn�t select a projector with equal resolution (or higher, shouldyou be planning to get a newer higher res computer), is budget.

So what resolution projector do you need?

Unless you are purchasing for K-12 schools, many of which still rely on SVGA (800×600) as their primary computer resolution, you are likely to have a laptop or desktop that is at least XGA resolution. Ideally, budget allowing, XGA resolution is where you should be shopping, as it will give you clean crisp data on any sized text and graphics.

Despite this, almost 40% of projectors sold today are still SVGA.

Unfortunately many (most?) who are purchasing SVGA projectors at this time are making a regrettable decision.

The thing about SVGA projectors, is that most will perform well as long as you are doing traditional large type presentations, such as most Powerpoint presentations. All projectors offer compression technology allowing them to handle higher resolution, but it means tossing out a significant amount of information. With most SVGA projectors large type like 30 or 48 point will appear almost perfect to any audience.

Meeting Support and Specialty Presentations

Meeting support is now the #1 use of projectors, and that means spreadsheets, internal documents, projecting Word files, accounting software, engineering documents, etc. The problem with SVGA resolution projectors occurs on small type. A typical spreadsheet uses 10 points, most Word documents and emails are 9-12 points in size. At those sizes, compression technology is challenged. The SVGA projectors with the best compression will still provide small type that is very readable, but softness and inconsistencies will be visible, and participants might find it fatiguing.

Average SVGA projectors degrade small type enough that many find it annoying, difficult to read, and in some cases downright unacceptable!

Now earlier I suggested Powerpoint presentations would be fine, because Powerpoint presentations normally use large type, but many of us do use some small type in presentations, often with charts and graphs, or an included spreadsheet, so take that into consideration, as compressed small type just doesn’t look good!

Resolution summary

  • Saving money is great, but be warned, SVGA is NOT for most of us.
  • If your budget is $1000 you don�t have a choice, but most of us will be much better off finding that extra $500+ and move up to an XGA resolution projector.
  • Obsolescence: An XGA projector will have a much longer usable life:
    1. New widescreen resolutions like WXGA and WSXGA become more popular and will further tax the abilities of SVGA projectors, probably to the point of frustration.
    2. SXGA laptops; already very popular work poorly (if at all) with SVGA projectors.
    3. UXGA laptops; forget SVGA projectors altogether (you will not be able to read a spreadsheet or word document, even if the projector claims it can do UXGA (maybe 10% make that claim).
  • An XGA projector will give you a better quality image no matter what resolution your laptop (or desktop) has.
    QuickTip: Comparable XGA projectors cost about $500 – $700 more than SVGA. Considering that there are far more models to choose from, and they will no doubt be useful to you for far longer, consider carefully, and choose wisely! NEXT Section: Projector Brightness

Projector Brightness (measured in lumens)

How bright is bright enough?

We will start by looking at how bright a projector (measured in lumens) you will need for typical data presentations.

Quicktip: Projecting video: Video proposes a much more difficult challenge than presenting data. You may have dark scenes where you are literally using less than 10% of the projector�s brightness! On a 10 foot screen under full fluorescents, if you are watching a dark movie scene, even with a mega expensive 5000+ lumen projector, you might have trouble telling if the projector is turned on!

Shortly, you�ll find a chart of lumen recommendations based on lighting and screen size, for a typical Powerpoint presentations, spreadsheets or other data presentations.

But first some definitions:

Definitions

Room brightness: If your room is very well lit, such as full fluorescents, you will need lots of lumens. If that room were to have only half of its fluorescents on, you can get by with half the lumens. Rooms with minimal lighting will require a far less powerful projector.

Screen size: The bigger the screen, the more lumens you will need. If you double the screen size � say from 5 ft diagonal, to 10 ft diagonal, the surface area of the screen increases 4 times, so you will need a projector with 4 times the brightness to do the same job on that larger screen.

QuickTip: Those presenting in large rooms � with 12, 15 or even 25 foot screens, really need the ability to control the room lighting.

Type of material presented: Most presenters present �high contrast material,� however, if you will be doing videos, or you are presenting photos or other images where color accuracy and contrast is important, (ie architectural images, renderings, etc.,) you will need far more lumens.

Next page for Lighting and Lumens Chart

Room brightness: If your room is very well lit, such as full fluorescents, you will need lots of lumens. If that room were to have only half of its fluorescents on, you can get by with half the lumens. Rooms with minimal lighting will require a far less powerful projector.

Screen size: The bigger the screen, the more lumens you will need. If you double the screen size � say from 5 ft diagonal, to 10 ft diagonal, the surface area of the screen increases 4 times, so you will need a projector with 4 times the brightness to do the same job on that larger screen.

