Groundbreaking projector prices

SAN FRANCISCO (10/27/2003) - If you've waited for a great deal on a portable projector that you can use at work and at home, get out your wallet now. A clutch of major manufacturers have dropped the price of entry-level projectors to under US$1,000--hundreds of dollars below what the lowest-priced starter models cost just months ago. All of these dual-use projectors can display images from a PC or from a video source (such as a DVD player or VCR), which can be useful both in conference rooms and in living rooms.

I tested NEC Corp.'s $995 VT46 and Toshiba Inc.'s $999 TLP-S10U. Both shipping models have a native SVGA resolution of 800 by 600, but they also can display XGA screens (1024 by 768), after using interpolation to rescale the image.

For the sharpest text screens in a PC presentation, native resolution usually works best. For video display, however, image quality differences between native SVGA and XGA resolutions are less noticeable to average viewers--and that's great news for buyers who might use one of these affordable units to project TV programs or DVD movies.

Both projectors use an LCD (liquid crystal display) instead of a DLP (Data Light Processing) system for their display technology. LCD projectors, including these two, are in many instances pounds heavier than DLP models and generally can't compete with them at displaying bright images with optimum contrast. On the other hand, LCD systems are often less expensive.

The brightness rating on both models is 1200 ANSI lumens, enough illumination to display a presentation in a small conference room with low lighting. But the VT46's $299 lamp, rated to last 3000 hours, delivers a better cost per hour of usage than the TLP-S10U's $249 lamp, which is rated at 2000 hours.

Though I found both projectors generally easy to set up and use, the VT46 has several advantages. One is a zoom lens that lets you easily place the projector where you need it and adjust the lens to fit the image to the screen. The TLP-S10U's fixed lens gives you far less flexibility in positioning the projector to get the image size you want. The VT46's inputs (plus an on/off switch) are conveniently situated on the unit's rear, while the TLP-S10U has its power connection on one side, lacks a switch, and gathers all other inputs on the rear. Both models include remote controls, but the VT46's price also covers a carrying case.

In my tests of each unit at default settings, the VT46 did better at projecting both PC images (such as PowerPoint slides, digital photos, and test patterns) and video images (from DVD wide-screen movies, cable TV, and an S-Video camcorder). For the most part, the two units displayed SVGA-resolution text and graphics screens similarly, but the VT46 rendered slightly more accurate and more pleasing color.

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