Shopping for a digital projector?

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Jefferson Graham
USA Today

The Epson PowerLite S4

If you’ve ever attended a company meeting, whether in a boardroom or a hotel ballroom, you’ve seen the latest tool of 21st-century business: the digital projector.

Like the slide projector of another era, these devices illuminate images and text, and project sound when connected to a speaker.

But unlike the old Kodak Carousels that cost in the low hundreds of dollars, digital projectors have been pricey — typically $1,000 and up. Prices, however, are falling. Many good, entry-level projectors can now be had for as low as $600.

We looked at two entry-level models, Epson’s PowerLite S4 and InFocus’ Work Big IN24+. They retail for $599 (after a $50 rebate) and $649, respectively.

Shopping for a projector can be incredibly confusing, with specs thrown at you that sound like the language of Star Trek’s Klingons. Let us translate

•Lumens. Your most important decision. Like megapixels with digital cameras — the more the merrier for a sharper picture. Lumens measure the brightness of the image.

XGA or SVGA? More camera-like terminology. These measure pixels shown on the screen. XGA is 1024×768, vs. SVGA’s 800×600. Key point to remember: XGA offers a better picture.

If you are going to project images onto a wall in a dark room, lumens and XGA don’t matter as much. It’s when you’re competing with daylight that the lower-quality images start to pale.

How they stack up

Now, on to the Epson and InFocus projectors, which have 1,800 and 2,200 lumens, respectively. Both are SVGA models.

Dave Dicklich, publisher of the website, says most business users can get away with 1,500 lumens, “but more is better.”

I ran my first tests on the projectors in a totally dark room. Both looked great, despite the InFocus’s 400-lumen advantage.

The next morning in daylight, both were OK, but considerably weaker. Then I plugged in another Epson model, the PowerLite 1715c, which has 2,700 lumens and XGA resolution. The difference was night and day. It was that much brighter. The unit, around $1,800 online, was also three times the cost.

In comparing the entry-level Epson S4 vs. the InFocus IN24+, I preferred the Epson in pretty much every category. It is compact, comes with a carrying case and plugged effortlessly into both a DVD player and Windows laptop. (Note to Apple users: Most projectors don’t come with the Apple cord you need to plug into Apple laptops.)

Connectivity can be touchy for anyone who likes to show off Web pages or PowerPoint presentations. Many laptops have special buttons that must be pressed to communicate with the projectors. (Like the “Function key plus F7” combination.) At first, when connecting the Epson and InFocus projectors to an IBM laptop, there was nothing there. After a reboot, the images showed right up.

What to buy

Dicklich says that for most business users, a $600 projector with fewer lumens and SVGA image quality is fine as long as ambient light is on your side. Otherwise, look to spend upwards of $1,000. And if you can find a great deal on Epson’s $1,800 PowerLite 1715c — with wireless and USB connectivity and weighing just 3.7 pounds — snap it up, or one like it. It’s a beaut.

Home theater projector use possible

Nearly two-thirds of all projector sales go to businesses and schools. But individual consumers snap up about a third of them to create a cinema-style home theater.

A projector and screen can be yours for under $1,000. A surround-sound receiver and lots of speakers are optional extras that will add to your tab.

Pro: You’ll be able to project the image as large as your wall will allow.

Con: The room has to be very dark, as in a theater, or the image will wash out.

“Instead of paying thousands for a flat-panel TV, you can pick up a projector, get a good screen, and have a really nice home theater setup,” says Dave Dicklich, publisher of, a website devoted to projectors.

Most folks watch TV in the evening, so odds are the lights can be dimmed. That can make buying a budget projector a sweet deal for consumers.

Expensive projectors have lots of “lumens,” which measure the brightness of the light. But that only matters in rooms with lots of ambient light.

For home use in a dark room, budget projectors with 1,500 to 1,800 lumens look terrific.

Plug the projector into your cable or satellite high-definition box, and you can be beaming hi-definition TV onto your screen or wall, at a fraction of the cost of a big plasma set.

But will it look as good?

“Flat panel is always going to look better,” Dicklich says. “But if you’re not comparing the two side by side, a projected image is going to look damn good.”

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