QuickTip: Those presenting in large rooms � with 12, 15 or even 25 foot screens, really need the ability to control the room lighting.

Type of material presented: Most presenters present �high contrast material,� however, if you will be doing videos, or you are presenting photos or other images where color accuracy and contrast is important, (ie architectural images, renderings, etc.,) you will need far more lumens.

Definitions:

Low Lighting: You could read a newspaper, but would definitely prefer the room be brighter.
Moderate Lighting: fairly comfortable for reading a book.
Bright Lighting: Fluorescent lighting (lots), or a room with a goodly amount of sunlight and some lights.

High Contrast Small Screen Medium Screen Large Screen
Presentations: 5 or 6 ft. diag. 80 inch to 10 ft diag. 12 ft to 25 ft diag. ————————————————————————— Low Lighting: 500 � 800 lumens 1000 � 1500 lumens 1500 � 3000 lumens Moderate Lighting 800 � 1200 lumens 1200 � 2000 lumens 2000 � 5000 lumens Bright Lighting 1200 � 2000 lumens 2000 � 3000 lumens 3000 � 8000+ lumens

1000 to 1200 lumen projectors will serve most small room presenters quite well, except under the brightest conditions.

2000 lumen projectors will handle a wide range of screen sizes and lighting, and widely used for large room presentations, where there is good lighting control.

3000+ lumens are normally reserved for fixed installations, and large venues like convention centers, trade shows, and other large screen environments.

QuickTip: We recommend that a DLP projector should have 30 to 40 percent more lumens than an LCD projector to do a comparable job.

Ease of Use

Your presentations are important (or you wouldn�t be doing them), so the last thing you need is to have problems using your projector. Now projectors just aren�t that complicated, but if you want to:

  • Tweak colors (RGB, lamp temperature, color saturation) See! It�s already starting to sound complicated
  • Adjust brightness and contrast
  • Switch from one source to another quickly (computer1, computer2, DVD, VCR)
  • Hook up and use the projector�s remote mousing abilities
  • Have a �user-friendly� remote
  • Clean or change the filter (hey, you are supposed to do that regularly, and failing to do so can cause the projector to overheat and shut down (always in the middle of your presentation?)Then you want a projector that has:
  • Superior menu design (which usually means that you don�t have to hunt your way through many levels of menus to find what you are looking for)
  • A full control panel on the projector (just in case you misplaced the remote)
  • Overall intuitive operation
  • Quick power up and power down
  • Good remote mousing – if you are going to use it. Of course, you can always buy a 3rd party remote mouse that is RF instead of infra-red, and will work better than the mousing provided on any projectorIf you are the only user of a projector, you will quickly learn to use it, and discover any idiosyncrasies, so unless the projector is really poorly laid out, its not a big problem�QuickTip: If a number of others use the projector infrequently, ease of use becomes far more important.

Projector Reliability and Warranty

Consider this:

  • Nobody has the time or patience for dealing with projector failures (especially since you are only likely to discover the problem when you need the projector.) Murphy would probably say that the more important your presentation, the more likely the projector won�t work!
  • Projectors are VERY expensive to repair. Sure, there are some minor type problems, but most failures are related to the �light engine� (LCD or DLP panels, filter wheels, etc.) board replacement level electronics failures, or power supply problems.
  • In some cases repairing a projector can actually cost more than the projector, which means, once the warranty is up, the projector becomes a throw-away.
  • Even if an out of warranty repair costs only half of the projectors price, you might as well scrap it and buy a new model, theoretically superior, and at least you will have a fresh warranty.
  • Warranties vary tremendously from brand to brand, and in some cases, manufacturers offer different warranties on different models.
  • In addition to the Parts and Labor warranty, many manufacturers offer free use of a loaner if your unit breaks, or simply replaces the broken projector with another identical one (not a new one � a refurbished one). We, and most presenters, consider replacement or loaner units to be a huge plus.
  • Typically the loaner or replacement is sent to the customer either by overnight shipment or 2nd day, so you are back up and running quickly.Quicktip: There is an advantage in having a replacement program instead of a loaner. With the replacement, you get the replacement in, and ship back the broken one, and you are done! With a loaner, you get it, send in your broken one, but eventually get yours back and have to send the loaner back � overall, more work. But either program sure beats no program at all.Warranty on projectors run from as little as 1 year parts and labor to as much as 5 years parts and labor, however those are the extremes and most unusual.Typical warranties and programs, from the major manufacturers:
  • 2 years P/L, no replacement (Sony)
  • 2 years P/L, 1 year replacement (InFocus, Proxima)
  • 3 years P/L, no replacement (Sanyo: they offer a fast turn,72 hour repair program)
  • 3 years P/L, 1 year replacement (BenQ, NEC, most Proxima models purchased from selected direct dealers)
  • 2 years P/L, 2 year replacement (Epson)
  • 3 years P/L, 2 year replacement, 3rd year fast turnaround (most Epson models from selected direct dealers
  • 3 years, 3 year loaner (most Panasonic models)We�d recommend you set your standards at either 2 years with a 2 year replacement, or 3 years (preferably with some replacement or loaner).Out of warranty repair costs:
  • Minor repairs or estimates are likely to run $150 to $250-$300
  • Major repairs $500 – $2000+
  • Lamps: Most are warrantied for 90 days but are expected to last 1500 to 4000 hours (mostly 2000 hours). Most lamp replacements will cost you between $350 and $500, but the lowest cost lamp is only $199 (for two low cost Epson models � the rest of theirs are typically priced). Other than those I’m not aware of any other lamps listing for less than $295

