Opinion: Projectors - Past, Present and Future
At the tender age of seven, I remember walking into a mate's house and seeing him play Pong on a 3-gun CRT, curved screen projection TV. After that, my 14” black and white portable was never enough, and I knew I had to move on. After copious scrimping and saving, I duly purchased a BenQ PE8720 in 2005 – a vibrant 720P projector that cost around $3,000 and threw an awesome 120” image. After that “wow moment”, things were never the same again…
Two years later a BenQ W5000 took over, giving 1080P full high definition, and then a W20000 arrived, in my quest for striking colour, the best black levels, the lowest picture noise and the highest brightness. In 2009 I discovered JVC and its D-ILA Technology; the inky blackness was special, but it did need a very dark room. Epson had its popular TW3200 and TW4500 models out, and BenQ was making the W6000 – widely regarded as the best projector of its generation.
As our nation's housing boom kicked in circa 2008, builders began jumping on board by renaming the pool room as the “home theatre room”, and demand for lower-priced models with higher brightnesses became the catch cry. The latter was needed because people wanted to watch projectors at home as they would a TV – and the old 1200 lumens of brightness was just not up to the job.
Then in 2012, the market shifted completely as the Australian dollar went over parity with the USD, and in came the Epson TW5900 and BenQ W1070. The new benchmark was set at $999 for a c.2000 lumen, native 1080P projector that could be used at home, even in partial daylight. The sacrifice was the black levels, but the upside was you could now watch sport with your friends and family all day and night. They sold in their thousands and still trade hands for reasonable money.
This was undoubtedly a turning point, but the market became clouded with misinformation. Silly claims of super high contrast ratios and exaggerated lumen ratings meant that the market lost sight of the important things and sacrificed all for sales. Sony emerged as a new shining light in this space, delivering where others could not, and soon we saw 4K Smart TVs. By 2015 we had 75” UHD TVs available for under $10,000. Those projectors struggled to keep up, as 1080P was so 2009!
In 2017, 4K hit the market for under $3,000 – with products from Viewsonic and BenQ leading the way – but in the race to get to market there were compromises in the way the image was produced. By the following year, the lines were becoming blurred between what was better – a TV or a projector. That year also saw the uptake of HDR into TVs, and a genuine and usable Smart technology. Now you could buy a Samsung 75” TV for under $4,000 and even an 82” for twice that. Last year, HDR in projectors really became a thing, along with 8K TVs and 75” TVs for under $1,500.
Now in 2020, we've reached the point where people are choosing between large TVs or projectors. On the one hand, you have a screen that can be used any time day or night, needs no extra equipment to work and your average Joe can buy it and set it up. On the other, a projector needs an expert to install it on a ceiling, plus a screen, amplifier, speakers, set-top box, cables and so on – but the screen size is only limited by your wall size and room dimensions. 150” is possible in a good-sized space!
This year sees the introduction of Smart projectors from all the main players. This means built-in speakers that sound reasonable, USB ports for your digital content, plus Facebook and Instagram via a wireless keyboard. They also sport your favourite streaming service, direct from the projector – in other words, they're becoming just like TVs but with far larger images, and the possibilities seem endless. Ultra short throw projectors are also making a comeback, ideal for smaller apartments where larger images need to be thrown from shorter distances. Hisense and Optoma are pushing this technology, and the market is receptive.
The final frontier is globe life, and with LED in place and laser still evolving, globes for projectors will disappear altogether soon. 20,000 hours on a globe is a really long time, working out at eight hours a day, seven days a week, with a seven-year life expectancy. Native 4K is strongly held by both JVC and Sony now, but expect this to change soon – the likes of Texas instruments never sit idly by waiting for competitors to gobble up their market share.
I applaud manufacturers who stay true to the path of dedicated home theatre projectors, as it's tougher than it has ever been. For yours truly, there's nothing better than the big picture experience – televisions just don't cut it anymore, but are still a hard habit to break.
Matt has worked in various aspects of the AV industry for over twenty-five years including sales, marketing and distribution, and offers interesting insight to the in and outs of the market in Australia.