Throughout most of the hometheater era, if you wanted a bigger picture than a bigscreen TV, the only way to get it was with a CRT projector. These were expensive, bulky, finicky, and hard to adjust and install. They had low light output, went out of convergence if you sneezed, and, when one of the "guns" failed, were incredibly expensive to repair.
In the past few years, movie fans without bottomless pockets have made do with gussied-up boardroom projectors, originally intended to help bore the pants off unfortunate attendees at business conferences. Poor black level and ragged motion artifacts aren't nearly as annoying with the typical Power Point presentation. The fact that consumers would leap on cheap business-grade projectors as an acceptable alternative to the CRT was prima facie evidence that the market was ripe for affordable, portable projectors capable of doing justice to DVDs on Saturday night.
Enter companies like Optoma Technology, whose H31 projector is built around TI's 480p DarkChip2 DLP engine and costs just $1299. The H31 is a fine example of just how far affordability, portability, performance, and ease of use have advanced. Looking very much like one of its boardroom cousins—it even comes in its own carrying case, which would look perfectly at home in any convention or hotel room—the H31 is a lightweight surprise. At only five pounds, and with an 854x480 pixel count, it seems entirely too insubstantial to perform as well as it does. Its two-tone silver- and-cream plastic housing features a ventilation grid and manually adjustable lens up front, some basic function buttons on top, and a recessed panel of input connectors on back. There's a threaded receptacle for a ceiling mount on the bottom, and three rubber feet, two of which are adjustable.
The H31 is a native 16:9 device that can be used as a front or rear projector— floor-, table-, or ceiling-mounted. Via the remote control, the image can be inverted and/or reversed left-toright as needed. The H31 has a high throw-angle, meaning the center of the image will be about four feet above the projector. If you want a 96" diagonal eye-level image, you'll need to put the H31 on the floor. There's no physical lens shift, and the digital lens shift offers only two fixed positions—both causing some overscan, or loss of image. In addition to the presets the image can be shifted via remote control, but the range seemed a bit limited— a design concession that probably contributed to the little projector's attractive $1299 suggested retail price. For table-mounting, you can also overcome the high throw-angle by propping up the back end of the projector and engaging the keystone correction, though this causes noticeable artifacts. With the projector in this position and with keystone correction engaged, you'll get a perfectly rectangular image with sharp outer edges but a slightly soft center. Setting the projector flat to minimize keystoning eliminates those artifacts and yields sharp focus throughout the image.
Looked at the opposite way, the H31's throw-angle means it's optimized for ceiling-mounting. At 7' or 8' from the floor and 12'–14' from the screen, the projected image would be at eye level for seated viewers. Placement of the projector is critical to getting the best image quality it can deliver.
The manual zoom lens offers a range adjustment of about 20%, and the manual focus needs to be tweaked after sizing the image. Optoma's Web site has a handy online calculator to help figure screen size for any projector distance, or vice versa.
The H31 can fill an 84"-wide 16:9 screen from a range of 11.5' to 14' away. With any typical home-theater screen, say six to seven feet wide, the H31 is capable of excellent brightness and good black level. I used it with an 80"-wide VuTech motorized screen that I bought with my Runco HD-852 CRT projector when it was new, and also with a freestanding 72" wide Stewart Studiotek 130 (white, 1.3 gain). In both cases I was impressed by the Optoma's brightness (or dismayed by the Runco's dimness). I've always had to darken the room completely to watch films with the Runco, but the Optoma was bright enough to watch in subdued ambient light. (There's also no stray light leaking from the projector's housing, evidence of quality construction.) In near darkness, it's totally watchable at its lower lamp setting—a tactic Optoma's literature suggests could add 50% to the lamp's expected 2000-hour lifespan. Optoma warranties the 200W lamp for 90 days. The rest of the projector has a two-year warranty, including a "zero dead pixel" policy. Although an entry-level projector, this Optoma offers plenty of refinements, including a well-designed backlit remote control and an easy-to-navigate menu with easy-to-adjust settings for important video parameters. The H31 can memorize five separate settings per input, so once you've tweaked it for different sources and different program material you don't have to re-tweak when switching from one to the other. It can also be used for computer graphics and business presentations. Packed with it are all the input adapters you could need and some nicely made component-video cables.