Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV

Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV

Summary: When it comes to watching DVDs and HD video, bigger is a lot better. Moving from a 50" LCD to a 120" front projector has made me a believer.

TOPICS: Hardware

When it comes to watching DVDs and HD video, bigger is a lot better. Moving from a 50" LCD to a 120" front projector has made me a believer. And it cost less than an LCD or rear projector of half the size.

I spent 8 weeks researching front projector technology and products before making the buy. A fun wrinkle: I live in a small town where the nearest store that sells video projectors is an hour's drive. Plus, the projectors the stores sell are different from those on the Internet.

In the process I had to sort out what I needed from what I thought I wanted. My goal: an insanely great home theater experience from my 850 DVD collection. I succeeded beyond my expectations.

Here's what I learned about video.

Choosing video Reading video projector reviews is like learning a new language: black levels (black has levels?), shadow detail, ambient light, placement, screen door, screen gain, gray screen, LCD, LCoS and DLP in addition to the usual HDTV 720p, 1080p, and lumens, brightness and contrast.

Most of the stuff that videophiles worry about is invisible to mere mortals. The human eye is incredibly adaptable. If you watch a lot of murky, dark movies, like vampire flicks, superior dark levels might make a difference. But the technologies are changing fast and converging in terms of performance.

You do want to get a projector that is HD-capable. Many projectors are intended for presentations and don't have the resolution or the quality to present DVDs well.

What do you watch? My goal is to watch movies, not cable or broadcast HDTV. I don't watch during the day, so brightness isn't an issue for me. If you have a really dark room you don't need to worry about brightness. A basement room is perfect.

Screen type If you want to watch HD sports all day in the living room then brightness is an issue. Even with a bright projector you'll probably want a gray screen with good ambient light rejection. Expect to spend $500 or more for a gray screen. Otherwise a standard white screen will be fine.

Projector bulbs aren't cheap You'll also want to budget for a replacement projector light. They are spec'd at about 2,000 hours, may fail before that, and cost $300-$400. If you watch TV 6 hours a day, expect to buy a new one every year.

I figure that by the time my lamp fails it may be almost as cheap to buy a much higher quality projector. Projector quality is advancing fast and prices are dropping.

Technology Projector geeks will argue endlessly about LCoS (Liquid crystal on silicon) vs. LCD vs. DLP. LCoS is confined to high-end projectors that I wasn't interested in: I'd rather spend a $1500 every 2-3 years than $5,000 every 4-5 years because in year 3 I'll have the better picture and the latest features.

Three years ago DLP and LCD had noticeable differences, but the latest projectors using either are harder to tell apart. Either can do a great job.

The practical difference between DLP and LCD is that DLP projectors have limited placement flexibility. A DLP projector has to be x feet away from a screen of n size - give or take a foot - while most LCD projectors can be, say, 10-20' from your 10' screen. If you are going to do a ceiling mount placement flexibility may not matter.

Bottom line: what I bought After all the research I choose, sight unseen, a Panasonic PT-AX200U 720P front projector. which I use with a Blu-ray player on a 10 foot screen. The picture blows everyone away - it has what the videophiles call a "filmic" look - and it is like being in a movie theater. Google shop it - B&H has it for $1000.

The dealmaker for me was placement flexibility. I wasn't sure how I'd set up my theater - this being my first one - so the ability to put the projector anywhere from about 10-20 feet from the screen was important. The Panasonic is great for shelf mounting as it has front exhaust and weighs only 10 lbs. Compare that to smaller 150 lb. LCD.

A note about 720p: I wouldn't buy a 65" 720p LCD for quality reasons, so how does 720p on a 10 foot screen work? I don't know the details - although Panasonic promotes a slew of features like Smooth Screen, Light Harmonizer and Dynamic Iris - all I know is that I see a picture that rivals my local movie theater. It just works: no visible pixels until you are 3 feet from the screen.

Here's one review of the PT-AX200U and here's another.

Update: So why get a 720p instead of 1080p? Simple: 1080p projectors start at about $2500 and go up, way up, from there. Bargain hunter alert: Panasonic has just announced the 1080p PT-AE3000U at $3500 MSRP - so last year's excellent PT-AE2000U is now available for as low as $2,000.

Be aware that Panasonic will probably announce the replacement for my 720p AX200U next month - further driving prices down for the older projector. I'd expect the 1080 projectors to be sharper - but not $1500 sharper. End update

The screen You can pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a screen, but why? I have wretched motor skills and few tools and I built a 10 foot screen for $120.

Bought the commercial movie screen fabric on Ebay for about $80 including shipping. Used pine 1x4 to build the frame. Home Depot cut the wood. Cut my own thin plywood braces and then glued and screwed.

The hardest part is stretching the screen as you would a canvas. It took about 90 minutes with an artist friend helping me who stretches big canvas all the time. It was work, but if you know any artists they'll have the technique down.

