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Epson Goes Widescreen with the TW100

Epson TW100 Projector Epson TW100
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800:1 Contrast Ratio
700 Lumens
Street Price: n/a
The Powerlite TW100 is Epson's first foray into the home theater market. We are pleased to report that it exceeds our earlier expectations in many ways. We reported earlier that the US public debut of this product at Infocomm was a bit underwhelming, but that it appeared not to have been properly staged and calibrated for optimum performance on the show floor. After a week in our lab, our suspicions were confirmed. Epson has indeed delivered a projector that will rightfully gain a wide following and a host of delighted owners.

Product Overview

The TW100 is a native 16:9 format, WXGA (1280x720) resolution LCD projector, with an aggressive retail price of $4,995. It is in the same resolution class as machines that carry much higher MSRPs including the Sanyo PLV-70, the Sharp Z9000, and the Sony VW12HT.

The high resolution of the WXGA class machines is worth some comment. Many folks mistakenly think of WXGA as only slightly higher in resolution, just a bit wider, than standard XGA. Not true. The TW100's 1280 x 720 pixel matrix uses a total of 921,600 pixels to produce a 16:9 image. Meanwhile a standard XGA projector (1024x768) can only use 75% of its pixels (1024x575) to produce a 16:9 image. The rest of the pixels are allocated to top and bottom black bars. That means a standard XGA machine only uses a total of about 589,000 pixels, or 36% less than the TW100.

To put that into perspective, that is about the same percentage difference in pixel density as there is between XGA and SVGA. So the step up to WXGA is significant. And with LCD technology, WXGA resolution is particularly noteworthy for the fact that it is sufficient to fully eliminate the notorious screendoor effect. At this resolution, LCD effectively matches DLP in terms of pixel invisibility from normal viewing distances.

A rundown of the TW100's performance capability and features is as follows:

ANSI lumen rating. The TW100 is rated at 700 ANSI lumens. There are two things to bear in mind here. First, for those who think 700 lumens does not sound bright enough, remember that there is much more light per square foot coming off a 100" screen with this projector than there is coming from a commercial movie theater screen. So--is 700 lumens enough to create a satisfying image? Absolutely.

Second, ANSI lumen ratings tend to be somewhat overrated as benchmark specs for choosing a home theater projector. In a dark theater room your eyes adjust to the average light level coming off the screen, whatever it may be. You would not be able to tell the difference in light output between the TW100 and, say, the highly popular Sharp Z9000, which is rated at 800 lumens. In a side-by-side comparison, you might actually guess the TW100 to be the brighter of the two.

The bottom line is that if you cross the TW100 off your list because you think it is underpowered, you will be doing yourself a disservice. It has plenty of punch to light up any typical home theater screen. In terms of perceived brightness it competes head to head with any projector rated up to 1200 ANSI lumens.

Contrast rating. Epson puts the contrast spec on the TW100 at 600:1. In general, our experience has been that Epson is particularly conservative (that is, accurate) with their technical specifications. Though many other vendors inflate ANSI lumen and contrast ratings for marketing purposes, Epson is among those that do not. And the results are apparent on the screen—the TW100 in action looks both brighter and higher in contrast than you would expect based on its technical specifications. On the screen, blacks are solid black. And there is surprisingly good separation in shadow details, better than we've seen on any projector rated at 600:1.

Connectivity. The connection panel features one component input of 3 RCA jacks, one 15-pin port for component and analog RGB, one DVI-I port, one composite video, and one S-video. The unit will take 480i, 480p, 575i, 575p, 720p, and 1080i video formats.

Lens and throw distance. There is a manual zoom/focus lens with a 1.35x zoom factor. This provides good flexibility in where you place the projector. For a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen, the projector must be placed so that the lens is between 10.3 and 14 feet from the screen. If you have the latitude, try to place it at about 12 feet so you use the midrange of the zoom lens, which is the sweet spot of the optics.

Heat is exhausted out the front of the unit. So you don't need too much clearance between the rear of the projector and the back wall of a room. The manual does not specify it, but we would suggest leaving at least a 12" clearance if you can manage it. The projector cannot be mounted in an enclosed unventilated space.

