Whenever you go out to your local cinema, the most important ingredient of the experience you're paying for has to be the sheer size of the picture you're watching. And since this epic, immersive scale can only be achieved by using a front projection system, it follows that to truly recapture the cinematic experience in the comfort of your home, you're going to have to equip yourself with a front projector of your own.
Sounds simple on paper, doesn't it? Yet we know that many potential home cinema addicts are scared off getting into front projection by the belief that projectors are both brain-drainingly complicated and account-drainingly expensive.
But it really doesn't have to be this way. There are in fact dozens of hugely affordable projectors out there just dying to turn your living room into an Odeon - and to prove it, we've rounded up four models here ranging in price from just £1,100 down to a frankly astounding £799. What's more, as you'll discover, just because a projector's cheap certainly does not mean it has to also be nasty…
Price: £1,100 Website:www.hitachidigitalmedia.com Size: 340(w) x 110(h) x 284(d)mm Weight: 4.4kg Native chipset aspect ratio: 16:9 Resolution: 1280x720 Claimed max contrast ratio: 1000:1 Claimed max brightness: 1200 ANSI Lumens Video connections: DVI input (with HDCP); 15-pin D-Sub PC component input; three-RCA component input; S-Video input; Composite video input; RS232 Control jack Additional features: 1.6x zoom; 30in to 300in image size; Manual horizontal and vertical image shift; Whisper mode; Optical Deep Black mode Plus points:
Great design, HD Ready, good with PC as well as video pictures, brightness and sharpness levels. Minus points:
Dark picture areas can look a bit flat, colour tones can occasionally slip slightly.
The budget projection world consists of two main rival technologies: Digital Light Projection (DLP) and Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) - and Hitachi's TX100 is the only one of this projection quartet to use LCD technology. This means its pictures will be free of DLP's common problems with fizzing dot noise over moving objects and bands of pure colour flitting around your peripheral vision (a phenomenon known as 'the rainbow effect'). But how will they fare with the traditional LCD problems of washed out black levels and the appearance of a grid-like pixel pattern over the picture?
We'll find out in a minute. But first, we've got to start by praising highly the TX100's ultra-glossy finish and extravagant curves, which help it look like something that's cost you way more than £1,100.
Connections crucially include a DVI jack that's ready, willing and able to take digital high definition (HD) signals from the next generation of high definition kit. There are component video inputs for analogue HD pictures, too. In fact, these connections coupled with a native LCD panel pixel resolution of 1280x720 make the TX100 the only projector here able to wear the industry's official HD Ready logo.
The TX100's pictures are great in some ways, but slightly disappointing in others. Their greatest strength is their fine detailing, which delivers a sharpness and level of texturing its three DLP rivals simply cannot match.
The TX100's pictures look brighter than the DLP models too, and are also exceptionally clean and free of picture noise. Even LCD's grid-like panel structure only very seldom becomes visible.
On the downside, while the TX100's colours are very rich, vibrant and subtly shaded, they're not quite as natural in tone as the best of the DLPs. Black picture areas, too, lack the depth and shadow detailing found with the DLP models.
With its HD Ready specification, sumptuous design, great operating system and solid pictures, the TX100 is well worth considering if you're after a 'jack of all trades' able to look good with PCs as well as movies. If, however, you're after the last word in movie magic, we suggest you read on…
Price: £799 Website:www.infocus.com Size: 249(w) x 106(h) x 318(d)mm Weight: 3.1kg Native chipset aspect ratio: 16:9 Resolution: 854x480 Claimed max contrast ratio: 2000:1 Claimed max brightness: 750 ANSI Lumens Video connections: -DA connector (compatible with HDMI/DVI/VGA); Component video jacks; S-Video jacks; Composite video jacks; 12V trigger output Additional features: Low noise mode; Faroudja DCDi processing; 9ft max image; progressive scan; x2.4 zoom Plus points:
Fantastic value, flexible connectivity, generally good pictures Minus points:
Newer, slightly costlier models deliver better black levels and stability, and run more quietly; not got native HD resolution
InFocus Screenplay 4805
By projector standards, the Screenplay 4805 is now slightly long in the tooth. But as the proud owner of a substantial new price cut, it looks - on paper at least - like it's got plenty of life in it yet…
It's far from the most attractive projector in this group, though. Still, looks aren't everything, and its exterior is considerably redeemed by the presence of an unusual M1-DA connector. This is an ultra-flexible socket able to take - via suitable adaptors - everything from HDMI and DVI high definition video through analogue component video, and onto PC and even USB sources! Other connections include a separate set of component jacks, and a handy 12V trigger jack for, say, automatically activating a hydraulic screen.
Note, though, that although the 4805 can play digital and analogue HD sources, it can't call itself truly HD Ready since its native resolution is only 852x480 (the HD Ready requirements demand at least 720 lines).
When it first came out, the 4805's pictures were benchmark level for a budget DLP projector. Now it's possible to see a crack or two in their make-up - but they're still very good. Strengths that still shine through are an overwhelmingly natural colour palette, startlingly good (though not complete) suppression of DLP's 'rainbow effect' and motion noise problems, impressive sharpness, and a black level response that betters anything else at the same price point.
