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EMedia Review

WK Bohannon

Eiki LC-X990 LCD Projector
synopsis: The Eiki X990 makes lots of light, has a great white point, good color saturation, and decent, although not the highest, contrast ratio. The Eiki 990 requires some adjustment to show darker DVD movies, but then just about any projector on the market except NEC's XT5000 EC (for electronic cinema) suffers from the same shortcoming. The Eiki's on-screen images are clear and clean, with above-average uniformity using both computer-generated data or component video inputs, and it proved itself clearly first-rank at this year's InfoCOMM shootout.

price: $11,995

26794 Vista Terrace Drive
Lake Forest, CA 92630-8113
800/322-3454, 800/457-3454
Fax 877/345-4329

November, 2000 | A few years back, projector manufacturers used 1.3-inch liquid crystal displays (LCDs) in their "portable" units–those smaller projectors that performed well enough but lacked the light power of the projectors that used larger LCDs. At that time, 1.8-inch or larger LCDs were used in the higher-power projectors, and the new class of units based upon 0.9-inch LCDs were beginning to make a dim impact upon their lighter "ultra-portable" category. But now look at how things have changed. Every class of projector has taken a giant step forward–the 0.9-inch ultra-portables are no longer dim and the 1.8-inch LCD class rivals "large venue" performance, while the 1.3-inch-based "portables" can put out as much light as…well, pick a year and I'll have a story. I can remember a time when it took a 300-pound LCD projector using 5-inch LCDs and a lamp close to 600 watts to make only 800 lumens, but today's 15-pound Eiki LC-X990 does way more than that with its little 1.3-inch LCDs powered by a 200-watt lamp.

The last time I looked at an Eiki 1.3-inch XGA projector (an earlier model, the X970) was in June 1998 for Presentations magazine. That 14.4-pound unit, using one of the new 120-watt "ultra-high pressure" UHP lamps, almost broke through the 700 lumen barrier (685.05 ANSI lumens on the screen, according to my measurements). Last year, Eiki improved upon the 970 and produced the 14.6-pound X980. The 980 was advertised to generate 1,900 lumens with a 150-watt UHP, but I didn't have an opportunity to verify that claim. However, I tend to believe Eiki, since I've looked at most of its products (sold by it and its OEM partner Sanyo) over the last 10 years–starting back with the VGA resolution "Big Show." I know that it's quite possible to go from 700 lumens to 1,900 lumens with a little more lamp wattage–along with a healthy dose of aperture-increasing microlenses–and polarization conversion was crucial to bringing more light into the LCD as well (see sidebar).

Employing all kinds of modern technology, the 970 evolved into the 980 and got much brighter. Like I said, I'm not sure if they actually made 1,900 lumens or not with the old 150-watt lamp, since that means more than 12 lumens per watt, but I'll bet they got pretty close. The 990 now has a 200-watt lamp instead of the 980's 150-watt unit (its subsequently larger power supply is most likely the source of the extra half-pound weight gain), but the 990 claims to put out 2,200 lumens versus the old unit's advertised 1,900. The 990 makes fewer lumens per watt (11 versus 12.66), and I imagine that loss comes from the optical inefficiencies involved in getting the larger lamp's bigger "glowing spot" focused through the LCD's holes in between the wires.

shades of gray

I measured 2091.93 ANSI lumens in the 990's wide zoom setting, which is close enough to the advertised max of 2,200 lumens for me. (I tend to allow at most 10% variation from the manufacturer spec in order to call them honest in regards to their claims.) I also calculated average brightness with both wide and narrow zoom settings at 2035.53 ANSI lumens. The measured light output of a projector usually changes when you vary the lens settings between wide and narrow zoom. This is because the "F number" or focal ratio (ratio between lens aperture and focal length) changes. (Anyone who has ever played with a 35mm camera knows that a smaller F number means a brighter image, and projectors, like cameras, use lenses where the F number varies with zoom setting.)

A small difference between max and min zoom is best, and the Eiki lens only varies from the brightest, widest angle F number of 1.8 to the dimmest, long-throw setting of F 2.1–which is not too bad. Anyway, I took the 9-point ANSI lumen value at both ends of the zoom settings and then averaged the results to find the kind of light power on the screen that most users will see.

Along with the same contrast and brightness settings used to measure ANSI lumens, I measured the 990's 16-point ANSI contrast ratio at only 84.4 to 1–a bit below the 107.7 to 1 that I observed with the 970 back in 1998. However, I think that I could have measured a much higher contrast ratio with the 990 than I did. The images made by the 990 were crisp and clear and showed high contrast, so I questioned the relatively low reading.

Before I evaluate and measure a projector, I look at its on-screen image with a series of test patterns. These test patterns are designed to show any deficiencies as well as help me set the projector up properly. When I adjust a projector's "brightness"–which determines how bright the black levels are–I try to make sure that I can see all of the lower gray scales. Similarly, when I adjust a projector's "contrast," which determines how bright the white levels are, I attempt to see all of the upper gray levels. When you can see both the lower gray levels and the upper gray levels, you are getting the most use out of the projector's range of gray scales. I think that I adjusted the Eiki's brightness too high in an attempt to see all of its lower grays, and that resulted in a lower contrast reading. With the brightness turned down, you'll get a much better contrast reading, but you won't be able to see detail in the shadows.

