They may be found in home theaters, but the main markets for front projectors are the corporate boardrooms and training facilities where evil men in dark suits dispense propaganda. This industrial connection could explain why so many projectors are boring beige boxes with a lens jutting out of one end. But Sharp's XV-Z90U doesn't just look good - it's a stone fox. Its curvilinear, two-tone gray case will blend in easily with your room décor whether the projector is mounted on the ceiling or a table. And if you do decide to put it on a table, its swivel stand makes it easy to rotate the lens into proper alignment.
DIMENSIONS 14 1/2 inches wide, 4 5/8 inches high, 12 7/8 inches deep
WEIGHT 8 1/2 pounds
MANUFACTURER Sharp Electronics, Dept. S&V, Sharp Plaza, Mahwah, NJ 07430; www.sharpusa.com; 800-237-4277
The Z90U's 4:3 aspect ratio DMD has a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels. However, since I was using a 16:9 screen for testing, I switched to the 16:9 mode during setup and rotated the zoom lens so a widescreen image would fill the screen. You don't get to use the display chip's full resolution with this arrangement, only a 16:9 subset, which works out to 800 x 450 pixels - just shy of the full 480-line vertical resolution of standard NTSC video. You also get "light spray," a common problem where reflections from unused portions of the chip can be seen above and below the screen. But generally this won't be visible when you're watching movies, especially if the wall behind the screen is a dark color like charcoal gray or black.
With my setup, the minimum projection distance of the Sharp's zoom lens was 16 feet, 10 inches. That's quite a throw - so if you plan to use a 92-inch or larger screen, make sure your room is long enough to accommodate it. Setup features include a vertical lens-adjustment ring and both horizontal and vertical keystone adjustments.
The Z90U has a reasonably complete set of inputs on its back panel, including wideband component-video and a DVI (Digital Visual Interface) connection with HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) for hooking up a computer, a high-def satellite receiver, or one of the few DVD players that have a DVI output. There's also an RS-232 port for connecting it to advanced home theater control systems from companies such as Xantech.
You can tell that the Z90U's remote control was designed for home theaters, not boardrooms. The large, generously spaced buttons and fully backlit keypad make it easy to use in the light-challenged environments that projectors require. Five input buttons let you quickly switch between sources. There are also buttons for toggling through five custom picture presets and three display modes, which include Normal and Border for standard 4:3 images and Stretch for anamorphic widescreen DVDs. All that's missing is a zoom mode for enlarging letterboxed 4:3 programs.
Tweaking the Z90U's picture was easy thanks to its clear, well-organized onscreen menus. After selecting the 6,500-K color-temperature and Standard gamma settings (two other choices, Black Detail and White Detail, give more weight to the dark or light portions of images), I made adjustments using the Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up DVD. The picture looked good, but more fine-tuning was required in the Advanced Picture Adjustment menu to get the projector's grayscale to more closely track the NTSC-standard color temperature.
With my tweaks completed, I cued up the DVD of The Fast and the Furious, the Vin Diesel vehicle about an FBI guy who infiltrates L.A.'s street-racing underground. Daylight shots of sunny southern California had an eye-popping crispness: the bright hues of the tricked-out green and orange cars looked clean, and shadows came across as a deep shade of black. There was also lots of detail in an overhead shot of custom car parts laid out on a table. In some darker scenes, such as a late-night race in a warehouse district, shadow detail was decent but there was a greenish cast that wasn't apparent in daylight shots (click to view In the Lab PDF for details). And a strong "red push" from the projector's color decoder meant I had to reduce the color level, which made animated movies like Toy Story look kind of pale. The Sharp also lacks 2:3 pulldown processing for film-based programs on video. But if you mainly watch DVD movies on the Z90U and pair it with a good progressive-scan player, this won't be an issue.
At $2,800, Sharp's XV-Z90U is an attractive, inexpensive projector designed with home theater in mind. Its 800 x 600-pixel resolution makes it better suited for watching DVDs and regular TV, but you can also use it to watch HDTV programs in both the 720p (progressive) and 1080i (interlaced) formats - downconverted, of course. Just remember: if you're going to use a screen with a wide aspect ratio, make sure your room is long enough for the Sharp to properly do its thing.
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