More expensive and newer projectors can now deliver better black levels than the 4805, as well as slightly more image stability and less running noise. But now that it's been reduced to £799, it's impossible to say anything about the 4805 without taking its price massively into consideration. And once you do that, it stands out as a home cinema bargain of almost frightening proportions.
Price: £999 Website:www.themescene.tv Size: 271(w) x 87(h) x 212(d)mm Weight: 3.1kg Native chipset aspect ratio: 16:9 Resolution: 854x480 Claimed max contrast ratio: 3000:1 Claimed max brightness: 850 ANSI Lumens Video connections: DVI jack (with HDCP); Component video inputs; RS232C output, Composite video input; IR sensor; RGB Scart adaptor included Additional features: 300in image from 3m; 6-segment, 4-speed colour wheel; 3-year hot swap warranty; User-adjustable scaling options; 'black bar' removal Plus points:
Superb pictures, great price Minus points:
Very occasional visible 'blanking' line and dot crawl, not got native HD resolution
Optoma ThemeScene H30A
Optoma's ThemeScene H30A doesn't look particularly special. Its colour scheme and shaping are both rather bland, in fact. But there's a hint at possible inner quality in the presence of a DVI jack configured to take high definition digital signals from upcoming HD sources. There's support for analogue video too, from component, S-Video and composite video jacks.
As we were setting the H30A up we also found ourselves quite taken by how well suited it is for 'normal' sized living rooms, with a lens arrangement that lets you enjoy huge picture sizes from relatively short throw distances.
Like the InFocus 4805, while the H30A can receive and play high definition pictures, it can't call itself fully HD Ready because its 854x480 native resolution is too low. But there's significant specification compensation for this in the shape of a tasty claimed contrast ratio of 3000:1.
Happily this extravagant contrast claim is backed up by what is easily the deepest and most natural black level response in this group test - a fact which helps the H30A's pictures enjoy superb three-dimensionality and solidity.
The impressive black level response also plays a part in helping the H30A's colours look exceptionally vivid - and this vividness is achieved without compromising the naturalness of the overall colour tone. The picture's sharp and detailed too, and is only seldom sullied by DLP's problems with the rainbow effect and dot crawl.
The H30A isn't perfect. During standard definition viewing, for instance, we very occasionally spotted faint blank horizontal lines in the picture, and green dotting over very dark picture areas.
But of course, if you want perfect, you'll need a few grand more for a high-end projector. If, however, you just want the best home cinema pictures you can currently buy for under £1,200, your bucks should stop here.
Price: £999 Website:www.toshiba.co.uk Size: 298(w) x 101(h) x 275(d)mm Weight: 2.88kg Native chipset aspect ratio: 16:9 Resolution: 854x480 Claimed max contrast ratio: 2500:1 Claimed max brightness: 750 ANSI Lumens Video connections: S-Video input; Composite video input; Component video RCAs; Control jack; RGB PC input; DVI jack (HDCP) Additional features: TrueVision de-interlacing; Auto image setup, 1.2x zoom ratio, 290in max image size, low lamp power mode Plus points:
Pictures mostly; Easy to set up
Relatively long throw distance required; Occasional noise over motion; Green dottiness over dark scenes
Toshiba has recently impressed us with its latest DLP rear projection TVs - so hopefully it can deliver the same 'wow' factor from its DLP front projectors! The MT200 makes a fair first impression. Its shape is a bit brickish, but its pearl colour scheme and fancy trim give it a dash of panache.
The good stuff continues with the discovery of a DVI socket able to take digital high definition sources, together with component jacks for analogue high definition, a normal PC socket, and the usual S-Video and composite video backups.
Setting the MT200 up proved largely effortless - although we should say that it uses a relatively long-throw lens that could cause problems in very small rooms. As with its DLP brethren in this group test, while the MT200 can take and play HD pictures, it has to first downscale them to its native resolution of 854x480 and so can't wear the industry's official HD Ready badge.
In action the MT200 is good - but not THAT good. Starting with the positives, its colours are outstanding: natural but vivid, richly saturated but not overwhelming, and subtly toned but never drab. Black levels impress during dark movie scenes too - albeit not quite as profoundly as those of the ThemeScene H30A. Plus the MT300 does well at suppressing DLP's rainbow effect problem.
On the downside, the MT200 struggles a little with those other DLP problems of buzzing dot crawl over movement, and green dot noise over dark picture areas. Also, its picture isn't quite as sharp as that of its rivals. Not that these problems stop the MT200 being a good budget projector, mind; they just mean it can't call itself a great one…
The most important point to make before we get into any specifics is that every one of these projectors perfectly proves the point we made at the start of this feature; namely that front projection really doesn't have to be either complicated or expensive. That said, some of our contenders are better than others…
Having slightly less appeal for movie fans are the Toshiba and Hitachi. The Toshiba's DLP picture quality has one or two flaws too many when you consider it costs the same as the impeccable Optoma. The LCD Hitachi, meanwhile, surrenders the advantage it gains from being the only HD-Ready model by not having deep enough black levels to do full justice to the dark scenes that dominate all of our favourite scary movies!
In second place we find the InFocus ScreenPlay 4805. Despite being around for a few months now, it still delivers really enjoyable pictures - only now it delivers them at a price so low it's almost unbelievable.
Our winner, though, is the Optoma Themescene H30A. Why? For the simple reason that the careful balance it strikes between picture quality, price and features is about as close to perfect as you can get.