The commercial places make a big deal about putting a black border on the screen, but the Panasonic's edges are crisp and clean so I don't need a border. And big as it is people hardly notice a big white rectangle hung on a beige wall.

Tweaking The Panasonic's picture is excellent right out of the box. But Sound & Vision's Home Theater DVD guides you in touching up the color, contrast and sharpness for optimal results.

Cables are available online at a fraction of an in-store price. I bought a 25 foot HDMI cable for $18 with free shipping from Eforcity. While some people geek out over gold-plated connectors and oxygen free copper, digital cables either work or they don't. Cheap ones work fine.

The Storage Bits take If you can manage ambient light front projectors offer the most bang for the buck in home video. With the growth in HD video and good upscaling DVD players we now have the technology to enjoy theater-quality video at home.

Now, of course, I want to rip my DVD collection to disk - maybe 5 TB - so I can free up the 60 feet of shelf space it currently takes. OK Apple, how about iVideo?

Comments welcome, of course. No emoluments were offered or accepted in the making of this post - I spent my own money after arriving at my own conclusions. Update II: You might try printing out this article and leaving it where your main squeeze can find it if you've been a good boy.

Topic: Hardware

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  • Great Article!

    Thank you for this informative article. I've often dreamed of owning my our home theater, but the technical stuff often seemed daunting. You have peeked my interest greatly.

    I am curious why you chose 720P over 1080i; isn't the higher def the "standard" for HD viewing?

    Anywho... thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

    San Francisco, CA USA
    • Good question!

      Doug, thanks for the question.

      I'll update the post to reflec the short answer: you save about
      $1500 over a 1080i projector - for a picture that isn't $1500

      R Harris
      • That's your opinion

        Stating that the the picture of a 1080p projector is not $1500 better is completely your opinion. The new Panasonic PT-AE3000 is $2500 street. The performance from that projector is far superior to the AX200U and in my opinion well worth the $1500. I am waiting to see reviews of the new Epson Home Cinema 6500UB before upgrading myself.

        While the PT-AX200U is a very good 720p projector, you could have easily gotten into 1080p for not much more. The Sanyo PLV-Z2000 can be had for around $1500 after rebates. It offers superior contrast and at 120", the difference between 720p and 1080p is quite noticeable on high def media (blu-ray). Epson is also releasing a the Home Cinema 6100 with a $1999 list price. (I expect this to be around $1500 street)

        BTW...I have tried that screen material from eBay and while it is ok for the price, it simply can not compare with real screen material. You can buy the raw screen material from Draper and Da-Lite (not sure about Stewart) and stretch it over your own frame (that's what I did). I bought Draper M1300 material for a 110" screen for around $200. Let me tell you that this material is most assuredly $120 better than the eBay stuff. (I still have the eBay material and I use it for my temporary outdoor theater.)
        • Not to offend you

          But there are not too many people in this world who have an extra $1500 to blow on a slightly prettier picture.
          • Re-do the math

            The difference is not $1500...that was my point. The difference is $500 (See Sanyo PLV-Z2000).
            And before you say slightly better picture, do yourself a favor and go to a retailer to look at 720p and 1080p on a 120" screen. I have demoed the Panny PT-AE2000U vs. the PT-AX200U and the difference on blu-ray was quite noticeable. Taken alone a 720p projector looks really good. A/B it with a 1080p and suddenly it doesn't look so good.
        • And that's your opinion

          I'm in the agreement with the former, myself.

          I'm looking at spending $2000 for the entire thing, not just for the projector. That's a huge difference. And given that we currently do movie night at our house now because we have a 43in. rear projection TV.

          Like he pointed out, there are videophiles out there who will argue the quality difference, but I can't see spending that amount of money more when I love watching my 600+ DVD collection on my 37in 720p LCD.

          This is entertainment, and as such near the bottom of the list on purchases. If I can save $500 and not be bothered by the loss in quality - I'll take it. It's the reason I switched to MP3's. I don't notice the difference in sound quality on my $30 headphones, or on the $4000 PA system. Why should I worry about it?
          • Ignorance is bliss

            If you are not bothered by the loss of quality so be it. I have no issues with that. Do as you please. I want to make a point that in the article, the author makes a statement that I take issue with.
            "I?d expect the 1080 projectors to be sharper - but not $1500 sharper"
            This is at the same time, both false and an opinion. I've mentioned before, you can get the Sanyo for $500 more (he was off by $1000). Also, who is to say what the dollar value is for a sharper (and better) projector?

            True, 720p looks great and the PT-AX200 is about the best 720p projector out there. All by itself you'd think that it can't get any better than this. A/B it with a 1080p projector at 120" and I can guarantee that you will see a difference. On a 42" plasma/lcd, you will be hard pressed to see a difference, but at 120" trust me, the difference is day/night.

