Learn to love a 10 foot HDTV

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.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

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.

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