Traveling Light

"Lightweight Light: Six Ultraportable Projectors"

Whether you've had it with renting or with lugging around yesterday's technology, relief is at hand-and in a very easy-to-carry form. Weighing in at under ten pounds each, these new lightweight multimedia projectors-dubbed "ultraportables"-offer incredibly bright and colorful images as well as unprecedented reliability.

We evaluated the features of six new ultraportable projectors head-to-head and enlisted a panel of experts to test how the image quality of the units compared. Although two projectors stood out from the crowd, our testing-both subjective and objective-showed that all these projectors reflect a major advance in projection technology. Every model we tested offered better image quality and cost about $1,000 less than projectors we reviewed as recently as March 1998 (" Prime-Time Projectors "). Better yet, the new models weigh, on average, about four pounds less.

The streamlined size of these new projectors owes itself to advances in two distinct under-the-hood technologies. Two of the projectors we looked at feature polysilicon liquid-crystal displays, or LCDs: the $7,499 PowerLite 5500C, from Epson America ( ), and the $5,999 UltraLight LS1, from Proxima ( ).

The other four projectors are based on a technology called Digital Light Processing, or DLP. These include the $5,999 Boxlight 4050, from Boxlight ( ); the $5,995 EzPro 700, from CTX ( ); the $5,999 LP425, from In Focus ( ); and the $4,955 MultiSync LT80, from NEC Technologies ( ). In the last year, both technologies have undergone refinements that have reduced size, weight, and cost while at the same time improving image quality.

Triple-LCD Technology

Projectors based on larger, heavier, single-LCD modules are all but gone. Today's LCD-based projectors instead use a tiny-and light-assembly of three active-matrix, polysilicon LCDs, each about the size of a postage stamp.

How do they work? Each LCD creates a gray-scale image that corresponds to either the red, green, or blue content in the image being projected. Next, an assembly of color filters and prisms adds the necessary color to each channel and then recombines the three separate images into one to create a full-color image.

The triple-LCD approach not only creates a lighter-weight projection engine but also lets more light through than the old, single-LCD approach-all of which makes for a clearer, brighter image on screen.

DLP Technology

The other new invention making projectors more shoulder-friendly is DLP. Texas Instruments coined this brand name to describe the technology used in projectors based on its Digital Micromirror Device, or DMD.

The DMD is a small rectangular device that uses an array of tiny mirrors to create an image. Each micromirror corresponds to a bit on a special type of memory chip that coordinates the mirror's movements. As the mirrors move, they reflect pulses of red, green, blue, and white light toward the projection lens. Your eye then integrates this information into full-motion, full-color images. (For more information, see the diagram, "Travel-Worthy Technologies.")

These new projectors may be skimpy in size-did we mention that not one of them stands taller than two G3 PowerBooks stacked together?-but they don't skimp at all on features.

Sync or Swim

When a projector's resolution is out of sync with your Mac's, the projected image may lose detail, appear improperly cropped, or exhibit a strobe effect. Older projectors typically made you use the sync controls to fix problems like these. Conveniently, these new models all sport automatic circuitry that makes the adjustments for you.

All the projectors we tested did a decent job of matching our test Mac's resolutions of 640 by 480, 832 by 624, and 1,024 by 768 pixels. Most resized our test images smoothly. Unfortunately, the Boxlight 4050 and In Focus LP425 synchronized the resolution by discarding or doubling pixels whenever the Mac's displayed resolution wasn't exactly 800 by 600 pixels-a less desirable approach, since fine details can be lost.

Simple Setup

All the projectors feature on-screen menus that guide you through the manual aspects of projector setup, such as switching inputs from Mac to VCR, making color adjustments, and adjusting speaker volume.

We found Epson's menu system the easiest to navigate and make adjustments with. The In Focus and Boxlight menu systems, which are identical, were slow to respond, while the Proxima menus were difficult to navigate.

In their favor, however, the In Focus and Boxlight projectors had the most-robust autosetup calibration procedures of any of the projectors we tested, which means that they offered the closest to a plug-in-and-go experience.

Remotely Controllable

All the projectors we tested, except the Boxlight 4050 and the In Focus LP425, come with remote-control devices that let you move your Mac's mouse from a distance. (Remote-control devices are optional for the Boxlight and In Focus projectors and cost between $99 and $199, and $200 and $399, respectively.)

The Epson and Proxima remote-control devices use an infrared receiver on the projector, which requires you to connect the projector to your Mac with a company-supplied ADB cable. We didn't like the CTX and NEC approach-these companies provide a separate infrared receiver that connects directly to your Mac's ADB port, and that means one more item to carry. You can leave your laser pointer at home if you get either the NEC or Proxima projector, as the remote-control devices for those models have laser pointers built in.

