Buying a projector used to be relatively simple. You selected the brightness level you needed, chose the features you wanted and hoped the price would fit your budget. Now the process is more complicated, in large part because there’s a broader range of available product. It might seem unfair to lump a 50-lumen, pocket-sized projector, rear-projection television, 1080p home theater projector and 4K digital cinema projector into the same category, yet they perform essentially the same function. There is also competition coming from outside the projector market.
“Overall projector sales are increasing, though we’re very cautious about forecasting something like 30- to 40-percent growth year-over-year because of the competition from flat-panel technology,” explains Sanju Khatri, principal analyst with iSuppli, a market research firm based in El Segundo, CA. “I’m already seeing flat panels, especially LCDs, coming into environments such as conference rooms.” There’s less competition from flat panels in the education market, where buyers are more price sensitive. “Only a front projec ¬tor can provide such a large screen image with a competitive price,” says Khatri.

Tom Mainelli is a senior research analyst for IDC, a research and advisory firm based in Framingham, MA. He expects overall projector sales to grow about 10 to 15 percent annually. “Just a small percentage of this is home theater,” he says. “A lot of it is companies adding new projectors, replacing old projectors and going into areas where projectors didn’t used to go, such as houses of worship.” Two years ago, the industry was excited about the potential for a large increase in home theater sales. Since then, flat panels have dropped in price much faster than expected. “The industry had thought, ‘Wow, we can sell a few hundred thousand of these 1080p projectors at x price,’ but now they’re having to race to the bottom on prices,” he explains.

Go High
So what’s the prognosis for 1080p projectors? Can they stand up to 52-inch LCD and 60-inch plasma displays that sell for less than $3,000? Bill Coggshall surprised many attendees at the recent Pro ¬jection Summit Conference (held in conjunction with InfoComm in Anaheim, CA) when he argued that 1080p projector sales will be driven as much by professionals as they will be by consumers. Coggshall is the president of Pacific Media Associates, a market research
firm based in Menlo Park, CA.

“We’re bullish on the 1080p category,” he explained at the conference.

“I-and only I in the world-have speculated that over half of the units sold in 2011 will be to the professional market. People are horrified by that forecast, but I think that the price is going to come down close enough. It’s a little too far from XGA now, but in the next few years, it’s going to come down dramatically. There will still be a price premium over XGA, but it will be close enough so that the 1080p market will take off.”

This year, Epson, Mitsubishi and Optoma broke through an important
price point when each introduced a 1080p projector for $3,000. Epson’s LCD-based PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 has a 1000 ANSI lumen rating, an impressive 12,000:1 contrast ratio and expanded-color-gamut HDMI 1.3 connectivity. Mitsubishi’s LCD-based HC4900 features a 7,500:1 contrast ratio and 19-decibel ultra-quiet mode, as well as both HDMI and DVI connectors. Optoma’s DLP-based HD80 has a 1300 ANSI lumen rating, 10,000:1 contrast ratio and BrilliantColor technology. An optional anamorphic lens is available to convert the HD80’s 16:9 native resolution to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. These models would be excellent choices for budget-constrained home theaters with nominal ambient light and an 80-inch or larger screen.

For a step up in image quality (and price), you might consider an LCoS-based 1080p projector such as JVC’s DLA-RS1 ($6,295). It has a new three-chip D-ILA optical engine that provides a native 15:000:1 contrast ratio without relying on a dynamic iris. That’s the best contrast ratio currently available in a sub-$10,000 home the ¬ater projector. Sony’s VPL-VW50 ($5,000), also known as the “Pearl,” uses Sony’s three-chip SXRD technology. Unlike other SXRD pro ¬jectors, the VPL-VW50 uses a $379 UHP mercury lamp, as opposed to the $3,000 Xenon lamp found in Sony’s previous Qualia 004.

But even a $3,000 1080p projector may be a stretch for the cor ¬porate market, given that you can buy a surprisingly good quality XGA projector for less than $700. “Let’s get a few more lumens and a bit less price [for the 1080p projectors]-maybe 1500 or 2000 lu ¬mens and $2,000-then it will be a different story,” says Coggshall. He urges the industry to promote the idea that 4:3 projectors are old fashioned and need to be replaced. “The average projector in the office is well over three years old. In our end-user surveys, we always find that people intend to replace them after three years.”

Pacific Media Associates forecasts a substantial shift from 720p to WXGA (Wide XGA) and 1080p. World ¬wide shipments of 720p projectors will increase 285 percent from 2007 to 2011-from 269,487 units to 768,234 units. During that same time period, WXGA projec ¬tors will increase 1,249 percent, from 70,504 to 880,701 units. And 1080p projectors will increase 1,362 per ¬cent, from 74,714 to 1,017,248 units.

