Well. CES 2006 has come and gone in Las Vegas, and we can breathe a sigh of relief. I don't know if it was just my imagination, but this show seemed more swamped than ever, with chronic traffic jams around the convention center and human gridlock in the aisles of the exhibit halls. But in the end it was worth it. As we bumped and jostled our way from booth to booth, we discovered numerous new projector products being unveiled for the first time. Some of them will be ready to ship this quarter, and others will appear later this year. Some were prototypes with no specific dates of introduction.

I will summarize most of the new projectors below, but first I want to tell you about a product that falls into the "you ain't gonna believe this" category. Now, this is just between us-don't go telling everyone about it, or the waiting list will be months long. It is an HD video camera from Sanyo-the Xacti HD1. It is a bit bigger than a pack of cigarettes, it weighs 8 ounces, and it takes both still pictures and video. It has a 10x zoom lens with image stabilization. Resolution for photographic still images is 5 megapixels, and video resolution is widescreen 1280x720. It is capable of recording up to 42 minutes of 1280x720 video on a 2GB SD memory card. So you can make and display your own high definition home movies. Oh ... did I mention the price? A mere $799. The Xacti HD1 will ship in April. Now remember-keep this under your hat. I want one, and I don't want to be waiting till Christmas to get it.

Projector News

As far as home theater projectors go, the "big news" story is that 2006 is the year that 1080p resolution DLP projectors will begin to hit the market. Vendors unveiling pre-production samples included Optoma, SharpVision, projectiondesign, Marantz, and Sim2. Prices and delivery dates were fluid and not set in stone, but they range from a low of about $10,000 for the Optoma HD81 up to over $20,000 for some of the boutique brands. Most vendors expect delivery timeframes in the second and third quarters, but the introduction of these products is dependent upon TI's delivery of the parts.

There is no question that the new 1080p projectors will produce dazzling images with very high resolution, high quality 1080p video sources. However, potential buyers should keep in mind that 1080p projectors do not look their best with anything less than an original 1080p source. When you start with an inferior signal, adding more pixels to the display does not solve the problem. You are already familiar with the phenomenon if you have watched HDTV, DVD, and standard definition television all on a 1280x720 projector; HDTV always looks the best, followed by DVD, and lastly, poor ole regular broadcast television. The differences in image quality are obvious, and the pixel array has little to do with it. Similarly, if you play a standard DVD in a DVD player that upscales to native 1280x720 and feed that into your 720p projector, you do not end up with an HD quality image. We will see the same phenomenon with the 1080p projectors, because the vast majority of commercially available video material will come in formats less than 1080p.

Sharp gave a great demonstration of their new Z20000 1080p model. They showed it with three different sources--a pristine 1080p source, Blu-ray 1080i DVD, and conventional 480i component video. Three distinct levels of image quality were obvious. The 1080p source was exquisite, and showed the true potential of the projector. Blu-ray DVD looked very good, but it was clearly a step down. It is definitely better than standard DVD, but it falls short of the best possible high resolution sources. The image quality with Blu-ray on this particular 1080p projector was not much different than that which is available on the better 720p projectors on the market today.

It will be interesting to see how consumers respond to what is shaping up to be an enormous price gap between 720p and 1080p. For example, the newly announced Optoma HD72 (1280x768), is a DLP projector rated a 1300 ANSI lumens and 5000:1 contrast. It features the new BrilliantColor technology from TI, and it will sell at street prices of just $2,000 this spring. Will typical broadcast HDTV look noticeably more "high-def" on a $20,000 1080p projector than it will on this $2,000 unit? Probably not. In fact it is possible that the HDTV 720p broadcasts from ABC, Fox, and ESPN (which constitute the vast majority of HD sports programming) will look a bit clearer and sharper on the HD72 due to display of the signal in native format. Certainly standard television and current DVD formats will not look much better on 1080p displays than they already do on 720p.

The bottom line is that the gigantic price gap between 720p and 1080p products cannot sustain itself over the long term in the marketplace, simply because the picture quality differential is not there to justify it. The reason is that the vast majority of video content that will be available is incapable of driving 1080p displays to their full potential. Early adopters with money to burn will go for the new 1080p products for the same reason that people buy Ferraris to drive around on city streets. But the astute consumer looking for the best value will buy the 720p models today and wait for prices on 1080p models to drop like a rock in the coming years. After all, broadcast HDTV and the new high definition DVD formats already look beautiful on today's 720p models, and there is nothing about the new 1080p format that will make this material look much better.

Expanding home theater product lines

Three manufacturers made noteworthy moves to strengthen their offerings for the emerging high volume consumer market in front projection technology: Optoma, Sharp, and InFocus. Both Optoma and Sharp debuted early preproduction samples of models featuring TI's coming 1080p DLP chip. Optoma's model was the HD81, which has tentative specs of 1400 ANSI lumens and 6000:1 contrast, and an MSRP of $10,000. Sharp's product with the 1080p chip will be called the XV-Z20000U (I know, that's a lot of zeros-on the street it will be called the "Z twenty-thousand.) No specs or pricing were available on the Z20000. Optoma tentatively estimated a summer delivery, and Sharp estimated third quarter, but nobody was quoting firm ship dates.

