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GIANT TV AT ONE-SIXTH THE PRICE

What if you could buy a 100-inch giant-screen TV that cost only $1,500, showed nearly flawless high-definition video and weighed only six pounds?

It sounds like science fiction, but you get all this now in a newly emerging category: low-cost home-theater projectors.

These small boxes, also called front projectors, look somewhat like old-fashioned carousel slide projectors, and they throw an image onto a screen just like you'd see in a movie theater.

Front projectors will work with just about any video source, including standard and high-definition cable and satellite-TV receivers, DVD and VHS players, and even video-game consoles. They're small enough to tuck unobtrusively on a shelf or hang from a ceiling bracket.

The size of the picture is limited only by the size of your wall; even in a small room it's easy to get an image exceeding the 60 to 80 inches that is the maximum for today's conventional televisions. Until the last year or so, front projectors designed for home video cost $3,000 or more. Lately, the entry price has fallen in half, driven by heavy demand for all types of electronic projectors, and should drop under $1,000 by year end.

I took a look for myself by calling Optoma Technology of Milpitas (www.optoma.com) and asking the company to stage a demonstration, as well as lend me its Optoma H30, a home-theater projector that sells for $1,499.

Optoma Technology has a fancy screening room in its offices, and several marketing and engineering executives graciously set up two tests.

First, they put an H30 next to an Optoma H77, a much fancier home-theater projector that sells for $9,000. The two projectors were connected to the same video source -- a high-definition tape of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," with the wide-screen H30 picture above the wide-screen H77 picture.

The H30 did an outstanding job of delivering a sharp image of actress Charlize Theron, with realistic flesh tones and rich colors. The H77 did somewhat better, with a picture so detailed I could easily read the lettering on Jay Leno's coffee mug. But, to me, the H77 was only marginally superior. In other words, the H30 provides almost as much quality as the H77 for one-sixth the price.

Second, the Optoma crew put the H30 up against my own front projector, which I brought from home: a Dell 2100MP, which I purchased in April 2003 for $999, a model since replaced by the Dell 2200MP at $899 (www.dell.com).

The 2100MP is what's called a "crossover" projector, designed for connecting to a notebook computer for work tasks such as displaying a PowerPoint presentation, as well as for home entertainment. Crossover projectors, while less expensive than home-theater projectors, aren't optimized for video. This shoot-out was no contest -- the H30 immediately and obviously outshone the 2100MP. The level of detail was the same, but the 2100MP fell short in both contrast and color. Shadows were deep black with the H30, only grayish with the 2100MP. The multicolored "Tonight Show" backdrop looked pale with the 2100MP, vibrant with the H30.

I had the same experience at home on the 100-inch screen in my family room: scenes that were cold and flat with the 2100MP were suddenly warm and rich with the H30.

Beyond the Optoma H30, choices in the affordable home-theater category include the InFocus ScreenPlay 4805 at $1,499 (www.infocushome.com), the Sony Cineza VPL-HS3 at $1,499 (www.sonystyle.com) and the Toshiba TLP-ET1 at $1,299 (www.tacp.toshiba.com). Benq is promising to push price points down even further in October with the PE5120 at $999 (www.benq.com).

Sorting through all the features and specifications for front projectors is daunting, and I don't have room to explain all the details. So I'll stick to a few key points:

Don't chase after lumens. The brightness of front projectors is measured in lumens, with projectors under $2,000 typically offering from 800 to 2,000 lumens. Brightness is less important for home-theater viewing than contrast and color depth. You only need 800 to 1,000 lumens for a home-theater projector.

Get a screen. Walls aren't meant for displaying video, so you'll need a home-theater screen. There are many choices, running $300 and above, in both portable and fixed screens. The two biggest manufacturers are Da-Lite (www.dalite.com) and Draper (www.draperinc.com).

Avoid the DLP vs. LCD debate. There are two types of imaging technology inside front projectors: liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels and digital light processing (DLP) chips. Video engineers get into fierce debates about the relative merits of each. Cutting to the chase: LCD offers richer colors, DLP more contrast. Either is a good choice.

Know what you want. If the main reason you want a front projector is watching video, then you skip over the sub-$1,000 crossover category in favor of home-theater models. Crossovers are the best choice for those who need to regularly make presentations from computers because they render computer text more sharply and are more portable.

Projectors aren't for everyone. You need a room with enough space to position the projector behind you and put up a screen. Black-out shades or heavy curtains are required if the room has windows and you want to watch in daytime. One final gotcha: The bulb in a typical front projector lasts 2,000 to 4,000 hours, then costs $200 to $400 to replace.

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