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4K Projectors are Great, Pixel Shifting 1080p Is An Affordable Alternative

By Art Feierman

We all know the prices of 4K projectors are still through the roof, but new intermediate solutions using pixel shifting can provide affordable alternatives.

Consider:  Sony commands $50,000-type prices for bright 4K projectors with less than 10,000 lumens, while equivalent 1080p or WUXGA projectors tend to cost closer to $3,000-$10,000. Now that’s a huge difference. You have to really need 4K to justify paying 5 to 10 times the price of 1080p. True, 4K resolution makes for glorious large images, but at what cost? (For now.)


A vivid, sharp, 4K photo projected (very large) at Infocomm using a WUXGA (2K) laser projector - Epson L2500 - with its pixel shifting engaged. (note the silhouette of the projector in the lower right)

Time to discuss two alternatives I suspect may find some serious market until the cost of true 4K projectors down to a more “practical” level (at least for most applications):  Pixel shifting 1080p/WUXGA projectors (already shipping), and 4 megapixel, pixel shifting projectors (late 2016).

This article focuses on the 4K issue and solutions for projectors, in general.  It is not specifically about 4K for business/education/commercial, nor 4K for home theater. When I'm talking about content, 4K content for the biz/edu/commercial is going to generally be custom content, or traditional content displayed at 4K (for example, that could be a corporate video, or simply viewing spreadsheets and documents from a computer.  On the home side, we're talking 4K streaming services, 4K Blu-ray UHD discs and soon, some 4K on cable or satellite that isn't really streamed.

Two “technologies” offer an alternative to 4K with a sharper, more detailed image than standard 1080p/WUXGA (but not up to true 4K) and at a price point closer to standard 1080p.

4 Megapixel Projectors

One of those features was talked about, but barely seen at InfoComm 2016:  That is TI’s new “hybrid” chip. 1080p and WUXGA chips are basically 2 megapixel chips, while true 4K is 8 megapixels.  TI’s new chip, however, is a 4 megapixel chip, so although less than 3,000 pixels across (instead of 3840, the true 4K standard)  the result are pixels that are relatively much smaller than standard WUXGA. Each pixel is only 44% the size of WUXGA. By comparison  WUXGA+ – true 4K – pixels are 25% the size of WUXGA!

Not only does the TI chip “split the difference,” but it also offers pixel shifting (basically shifting and refiring each pixel with different data, diagonally 1/2 pixel away).  Now for best results, it takes some really good processing. We’ve already seen that there can be significant differences in how well pixel shifting works.  On the home theater side, Epson’s pixel shifting 1080p projectors definitely seem sharper/more detailed than JVC’s.  (They also appear “harder” looking, but when you consider the commercial side, the greater perceived detail would seem to be the more important aspect).

So, what we have here are several new DLP projectors coming out with the new TI 4 megapixel chips, and pixel shifting. Could be really impressive!

Pixel shifting  on 1080p and WUXGA Projectors

I’m counting on that, because I’m already pretty dazzled with what Epson has done with their pixel shifting on their new laser and new G-series projectors when dealing with 4K content.  (Remember, without the 4K content, there won’t be dramatic differences between basic 1080p and true 4K, never mind these other options “in the middle.”)

Then there are the dozen+ new Epson projectors, seven of them laser projectors in the L series and the rest are new G series models. These are WUXGA (1920x1200) projectors but with pixel shifting and 4K inputs.

I am pretty amazed at what Epson has accomplished with the pixel shifting on 4K content.  In addition to Epson, JVC incorporates pixel shifting into all their home theater models (JVC was the first).

Pixel Shifting Projectors - Performance

Check out above, four pair of images.  The first pair shows a giant relief map (4K content).  Find the small red arrow near the right center.  The second image is zoomed way in to a truly tiny portion of the map, so you can see the pixel level detail.  If you enlarge the 2nd image, it's saved as 2000 pixels wide, so you can scroll around it (since it's larger than most people's displays).