In addition to the high-end 1080p model, Optoma introduced two more widescreen projectors-the HD72 and the HD7300, both featuring TI's BrilliantColor technology. The HD72 has a DLP-based native resolution of 1280x768, with an ANSI lumen rating of 1300 and contrast of 5000:1. The MSRP is $3,999, but street prices are expected to be closer to $2,000. The HD72 will appear on dealer shelves this quarter.

Optoma's HD7300, also slated for delivery this quarter, features lower lumen output and a bit more contrast than the HD72-ANSI lumen rating is 1000 and contrast is 6000:1. This unit will come with an external video processor, and retail price will be $5,999.

In addition to these three widescreen models, Optoma also introduced a very high resolution, high brightness native 4:3 projector that will be known as the EP910. This uses the SXGA+ resolution (1400x1050) DLP chip, and is rated at 3500 ANSI lumens with 3000:1 contrast. This model is targeted for the high resolution data/graphics market, but those who are not bothered by DLP rainbow artifacts on 2x speed color wheels (like me for instance), will be curious to see its potential for video as well. The EP910 will retail for $6,999 with availability later this spring.

Based on the releases at this year's CES, it appears that SharpVision has a markedly increased interest in the front projection marketplace. We have seen products from SharpVision in the $10,000 range for the past couple of years, and more recently the lower priced 720p XV-Z2000. But there has never been a broad product offering across multiple price points like we are about to see from them. Their entry level DT-100, which is a 480p DLP product at $1,299 has just begun to ship in volume in the last several weeks, and we will review it here shortly.

But in addition to the DT-100, SharpVision has just debuted the XV-Z3000, a 1280x768 resolution DLP unit rated at 1200 ANSI lumens and 6500:1 contrast. This dual iris system is scheduled to ship in April. Also, the DT-500 will appear this summer. This is a 1280x768 model with single iris, 1000 ANSI lumens, and 4000:1 contrast that will be priced at $3,299.

SharpVision already has the Z12000 Mark II, which just commenced shipments in November. So for the first time, the company will have five new models across the entire price spectrum, from the entry-level DT-100 to the top of the line Z20000. Consumer demand for front projection home theater has obviously caught the interest of SharpVision management, and they are positioning their product line in 2006 for the rush.

The other aggressive move seen at CES was the rollout of three new "Play Big" home theater projectors from InFocus. At the entry-level position is the Play Big IN72, priced at $1,299. This features TI's 854x480 Dark Chip 2. It will deliver 900 ANSI lumens with 2000:1 contrast. The IN72 has all new casework with a sleek, attractive look to it that is a substantial improvement over the Screenplay 4805, which the IN72 will eventually replace.

The next step up in the new series is the Play Big IN74 EX, which uses the medium resolution widescreen 1024x576 Dark Chip 2 DLP. Priced at $1,999, the IN74 is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and 3000:1 contrast. This model will be restricted to sale through authorized custom home theater dealers.

Finally, the Play Big IN76 will take resolution up one more notch to 1280x720. ANSI lumens and contrast ratings are 1000 and 3000:1, respectively, as with the IN74. The retail price on the IN76 will be $2,999.

All of the InFocus Play Big projectors feature HDMI interfaces with HDCP, and come automatically calibrated to D65 color standards to eliminate the need for any consumer tweaking to get them optimized. They all come in slick, black high-style casework designed for visual appeal as well as performance. The Play Big series at $2,999, $1,999, and $1,299 will strengthen the company's competitive position for the high volume consumer market of 2006. All three of them are scheduled to commence shipments in the first quarter.

Several other projector makers introduced new models of note. Projectiondesign announced the impending release of a 1080p projector called the Action! model three 1080 with anticipated delivery in the spring at a price of about $20,000, not including the lens, of which there are six to choose from based upon your throw distance needs. They also announced the Action! model two, which is a 1280x720 HD2+ DC3 projector rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and 4000:1 contrast, with optical lens shift and up to 4000 hours of lamp life in eco mode. (The use of lower case text follows the precedent set in projectiondesign's marketing communications materials.)

ViewSonic introduced the Cine1000, an entry-level 480p model rated at 1000 lumens and 2000:1 contrast. It will ship by the end of the month at an estimated street price of $999, which is low compared to other 480p models of comparable specifications.

Finally, two more projectors with integrated DVD players and 5.1 surround sound have been announced. The 3M DMS 700 will create a 100" diagonal image from a distance of only four feet from the screen, and a 60" image from just two feet. Toshiba has announced the TDP-ET20 "Instant Theater", which also features a very short thrown distance. We have no price or availability data on either of these units at this time.


Though the main focus of the show's hype this year was on the coming of 1080p, the real news for the vast majority of consumers was the continuing improvement in value in 720p DLP. LCD technology was for the most part silent at this show, having just completed a revolutionary cycle of releases in the last 90 days. Texas Instruments' DLP was the visible star of CES 2006. And with better-than-ever 720p products dropping into the $2,000 to $3,000 price range, consumer demand for the very large screen home theater experience will only accelerate.