In review, HDTV gadgets top writer's year

Home theater: Amid a bevy of tech buys, the digital viewing set-up was the stand-out.

January 08, 2004|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

I made the big switch to high-definition television this year - partially.

Welcome to my fifth annual "what I bought" column, my yearly confession where you find out what I did with my money.

I spent just under $2,800 this year on consumer electronics and computer hardware, the lowest total since I began keeping track in 1999. I'm not losing faith in the power of gadgets; it's just that I already own almost everything I want.

I've got a wireless home computer network connecting my desktop, my laptop and my wife's laptop to a cable modem; a 4-megapixel digital camera and a digital camcorder; and cell phones, personal digital assistants and portable music players.

The one thing I wanted was high-definition television, but I wasn't planning to make the transition until next year when I figured prices would be low enough. Then Dell changed my mind with the 2100MP multimedia projector, capable of displaying HDTV images.

It resembles one of those old carousel slide projectors and throws its image across the room onto a screen.

Until last year, such "front" projectors - which connect to computers or any video source, such as a cable or satellite receiver or a video game deck - sold for $3,000 or more.

The lure of front projectors, aside from their small size, is their gigantic picture. I've got the 2100MP against one wall of my family room and a Da-lite Deluxe Insta Theater 100-inch roll-up screen against the other wall, separated by 14 feet. The projected image nearly fills the screen, giving me a picture 6 feet wide by 4 1/2 feet high. LCD and plasma televisions top out at 60 inches at a steeper price.

The 2100MP was introduced at $1,299 - more than I wanted to spend, but low enough to catch my eye. Then, a few days after I wrote my review, the price was briefly slashed to $999 and I pounced.

By mid-summer, competitors were also hitting the $999 price point, including Epson and InFocus. Dell then went a step further, introducing the slightly improved 2200MP at $899.

Hooked to my existing Dolby Digital surround-sound system and Dish Network satellite receiver with built-in digital video recorder, I only needed to add a progressive-scan DVD player to get a stunning viewing and listening experience.

I picked the Pioneer DV-363 for $99.99; progressive-scan DVD players now cost as little as $49. To watch progressive-scan playback, which gives a sharper picture, you need an HDTV-compatible television or projector.

I'm now happily using the 2100MP to watch DVD movies with progressive-scan playback (producing image quality that seems better to me than the average movie theater) as well as big-screen regular TV.

But I'm not watching any shows because there are still too many issues with receiving and recording local HDTV broadcasts.

As happy as I am with the new set-up, I'm not recommending it for everyone. There are several drawbacks:

Front projectors require a room that is dimly lit or completely dark. If you want to watch TV during the day, you'll need heavy drapes or shades on windows.

If you want a big picture, you need enough room for a screen and to put the projector 10 feet or more away from it.

Front projection requires everyone to sit still. Moving in front of the projector puts giant shadows on the screen. I got my 3-year-old daughter Sara an inexpensive 20-inch TV to use elsewhere in the house because she's too active for viewing the 2100MP in the family room.

Front projectors require cooling fans. Although the noise level on new models is much lower than a few years ago, it can still be noticeable during quiet scenes.

Bulbs in front projectors don't last forever and are expensive to replace. The 2100MP and 2200MP each get about 2,000 hours from a bulb that costs $300.

If none of these are deal-killers for you, you'll be richly rewarded for the effort of selecting a projector and screen, then figuring out how to position them.

My other spending in 2003 wasn't nearly as exorbitant.

I added a USB 2.0 card to my Sony VAIO desktop computer in January so I could plug in a Maxtor Personal Storage 5000 external hard drive to back up my burgeoning collection of digital pictures. And I got a Motorola T720 wireless phone with a color screen so I could be a geeky Dad and put in pictures of my daughter.

My basket of monthly fees includes two changes: I signed up for the Netflix service so I'd have more DVD movies to watch, and I upgraded one home phone line to an SBC package that includes unlimited long distance.

On my wish list for 2004: a satellite receiver that digitally records both HDTV and standard television programs and a laptop to replace the dinosaur I've had for the past four years.

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