            If you can't tell the difference between a heavily compressed (128kbps) and the original cd than by all means enjoy your mp3's. What do you mean by you can't tell the difference on your $30 headphones? Have you taken those same headphones, plugged them into your MP3 player and then played the same track on a cd player with the original cd? Most people on an even half decent system can easily tell the difference between a 128kbps MP3 and the original cd. If, on the other hand your argument is that MP3's sound good enough than I am ok with that statement. BTW....what is a $4000 PA system?
      • More like $800 difference

        We're looking at $1200 versus $2000. The $2000 one isn't just higher resolution; it's also better quality. My friend's Panasonic PT-AE2000U has mechanical lens shifting in both the up/down and left/right directions and it's REALLY nice to have a nice square image. The brightness even in economy mode is just superb.

        I think with all the money and effort you have to put in to building the screen, you're better off sprining for the nice 1080p projector.

        I might agree with you if it was truly a $1500 difference, but it's more like half that price difference on the projector and that just isn't worth the saving IMO.
  • RE: Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV screen

    Hands down, the math is simple...viewing a 120" screen at 1080 is vastly superior to 720 if you are less than 20 ft away. Spend the extra money and enjoy 1080.
    • 720 vs 1080 - so what?

      While you are absolutely correct that a 1080 projected picture is going to be sharper (notice I didn't say 'superior') to a 720 projected picture, the fact of the matter is, a lot of people - myself included - really don't care.

      If the extra cost is worth it to you, then great. Up until last year, I was using an eight-year-old LCD projector that had the distinct advantage of using bulbs I could buy on eBay for less than $10 each.

      High def? Hardly! Nevertheless, my kids loved it and our friends loved to come over and watch movies and football.

      Consumer response to HDTV has pretty lukewarm (not my opinion - this has been widely reported over the last 10 years) because most people were relatively satisfied with the picture quality they already had.

      I think the electronics industry vastly over-estimated the draw of HD, particularly given the cost of upgrading.
      • I agree...

        Personally, I can't imagine spending that kind of money just to watch TV. Maybe because I have other interests besides sitting on my arse watching idiotic (mostly) shows. I don't mind the occasional DVD when I'm feeling lethargic but I can see it just fine on a standard television. In my mind, one would have to watch a LOT of tv to make that kind of expense worthwhile.

        [i]Consumer response to HDTV has pretty lukewarm (not my opinion - this has been widely reported over the last 10 years) because most people were relatively satisfied with the picture quality they already had.[/i]
  • RE: Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV screen

    Have you had any luck ripping your DVD's to a hard drive?
    • DVDs to HDDs

      Yes, successful all the time. Just use AnyDVD.
  • Even a non-HD picture can still look good when projected

    When my wife quit her teaching job, she brought home the 800x600 LCD projector she had bought (with her own money) for the classroom. We hooked it up to our non-HD cable box and mounted it on the ceiling, pointing it at an off-white painted wall, and presto, instant theater! I think we ended up with a 96" display because of the size of the room.

    Even though it's not HD, it still provides a nice theater experience. And we can always upgrade the cable box and the projector later if we want.
  • RE: Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV screen

    What about noise from the projector - is that a problem at all?
  • RE: Learn to love a BIG screen

    For over a year while in IRAQ, we used an older projector with a white sheet on the wall held up with thumb tacks. We watched movies and played xbox like little kids. For family entertainment this is great, and a pain white painted wall that is cleaned will be the envy of all the neighbors. If you're trying to keep the budget down, try it, you will never look back.
    Enjoy- Alan
  • RE: Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV screen

    Lowes and other home improvement places sell a specific matte paint that you can paint your screen on for around $15 a gallon. 2 coats and you are done.
  • RE: Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV screen

    What a great article, Robin! It's nice to see a good "bang for the bucks" analysis, coupled with the trade-offs you mention.

    One remaining question would be roughly how many lumens I would need for a semi-dark (mini-blinds and vertical blinds) room. Those Saturday college football games don't all happen at night, and my lower level is a walk-out with windows. I wonder if your Panasonic would be bright enough?

    Thanks again for the great article!

    Chaska, MN
    • lumens in house during daylight

      1200 is a minimum, go for as many lumens as you can get but pay strict attention to color saturation as you go up the lumen scale, if colors start to wash out then back off, it is far better to invest in making the room as dark as possible then adding lumens.
    • How bright?

      For day-time live sports, "cheap" and "front projector" don't go together....

      Also note that lumens is not a linear scale.

      Have you noticed 300 lumens projectors now coming out (about time!)? I have one, and it is great for the kids bedrooms to watch a movie off the ceiling while in bed. They use 3 x LEDs. They really can be bright!

      Just to compare, get a cheap 3-LED torch from your bargain store, and shine it up at the ceiling in a dark room, or even just your mobile phone.