Fan noise. The TW100 is among the quietest of the home theater projectors on the market. It is not quite silent, but it is very close. Fan noise is not an issue.

Remote control. The remote has a reliable range of 30 feet, and the projector responds promptly to commands from the remote. It has the handy one-touch aspect ratio control that is finally beginning to appear on a number of products destined for the home theater market. It also features individual buttons for input selection. However, other than the way it is programmed, the physical remote is the same one supplied with the Sanyo PLV-70. So the same problem should be pointed out here—the wobbling disc that controls menu pointing and selection is a nuisance to deal with, although it can be mastered with some practice. We'd prefer discrete point and select buttons. All things considered however, this is not a relevant issue in the selection of the projector.

Lamp and lamp life. The 150-watt UHE lamp is expected to last 3000 hours, which is a significant advantage over most competitive units that are commonly rated at 2000 hours or less. Since most lamps for digital projectors (including this one) retail for around $400, the TW100's 3000 hour lamp life may contribute to a reduced cost of ownership in a meaningful way, depending on how many hours per month you expect to use the projector. The calculation is worth doing to see how much of an issue it may be for you.

Performance

We tested the TW100 with several sources we have on hand including two DVD players, the inexpensive but great price/performing JVC XV-D723GD and the elegant Denon DVD-3800. The HDTV source was the RCA DTC100, and we used a Sony VAIO RX280 Digital Studio computer for DVI. (This is the equipment we are using for all of our tests this summer.)

Overall, the strongest performance attributes of the TW100 are (a) superb color and (b) terrific image definition derived from its high resolution LCD panels. The onboard deinterlacing is excellent as well. We were amazed to see virtually no degradation in image quality from the onboard deinterlacing when switching from 480p to 480i on the Denon 3800, the deinterlacing on which is second to none.

Despite its strong contrast performance and, as noted above, surprisingly good separation in shadow detail, we would still say this is the weakest link in the chain. Higher contrast DLPs tend to do a better job in this area. But keep in mind that few of them can rival the rich color dynamics of the TW100. And all DLP projectors that can match the TW100's 1280x720 native resolution are selling for twice the money or more. So as with everything else in life, there are trade-offs in the projector world as well.

As far as ease of installation goes, the TW100 is as user friendly as it gets. Its compact 9.3 lb size makes it easy to ceiling mount with a minimum of hassle. The short throw lens and lack of a need for extended clearance from the rear means that you can install it in a rather small room. No fan noise to speak of means no hush box is necessary, and the comparatively low amount of heat it throws off won't be much nuisance in a small room either. As an added bonus, the off-white case color is the preferred choice for many consumers. So all in all, this is a "no muss, no fuss" home theater solution that puts out a truly remarkable high definition picture for the money.

Digital Visual Interface (DVI)

Many of the new projectors coming onto the market have DVI input as an option, and the TW100 is one of them. This allows you to use a computer as your DVD source as long as it has DVI output. The advantage to this set up is that the signal remains entirely in the digital domain from the time it is read from the DVD to the moment it is displayed on the LCD panels. There is no conversion of the signal to analog for output as there is in a standard DVD player, and thus no conversion from analog back to digital that needs to be performed by the projector. Since D/A conversions introduce a bit of noise, the elimination of D/A conversions means you get a cleaner signal.

The result is evident on the TW100. The most stable picture you can get is via the DVI source. So for those looking for the most pristine picture possible from DVD, a computer with DVI is the way to go.

This does not mean DVI is the right choice for everyone however. D/A conversions have gotten more precise over the last couple of years, so the quality difference between a DVI picture and that from a good DVD player is not as dramatic as it used to be. We set up the Denon DVD-3800 with 480p output and did a blind A/B test against the Sony VAIO. Image quality from each source was excellent. There was some D/A conversion noise on the Denon source that was apparent in some scenes and not visible at all in others. Text and subtitles in particular are noticeably more stable with DVI, and the image has slightly better definition. But our viewers had to study the image closely to make the call, and one thought the Denon actually delivered the better image.

