First of all, don't assume you need a huge video screen in your media room. If your screen is too large, visual fatigue will detract from your theater experience. A good, but general rule for screen size is to select a screen width that is half to one third the distance from the screen to the primary viewing location. You should keep the viewing cone, formed by a line going from your eyes to each side of the screen, to about thirty degrees.
You can use any display device and there advantages and disadvantages to each type. DLP units tend to have better black levels than LCD units. LCOS units and variations have the tightest pixel structure.
A front projection set will produce the largest, most dynamic image. With a good projector and screen combination the image will be quite stunning, especially when watching native HDTV content. If you have never seen the picture produced by a good, front projection set up, you really should see one before you make any decisions.
Needs ambient light control. You need to control ambient light to get a really good picture because a front projection system cannot produce black. It must rely on the absence of light being reflected from the screen to show black or dark colors.
You have to have a physical projector mounted somewhere. This problem has improved tremendously in the last few years as CRT projectors have basically gone away and digital projectors have improved and shrunk to miniscule proportions.
Video projectors are noisy. They require cooling fans and these are loud. Some recent units however, are much quieter.
The larger picture and better detail reproduction will allow you to really see problems so you need to have quality video sources or the picture will suffer.
Many of the projectors on the market are either business presentation units or adapted from them. Business presentation projectors have much different requirements than home theater projectors. The most important requirement for business units is brightness. They sacrifice other performance parameters to achieve this. Home theater projectors need extremely accurate color rendition, accurate grey scale tracking, deep blacks, and freedom from motion artifacts.
They're thin! Only 3 to 4 inches thick.
They look great when displaying HDTV. (most of them)
They can suffer image burn-in when displaying static images. Many retailers and manufactures downplay the dangers, but the phenomenon occurs with many different units. Do not leave the cable or DSS menu screen up for an hour or two. Be careful when displaying HTPC or computer game video with static images.
Many of them look really bad when displaying non HD TV. This problem has lessened with improved internal video processing and scaling technology. Some plasmas actually look pretty good with a better quality DVD feed.
Many plasmas suffer from rather severe image artifacts although this is also improving greatly due to the better internal processing.
Some plasma displays have high power consumption. (Can be three times that of a standard tube TV)
LCD flat panel:
They're thin! Some are only three inches thick.
They have no image burn problems like plasmas do.
Good picture on most newer sets.
Long life (50,000 - 60,000 hours)
You can get a true, 1080P native resolution display.
Sizes over 30 inches are priced above equivalent sized plasma displays.
The older units don't have picture quality as good as plasma displays.
Black and dark reproduction is not as good as plasma yet.
Rear Projection TV can be either digital or CRT based. The CRT units are going away fast as consumers move to thinner, lighter digital rear projection TVs. At this point, the better CRT rear projection sets offer fantastic performance for the money. You can get a 50+" HDTV ready CRT set from good companies such as Panasonic and Sony for under $1,500. These bargains will be gone soon as production of CRT rear projection sets stops. Panasonic has indicated the 2005 model year will be their last for CRT RPTVs.
The disadvantage to CRT rear projection TVs is size and weight. They too will suffer image burn problems if left with a static image for too long. They require accurate convergence to look their best. Most newer units offer multi-point convergence adjustments to facilitate this.
There are some new types of flat panel displays that will be released for consumer use soon including Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) and SED. These promise even better image quality than either LCD or plasma when fully developed, in addition to lower cost, thinner profiles and much lower power consumption.
In a nutshell:
Front Projection - Large image, can have spectacular picture quality even on a huge screen - More difficult to set up, need to place the projector in the center of the room somewhere, noisy(some), must use better quality sources to get the most benefit.
Plasma - cool factor, thin, look good for HDTV - Image burn problems, can sometimes have a mediocre picture for all but HDTV sources
LCD - cool factor, thin, look good for HDTV, no Image burn problems, - Expensive for larger sizes, can sometimes have a mediocre picture for all but HDTV sources.
There are many display technologies available today. No one display is best for all situations. Select the one that best fits your select your specific requirements.
Steve Faber has almost 15 years in the custom installation industry. He is a CEDIA certified designer and Installer 2 with certifications from both the ISF and THX. His experience spans many facets of the industry, from the trenches as an installer and control systems programmer, and system designer, to a business unit director for a specialty importer of high end audio video equipment, a sales rep for a large, regional consumer electronics distributor, and principal of a $1.5M+ custom installation firm. Steve is currently is senior sales engineer for Digital Cinema Design, a CEDIA member firm in Redmond, WA. He is on the web at