Go Wide
Potential growth in widescreen projection isn’t limited to home theater. “We’re bullish on the overall widescreen market,” says Coggshall. “We see a growth bulge coming in a couple of years and then continued growth that exceeds the average growth of the classic category by a substantial margin.” Currently, nearly all widescreen projector sales are consumer-based. “We think this is going to change dramatically over the next few years,” he says.
Wide-aspect-ratio projectors are beginning to find trac ¬tion among corporate and education buyers. Khatri expects to see more introductions of widescreen projectors for business use. “There’s more demand than product available,” she says. “Front projector manufacturers have been slow in realizing that trend.” Business users are moving to widescreen because their notebook computers are increasingly available with a widescreen display. “The resolution race has stalled for the most part because XGA is good enough for PowerPoint,” says Eric Haruki, research director for IDC’s TV Markets and Tech ¬nologies service. “The thing that will be interesting going for ¬ward will be the synergy between widescreen laptops and na ¬tive widescreen projectors.”
Widescreen projectors don’t have to match the exact 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio of the notebook. “So long as you get close to that aspect ratio by using a wide-aspect-ratio chip, such as 1,366 x 768, that’s fine,” says Haruki. “That size chip is avail ¬able in inexpensive home theater projectors. Optoma’s HD70 is under $800. Its brightness isn’t up to snuff for a corporate unit, but it’s a cheap wide-aspect-ratio projector. If they could only make it brighter, it would be an ideal widescreen business projector.”
The education market is demanding widescreen projectors so teachers can show more content. “They prefer going wider rather than higher because you can generally only go so much higher in a classroom,” says Khatri.
Newly introduced widescreen projectors include Sharp’s DLP-based PG-F320W (price to be determined) with a WXGA (1,280 x 800) resolution, 3000 ANSI lumens, 2,000:1 contrast ratio and network capabilities. It will be available in Octo ¬ber. Mitsubishi’s LCD-based WL639U ($4,995) has a WXGA (1,280 by 800) resolution, 3500 ANSI lumens and net ¬work capabilities. And Panasonic’s DLP-based PT-DW5100U ($11,500) has a WXGA (1,280 x 768) resolution, 5500 ANSI lumens when both of its dual lamps are lit, built-in multi-screen support and a liquid cooling system.
Go Short
Coggshall expects about a 15-percent annual growth rate for classic front projectors, which he defines as front projectors hav ing more than 500 lumens. His high-growth subcategories, which he expects to grow well above the 15 percent average, include widescreen, cinema and short-throw. At the Projection Summit Conference, Coggshall predicted that shipments of cinema pro ¬jectors will increase 345 percent worldwide over the period from 2007 to 2011-from 22,500 to 77,700 units. He cautioned, how ¬ever, that his cinema projector forecasts are highly speculative at this point. Short-throw projector shipments will grow even faster over the same time period. He sees them increasing 690 percent, from 50,000 to 345,000 units.
What will push short-throw projectors to such rapid growth? One factor may be increasingly shorter distances between the projector and screen. Sanyo’s upcom ¬ing LCD-based PLC-XL50 (target price: $5,000) has the shortest throw distance so far. Shipping in December, it can project an 80-inch image with the projector placed just three inches from the screen. Sanyo combined a new large diameter aspheric (non-spherical) lens with a high-precision aspheric mirror to perform this seemingly impossible feat. The PLC-XL50 has an XGA resolution, a 2000 ANSI lumen rating and weighs 17.25 pounds.
Other short-throw projectors include NEC’s DLP-based WT610E ($2,999), which can project a 100-inch image from as close as 26 inches from the screen. It has an XGA resolution, 2000 ANSI lumen rating and 3,500:1 contrast ratio. Toshiba’s DLP-based TDP-ET20U ($1,399) is targeted more to consumers. It has a built-in DVD player, as well as a futuristic design that helps distin ¬guish it from other home-theater-in-a-box products. It can project a 100-inch image from 3.9 feet, has a 2,000:1 contrast ratio, a 1100 ANSI lumen rating and native 854 x 480 progressive resolution.
Canon has taken a different approach to short-throw projection. The company’s standard projector lenses tend to have a wider angle than standard projector lenses from other manufacturers. For example, the 2500-lumen LV-7265 ($1,499) can project a 100-inch image from as close as 9.2 feet from the screen. And Canon’s 5500-lumen LV-7575 ($8,999) can be configured with an optional ultra-wide-angle LV-IL01 lens ($2,500) that can project a 70-inch image from as close as 3.7 feet from the screen.
Can the new high-definition, wide-aspect-ratio and short-throw projectors invigorate what is rapidly becoming a ma ¬turing industry? “It has been a struggle for some vendors because the average selling prices continue to drop,” says Mainelli. “That’s bad news for the vendors, but that’s great news for consumers. Whether you’re replacing a projector or buying a new one, you can probably find a model that’s less expensive, is brighter and smaller, and has a higher resolution than a similar model from a year before.”