The newest Epson Powerlite Cinema 200+ projector isn't all that different from the last Epson Cinema projector - it's small, slick, powerful and frighteningly pricey at $2,500. And yet, given the opportunity to test one out, I'm smitten with it. Projectors have improved a gazillionfold in the last couple of years. For one thing, you can screen DVDs, videos or even project images from your computer (these days projectors seem to come with every available input you could want), and the home theatre unit is now compact, easy to install and almost affordable. Though projectors can be very expensive, the low-end prices have dropped considerably and, measured cost per inch, can even come out cheaper than a flat-screen.
Two friends moved last week, and after having their recently purchased extra-large flat-screen delivered by the movers, they realized that two ordinary able-bodied people couldn't budge the thing in the slightest.
A projector, on the other hand, weighs about 10 pounds. And it's the ease of use and installation that makes it so much fun, never mind the ability to turn your kitchen into a repertory house in a matter of minutes.
Probably the first thing to know when hunting for a projector is that two main types of projection technology are duking it out for market supremacy. While Epson uses LCD (liquid crystal display), Texas Instruments' proprietary technology, DLP (Digital Light Processing), is giving LCD a run for its money.
In terms of cost, DLP tends to come out the winner, and competition makes for good-quality LCD and DLP projectors across the board which is good, because a price drop has been a long time coming.
Now that new low-cost projectors are coming in at under $1,000, people can start to play with their living spaces and do away with bulky televisions that take up space even when not being used. To cut costs more, consumers forgo the screen and project on their whitest wall.
But though purchase prices have fallen dramatically, buyers often don't realize that projectors require constant investment in lamps. This situation parallels many other price-gouging conundrums. (It's not the printer that costs, it's the ink. Or they give you the cellphone for free so they can ding you on your minutes.) Lamps run about $350 and must be replaced every 2,000 to 3,000 hours. That's not a huge amount when you do the math (around 40 cents a movie), but it's something to consider when you're contemplating the latest Epson, Sony, Panasonic or BenQ.
It's also important to factor in lamp costs if you're buying a used projector. The machine may only cost a few hundred bucks, but the lamp may tack another $500 onto your bill.
And although the required projection distance has shrunk over the years, you still need a good 10 feet to get a nice big image. Given that many a downtown house is no wider than 13 feet, finding a place to project can be a bit of a problem. That said, a bowling-lane house can make for a nice long screening room.
The Epson PowerLite 200 comes with lens shifts (knobs that allow one to move the projected image around the wall, without having to move the projector) that make it possible to put the projector just about anywhere. And perhaps it's this increased concern for ease of use that is making projectors increasingly popular.
In Germany, artists install mini-projectors in subway cars and treat riders to unsolicited art shows. And marketers project messages on sidewalks as pedestrians scurry over them. I'm tempted to show movies on my garage wall and invite my neighbours to an outdoor screening nightly. Yes, it's the kind of toy that you can use with regularity.
Still, the price remains a bit high for me and my peers. I'd think about spending a little less for a slightly lower-end model like the Optoma MovieTime, a coffee-table unit that comes with a built-in DVD player and speakers and retails for about $1,000 less than the Epson.
I'm not fussy enough to notice the slightly decreased contrast, but I would notice the extra $1,000 in my pocket.