A full screen image of the 4K content image is next , then the real closeups of that image: The 2nd pair compares the Epson laser projector - the L1505,  handling 4K  content, comparing first pixel shifting on, then off.  (A "wow" is in order, agreed?).  No shot here of how pixel shifting on/off does on 1080p content, as we've already written and done some video about that.  Suffice to say that pixel shifting on 1080p does enhance perceived image sharpness, but nothing that approaches what true 4K looks like, nor even what 4K content looks like with good pixel shifting projectors.

Then comes, the third pair - this one's from the movie The Martian, a full frame of the space craft, then a much closer look.  We're looking at 4K content, reproduced with a true 4K projector (Sony VPL-VW665ES).  (These two are the only images shown here, using a true 4K projector, in this player.)

Finally, our last pair, shows first a pixel shifting 1080p projector - JVC RS400U - then the same image with the true 4K Sony VW665ES.

I think you’ll agree that what Epson and JVC have accomplished with pixel shifting is very impressive, although so far, the Epson tends to have the sharper seeming design of the two efforts.  I can’t wait to see what those new projectors with 4 megapixel TI DLP chips will be able to do.  If TI does a great job, they should fall nicely between the Epson pixel shifters and true 4K.  If their "whole package" doesn't have as "sharp seeming" processing as the Epson, then there may be little perceived difference between the Epsons and these forthcoming DLP projectors.  We shall see.

When I first viewed the Epson L1505 laser projector in my testing room and started switching back and forth between pixel shifting and processing set for WUXGA+ content (4K), I really was surprised, really more dazzled, by how much the detail, and especially the readability, of small type improved.  You really will want to check out our forthcoming video (July 2016) demonstrating how effective the L1505's pixel shifting can be.  We do some On/Off comparisons with both 4K and WUXGA content.  On 4K content the difference when engaging pixel shifting is nothing less than dramatic when viewing critical fine details and small type.

I do believe that this will allow many organizations to decide that a commercial 2 megapixel “pixel shifter” for less than $10K provides enough extra detail compared to standard WUXGA; that it makes more sense, even on engineering diagrams, CAD drawings, renderings, and architectural “blue-prints” than spending at least FIVE times the money for true 4K at this juncture. This could drive the cost of 4K projectors down faster than most would have expected.

I think, for example, that products like these Epson laser projectors may well be the next step up for things like museum displays.

One thing to note, though, at least with these new Epsons, is a limitation that deserves serious consideration.  All those new Epsons do edge blending, they do projection mapping, and they have features like CFI. But when you feed them 4K content, with pixel shifting and processing fired up, you can no longer many of those features.  So far, only Epson has pixel shifting commercial projectors, so there's nothing really to compare it to.  I can't recall off the top of my head if CFI functions when feeding 4K content to the JVC or Epson home projectors, although I probably mentioned in their respective reviews.

Panic not:  Losing those features is probably okay for most multi-projector setups, but could be important to some of you. Consider: If you are edge blending 4 projectors in a 2x2 matrix, then you can each of the four do their WUXGA thing, and you end up with true 4K: 1920(x2) by 1200(x2). = 3840 x 2400. That should get the job done.

If you have a true 4K projector with all those features, there would be no reason why they wouldn’t all be functional with 4K content.

Hey, you have to give up a few things to save 80% or more of your budget, right?

We’re looking forward to reviewing a number of projectors this year that are capable of handling 4K content. One Epson laser review (the L1505), is in process as this is published.  Soon is another Sony (a home theater projector that’s true 4K).  The new Epson 5040UB, just announced June 21st, is a $2999 pixel shifting 1080p projector for home theater.  I expect one of those to arrive for review in the second half of July.

4K Projectors and Alternatives - Conclusion

The Bottom Line:  2K or 1080p with pixel shifting, even "4 Megapixel" with pixel shifting obviously can't rival projectors equally well designed, that are true 4K, when fed true 4K content  But with 4K coming both on the home side and commercial demands, these pixel shifting technologies, combined with working with 4K content, offer at the moment, an incredibly affordable alternative to true 4K while delivering superior performance to standard 1080p and WUXGA projectors.  Enough said!

2016 may be The Year of the Laser Projector (link), but it’s also the year when 4K content finally finds more than a handful of projectors that can appreciate it.  On the commercial side 4K content is being created where it is beneficial, and on the home side, the march to 4K content has just begun, but it will be, of course, unstoppable.

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