This also illustrates some of the key points between images made with various types of inputs. Computer graphics images usually do not require much in the way of gray scales, particularly low-level shadows. Photographic images use a lot of shades and sometimes get into the lower levels, but not often. Regular video images are also often characterized by fairly bright high-contrast images–especially show-and-tell commercials. People use bright, flashy images to catch the audience's attention. So what's the deal with low levels of gray and shadow? As the video age turned into the DVD age and moves into the HDTV era, a lot more dramatic images are recorded and played back on the big screen. Movies in particular were designed to be watched in dark rooms and sometimes use a lot of shadow and lower-level gray scales to focus the audience's attention upon a few key features in a scene. If you watch movies and video carefully, you'll see that many DVD versions of movies put a lot more content into the lower gray scales. So if you use a video projector that can't separate out the low-level shadows from lower-level shadows, you won't see anything but mud. Contrast, particularly contrast in dark, shadowed images, is very important, as is color saturation.

absolute color

I also measured the 980's color saturation at 15.98, which is again a little lower than the 970's 16.188 reading. I measure the absolute color saturation of a projector, which is not usually affected by either the contrast or brightness settings. I measure color saturation by finding the maximum red, green, and blue color saturation values separately. Then I construct an RGB color triangle and find the length of that triangle's perimeter. The bigger the triangle, the longer the perimeter; however, the 970's triangle was a little bit longer than the 990's. I think that this is because Eiki tuned out a little of the color by adjusting the coatings on the 990's dichroic (color-splitting) mirrors. Compared to the 970, the 990's blue saturation in particular is slightly weaker–either by mistake or on purpose.

Manufacturers usually remove color saturation to gain light output (if you don't believe me try Canon's color-robbing turbo mode), since less color means more light. This is why just about all of the little one-chip DLP projectors look pale in comparison to a good three-panel LCD projector like the Eiki. The one-chip DLP projector manufacturers traded off color for brightness, so maybe Eiki thought the same way. Perhaps given the 990's lower optical efficiency, it needed to take out some of the color to keep the brightness up. But please don't misunderstand: the Eiki 990's 15.98 color saturation looks superb in comparison to any ultra-portable one-chip DLP projector's mere 13 to 14 points of color saturation. However, the average color saturation of the last 68 three-panel projectors I've tested is 16.18.

get the white point

One area not skimped on was the 990's white point. In my opinion, it is very important to use a projector that makes a neutral appearing white–it's like painting a beautiful picture on a white canvas. If you paint the same colors on a red canvas, for example, the colors will be changed and muted. I found that the Eiki 990 measured only 2.81 units away from the standard D65 white, which is very good. D65 is a color standard created to simulate what good, clean sunlight looks like at high noon; if you have a white that is different from D65 it can be redder, greener, or bluer than what it should be. The old 970 measured at 6.25 units away from D65 and its whites looked decidedly green, whereas the 990's whites looked great–2.81 is a neutral white with very little color shift.

The images from Eiki's 990 projector had good on-screen uniformity with 6.38% brightness variation across the screen. The 990 also maintained almost 83% of its peak brightness in the screen corners. The 970 had a little more across-screen unevenness at 7.8%, but along with higher corner brightness at 84.58%. However, neither of these projectors is setting any records for across-screen variation or for corner brightness. I have seen variations below 4% and corners above 90%. However, the average three-panel LCD projector I've measured over the last year or so had more variation (6.92%) and even lower corners (77.9%). The Eiki X990 is above average, where some manufacturers have recently allowed more unevenness and increased roll-off in the corners in an attempt to stay competitive in the brightness race.

Like most projectors in its size and weight class, the X990 has two 15-pin VESA computer RGB inputs along with a 15-pin monitor output. The Eiki 990 also has the customary combined SVHS or composite video input, but where the 970 (and the 980) lacked component video inputs, the Eiki X990 gives you that choice as well. This was one area I picked on when I reviewed the 970 two years ago–no component video. I liked the 990's on-screen images with component video inputs; however, I had to adjust color, contrast, and brightness to make those images look good. One of my ongoing complaints to projector manufacturers is that the default settings in video mode are too far off. These days, just about everyone can make a projector that looks good with a standard bright and cheerful computer input signal–but give that same projector a video signal and you have to grab the remote control and start pushing buttons. I can't understand why TV set manufacturers can do it (when was the last time you had to adjust color on a new TV?) but projector manufacturers cannot.

