Sunday, 4 June 2006

No Silver Bullet

The bulk of this weekend was spent, or wasted (depending on how you look at it), on the potential future purchase of a big TV / projection device for us to enjoy.
As I said before, the purpose is to enhance the suspension of disbelief. That may be achieved by a better quality screen and/or a bigger size screen, something that could equate to the cinematic experience. For our living room's size, 60" is the way to go. Go less than that and it would still look just like a TV, go more than that and you'll eventually get a headache, first row at the cinema style.
There are several technological options. CRT is out of the picture, as it is not available in relevant sizes. That leaves us with plasma, LCD (panels, rear projectors, or front projectors), DLP (rear/front projection), and LCOS (rear projection).
As I said not too long ago on this very blog, I was thinking of a Samsung rear projection DLP. So this weekend we went to a few shops to see what this model has to offer and what else is available on the market.
We first went to your average run of the mill electronics shops - the sort of places where the salespeople know which products give them the most commission, but that is pretty much the full extent of their knowledge: Harvey Norman, Clive Peters, JB Hi Fi, and Retravision. The picture was very bleak: All these places are heavily plasma oriented. When I asked them about rear projection models, all they could say is ask me why I'm not interested in plasmas instead.
We gave up and went to a genuine hi-fi shop, Secher in Camberwell. To my surprise, the sales guy there was still asking me why I'm not just going for plasma; I told him that I just don't think plasmas have a life like picture - they're like Canon digital cameras, they look "wow" in the beginning, but after a while they give you a headache. So we got him to show us around projectors and what options we have in this arena.
And let me tell you this: The situation is bad. When you're constrained by budget, picture quality, aesthetics, and usability - there is simply no "win-win" situation to bring them all and in the darkness of your living room bind them to a proper film experience.
Allow me to spill out some of our findings so far...

Rear projection:
As I said before, these models seem to be relegated into the back storage compartments of the big shops. It appears as though they simply don't want to sell them, and in fact most of them don't have any in stock and those that do have just a couple that they put on special sale to get rid of. Plasma and LCD panels are all the rage, it seems.
By now I think I know why: These models are marketed and priced as plasma's inferior sibling. They're significantly cheaper, but from what we saw in the shops they are quite bad, picture quality wise. We saw several DLPs and one Sony rear projection LCD, and they all had the same problems typical of over-driven rear projectors: The corner of the screen was darker than the center, and the screen was very directional - you can only see proper picture if you're directly in front of the monitor. Step aside and you see black.
The reason for this is clear: All places had front projectors demoed as well, and in the well lit show rooms their picture was very (but very) washed out; they just need darkness to operate. The rear projectors, however, just use the same projection technology but drive it to the extreme so much - like a car on constant full gas - that the picture quality is pretty shitty. All for the sake of looking good in the show room floor.
Yes, you can adjust the picture at home so that it would look good when you watch in the dark, but the screen would always be a high-gain directional one.
Further corners seem to have been cut in the picture processing side of things: All the screens we saw need to convert the input signals they receive into their native resolution (which in most of the cases is 720p). They do a really bad job about it: The picture doesn't look like a picture, it looks like moving pixels. I thought the Sony was good at first, and then I switched to watch the footy (Geelong - West Coast); at first I thought something's wrong with me, but quickly I realized it's the TV. It just couldn't handle movement at all! It was like one group of moving pixels fighting against another. What a shame!
So, is rear projection a shit technology? Only when priced to the bottom of the pile, because we did see an exception. By far, the best picture we have seen so far - and probably the best picture I have ever seen - came from an LG 80" LCOS model, on display at both Harvey Norman and Clive Peters. It made me understand why it was nominated by Widescreen Review as the best screen technology available today - the first and only technology to eclipse CRT. Yes, the screen was still directional, but it gave a hell of a show at the stupidly lit Harvey Norman shop floor, showing all the plasmas surrounding it where fish piss from. Such detail! Such blacks!
Alas, we live an in imperfect world. The price tag is quite reasonable - $7500, dead cheap for 80", especially when you consider it's the only model on those floors capable of 1080p. That's roughly the price of a 55" plasma! But we just don't have the space for an 80" monster in our room, and with LCOS being the new kid in town there aren't any other models to pick from (JVC is supposed to have older LCOS technology out there, but where?).
To conclude rear projection findings: We will not find our salvation here, at least not until LCOS trickle down the food chain. Given plasma's domination, I doubt that will happen.

