We've got an open lobby in which we want to mount three TVs to begin with, possibly adding one or two more in the future. We'd like to send various programs to them, such as presentations via laptop, DVD playback, possibly HD content, etc. I'm primarily concerned about the video, since the sound will be piped through an existing in-ceiling speaker system.
The two things I'm trying to decide are:
1. Type of TV: Since this is a well-lit environment, we've settled on LCD technology. Now, we're trying to select the best TV. I've been looking at Vizio and Sharp Aquos models. Can you recommend a good model for this type of environment? Also, since budget is a factor, would we be better off going with 720p rather than 1080p, given that the majority of our content, at least initially, won't be high-def. I don't want to kick myself in a few years for not spending the extra money, so I've been leaning more towards the 1080p displays.
2. Video cabling: Should I send S-video, component, VGA, or what? The distance from my laptop to the farthest TV will be about 50 feet, so I'm trying to decide on a splitter/amplifier device and the best cable format to deliver the video.
I agree completely that an LCD TV is the way to go in that environment. As for the brand, Vizio is probably less expensive than Sharp, and in my experience, Vizio products are quite good for the money. I suspect the Sharp models are probably better performers overall, albeit more expensive.
I also agree that getting so-called "full HD" models with 1920x1080 resolution is probably a wise move in the long run. Many people will tell you that the difference between 720p (or 768p) and 1080p is invisible at small screen sizes, which is true in terms of raw resolution. However, most HD content is 1920x1080 and delivered as 1080i from broadcast sources or 1080p from Blu-ray. If the TV does not have 1920x1080 resolution, it must scale these images to fit the native pixel structure, which can cause visible artifacts if it's not done well. Therefore, I always recommend 1080p sets whenever possible. This will also future-proof your displays as you suggest.
I would definitely not use S-video or composite video connections, which cannot carry high-def at all. I don't know of any laptop with component-output capability, so that's not an option, at least for the computer. Many TVs react differently to VGA than other video connections, limiting themselves to only certain resolutions, and you won't be able to get other sources to send their signals over VGA anyway.
One type of extender sends HDMI signals over inexpensive CAT5 cable, which can be as long as 150 to 300 feet; these are available from companies such as Gefen and Key Digital. You need a transmitter at the source end, which accepts an HDMI signal from the source device, and a receiver at the display end, which converts the signal back to HDMI. If the TVs are relatively close to each other, you could put the receiver near them and connect its HDMI output to an HDMI distribution box (again, available from Gefen and DVIGear among others), which would then feed multiple TVs via relatively short HDMI cables.
Another solution might be wireless HDMI, though most such products are not quite on the market yet. These systems include a transmitter and receiver, but instead of sending video over CAT5, they send it via radio signals through the air. The only problem is limited range; you say the distance from your computer to the farthest TV is 50 feet, but it's not clear whether this is line of sight or the length of cable needed to wind through the ceiling or whatever.
One example of a wireless HDMI system is Belkin's FlyWire, which is due out in late August for $500 to $600. It has six inputs on the transmitter (including two HDMI ins), while the receiver has an HDMI output. The range is said to be up to 50 feet. Another possibility is the Philips SWW1800, which is said to transmit up to 1080p at least 15 feet in the same room, though I've seen a prototype working over 45 or 50 feet with a clear line of sight. It's expected in June, but I don't know what the price will be.
For your particular application, it would be ideal if these systems could transmit to multiple receivers, but they can't at this point. (Belkin says it's working on providing this capability in future versions of FlyWire.) Meanwhile, you can use the same trick I suggested earlier: position the receiver near the TVs and connect its HDMI output to an HDMI distribution box, which then feeds the TVs via short HDMI cables.
If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to email@example.com.