In any case, the 990 has component video inputs that accept either the Y, Cb, or Cr inputs from most DVDs or the Y, Pb, or Pr inputs from DVD or HDTV sources. When HDTV component input is selected, you can choose between 480p, 625p, 720p, 1035I, or 1080I modes and the little Eiki will try them all. I liked the images the 990 made with the component source from my DVD over the composite video input with the same images. I particularly liked the component video's color mapping, but when I switched to composite there were too many adjustments to be made to get the image looking even close to how good it did with component inputs. And trust me, you don't want to use that remote that much–it's too easy to confuse its buttons while working through the complex adjustment menu.

the bottom line

The Eiki X990 makes lots of light, has a great white point, good color saturation, and decent–although not the highest–contrast ratio. The Eiki 990 needs some work if it wants to show darker DVD movies, but then just about any projector on the market except NEC's XT5000 EC (for electronic cinema) suffers from the same shortcoming. The Eiki on-screen images are clear and clean with above-average uniformity using both computer-generated data or component video inputs.

The Eiki holds its own against most other projectors. At this year's INFOCOMM shootout in Anaheim, I thought that the Eiki X990 and the Sanyo XP20 were in the first rank–out-gunned only by a brighter projector (the new Epson 8100). When I conducted a mini side-by-side comparison against the other projectors in my screening room, the Eiki X990 clearly won–and not just in my eyes. Other people in the audience favored the Eiki's bright clear images and only I (holding the light meter) missed some of the blue color saturation and contrast ratio.

By the time you read this review, the latest improvement to Eiki's 1.3-inch line, the X999, should be announced (as a running model change at the same price). It was due for unveiling at this year's Photokina on September 20. And according to my sources at Eiki, not only is the 999 brighter than the 990, it also has a lot more contrast ratio plus maybe a tweak or two to its video circuits. The problem I mentioned above with getting all the light from the 200-watt lamp's larger source through the LCD aperture should be solved in the X999. The Eiki X999 will be quite similar to the 990 with the exception of newer LCDs with more aperture–larger holes–which should put the 999's optical efficiency back up to about 12.5 lumens for each of the lamp's 200 watts of power. Eiki and Sanyo are supposedly announcing 2,500 lumens for both the X999 and for Sanyo's XP20. I'm hoping they'll fix the rest of my complaints and make a good projector even better.

However, I've heard that one area not addressed in the new Eiki units is the drab, industrial design and body color–they will likely look the same. But don't listen to my whining; my senses have been perverted by my iMac's wild colors and award-winning shape.

In the Details

All liquid crystal displays, even the ones in projectors, work on polarized light, which comes in essentially two states called "s" and "p." Outside of lasers, just about every other light source makes relatively equal quantities of s and p light. However, the first LCD projectors used just one state and threw the rest away (wasteful, wasn't it?). But it couldn't be helped because the optical devices required to capture both s and p were too large and too expensive to be used in a little LCD projector. A couple of years ago, however, some bright person invented a simple glass plate composed of strips of glass with different properties that could capture all the light–thus the birth of polarization "conversion" as we know it today. It's called polarization conversion because the s state is converted to the p state (or visa versa, but whether s is turned into p or p into s doesn't matter along as they end up the same) and that allows the LCD to use both equally, thereby doubling the light produced by a projector.

The micro lens array is the other key element in today's stunning range of bright projectors. It wouldn't really matter how much light you got into the LCD through polarization conversion and bright lamps if that light was all absorbed by the dense grid of wires that surround each little pixel, but that was exactly what used to happen. Why all the wires? Think about it–how are you going to turn on each one of those little, 1024 x 786, XGA resolution pixels? You need lots of wires because you have lots of pixels. Anyway, the holes in between the wires, the holes that let that eventually bright light onto the screen, are called "aperture" in LCD jargon–and the smaller the aperture, the dimmer the projector. But, if you could focus the lamp's light so that it went in between those wires and wasn't absorbed, the result would be a much brighter projector. That's just what micro lenses do. The brightest projectors have an array–1024 x 768 micro-lens elements–one for each pixel, either in the LCD's glass plate or attached to it.

The UHP style of lamp as conceived by Philips has been another key enabling technology. All of today's projectors, along with polarization conversion and microlenses, work a lot better with UHP lamps since those lamps have the smallest "spot size." That ultra-high pressure inside the lamp keeps the spot small. The old-fashioned, 300-pound projectors used huge 575-watt (and larger) lower-pressure lamps that had huge arc gaps. Those huge arc gaps made light with a very large glowing volume. Light coming off a large volume isn't nearly as straight or as evenly directed as the light from a smaller volume, and that difference had a large impact on any attempt to use polarization conversion. Plus, using micro lenses means that you have to focus the lamp's spot through the LCD's aperture. A large spot cannot go through a small aperture regardless of how hard you try.

WK Bohannon (manxrsrch@aol.com), founder of Manx Research, an independent evaluator of projection and display systems, has more than 25 years of experience in high-tech industries in areas from nuclear spectroscopy to high-energy laser systems and artificial intelligence. He worked as chief scientist for Display Products at Proxima Corporation from 1989 to 1994, and lived through the birth of today's small electronic presentations systems.

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