The Really Big Show on My Wall Every Night

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You can have your plasmas and LCDs, your CRTs and rear-projection DLPs. When it comes to watching a really big picture on the wall, I'll take a front-projector TV, thanks. Dollar for dollar and inch for inch, these models are the cheapest big-screen televisions you can buy.

In fact, we never go to the movies anymore. Instead, we park ourselves on the couch, eating real buttered popcorn and basking in the welcoming glow of our 100-inch monster screen.

But happy as we are with ours, front projectors aren't for everyone, and there are certain things you need to know before taking the plunge.

Epson's $3000 PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 UB.
When you expect to dedicate a fair number of hours every week to staring at a 100-inch picture, you want as much resolution as you can afford. My Sony Bravia VPL-AW10 tosses up a perfectly fine 720p image for less than $1200 list. (It also upscales DVDs to its native resolution, making the video look far better.) Epson's PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 UB produces an attractive 1080p picture for $3000; that's about as inexpensive as you'll find for a full high-definition projector. If money's no object, you can drop $15,000 on the Marantz VP-11S2, which offers more-sophisticated image processing and higher-quality optics.

Like burglars and barn owls, front projectors operate best in near total darkness, so you'll need a room with minimal ambient light (or really thick curtains). As a result these projectors often are a better fit for dedicated home theaters than for living rooms.

A lot of projectors are advertised as being dual-purpose: They show your PowerPoints during the day and your movies at night. But most business projectors lack higher-resolution video inputs such as composite and HDMI, and some display only in an aspect ratio of 4:3, not a high-def wide screen's 16:9 or a cinematic 2.35:1. Ignore the blizzard-in-Buffalo sales pitch; instead look closely at the projector's ports and display options.

Because they rely on fans to cool the bulb, projectors can be noisy--some are loud enough to drown out the movie sound track. Smaller, more-portable models tend to be noisier because they have fewer materials inside to baffle the sound. The Sony and the Epson are slightly bulky but also whisper-quiet. Be sure to give the projector a listen as well as a look.

The biggest hidden cost of projectors involves the bulb. Depending on how frequently and how heavily you use the projector and depending on what the bulb's life rating is, you'll need to buy a new bulb every one to four years. At $300 to $500 apiece, that adds up--so factor it into your cost analysis.

"It doesn't matter if you're spending $2000, $5000, or $15,000. You need to look at picture quality first, and not just specs on paper," says Kevin Zarow, vice president of marketing and product development at Marantz.

Unfortunately, to see a projector in action, you'll probably have to visit a pricey electronics boutique. Many big-box retailers don't carry front-projector models, and even fewer are willing to plug them in and show you the goods. My secret? I order units from stores that have generous return policies, try them out for a few days, and then send back the ones I don't like. (Shhh, don't tell anyone.)

The vast majority of projectors are business machines, says Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for NPD Group. That makes good home-theater units harder to find and a little pricier than data projectors. But they're worth it. Just don't overdo it with the buttered popcorn--that stuff will kill you.

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