Epson PowerLite TW100 LCD front projector

Epson's entrance into the home-theater projector arena has long been anticipated. For years, Epson has had the best color-management system of any maker of LCD projectors, and their ability to tame the uneven spectral output of short-arc metal-halide lamps has been impressive.

This past June, Epson finally took the plunge and announced the PowerLite TW100, a compact 3-panel projector that uses high-temperature polysilicon LCD panels in a 16:9 aspect ratio with 1280¥768 pixel resolution. While that pixel count doesn't correspond to any specific DTV standard, it's a variation of the Wide XGA (WXGA) computer-display standard found in many Asian-made projectors and displays.

The important thing to note here is that the Epson LCD pixel matrix allows for 100% display of 720p signals, while 1080i HDTV sources are compressed about 33% horizontally and 29% vertically. Under current Consumer Electronics Association definitions, the PowerLite TW100 qualifies as an HDTV-resolution display product.

Unlike other high-resolution LCD projectors, the TW100 comes with a much lower MSRP—$4999—that resulted from a decision by Epson not to limit this projector to CEDIA sales channels. That means you'll probably see deep discounting by mail-order and Internet resellers.

What's in the Box
The PowerLite TW100 is pretty unassuming. Its footprint is smaller than many LCD and DLP projectors, and it weighs just under 10 pounds. The supplied varifocal lens has a zoom ratio of just over 1.3:1, a common focal range for small LCD and DLP projectors. That means you could use the projector with a 72-inch-wide 16:9 screen at a distance of 7–10 feet. No interchangeable lenses are available, however.

Like all small projectors, the PowerLite TW100 has a permanent image offset. This means the center of the projected image is shifted higher than the center of the lens, to give the user more flexibility in positioning the projector on a tabletop or upside-down as part of a ceiling installation. There are no provisions for mechanical lens shifting to correct for trapezoidal image distortion, or keystoning. The only corrections that can be made are digital: re-mapping the image across the LCD panels to correct the geometry.

The connector complement is sufficient for the average home-theater installation. Input A comprises three RCA jacks, for Y-Pb-Pr signals from DVD players and DTV set-top boxes; according to the specs, it's a wideband input. Input B is a 15-pin D-sub jack (often called a VGA connector) that can be connected to a PC or DTV set-top receiver. You'll also find the obligatory RCA jack for composite video and a DIN jack for S-video, and there's even a DVI-I port (which can carry both digital and analog signals) for connection to a computer. This jack currently does not support DVI-HDCP or any of the copy-protection systems under discussion.

Stealing a good idea from Sony and JVC, Epson has omitted any onboard audio capability. Most competing small LCD projectors have at least a 1W mono or stereo amplifier, but Epson is probably assuming purchasers will install PowerLite TW100s as parts of more sophisticated home-theater systems with premium audio playback. The 12V trigger port and RS-232C connector for remote control are further evidence of Epson's intentions to address full-blown home theaters.

Remote and Menus
The supplied remote control ranks about average. I like the fact that Epson kept the buttons to a minimum (there are only 23 of them), and that key functions are clearly identified and isolated. You can access any of the five inputs directly instead of having to scroll through unused inputs when selecting different sources to view. Direct access is also provided to the five different aspect-ratio settings and five different color/gamma settings.

The remote has good range, but the mousedisc (the up/down/right/left cursor-navigation rocker that selects the highlighted item when you push on it) has somewhat sloppy and imprecise response. You can be in the midst of making an adjustment to one menu and, if you don't push the disc in the right place, suddenly find you've switched to another adjustment. To minimize problems, you can save up to six different image settings and access any of them by tapping a button at the bottom of the remote.

Epson projectors have always had intuitive menu structures, and the PowerLite TW100 continues this tradition. You bring up a main menu with five items, then select any of them for more adjustments. There's even a Help button if you get completely flummoxed and just can't figure out what you're doing or where to go next.

In addition to the usual video and RGB signal adjustments, the TW100 offers two different ways to control the color temperature of the projected image. One way is to use the built-in color-temperature slider bar, which has several precalibrated settings, from a very warm 5000K all the way up to a chilly 10,000K. While these settings are fairly close to the readings I got on my color analyzer, you can do better by selecting the Natural color/gamma mode and then entering the RGB Adjust menu. There are settings for calibrating gamma, bias, and drive for each color channel. With a color analyzer corrected for short-arc projection lamps, you can tune up a very accurate gray scale on the TW100.

In addition to the Natural color/gamma setting, others include Dynamic (pumps out light, but crushes gray scale at the high end), Theater (similar to Sony's Cinema Black mode), PC (elevated black levels) and sRGB (precise matching to specific values of R, G, and B). In my tests, Natural consistently yielded the best gray scale for viewing video and movies.

There are five aspect ratios to choose from: Normal projects 4:3 images with no horizontal or vertical stretch; Squeeze is used with anamorphic DVDs to expand the image correctly and fill the width of the screen; Zoom enlarges a letterboxed 4:3 image to fit the width of the screen; Through projects images with 1280¥768 resolution or less at their actual size, mapping the pixels 1:1; and Squeeze Through displays anamorphic widescreen images with 1:1 pixel mapping, resulting in a black border all the way around the image.

Epson has included two test patterns to help set up the projector. The first is a 16:9 grid of white text and boxes on a black field to assist in focusing the image and correcting for trapezoidal distortion. The second pattern is a multi-step gray scale for use in adjusting RGB gamma, bias, and drive, using a color analyzer corrected for UHP lamps.

The PowerLite TW100 can also be connected to a personal computer, either through the DVI-I input or the 15-pin D-sub connector. At present, the projector supports several standard DVI resolutions, including 640¥480/60Hz, 800¥600/60Hz, 1024¥768/60Hz, 1280¥960/60Hz, and 1280¥1024/60Hz. (I was unable to test the TW100 for compatibility with 1280¥768/60Hz DVI sources.)

Epson provides a useful table of actual pixel resolutions with different signal sources and aspect ratios. According to the table, a 1280¥720/60p source is mapped 1:1 on the TW100 in Normal mode, leaving a total of 48 pixels unused at the top and bottom. In my tests, however, the projector appeared to fill the LCD panels top to bottom with 720p source material. In Through mode, for some reason, only 1178¥664 pixels were used.

Sources at 1080i are also mapped to 1280¥720 pixels in Normal mode, but in Through they're squeezed down to 886¥498. I have no explanation for this mode of operation. The table states that full-screen 4:3 and anamorphic DVD sources are also mapped to 720 vertical pixels, not 768. It would appear that none of the compatible signal formats are ever mapped with 768 vertical pixels—not even XGA, which is a 1024¥768 pixel standard. In every case, 720 pixels is specified as the maximum vertical resolution.