Light Years Ahead Page 3

High-definition images looked very crisp on the HT-300. As I watched footage from Japan on a D-VHS format high-def demo tape, both the stones in the Ryoanji temple garden and the gray sky looked as real as when I stood before them on a recent trip to that country. And the red of a Japanese woman's traditional gown looked brilliant but without any flattening of detail, a problem I'd seen in earlier DLP projectors. My only complaint is that getting a sufficiently bright image on the HT300 with the 80-inch-wide screen required boosting its contrast setting a step higher than I really liked. Because the adjustment steps are relatively coarse, the compromise setting I opted for slightly overexposed highlights in images - a situation that could probably have been avoided by pairing the projector with a smaller screen.

I also found myself wanting an easier way to deal with the HT300's input switching. In most home theater installations, an external video switcher juggles your standard and high-def sources, with one set of cables running to the projector. But with the HT300, each time you choose a source with a different scan rate - changing, say, from 480i to 1080i - you need to dig out the remote and manually change the input in an onscreen menu. Of course, switching would be simplified by using an advanced control system, like a Crestron or AMX, which is how most professional installations are likely to handle it.

SIM2 Sèleco's HT300 is a projector that's equally adept at displaying both standard and high-def images. Its light output wasn't as powerful as the other projectors in this test, which means that you'll need to think carefully about which screen you select. At $14,995, the HT300 may also seem pricey, but then again, it's a compact, great-looking projector loaded with cutting-edge stuff, including video-processing technology that you could otherwise get only by spending thousands of dollars on an external scaler.

Sharp XV-Z9000U Sharp's XV-Z9000U was the first DLP projector to feature the new Texas Instruments high-definition chip, and the buzz that preceded its introduction was about as loud as things get in the high-end home theater scene. So when a test sample finally arrived at our video lab, it was already a celebrity, though its industrial-white casing and loaflike shape make it look like the kind of projector you'd find in any corporate boardroom. But you don't have to be chairman of the board to buy a Z9000U. At $10,995, it's the most affordable HDTV-capable DLP projector around.

Once I got the Z9000U up and running, I quickly saw what was special about it. First of all, I really liked its flexibility. Designed mainly for home theater use, it features several advanced video adjustments, including color-temperature and gamma controls. But it's also easy to hook up to a computer for gaming purposes or whatever else. (The supplied software even lets you design your own gamma curves.) And its fine-sync menu lets you optimize the display for signals with a wide variety of pixel counts and scan rates, then store those settings in memory.

Setup was a breeze thanks to a well-designed and easy-to-navigate menu system. The Z9000U also comes with a fully backlit remote control, which has direct-access keys for each input as well as buttons that let you quickly adjust advanced settings like keystone, color temperature, and gamma. There's also a button for selecting aspect ratio presets, which include Side Bar (for standard 4:3 aspect ratio images), Stretch (for anamorphic DVDs and HDTV), Smart Stretch, and Cinema Zoom. For computer signals, the choices are Normal (same as Side Bar) and Dot by Dot, which displays the output of your computer's video card pixel for pixel without any scaling.

As with the Sèleco projector, the screen I used let me position the Sharp between 12 and 161¼2 feet away. The lens has both manual zoom and focus-control rings as well as a lens-shift dial and keystone correction. Most people will mount the projector on the ceiling, but it also has adjustable feet to aid tabletop positioning.

Inputs include two sets of jacks that accept either component video or RGB+H/V (red, green, and blue plus separate horizontal and vertical sync) and a VGA-style RGB input. Unlike the SIM2 Sèleco HT300, the Sharp Z9000U doesn't make you adjust it when you switch between standard and high-def sources - it automatically locks onto signals at different scan rates, including 480i standard-def and 1080i or 720p HDTV.