Mitsubishi LaserVue

Once upon a time, all big-screen TVs were RPTVs. If you wanted something bigger than a tube TV, projection was your only choice. With the advent of flat panels, the reign of RPTVs was clearly at an end.

Except, it wasn’t. Not completely. So the question is, with today’s cheap flat panels, is there any reason why someone should get a RPTV?

Well, yes, actually.

Let’s get one thing straight up front: there’s only one company that makes RPTVs anymore and that’s Mitsubishi. So any discussion of RPTVs is going to be intrinsically linked to that brand. This article isn’t, though, a review of their various models. Instead, we’ll take a look at the technology as if Samsung,  Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, JVC, et al. hadn’t pulled out of the business a few years ago.

Pro Pro: Size
When it comes to sheer dollar-per-screen-inch value, still nothing beats RPTVs. For a comparable dollar, an RPTV could easily have 10-15 inches more screen diagonal. Take, for example, the Mitsubishi WD-65638 ($817.36 with free shipping). Compare that to the new Panasonic TC-P46ST30 or Samsung UN46D6000 (both $1,299.99). Mits has models up to 82-inches right now, with a 92-inch model coming soon. If you really just want a huge TV without robbing a bank, RPTVs are fantastic.

ProPro: 3D
All of Mitsubishi’s RPTVs are 3D-ready. With the 2010 models you’ll only need to buy Mitsubishi 3D glasses for the TV to display 3D. Previous model years are upgradeable to 3D. So if you’ve bought a Mits RPTV in the past few years, you probably have a 3D TV already. All you need is one of Mitsubishi’s 3D Starter packs.

Con Con: Size (the other kind)
Even though RPTVs are far thinner than they once were, they’re still 10+ inches deep. On the other hand, most people don’t care. Studies have shown that regardless of what they want to do before they buy it, well over 50% of the people who buy a flat panel never mount it on a wall. This means that it’s on a table/TV stand, or in a cabinet. In these cases, the depth of the TV is irrelevant.

Well, almost irrelevant (see “Not a flat panel” below).

Pro Mitsubishi WD-82838Pro: Brightness (Sort of)
RPTVs are generally on par with LCDs and plasmas in terms of brightness. More importantly, they are WAY brighter than front projectors. Front projection offers even larger screen sizes than RPTVs, but you need to have absolute light control in the room in order for them to work. Not everyone wants to always be in a dark room watching a TV. In this case, RPTVs offer plenty of brightness for such a large screen size.

Con Con: Contrast Ratio
The comparison to the Panasonic plasma and Samsung LED LCD above isn’t entirely fair. The picture quality isn’t going to be quite as good as those TVs, and that mostly has to do with contrast ratio. The DMD chip that is the core of every DLP display has a decent but not amazing contrast ratio. The recent generation of chips I’ve reviewed in front projectors have performed pretty much the same as those from 4-5 years ago. They haven’t gotten much better while LCDs and plasmas have.

That other aspect that reduces a RPTV’s contrast ratio is the amount of light inside the cabinet. Some of the light that is supposed to reach your eyes ends up bouncing around inside the cabinet. Eventually it makes its way out, but not in the same place it was intended. If there’s a lot of bright areas on the screen, the dark areas will not be able to be as dark as they would be on a plasma or local dimming LED LCD. Mitsubishi has historically had excellent cabinets with the least about of errant light in their designs, but it’s not possible to be perfect.

Yes, there are irises and variable light sources that help to create a decent dynamic contrast ratio (how dark a black screen can be compared to how bright a full white screen can be), but like all dynamic contrast ratios, this isn’t what really makes the image “pop.” A real contrasty image requires an excellent intra-scene contrast ratio, and on a RPTV that is limited by the DMD and the light in the cabinet.

If you plan on watching the TV during the day, though, this is less of an issue as you won’t be able to notice deep blacks anyway.

Pro Pro: LASERS!!!!!
Mitsubishi’s LaserVue models use frickin laser beams as a light source. There are two models, a 75-inch (L75-A91, $5,279), and a 65-inch (L65A90, $6,299). As cool as lasers are, there is little reason to pay such a substantial premium for them. The contrast ratio is still limited by the DMD, and the claims of substantial color potential is negated by the fact that even color-wheel, lamp-based RPTVs can easily exceed the maximum color potential of Blu-ray/HDTV. In other words, the “200% HDTV color” boast just means that they are more colorful, however by exceeding the rather constricted HDTV color standard they can’t be accurate. Thankfully, Mitsubishi has a mode that brings the color gamut close the HDTV standard.

The big advantages of lasers is the lifespan and low power consumption. The lasers should last a lifetime, while the bulbs in the lamp type RPTV need to be periodically replaced. The LaserVue TVs are also incredibly energy efficient, using less power that other big screen TVs.

Con Con: Lamps
With the exception of the LaserVue models, Mitsubishi RPTVs use lamps as their light source. These have a finite lifespan and must be replaced (usually around 6,000 hours). Worse, they don’t age gracefully. They get dimmer over time, and then eventually they just go “poof.” In addition, nearly all of these lamps are UHP designs which contain mercury, and mercury isn’t remotely eco-friendly so please properly dispose. (BTW, CFL lamps for standard light fixtures also contain mercury.)

Mits doesn’t exactly hide the fact their TVs need lamps. Lamps for current Mitsubishi models cost only $100, older models lamps from Mitsubishi and other companies can cost more.

Con Con: Not a flat panel
As mentioned above. No matter how big or how cool an RPTV is, it just isn’t a flat panel. Keep in mind that you’re going to have to justify your purchase to those not “in the know.” If you drive a Toyota not a Lexus, a Ford not a Lincoln, and your speakers aren’t found in Best Buy, then you probably won’t care that your neighbor doesn’t get why your TV is so deep.

If on the other hand there are logos visible on all your clothes and you own any Bose product, it’s likely you won’t be happy with an RPTV.

What it comes down to is this: if you want a really, really big TV and don’t want the strict blackout conditions required for a front projector (or having to plunder your kids college fund to build a dedicated home theater) then RPTVs are still the high-value option for a new TV, and do look pretty damn good.

Mitsubishi seems to still think RPTVs are the way to go. After all, they don’t show any signs of giving up a market they have entirely to themselves.

—Geoff Morrison


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