Big-Screen Megabargains

Here's a message if you spend time squinting at a small TV: big screens are better for watching movies and most everything else. And I don't mean those puny 50-inch sets most folks consider "big screen." I'm talking about pictures that make you feel like you're actually in a movie theater - pictures 100 inches or larger! To get an image that huge, you need a front projector. (Click to read David Katzmaier's "Get the Big Picture.")

If you're thinking something that can deliver movie-theaterlike pictures at home has to cost an arm and a leg, you couldn't be more wrong. High-qual ity front projectors designed for home theater use start out at $1,000 to $1,500. In that price range, you won't get images as bright as you can from big-ticket projectors, and budget models usually have fewer features and connection options. Picture sharpness is also a factor: low-price projectors offer only enhanced-definition TV (EDTV) resolution rather than HDTV. But they can do a fantastic job with DVD movies, and high-def programs will look good, too, if not as sharp and detailed as they could be.

We put three affordable front projectors to the test: NEC's HT410 ($1,295), InFocus's ScreenPlay 4805 ($1,299), and HP's ep7100 ($1,400). Each one produces images using a single Texas Instruments Digital Light Processing (DLP) chip - a semiconductor covered with an array of microscopic pivoting mirrors. One-chip DLPs incorporate a translucent color wheel, divided into red, green, and blue segments, that spins at lightning-fast speed, filtering white light from the projector's lamp into colors that get reflected by the chip's mirrors to form an image.

While you can get a decent picture by projecting onto a wall, a good screen is a necessity if you want the best possible picture. For this test I used a 92-inch wide (105-inch diagonal) Da-Lite High Contrast Da-Mat screen, a $1,123 model designed for DLP and LCD projectors (less expensive screens are also available). I set up each projector 14 feet from the screen for my evaluation - far enough away to minimize the "screen-door effect," in which the pixel structure of the projector's display chip becomes visible. Now for the skinny on each of the three front projectors.