It's ironic that months after Mitsubishi finally killed the rear-projection TV, LG is creating its own maverick big-screen projector. The "LG Laser TV," code-named Hecto, is essentially a deconstructed rear-projection television -- the only thing that's missing is a cabinet.
Available this April for the hefty sum of $8,999, the Hecto is a unique product. It consists of the projector unit itself, designed to sit atop a low cabinet, and an included 100-inch screen. The distance between the screen and the projector is very short, fixed at just 22 inches. Through the magic of modern technology ("Mirrors!") the projector somehow manages to fill the screen from that distance and angle.
In person, the Hecto behaves more like a TV than a traditional projector. You can get up and walk around the room without casting a shadow on the image, or having to mount it on the ceiling. And much like a TV, the Hecto is designed to produce an image that doesn't wash out in normal room lighting.
In a casual demo I saw of a close-to-shipping version, the first thing I noticed was brightness of the image. Under moderate lighting, with indirect sunlight on a cloudy day and dim overhead lights, the picture appeared relatively punchy, and it was easy to believe LG's claim of 150 nits light output. For comparison, we calibrate our TVs at CNET to about 130 nits, a level that's fine for dim to moderate lighting. The LG can't approach the the retina-searing maximum light output of many LED sets, but it's certainly brighter than most projectors at this size.
Interestingly however, LG's specification is not better than what we measured from the Epson 5020UB ($2,600), a traditional long-throw projector we lauded in a recent review. It hit an insane 274 nits on our 120-inch Stewart StudioTek 130 G3 screen. Those numbers aren't directly comparable because the screens used in each case are different in size (smaller screens produce brighter images) and gain (a measure of reflectivity; higher gain screens produce brighter images). On the other hand, since the Epson's measurement was achieved on a screen both larger and lower-gain, it's logical to think it would measure even brighter on a 1.5-gain, 100-inch screen like the LG's. We've also measured other projectors, like the BenQ W1070, whose maximum light output exceeded the Hecto's.
But before you write off the Hecto's light output based on a few numbers, it's important to consider the major factor that affects how we perceive TV images in brighter rooms: how the screen handles ambient light. In my quick demo, the Hecto's included screen performed very well with reflections. Its matte-like, black surface diffused light well and, more importantly, preserved contrast much better than the Stewart, which is designed for completely dark rooms. Of course a projector like the Epson could also be mated to a screen designed to better handle ambient light. One example is the Screen Innovations Black Diamond, which, while expensive at around $2,700 for a 100-inch version, would still cost less than the Hecto when combined with the Epson as a system.
LG's closed system -- the projector won't work properly with another screen, nor does LG plan to release a larger (or smaller) screen as an up/downgrade for the projector -- is a result of the screen's unique design, which is in turn dictated by the short throw distance. The screen focuses light quite aggressively toward the sweet spot directly in front, and in the mid-dark demo room I noticed quite a bit of fall-off in light output as I moved off-angle, although the image still remained watchable. I was also impressed by the lack of obvious geometry issues or hot-spotting.
One downside is that the screen throws a sort of blurry, elongated reflection onto the ceiling, but an LG engineer told me they're working to minimize that, and are planning a new screen that might ship with the Hecto in June or July. Potential buyers annoyed by this issue may do well to wait until then.
The DLP light engine is lit not by the typical lamp, but instead by freakin' lasers. One benefit is that you won't need to replace it for 25,000 hours, which works out to about 13 years at 5 hours of TV time per day. Typical projector lamps last around 4,000 hours, or about 2 years, 2 months.
LG touts a special "eye protection" mode that disables the image if someone (like my inquisitive 2-year-old) approaches close enough to risk the light entering the eye directly. I didn't ask what would happen, but suffice it to say the Hecto is not designed to perform Lasik surgery.
As a DLP projector it's also subject to the rainbow effect, an artifact that appears as occasional, brief flashes of color as the eye perceives the color wheel's imperfect construction of light. In my demo, rainbows appeared infrequently enough to be nothing more than a minor nuisance, and about as often as with other DLPs I've reviewed recently, like the Mitsubishi HC7900DW.
Installation is not a DIY affair, although LG hopes retailers will include initial setup in the cost of the unit. The projector must be lined up an exact distance and angle from the screen, typically on a low credenza (not included...) or on the ceiling -- although due to the fixed angle, higher ceilings might make for an awkward installation unless you mount the screen relatively high on the wall.
The unit comes with a special spacer and mounting plate with tiny adjustments for zeroing it in. After the first few hundred hours the positioning typically needs to be tweaked (something I was told is DIY) due to initial aging of the projector's internal components. In any case, I'd want my installer to bolt everything down as tightly as possible to avoid the image going awry from accidental bumps -- or inquisitive 2-year-olds.
The Hecto is a regular 1080p resolution LG TV in most other respects, although it lacks 3D. It features an ATSC tuner, a Smart TV suite, and onboard 10-watt speakers. Like many LG TVs this year, it also ships with a Magic Motion Remote. For inputs it has three HDMI ports, Ethernet, composite, and component.
LG promised to send CNET one to review soon.
This article was updated March 22 with hands-on impressions, pricing, and additional details. The video below was shot in January and so contains some outdated information.