Reliability - Failure rates

Time to scare you!

From my previous experience running a major projector reseller, I can tell you that some brands, overall are far more reliable than others. I might guess that over the first 3 years of projector use, the most reliable brands might have failure rates of 3-8% and the worst, perhaps as much as 30-40%. That�s a huge difference, in aggravation, and in cost, if the warranty has run out.

A major independent study done in 2002 had Epson picked overwhelmingly by resellers as the most reliable line, and I would have to agree, based on my old company having sold more than 5000 Epson projectors. (Mind you, I am biased � I did work for Epson in the early �80�s � long before projectors). Hey! There are plenty of reliable lines, and reliability can vary within a manufacturer’s line.

That aside, today�s projectors are more reliable than those of 4-6 years ago, however, although I can�t substantiate it, I would expect that we can expect higher failure rates from models coming out of mainland China, compared to Taiwan or Japan (where most come from). I put forth this observation, only because we are seeing the first generation of projectors built on the mainland � new factories, new processes, new workers etc., equal more chance of initial problems.

More and more companies are starting to build projectors in China, including several of NEC�s and Epson’s lower cost projectors. The Taiwanese manufacturers are starting to build in China, because the labor is still far cheaper than in Taiwan. I�m not sure how many of the nine or ten sub $1000 SVGA projectors are built in China, but I can count at least 4, and would guess that definitely more than half are. There�s also manufacturing going on in Malaysia, including some models for InFocus.

Projector Image Quality (Data and Video)

Most of today�s projectors do an excellent job of projecting data in their native resolution. That said, there are differences, from product to product, and also between DLP and LCD models (there are also LCOS and D-ILA projectors but they are rare and so we won�t discuss here.)

Generally LCD projectors will have richer colors (better color dynamics) but pixels will be more visible. At the same time the �sharpness� of the pixel structure tends to give the impression that the LCD projector�s image is sharper. Of course when viewing photographic images, or video, that is definitely not as desirable as the DLP�s smooth image with far less visible pixels. Many DLP projectors have problems with bright reds and yellows in data mode. For more on these issues, consult our articles on LCD, and DLP projectors.

In writing our reviews, look for terms crispness and �razor sharp� to be used to indicate how good and sharp the image is.

Image Quality - Data

Where you must pay attention, is when you present data from computer sources with different resolutions than the projector�s native resolution. If you buy an SVGA projector, that is almost always the case. (We addressed this earlier in this article under Resolution.)

If you buy an XGA projector, even if your laptop today is XGA, your next one probably will be higher resolution or a widescreen model, and the projector will use its compression technology to compensate. And that�s where the differences become significant. When you read our various reviews, we will normally comment on whether compression technology is good, better, best, and that should be an important consideration.

Image Quality - Handling color

If color accuracy is fairly important in your presentations, you will find that there can be significant differences from projector to projector. Of special note, most DLP projectors have trouble doing a good bright yellow, with the tendency to be mustard like or greenish. In turn, reds often have a slightly orange tint to them or are very dark. This does vary from projector to projector, as some manufacturers have sacrificed some overall brightness, etc. to improve the color accuracy, others have redesigned the color filter wheel to use different sized filters for Red Green and Blue, to get a more accurate color balance.

Quicktip: The real point here, is, if color accuracy is important to you, ask whomever you are consulting with, whether the projector in question can do �dead-on� reds, and brilliant yellows.

In finishing up comments on DLP color accuracy, I have seen numerous DLP projectors with such problems with color on data, but when you switch over to video, they do a great job. Again, this is because they will limit maximum brightness to assure good color in video mode.

