NEC HT1100 Digital Front Projector Reviewed

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Having recently sold their four millionth DLP chip, Texas Instruments and their Digital Light Processing technology is taking the home theater world by storm. Nowhere is this more evident than in the digital front projector marketplace.

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Shopping for a front projector can be a confusing experience for a number of reasons, not the least of which is our continued dependence on 4:3 programming. Unless you watch nothing but HDTV and 16:9 widescreen DVDs, you're probably still watching plenty of 4:3 programming. Unlike most home theater projectors vying for your attention, NEC's HT1100 is a 4:3 native projector. What? Why would you want a 4:3 native projector? What about HDTV? What about DVD? Enter from stage left the HT1100's optional anamorphic lens. With its unique lens option, the HT1100 has your bases covered, regardless of what you watch.

If you're like me, you're tired of switching between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. Why won't everyone just accept the fact that the future is wide and offer everything in 16:9? If only it were that simple. Old movies, such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were filmed in a 4:3 frame. With the exception of the newest titles, most video games are designed for 4:3 displays. Also, computer applications are still (for the most part) expecting you to have a 4:3 monitor. If you want to project any of these things on your theater screen (and why wouldn't you?), the way a projector handles 4:3 material should be of extreme importance to you. If these 4:3 issues are on your mind, then read on. You'll find out why the HT1100 is a fascinating little projector with versatility to spare.

Unique Features
Far and away, the most distinctive thing about the HT1100 is its optional anamorphic lens. Out of the box, the HT1100 is an XGA-class 4:3 projector. This means it has a native resolution of 1024 x 768. Watching anamorphic widescreen material in this stock configuration forces the unit to use only a portion of its pixels and light output. The top and bottom is wasted with black bars, generated by the HT1100. However, NEC was smart when they designed an optional anamorphic lens that attaches to the front of the HT1100. After selecting "Anamorphic" as your screen type in the system menu, this unique attachment vertically compresses the full resolution 4:3 image into a 16:9 frame. The end result is a 16:9 image using the projector's full XGA resolution and 100% of its light output.

Before installing the anamorphic lens, the unit needs to be focused using the manual focus ring surrounding the lens. Other adjustments on the lens include a 1.2x manual zoom and an adjustable Iris (variable lens aperture). As the user manual states, the Iris lever allows you to "adjust the brightness and contrast ratio optically." The net result of this adjustment is a reduction in light output but a significant improvement in fine shadow detail. I found a position roughly in the middle that offered solid contrast without sacrificing too much punch. In a room with total light control, you can probably afford to bring this all the way down and approach the unit's maximum rated contrast ratio of 3500:1.

Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
As impressive as the anamorphic lens is, I wish NEC had been able to make its installation a tad easier. As I mentioned earlier, the unit needs to be perfectly focused before adding the anamorphic lens. This is because the housing covers the focus ring once it is installed. Four set-screws and a weight-distribution/support bar are all that's needed to keep the lens in place. As simple as it sounds, getting it attached while maintaining proper focus and keeping it centered is quite the task. If the lens is off-center, you'll quickly notice geometric distortion at the corners. After a few trials and a bit of error, I did finally get a satisfactory alignment. The anamorphic lens can fold down out of the light path when you want to watch 4:3 material.

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