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Wall projector enables customized big screen

OVER the past few years, flatscreen TV prices have gone down and screen sizes have gone up. While a 50-inch (127-centimeter) plasma may dwarf your old tube, if you want a massive, wall-filling, larger-than-life image, you have only one option: a projector.

All-in-one systems have an additional advantage: because they combine a video projector, speakers and DVD player into a single device, they can easily be carried between rooms or outside to transform a back yard into a lawn-chair theater.

But there's a catch. For the most part, these systems, made by companies such as Taipei-based Optoma Corp, are terrible. Their picture quality tends to be middling, their sound systems are akin to glorified laptop speakers, and their prices are unreasonably expensive for such poor performance.

I've spent several weeks testing the Epson MovieMate 72, from Nagano, Japan-based Seiko Epson, and believe it may be the first all-in-one projector to get it right. This US$1,100 product isn't perfect, but it is well-polished and satisfying.

First, the basic specs. The projector displays a 720p high-definition picture, meaning it has 720 progressively scanned vertical lines of pixels, which tend to look better than the alternative of "interlaced" pixels. It produces sound using a four-speaker stereo system, and comes with a built-in DVD player, which can "up convert," meaning it uses technical trickery to make standard DVDs appear to be high-definition.

The picture looks good - you might even say excellent unless you had a superior projector on hand for comparison. While all projected images look best in pitch-black rooms, I found the MovieMate's image to be watchable in well-lit rooms, even during the day with sunlight creeping in.

The 720p picture is a step down from the 1080p pictures that are produced by the best TVs and projectors. But it was still good enough to produce an effect I like to call Projector Shock - the revelatory sense of awe that comes over somebody when they watch a movie for the first time on a decent home projector.

I was impressed by the projector's versatility, was able to produce a clear, in-focus image from just about any distance. Placed just one foot (30.5 centimeters) from the wall, the projector made a tiny, but watchable, 15-inch image. When I moved the projector across the room, the image's width swelled to 17 feet, but it was equally in focus.

While the built-in "up converting" DVD player does a decent job making standard-definition DVDs look good, the best picture came from using an HDMI cord to connect an external high-definition source, such as a Blu-ray player, cable box, or PlayStation 3 game console.

The system's biggest weakness is definitely its speaker system. The built-in speakers are loud enough to fill a living room or small back yard, and are far superior to anything else I've heard from all-in-one projector systems, but next to such an enormous and awesome picture, the audio created something of an unbalanced experience. After all, when you're screening a big-budget blockbuster, you want sound that matches, and the effect of 12-foot wide explosions is somewhat muted if they aren't accompanied by couch-shaking sound.

So is the MovieMate 72 as good as the best stand-alone projectors? No, but it isn't too far behind comparably priced stand-alone projectors, and it's by far the best all-in-one system I've seen.

It's also one of the most versatile projectors on the market. On its own, it's capable of producing a great picture and decent sound from just about any distance. But plug it into high-definition hardware and a good set of speakers, and the sound and vision are easily upgraded to excellent.

In fact, it's so good that, except for during bright days, home theater buffs could easily find they have little use for their flatscreen TV. After all, once you've watched your favorite DVD on your living room wall, it's difficult to go back.


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