Good Grays, Lamp Temperature

Along with good color comes good grays. A projector reproduces grays that come out yellowish or bluish, you can normally expect colors to be off. Note, however that many projectors today have adjustments for �lamp temperature� No, you can�t really change the �whiteness� of the lamp itself, but can adjust to make the �white� warmer or cooler. Think of this as trying to duplicate the difference between the �whiteness� of sunlight, a normal incandescent light bulb, a halogen lamp or a florescent. The measurements are in Kelvin, and vary from about 6500 to over 10,000. (9000-10,000 tends to be very bluish, much like fluorescents. For the purposes of video you want a temperature of 6500 � 6700 Kelvin.

Since most of the lamps used in projectors naturally produce an output in the 9-10,000 Kelvin range, just adjusting down, reduces overall lumen output

Price and Price/Performance (Value)

Price: As of this writing (1/04)

  • Low resolution (SVGA) projectors start as low as $899
  • XGA resolution projectors (new ones, not refurbs) can be found from under $1500 (but they are rare, with most brands starting at about $1700) Of course these are �entry level� models in each resolution. You can spend far more for more brightness, more inputs and outputs, the ability to change lenses.
  • The projectors that are higher than XGA resolution are few and very expensive;
  • SXGA projectors (1280×1024) starting around $8000 but almost all over $10,000.
  • SXGA+ (1400×1050) � only one on the market so far � Epson�s 9300, over $10,000
  • UXGA (1600×1200) 7700 lumens) from about $50,000 (MSRP, selling for less). At this time I will not discuss the 16:9 aspect ratio projectors as they are almost all designed for home theater (that will change very soon).

Price Performance

  • When it comes to Price/Performance, we are talking about a balance between price, and brightness, features, size/weight, ease of use, warranty, and other aspects. The point is � price isn�t everything. And every feature/benefit can have a corresponding effect on price.Some examples:
  • Size/Weight: For the smallest projectors � under 4.5 pounds and as light as 2 pounds, you will pay more and probably get less features than a similarly powered projector weighing 5-7 pounds. (Projectors over 7 pounds will have far more features so really don�t compare with the �featherweights�.) For example if you compare a 3 pound 1200 lumen projector with an equally bright 6 pound projector that doesn�t have a lot more features, you can still expect the smaller/lighter projector to cost 25-50% more.
  • BenQ makes two XGA models � the PB2220, a tiny 3 pounder with 1700 lumens, but it sells for a couple hundred more than their popular PB7200, which is 5.6 pounds, has 2200 lumens, and a few extra features including a 2nd computer input
  • Epson offers a 2000 lumens 6.4 pound 74c which typically sells for $2000, while their 4.3 pound 730c (also 2000 lumens), which is less than half the size commands about an extra $500-$600 more.
  • Warranty: one major brand�s $999 projector comes with a 2 year warranty (no replacement or loaner program, while another�s has a 3 year warranty with first year loaner program. If everything else is equal, that�s a huge difference in warranty (price performance). In this case, the differences are even more extreme: the first one has 1000 lumens, the 2nd one, with the better warranty also has 1500 lumens! The second one would seem to have much better price performance.
  • Features: There are so many different features that it is hard to quantify what the differences are worth from one projector to the next, but here are some examples that are pretty evident
  • Networking and wireless networking � while few projectors offer these features, it is common for a manufacturer to have one model without, and a second, otherwise identical one with the networking. The additional capability typically sells for $400 to $700 more.
  • Interchangeable lenses � found on bigger more expensive projectors, typically it adds about $1000 over the price of a similarly powered projector without the ability to change lenses.All considered, you want to focus on a projector that has the features and capabilities that best meet you needs, but once you have found some that do, you will want the one with the best Price/Performance. Our Portable Projector Report focuses heavily on Price/Performance.

Advanced Features including networking projectors

Interchangeable Lenses

  • Typically only found on projectors over 10 pounds
  • Projectors offering interchangeable lenses usually have at least one wide angle zoom, and one long throw zoom (but usually two or more long throw lenses)
  • These lenses are needed if the projector needs to be exceptionally close to the screen (less than 1 foot distance, for each one foot of diagonal screen size) or in the back of the room.
  • Most projectors with interchangeable lenses require the projector to be opened up, many screws removed, etc, to install a different lens
  • A very few projectors offer a quick change �bayonet mount� lens system, that allows the user to change lenses in seconds. This is ideal for projector rental companies, and for users who often change the type of venue they present in (rear screen presentations normally require a very short throw lens).
  • If you need to change back and forth between two lenses, having quick release lenses is a real plus
  • The more expensive projectors offering interchangeable lenses, often are available without the �standard� zoom lens. This can save you money if you know which lens you need, and also won’t need the standard zoom.NetworkingNetworking for projectors comes in several �flavors�, the most talked are Wireless networking and �wired� networking for �command and control� (the ability to control the projector over the network from remote or local locations). Lastly there is Wired networking that supports running presentations from over the network.Wireless Networking

