Posted on May 22, 2013 By Art Feierman
Until the last couple of years, ultra-short throw projectors were rare, and expensive. Also, there were a number of projectors calling themselves ultra-short throw, that really weren’t. An ultra-short throw projector is one that has an optical system allowing the projector to be placed extremely close to the screen. For a respectable sized screen in a conference room or classroom environment, say 72 inches diagonal (if using a 4:3 ratio projector), ultra-short throw would typically have the closest part of the projector anywhere from an inch, to as far back as three feet from the screen. That’s a huge difference due to some unusual technologies. One key purpose of having ultra-short throw capability is to place the projector so close that it is between the presenter or teacher, and the screen. That way no one gets blinded, plus annotating and other interactive functions becomes far less challenging. The images to the right are: Mitsubishi WD390U, an ultra short throw that sits typically 2-3 feet from the screen wall, and below it, the Epson Brightlink 485Wi with its wall mount, which places it only a couple of inches from the wall. An ultra short throw like this Epson, can be placed inches from the screen can sit on tables or credenzas right below the screen or can be wall mounted right above. Of the projectors reviewed here, this year, none of the ultras short throws sit only inches from the screen. This year, we reviewed a few ultra short throw projectors, that sit or mount 2-3 feet back. Last year we did look at ultra short throws that mount inches away such as the Epson shown here, and a Hitachi. Generally, they have more trouble providing edge to edge sharpness, but the best of those are still reasonably sharp. Most of the ultra-short throw projectors that are more of the 2 to 3 feet back (measured to the lens) rather than several inches, are also designed to work with a telescoping wall mount. That mount would typically be anchored to the wall, right above the top of the screen (centered of course). The telescoping pole would likely allow placement from less than a foot away, to as much as 4 feet, based on the mounts I normally see at trade shows, and the specifics of the projectors. Projectors that typically mount 3-5 feet back are more often called “very short throw” projectors. Some of the manufacturers with ultra-short throw projectors also sell such mounts, but, that’s not critical, since most of the major ceiling mount manufacturers also offer wall mount solutions for these projectors. In this report you will encounter several ultra-short throw projectors, and discover that they vary quite a bit in their “throw” abilities. Ultra short throw projectors often have interactive features. Afterall, if you are going to be standing by the screen/white board, and writing on it, you don’t want to be blinded.
Not everyone presents or teaches from a laptop. Schools in particular, tend to rely more on desktops in the classroom, than laptops. With your laptop, if you hook up a projector, you can still see your work on the laptop screen. With a desktop computer though, you disconnect your monitor to hook up a projector. Since it’s often desirable not to have to look at the projected image, but view the computer instead when speaking, the solution is to split the signal – one for the projector one for the local monitor. To accomplish that, you either buy a VGA splitter, or, buy a projector that has a VGA out or Monitor out (whatever you wish to call it). The alternative is to use a projector that provides the monitor out. For that reason, monitor out has long been an important feature considered when buying for school installations. Running the extra cable (from the monitor out on the projector, to the input on a monitor), does add a slight labor cost to an installation, and a few dollars of cabling, but is going to cost less in most cases than buying a splitter. In case you missed my point, monitor out is a potentially big thing if you are working on a desktop. If you are shopping for a school district, though, where all the teachers are using laptops, then, you don’t require this feature, or you might use a different solution such as HDMI or USB Display.
As long as we’re out back looking at the input panel, let’s talk briefly about HDMI. Some of the projectors we looked at in this report do not offer HDMI or DVI inputs. That means no pure digital abilities. The future is digital (how “last year” is that line?) But, in a K-12 environment, there are considerations. First, projectors sporting HDMI are probably $50 to $100 more than a similar model without, when such a comparison exists. Secondly, HDMI cabling is expensive, and it can be flaky at long lengths. Still there are high quality cables, and there are extender systems good for hundreds of feet, even 1000+, if needed. (Most extenders take the signal, convert it, and send it out over CAT5 or CAT6 networking cable, and convert back at the projector end.) If you should be working at the school district level, then certainly considering HDMI / DVI – digital should have been part of previous considerations. I don’t know what percentage of schools or districts are now going digital, but it has to be growing. It would be very foolish for any AV or IT manager responsible for projectors (and computers?), to not review each year, what type of digital strategy makes sense, and when (if ever) to start integrating projectors digitally. I’m not saying all schools and districts should be digital, or should be in 5 years. There are any number of considerations in terms of bandwidth, type of content, future compatibility, that must come into play. The point is, digital is becoming more common (if still a small percentage) in the classrooms. The free advice (we know what that’s worth): Stay on top of it. We’re pleased that, this year 14 of the 15 projectors in this report do offer HDMI or DVI connectors and compatibility. The only one that lacks is InFocus’es IN114, and if you like that projector otherwise, there are three other InFocus projectors in the same series that do offer HDMI. Note, only two of the under $2000 projectors in this report, most notably the Epson W16SK, offers HDMI 1.4a which is essentially necessary for Blu-ray 3D. Interestingly the other is the very low cost widescreen Viewsonic PJD5533W. Keep in mind when shopping for your next school projectors, most likely any projectors you are buying today, will likely be asked to last about a decade, and unless school budgets start improving again, perhaps even longer. If you are replacing older projectors, or doing projector implementations in classrooms or other locations, you will want to consider sticking with analog, or moving to digital. Since most projectors today have digital, it’s a cost of implementing issue.
