Back in January, the SoCal CTDRT hosted a projector shootout at Saddleback Church. We had representatives from Panasonic, Christie, Sanyo and Sony present. There were a variety of projectors to look at, ranging from 5000 lumens to 15,000 lumens. The one that caught my eye was the newest projector in the room, the VPLFH500L. It produced a very good-looking image, was certainly bright enough, and was reasonably affordable (in the $10K range).

As for specs, the projector is rated for 7,000 lumens in standard mode, 5,600 in Eco mode. Contrast ratio is rated at 2500:1. It’s a true HD projector, capable of resolutions up to 1920×1200. It’s a 3LCD system featuring Sony’s BrightEra Inorganic panels. Most LCD panels break down over time and degrade the image. The inorganic nature of the LCDs are supposed to last significantly longer. Standard inputs include Y/C, Composite, 5-wire analog (RGBHV / Y Pb Pr) on both 5 BNCs and a HD15. You can also connect via DVI-D, HDMI and HD/SD SDI (the last one with an optional board). It can be remotely controlled via RS-232 and over EtherNet, the included wireless remote or with a wired remote control.

Weighing in at only 44 lbs, it’s not terribly heavy. It is of course fully fly-able and has provisions for inverting and reversing the image depending on orientation of projector relative to the screen. Because Sony has been making projectors for a while (though not many people think of them right off), there are over 10 lenses available, both premium and value lines depending on your imaging needs, budget and throw distance. The only issue for us (and possibly others) is that the widest lens is .87, which was still not quite wide enough for our very short throw. 

On the other hand, the amount of lens shift available is pretty crazy. During the demo at the roundtable, the rep was able to move almost 2/3 of the image over to the screen next to him. We found it very easy to shift the image on to our screen, no matter where we put the projector. 

I mentioned the dual-lamp system earlier. The projector is designed to have one lamp burning at any given time. There is an auto fail-over system in place to provide backup. You could set the projector up to strike one lamp until it’s exhausted then start striking the other one, but the preferred way to go is alternate strike. That mode keeps the lamps aging at approximately the same rate to get maximum life out of the bulbs, with minimum variation in brightness.

Basic controls on the projector itself. I like this feature.

All that is good stuff, but what intrigued me were the life cycle operating costs. One thing that most churches never consider when looking at projectors is how much they will cost to operate. Projectors require electricity to operate, obviously, but some require a lot more than others. Bulbs will eventually need to be replaced, some at much more frequent intervals than others. And then we have filters. My current projector manufacturer, Christie, sells filters in packs of 5 for about $250. The funny thing is they look frighteningly close to the air filter I just picked up at Pep Boys for my daughter’s Civic. That cost $12. 

When you start to factor in all these operating costs, you end up with a non-trivial amount. For example, factoring in lamp life, filter costs and electrical usage, our Christie S+16K costs us about $5/hr. to operate. Do that math on that and start considering how much that could be shaved over the year.

Actually, I did the math and figured out that based on our current usage and electricity rates, replacing our two Christies with VPLFH500Ls would save us approximately $18,000 over five years. Which isn’t far from the purchase price. Not bad.

The VPLFH500L draws about half as much electricity as our existing Christie DS+5Ks. The lamps (there are two, one burning at any given time, and they can be set to strike alternately) on the 500 are rated to last for 6000-8000 hours, as opposed to 1200. If I recall correctly, a lamp change (both lamps + filters) will run under $1,000, again as opposed to over $1,500 (not including filters). 

So far, everything looks really good. One criticism of the projector is the white housing. If you’re mounting this in the ceiling that’s all blacked out, this may stand out. On the other hand, if your ceiling is white, it’s all good. The biggest issue we ran into is with remote control. 

You guys all know I’m huge into remote control. Sony does include a built in web server in the projector so you can control it with a browser. However, it works with one browser and one browser only; Internet Explorer under Windows. We tried Safari, Chrome and Firefox on both the Windows and Mac platform and the only one that actually worked was IE under Windows. I talked with the product manager about this and explained that if they are serious about getting into the HOW market, they needed to fix this as more and more churches migrate away from Windows (especially in the tech department) to Macs. Time will tell if they listen or blow us off. 

Sure, I could fire up Parallels or VMWare, or use one of the PCs (more correctly, BootCamped Mac Minis) in the tech booth, but the computer at Video is an iMac, and I don’t feel I should have to run Windows just to turn my projectors on. Petty? Maybe. A deal breaker? It might be.

In summary, this is a good, solid projector. Other than the major flaw of IE only remote control, it’s a great buy. The image quality absolutely blew our 5-year old Christies away, not only in brightness (it was only a little brighter) but mainly in clarity, and especially black detail level. For one event, we had a guy in a black tux standing against a black curtain background. Even under less than ideal lighting, we could clearly see the different shade of black on the lapel, and his jacked was separate from the black curtains a few feet behind him. On the Christie, he was a floating head. 

At the end of the day, Sony makes good stuff. Whether this is a product that will find a home in the HOW market remains to be seen. But I think they have a great start here.

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