Lamps That Last

The halogen lamps of old, which typically lasted less than a hundred hours and burnt out in a flash, are yesterday's news. Every projector we tested features a durable, metal-halide arc lamp instead, which typically should last at least 1,000 hours.

While expensive to replace ($300 to $400 each), metal-halide arc lamps don't burn out suddenly and leave you in the lurch. They travel well, since they don't have a filament that's susceptible to vibration. Instead, they dim and take longer to start up as they age, giving you plenty of warning before you need another bulb.

Of course, a lightweight projector that's easy to use may still not fill the bill if it can't project bright, accurate images and provide decent sound. That's why we took a critical, audience-level pass at these projectors' color, video, and sound capabilities by testing the units with a panel of experts. We confirmed our panel's findings with a series of objective tests (see the benchmark, " Screen Tests ").

Color and Clarity

Our panel found that in general, the DLP projectors' color quality did not match that of the triple-LCD projectors. In particular, the In Focus LP425 and Boxlight 4050 projected distinctly orange-looking reds.

On the other hand, our experts noted that the DLP projectors created brighter and clearer still images. All the DLP units projected pixels that were larger and closer together than those generated by the triple-LCD projectors. This made images look crisper and more "filled in."

Finally, panel members observed that the Epson PowerLite 5500C and Proxima UltraLight LS1-both triple-LCD projectors-had a few dead pixels, which were visible as tiny red, green, or blue dots in dark areas of projected images.

Video Quality

The triple-LCD projectors were clear winners in video tests. These projectors had the best color and most-stable images. In particular, the Epson PowerLite 5500C performed superbly.

When projecting moving pictures, the DLP projectors produced images that suffered from noticeable shimmering. The reason is that to create shading, these projectors vary the amount of time individual pixels stay on or off.

The shimmering was discernible with the NEC MultiSync LT80 and the CTX EzPro 700 but not nearly as pronounced as that produced by the In Focus LP425 and the Boxlight 4050. This distraction, coupled with unnatural-looking colors, makes these two projectors unacceptable for motion video.

Sound Advice

Let's face it: these projectors are tiny, and so are their speakers. While all the projectors our jury evaluated create sound adequate for small-group presentations emphasizing spoken words, not one was acceptable for playing music or presenting to large audiences. If you plan on projecting movies or presentations full of rich sound, buy a set of amplified speakers-or rent a public-address system at your destination.

When you choose one of these projectors, bear in mind that you're also choosing a technology. Pick the one that's best for the material you'll be presenting the most.

If your livelihood depends on killer video presentations, the triple-LCD projectors we tested offer the most-stable video quality and most-vibrant color. If bright, crisp still images are your top priority-for instance, if your presentations primarily use slides-the DLP projectors could fill the Tbill, although at the expense of less color saturation.

For best overall image quality and ease of use, our Editors' Choice goes to the LCD-based Epson PowerLite 5500C. It offers the most-convenient on-screen menus and controls as well as the most colorful and stable images. Its list price is high, but we expect its street price to be more in line with those of the other products we reviewed. The Proxima UltraLight LS1 is a good second choice, but beware: its setup is nowhere as easy as the Epson's.

Still, the DLP projectors are noteworthy for their still-image clarity and high brightness-the highest recorded by our objective tests. Of the DLP models, the nearly identical NEC MultiSync LT80 and CTX EzPro 700 are the most complete packages. We recommend the MultiSync LT80 above the EzPro 700 because the former's remote includes a built-in laser pointer.

Whichever projector you choose, you'll find yourself traveling light. And that'll leave hands free for all those bouquets tossed on stage after your dazzling, glitch-free presentations.

January 1999 page: 83

Two technologies made this year's new class of petite projectors possible–Digital Light Processing (DLP) and triple-LCD. Projectors based on either of these engines offer welcome relief to the weighed-down traveler, but each also offers particular advantages and disadvantages.

Their most fundamental difference is how these technologies use light to create projected images. Triple-LCD projectors, as you can see in this illustration, split a steady stream of white light into red, green, and blue light using two dichroic color filters; pass the light through three tiny LCD modules; and finally use prisms to recombine the light into a single color image. DLP projectors use rapid pulses of white light that are filtered through a high-speed, rotating color wheel and reflected off an array of microscopic mirrors mounted on a Digital Micromirror Device, or DMD. These images are recombined by your eye, not the projector.

The most noticeable result of these different approaches is that triple-LCD projectors have better image quality. As DLP projectors create images they flip individual mirrors on and off. Some light can be reflected in the process, which means that darker shades in still and video images often appear to shimmer noticeably.

Be this as it may, since DLP technology reflects light rather than filters it, as the LCD panels do, very little light is lost and DLP projectors create brighter images. Also, DLP Projectors typically weigh less than triple-LCD projectors because they use fewer and lighter components.

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