Front projection:
Here the story is more of an engineering one.
I know what technology I want there, and there's not much room for arguments. LCD front projection suffers from too much of a screen-door effect and its blacks are simply not black enough for Moshe Reuveni's book. I understand why others buy them - good for them - but for me the distraction caused by those effects outweighs the picture size's advantage.
Which pretty much leaves DLP as the master of this domain.
Now, a good - or rather, acceptable - DLP projector featuring 720p capabilities costs $5000. Thing is, with projectors that's only the start. There are installation costs - we'll need someone to install it to our roof, there's the screen, there's cabling, there's the mounting... Let's attack them one by one.
With the way our living room is setup, we can comfortably have the projector mounted on a pole lowering it from the ceiling at the very end of our living room. We need it lowered from the ceiling so that the projector would throw it's picture at a nice height rather than at the ceiling's height. Yes, we can tilt the projector, but that would mean we'll need keystone corrections, and as much as the salespeople tell me it's nothing I think it's quite a something.
If we have a projector we will still need our current CRT for day to day stuff - SBS news, for example. Things where we won't want to bother with the projector or times where there's too much light in the room for the projector - which is quite, often given that projectors need almost total darkness to produce a neat image. Given our limited real estate, that means a screen dangling in front of our TV; this screen could either be manual or motorized, but it could not be a simple (and better, picture quality wise) fixed screen. This means we'll have something dangling from the ceiling, either by chains or just a long screen where the projected image will only occupy its lower half; either way is not particularly nice. Either way is quite expensive, too, with manual screens costing $1000 and northwards and motorized ones costing $2000 or so. A short glimpse at eBay shows you can get stuff at $100, but it probably will not fit our complicated ceiling scenario.
Cables would be a costly affair, too. We'll need S-Video, composite, component, and HDMI cables running across the ceiling from where our stereo components are to where the projector will be. We're talking about a 5 meter run or so, even longer when considering the cables need to run up the wall at least once. You need quality cabling to manage such long lengths, so you need to have an open wallet there.
Last but not least is the cost of installation. We were quoted at $90 per hour, and we were told that the task of installing a projector with power and cables plus the installation of a [powered] motorized screen to the ceiling usually takes an entire day. Write down another $1000 there.
If we ignore cost for a while, there are usability issues with front projectors. I said before they need virtually total darkness; my brother has his projector room covered with black curtains. We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of having ten rooms in our house per person, and we cannot do this to our living room. Therefore this means that we will only use the projector once or twice a week for that occasional film or cinematic TV series. Is that worth all this hassle, then?
Usability issues don't end there. Have a look at www.projectorcentral.com: They have an interesting calculator there. According to it, our room is a bit of a problem for front projectors. We will end up with an 80" picture, which would be too big; yes, it would be a "wow" thing that would amaze all the two guests that bother visiting us - but it will also drive us crazy after the first disc of Fellowship Special Edition. We could have the projector closer to the screen and not at the back of the room, but then it would stick like a mote in god's eye aesthetically, and its noise would be right on top of us.
To conclude the front projection story, this looks like a high cost affair that suffers from
significant usability issues. Still, for the best picture quality we can have, this is the way to go.

Where does that leave us?
Well, my friends, this leaves us with an option I did my best to avoid, but an option that seems the most popular. I hate to say it, it's hard to say it, it's probably - plasma.
Yes, picture quality is somewhat problematic. Mainly, it's a "too good to be true" picture. Just too bright. Yes, it's as if you have an open oven in your house, which could be handy in winter but would definitely be a pain in the ass come summer.
But - it's high on usability. It's slim and "sexy" enough for us to accept even a 60" model into our living room. It's robust, despite its not so robust reputation. Current models do provide for 720p resolution, and models like the Pioneer even have several gamma modes that allow you to make colors look like real colors once you're out of the show room. And it could run day and night, SBS news to Return of the King.
So is plasma a winner? Maybe, but it's an expensive winner. 60" plasmas are manufactured in one plant only, so they're all pretty much the same regardless of brand; and they all start at about $12,000 and finish at $16,000, way more than we could afford. Fujitsu has a 55" model selling for $7500, but that's an old model that I wouldn't want to touch. Which leaves us with 50" models from Pioneer ($5800 on eBay), LG ($5000) and Panasonic ($4800). Quite expensive for our budget, especially when we do not get the full cinematic experience that 60" provides. But at least with plasmas we can go out and about and test and see live models, because they're simply there.

This is obviously a "to be continued" affair. For a start, we can only go out and see stuff on weekends, and next weekend we'll be freezing ourselves to death in Phillip Island for the queen birthday's long weekend.
I'm doing lots of Widescreen Review reviewing. But my main conclusion is that I should get real: Rear projectors are simply marketed out of touch; projectors are low on usability; and LCOS and the new CRT like format that's supposed to kill everything else are still not mature enough.
The next real step we'll take would probably be going to shops with our favorite DVDs to test some monitors. There's a scene from Fellowship my brother and I used when he bought his projector: Just after Frodo gets knifed at Weathertop, there a dark scene where they look for weeds to cure him, which is quickly followed by a horse race scene featuring lots of movement, natural looking scenes, faces, and colors. An excellent test, which has become a benchmark because I have seen it so many times on so many displays.

Till the next frustrating episode, I'm going to watch ABC news on our Sony 29" CRT.

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