    Wireless networking � using the same 802.11b that people now use in their homes and offices � often referred to as �Wifi� � has been available on a handful of projectors since 1999. There are both pluses and downsides to wireless networking. Consider:
    The �Pluses�

  • Allows presenters to interface laptop to projector without cables, saving dragging around all that extra weight and bulk � particularly desirable if the projector and computer are dozens of feet apart (25� cables weigh 4-5 pounds and are more bulky than most small projectors).
  • No cables running on the floor between computer (at podium/front of room with speaker) and location of projector, which means to cables to trip on.
  • With more advanced wireless networking, multiple presenters can take turns with the projector, as easily as a click of the mouse or two.The �Negatives�
  • Wireless networking is basically slow. While the best implementations can typically let the projector reproduce what is on the computer�s screen with a half second to 2 second delay (complex graphics will take longer), some of the poorer attempts can take 2 to 7 seconds, which is generally annoyingly slow.
  • Video � forget real video, even the best systems can only handle one or two frames a second in a small video window (vs. 24 frames for normal full speed video). If you need video � you�ll need a cable!
  • Audio � sorry no provision to transmit audio over the wireless network, so if you need audio, you are out of luck.Good news coming:
    With 802.11g now available, computers/projectors supporting �g� networking, will have about 5 times the throughput of the 802.11b cards. This still won�t provide any type of smooth video at full screen, but should make standard non-animated presentations run fast enough that there should be no significant difference between wired and wireless.Wired Networking: Command and Control, and more recently, Pushing presentations over the network to the projector.Almost forever, projectors have been controllable by computer or other devices using a serial RS-232 interface. Power on or off, set colors, change sources. Often the controlling device is a computer or device on a network, which would offer some �network control�. More recently we find some projectors equipped with Ethernet or other network protocols, that allow the projector to behave much like a printer on the network, or even as advanced, with its own dedicated IP address (yes, like the internet), so that the projector can communicate bi-directionally over the network. Advanced implementations can not only allow command and control but features like the projector being able to email information automatically to report malfunctions, lamp replacement time, etc. The most advanced can even surf the web without a computer.A Few Projectors present directly off a network.

    While all network wired projectors can do some level of command and control, some can also run presentations that are pushed to the projector over the network (from servers or computers anywhere on the network). Projectors like Epson�s Powerlite 8300, can, right from its remote, run a presentation off of a remote server, with out a single computer being in the same room.

    Think about that! Going to a meeting? You don�t have to grab your laptop (or desktop), just walk into the conference room, grab the projector remote, locate your presentation on the network, and run it. Now multiply that by 4 or five attendees, and think of all the time and hassle avoided, by dragging computers around, hooking up one, disconnecting another�. Sure sounds great! But, as I said, there are a few (very few) projectors that can do that now.

    Annotation Tools

    If you are looking for some extra sizzle when presenting, you can find some projectors that have built in annotation tools. From the remote you can put arrows and pointers (hands, etc.) on the screen to highlight items or areas. Some types of annotation tools include the ability to �scribble,� highlighters, spotlights and underlining.

    Optical Lens Shift

    This feature is found mostly on projectors over 10 pounds. For those familiar with keystone correction, think of lens shifting as a way to maintain a rectangular image without using keystone correction (which degrades the image quality). It simplifies ceiling installation of projectors (with lens shift you don�t have to have the projector at exactly that one �right� height relative to the top of the screen), but provides the same advantage if you are placing a projector on a shelf or table top. <’P>

    In addition to many �portable/fixed� install projectors offering lens shift, we are seeing it become more common on home theater projectors (of all sizes and prices) since image degradation from keystone correction is something you definitely want to avoid when viewing videos (DVD, HDTV, VCR, TV, etc.). On that note, some HT units as inexpensive as under $1500, sport lens shift, notably Sanyo�s Z1, and $2000ish Z2.

    PC Free Presentations

    Before we saw the first wireless capable projectors, there were “PC Free Projectors” that use PC cards of various sizes. Virtually any wireless projector can also support PC Free.You can pre-load presentations and other documents into a format supported by the projector (usually doing things like converting Powerpoint slides into jpg pictures. Other documents and images can also be stored and presented.

    This can be an excellent solution for distributing “canned” presentations from corporate, or just a great way to not have to drag your computer along.

    This way it’s already loaded right in your projector.

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