So the fact is that DVI does give you an edge in image acuity and stability. True videophiles seeking that ever-elusive video perfection will want to use nothing else. But if you have a good DVD player and you replace it with a computer to get DVI, don't expect a huge boost in image quality. The differences are there, but to the eyes of many viewers they are subtle. Friends and neighbors would never notice the difference unless you gave them the A/B test.

There is also the practical consideration of using a computer in your home theater. Some feel that is the only way to go. Others would prefer the ease of a DVD player to the relative nuisance of booting up a computer and dealing with Windows to get your DVD going. And of course money is a factor. A good DVD player can cost a fraction of a computer with DVI, and the incremental expense may not generate the big boost in image performance you might hope for. It is a personal call that only you can make.

Screen recommendation

The ideal screen match for the TW100 is the Stewart Firehawk, with a 1.35 gain. The Firehawk will enhance contrast and open up shadows, and the gain factor will produce a slightly brighter and more dynamic image overall. When you are displaying material that is wider than 16:9, and thus have black bars at the top and bottom of the image, the Firehawk renders them closer to black than any other screen material. So electric masking with this combination becomes less of an issue.

Epson TW100 vs. the Sanyo PLV-70 / Boxlight Cinema 20HD

To avoid the inevitable avalanche of emails, we will address this obvious question straight away. These are both excellent WXGA-class LCD projectors. However the Sanyo has slightly higher physical resolution of 1366 x 768. It uses 1,049,000 pixels to the Epson's 921,600. So the Sanyo's pixel density on the screen is about 14% higher than the Epson.

There is no screendoor effect on either of them. In this regard both of them can stand up to any DLP on the market. In color dynamics they are equally outstanding, and few DLPs can approach either of them in color. Both projectors have DVI, both benefit incrementally from DVI to the same degree, and both have all the other signal compatibility you will need.

The Sanyo has an obvious advantage in lumen output, statistically more than double that of the Epson after calibrations. So the Sanyo is the more versatile machine for larger screen theaters, as well as rooms where ambient light is either desired or inevitable. On the other hand, due to the longer throw lens and the 3-foot recommended rear clearance, the PLV-70 cannot be installed in many rooms that will easily accommodate the TW100. Often practical considerations such as this are the deciding factors.

Both projectors have excellent blacks. Both have the same general weakness, which is in the area of shadow separation, but we would give the edge to the Epson on this. We would not however say that there was a difference so significant as to make this issue a deciding factor.

Overall image quality is a subjective thing. "Which picture is better?' is a question that reasonable people may answer differently. We believe however, that as impressive as the TW100 is, the PLV-70 delivers an image that is overall more refined and dramatic, in part due to unsurpassed scaling, in part to its overall combination of brightness and contrast performance, and we suspect even its edge in physical resolution is a contributing factor.

Therefore, the street price differential that we see emerging at this writing, which shows the PLV-70 selling for an average of about $1500 over the TW100, is justified based on the relative performance of the two units. Keep in mind that the Epson's 3000-hour lamp may give it an edge over the Sanyo in cost-of-ownership. Sanyo does not quote lamp life, so you should assume the PLV-70's lamp life is no more than 2000 hours, and perhaps less. The Boxlight Cinema 20HD with its off-white casework will even be worth an additional few hundred dollars over the charcoal gray Sanyo branded PLV-70 for many buyers.

In summary, we would say that especially for those with space limitations, the TW100 delivers tremendous home theater value for the money. It is recommended as an ideal solution for the smaller scale home theater set up. On the other hand, for those with a larger theater room that can accommodate the PLV-70 or Cinema 20HD, your incremental investment in that machine will net you a higher performing system.

The aggressively-priced Epson TW100 and Sanyo PLV-70 together pack a solid one-two punch at the heart of DLP's claim to preeminence in the video world. They make a bold statement that LCD technology is nowhere near as dead as DLP advocates have been claiming. DLP projectors selling anywhere near the range of these two will be feeling some competitive price pressure as these dynamic new products hit the market this month.