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Canon Realis SX50

Jul 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

Great colors and high resolution for boardroom presentations.


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When Canon announced the Realis SX50 last fall, it rightly raised some eyebrows. After all, any native SXGA+ projector for less than $5,000 ought to catch the industry's attention. Moreover, it was an overt statement that Canon is an innovator rather than another me-too projector company.

The raised eyebrows were for Canon's technology choice. LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) emerged several years ago with great potential, but it has labored to find a market against the established and ever-improving alternatives, DLP and LCD. Canon's announcement coincided with some pretty big industry names — including Hitachi, Intel, and Philips — abandoning LCoS initiatives. Was Canon pulling LCoS back from the high waters of technological obsolescence or jumping onto a sinking ship?

It took a few extra months following the announcement for Canon to ship the Realis SX50, but delays are no surprise when it comes to new initiatives. And if you like sharp graphics and images, it might well have been worth the wait. I tested the Realis SX50 and found its high-resolution billing as impressive as advertised. But I also found some fine print. Digital sources and business graphics look fabulous, but analog sources, including video, reveal some compromises.

RESOLUTION EVOLUTION

The promise of LCoS has always been high native resolutions squeezed onto small imaging devices. That's true of Canon's AISYS version. The Realis SX50, for example, gets a native SXGA+ resolution from 0.7in. devices — much smaller than Texas Instruments' 0.95in. Darkchip2 and Epson's 1.3in. LCD panels with the same resolution. Still, most past LCoS projectors actually have been physically big due to their larger light engines. They've also been more expensive, only partly because of the lower economies of scales compared to those of DLP or LCD.

With the Realis SX50, Canon has effectively negated both of those LCoS stereotypes. It weighs less than 9lbs. and occupies less than a square foot of space on a tabletop or projector rack. Better still, its price of $4,999 (about $4,000 street) is roughly that of many similar projectors in the industry with similar form factors, but it's far below anything on the market that comes close to the same resolution.

Naturally, high resolution is the Realis SX50's calling card, and what it begets are very sharp, crisp text; clear and vibrant graphics; and spreadsheets that are, if it can be said, a pleasure to read. Sharpness is further enhanced by a visible absence of any screen-door effect, another strong LCoS credential.

But none of that should be surprising. High resolution can often be a panacea for image quality concerns, and that is exactly what Canon's original announcement promised. A projector with SXGA+ resolution for around $4,000 street is a wonderful achievement, and Canon deserves kudos for delivering it.

Visually, the Realis SX50 can provide a stunning picture, especially for the money. Canon also gets excellent color from the three-chip LCoS imaging. My ColorFacts test equipment found most colors to be wonderfully accurate — cyan was right on, yellow was very good, magenta was a little more toward blue than would be ideal — and the overall image appearance is very rich. The grayscale range was also very good, with even steps from black to white.

My light meter says that Canon's claim of 2500 is highly exaggerated. I got no higher than 1643 ANSI lumens as an average, although brightness uniformity was a strong 89 percent. I measured an ANSI checkerboard contrast ratio at a solid 260:1.

The SXGA+ Canon Realis SX50 bucks the trend of most LCoS projectors by limiting both the mass and the price of the unit.

GO DIGITAL

The Realis SX50 has a minimal array of connection options that includes DVI-I, analog RGB/component video (which smartly doubles as a monitor out), S-Video, and composite, plus a single audio mini input for the 1W monaural speaker. That's a bare minimum, but it's a fair trade for Canon to keep the cost down.

In fact, Canon probably would have been smart to offer just the DVI, because this review could just about stop here. DVI is what you should plan to use, exclusively if possible. Going digital produces the cleanest possible image, and that's when the Realis is at its best. That also avoids the problem of Canon's very marginal analog circuitry.

I used an Extron VTG-400D test pattern generator at a variety of resolutions, and it exposed several analog RGB port weaknesses. Scaling was just fine with 640×480 patterns, but increasing the bandwidth and going to any high resolution revealed some shortcomings in high-frequency response. Even analog native 1400×1050 material was trouble, although XGA seemed to be the worst due to poor processing and scaling. There was serious banding on several patterns, particularly (although by no means only) those with fine detail. Poor frequency response caused a color shift in several 1/1 pixel grids or areas of patterns with 2/2 or 1/1 pixels areas.

I also found that the Realis had a hard time centering and displaying the entire screen image, often cutting one or the other side depending on the specific settings.

Interestingly, many of these banding and high-frequency problems went away when I simply came in analog through the DVI port using a VGA-to-DVI conversion cable (smartly included with the Realis). You're stuck with that analog RGB port for component video sources. (Save your money if you're thinking of using the Realis mostly for S-Video and composite video sources.)

Of course, the Realis SX50 is designed primarily as a business projector. The de-interlacing is mediocre at best. Scaling is marginal. And the native aspect ratio is 4:3, thereby effectively losing vertical resolution on 16:9 (or wider) movies or videos. That all adds up to a video picture quality that can be had for less.

To improve video images, I added a Silicon Optix Image Anyplace scaler/image processor with DVI output to the mix, thus coming into the Realis via DVI. The video image quality became considerably better. Adding the sub-$2,500 price of the Image Anyplace to the Realis still doesn't put the overall cost dramatically out of line. If you're going to use the Realis for more than just the occasional video clip, you should strongly consider adding a scaler to the package.

Still, keep those caveats in perspective. The Realis SX50 is a unique projector that delivers wonderfully on high-resolution image quality claims. As a business projector for displaying easy-to-read charts, graphs, and slides, the Realis SX50 is very hard to beat.

The lack of lumens is troubling, but there was a time not too long ago when 1650 lumens certainly seemed sufficient. For many conference room-sized installations, it probably still is. If that's true for your situation, the high native resolution and excellent color should make the Realis SX50 a clear winner in the boardroom.


PRODUCT SUMMARY

Company: Canon www.usa.canon.com

Product: Realis SX50

Pros: High resolution, low cost, very sharp images, excellent color

Cons: Poor analog circuitry, modest scaling and de-interlacing.

Applications: Boardroom data and graphics projection.

Price: $4,999


SPECIFICATIONS

Brightness 2500 ANSI lumens

Contrast 1000:1 full on/off

Native resolution SXGA+ (1400×1050)

Configuration 3×0.7in. AISYS LCoS

Light source 200W NSH lamp

Zoom 1.7X

Projection distance 2.6-32.8ft.

Screen size 40-300in. diagonal

Throw ratio 60in. @ 6.6ft.

Keystone +/-20 degrees vertical

Speakers 1W mono

Dimensions (H×W×D) 11.2"×11.3"×3.4"

Weight 8.7lbs.

Warranty 3 years parts and labor, 120 days lamp



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