Sony VPL GTZ1 800
Sony's groundbreaking VPL-GTZ1, the world's first 4K UST laser TV projector.

It's been several years since Sony introduced the concept of using an ultra-short-throw projector as a bigscreen replacement for a traditional panel television, in a product called the VPL-GTZ1, a $50,000 behemoth that laid claim to being the world's first 4K UST laser projector. Hisense came in a little while later with its own "Laser TV" projectors that were the first to add features like an on-board digital TV tuner and wireless streaming platform. Much more recently, no fewer than a half dozen other projector makers have joined the fray with new competing models that start below $3,000.

Why the sudden big push? You can point to a pair of developments, one evolutionary and the other revolutionary. First, the cost of the laser technology used in projectors has dropped rather quickly in the last couple of years, allowing manufacturers to design affordable, high brightness projectors that can overcome ambient room light and—critically—require no lamp replacements for the life of the product.

The second breakthrough was the development of specialized ambient-light-rejecting screens that can take the punchy picture from those laser projectors and vastly improve their overall contrast—making them a suitable replacement for a flat-panel even in rooms with overhead lighting or even sunlight streaming in from the windows. These remarkable screens perform a kind of magic which defies the physics that have defined the projection experience till now.

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Optoma CinemaX P1

So, the next question you might be asking yourself is...why bother? What makes a 4K UST TV a better choice for your living room than either a flat-panel television or a traditional dark-room projector?

4K UST Projectors vs. Regular TV

Huge, engaging, cinematic picture: We can't say it more simply than this: Size matters. At average living-room viewing distance, the 100- or 120-inch diagonal image associated with today's 4K UST projectors reveals the kind of enthralling, you-are-there-detail you just can't see on a typical 65- or 75-inch flat-screen TV, and the large image fills more of your peripheral vision—just like in the movie theater. Instead of feeling like you're viewing a play that's being acted out on the other side of a window, you're right in the action. Whether you're watching TV or playing videogames, there's nothing more critical to creating an effective escape from reality than a really big picture, and UST TV gets you there.

Projection is easy on the eyes: Viewing a projection is very different than watching a TV, a difference you just have to see to believe and live with to fully appreciate. There is an easy, organic quality to the reflected light coming off a screen compared with the direct, hard light blasting out from a regular television at any size. It is less fatiguing, especially with long viewing sessions, and reminiscent of the light and color we all know and love from the movie theater. Once you experience it at home, you won't want to go back.

4K UST TV is cost effective: With UST projection, a 100- or 120-inch diagonal image size comes at a much more attainable price vs. a 100-inch or larger flat-panel TV, with a 100-inch system featuring an entry level projector and specialty screen falling somewhere between $3,500 and $4,000, or a bit more for a 120-inch setup. A more premium experience can also be had with step-up models, which offer more features and higher performance—just like with regular flat-panel TVs. By comparison, a 100-inch flatscreen television is an exotic luxury item today that will set you back tens of thousands of dollars...if you can actually find one for purchase. On the other hand, our 4K UST Buyer's Guide shows the wide range of models now available or coming available soon.

Hisense Lifestyle Gaming
Hisense L10 Series

Ultra-wide viewing angle: Unlike typical LCD televisions, the most common type sold today, the image from a UST projector doesn't noticeably lose brightness or contrast, or shift colors, as you move left or right of the screen center—even at extreme angles. So you can invite a room full of people to watch the Super Bowl or the Oscars, and no one gets left out.

Easy Set-Up: A UST projector is easier to install than a wall-mounted TV: No power outlet is required on the wall behind the screen, and there is no need to cut into walls to snake signal cables as there is for a conventional television. The most complex part of the installation is hanging the relatively lightweight screen, a simple project for the average DIYer.

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Sony VPL-VZ1000ES

4K UST TV vs. Traditional Projectors

All the benefits of projected images described above also accrue to traditional, long-throw projectors. We should know—we've promoted the projection experience for more than two decades at ProjectorCentral. But in all that time, we've never before seen a technology like 4K UST TV that has the potential to spread the joys of projection to so many people. Here's why:

No-fuss installation: Permanent projector installations have always carried significant challenges. Among these is the need to mount a potentially obtrusive projector on the ceiling or on a shelf at the middle or rear of the room—something not always welcomed by the resident interior designer. Beyond this, there's the snaking of cables through walls and ceilings to the projector location for electrical power and the transmission of video signals from source components like a cable box or A/V receiver. The need to tear open and then patch drywall is enough of a barrier to discourage even diehard videophiles, particularly if you're targeting a finished, multi-purpose family room for your entertainment system.

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By comparison, setting up a 4K UST TV is as simple as placing a sleek, component-shaped projector on a credenza that sits against the screen wall, at a distance as tight as 8 to 10 inches from the wall and a few inches below the screen. Source and audio components are usually hidden within the furniture, with the cables all neatly tucked away—just like with a table-top television. There are no unsightly wires running up the wall to the screen. As we mentioned, the most demanding part of the installation is hanging the screen on the wall!

No need for light control: The laws of physics determine that any projector will perform at its best in a dark room. But not everyone wants to watch TV in a dark room, or do so all the time. Screen manufacturers have attacked this problem for years with special screen materials that are designed to improve contrast and prevent images from looking washed out in moderate ambient light. The good news is that the sophistication of these screen designs has leaped forward in recent years, making this the perfect time to mate one of these "ambient-light rejecting" (ALR) screens with a 4K UST projector. UST ALR screens, in particular, are especially effective at rejecting most room light to allow very high performance viewing in moderate- to brightly-lit rooms. You can still get by with a traditional screen with a 4K UST projector—some might even be tempted to project directly onto a white wall. But without a specialty screen, you'll never get the image quality and performance you're paying for. Fortunately, these screens start at about $800 for a 100-inch diagonal size, so they're a reasonable add-on for the performance boost they provide. You can learn more about how they work, and see a list of manufacturers, in our separate article, Screen Magic: How UST Screens Let You See the Light.

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Epson LS500

No lamp replacements, aging, or untimely burn-outs: The solid-state laser and LED light engines used in modern 4K UST projectors are rated to last a minimum of 20,000 hours—about 5 hours of viewing per day for 10 years straight! Compare that with the 4,000-5,000 hours you might be lucky to get from a typical projection lamp before having to plunk down more than a hundred dollars for a replacement. And unlike a lamp, a laser or LED sight source takes much longer to degrade, so you're not watching your image grow noticeably dimmer, or seeing unpleasant color shifting, as you do with an aging lamp.

If all of this has yet to convince you of the benefits of 4K UST TVs, you probably just need to experience a projector and UST screen combo in action. Seek out a retail demo, visit a friend who's already got one installed, or consider taking the leap from a reputable online or local dealer who's willing to stand behind you if you don't love it. We're betting one quick look is all it will take, and you'll be on your way to a whole new level of engagement and excitement from your movies, sports, on-demand shows, and videogames.

Hisense Lifestyle Gaming