USB can replace your analog VGA port, or HDMI. DisplayLink or USB Display seems to continue to gain popularity. Instead of using VGA cables, or HDMI to feed content to the projector, more and more projectors also allow DisplayLink type protocol to replace those older methods. What that means is that if your projector supports DisplayLink or USB Display and so does your computer, USB can now be used to handle the display. For that matter, it can also drive your regular monitor as well, if compatible. It should be noted, that DisplayLink can support multiple displays.
Although brightness isn’t truly a “special feature”, there are some points worth covering. Certainly brightness is a key consideration for most people when choosing projectors. Back in 2000, the popular, large, “rental and staging” projectors – used for meetings in hotel ballrooms, small auditoriums, and large multi-purpose rooms, were typically about 50 or more pounds, and output a “blinding” 2000 lumens. Today most entry level projectors put out at least 1500 lumens in 4 and 6 pound boxes. Most of the projectors in this report are 2500 – 3500 lumens, and well under 10 pounds. We used to say, 2000 lumens is fine for a presentation to 250-400 people. Of course we assummed a nearly fully darkened room. From a practical standpoint, 2000 lumens in a classroom-sized environment can handle pretty much anything but sunlight hitting the screen. Screen sizes in classrooms tend to stay fairly small – from 60 inch diagonal to 80 inch diagonal. On those sized screens, a solid 2000 lumen projector should be able to do a respectable job even with full fluorescent lighting on. OK, if the lights are only a foot or two in front of the screen, it might wash out a bit, but the point is, today’s entry level projectors have plenty of horsepower for the classroom. So, why buy a 3500 lumen classroom projector? Depends what you are doing. Showing videos is always a good excuse for wanting a lot more lumens, as normal “presentations” tend to be high contrast, and work well, even with a healthy amount of ambient light, but video can often be medium bright, or even dark. That’s when you want more lumens. If you are looking for projectors for, say a larger, multi-purpose room, then definitely consider the brighter projectors. Remember, you need a projector with four times the lumens, to maintain the same brightness on a screen that’s twice as large width.
Generally everyone needs decent color, but whether you need highly accurate color, very good color, or just decent, will have an impact on your projector selection. There is a wide range of abilities in our fifteen projectors, in terms of how good their color is. Some projectors will work great if you must be able to perfectly match the color of, say a company logo, or the blue of an American flag. Others, can be especially poor. One thing we’ve noticed, is that a number of the DLP projectors in this report still can’t do really good yellows and bright reds, (yellows can come out mustardy yellow-green, and bright reds, more like a dark merlot wine). Some of today’s DLP projectors though, are far better at it than others, and the LCD projectors in this report, are typically a little better than the best of the DLP projectors. There’s a new standard: Color Lumens, which helps explain the differences. We created a video including a demonstration of the value of having high color lumens. If you care to invest five plus minutes, click to check out our video on Color Light Output, to learn the advantages of having lots of color lumens and white lumens, compared to a projector with comparable white lumens, but dramatically less color ones. It really does make a very visible difference. Should you need accurate color, for whatever purpose – even for viewing photos and video, there will be wide variation in how good some of these projectors do. Note that even the worst of them start looking pretty good in their Video or Movie mode, but, then typically many projector’s brightness is down around 50% or more, and the color still isn’t that good on several of them. Yet there are other projectors that might offer very good color in it’s second brightest mode rather than its dimmest.
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