September 20, 2006

Digital Projector Warranties:

Engineers have known since the days of Thomas Edison that bulbs eventually burn out. For customers looking to buy a projector, however, the high cost of replacement lamps and the relatively brief warranties provided for them aren't always top of mind.

In our continuing warranty tour, this week we're spotlighting the wares of 16 digital projector manufacturers. Anyone who has ever flipped a deck of PowerPoint slides has probably used one, and anyone who has done so frequently has probably run into a unit in need of repair.

Today's digital projectors are typically driven by a very small LCD lamp which throws light onto a wall or a fabric screen. They're very similar to rear projection televisions with two important differences: first, anything sold as a television would necessarily need to include a TV tuner (although some plasma screens sold as "monitors" depend upon externally-attached tuners), and second, a rear projection TV is really a big box containing both a projector and a screen (which the viewer sees the back of, hence the name). A digital projector does not usually include a tuner, and the screen is almost always a separate item.

The "big box" for a front-facing projector is the room in which it is used. In hotel ballrooms and conference centers, the projector is usually placed on a table towards the front of a room, between the viewers and the screen. In a conference room, the projector might be attached to the ceiling above the heads of viewers. In a cinema or auditorium, the projector is typically at the back of the room, though sometimes it's actually behind the screen (projecting reversed images).

Room Size

Manufacturers usually segment their projector product lines based upon room size and portability. Units designed for home TV viewing are designed to fit the size of a living room. Units designed for cinemas need to be able to project their image above the heads of hundreds of people. Units designed for the traveling PowerPoint flipper need to be lightweight and durable enough to make it through an airport.

Digital projectors also vary on metrics such as brightness and resolution. Both have a bearing upon maximum image size and room size, and therefore their adaptability to home, office, and ballroom applications. The further the distance between the projector and the screen, the larger the image. But to get an image the size of a feature film in a large room, one would need a projector whose brightness and resolution are both towards the high end, or else the image will be faint and grainy. One could get away with much lower resolutions and brightnesses in a small conference room or an apartment. In a self-contained rear projection TV, the distance between lamp and screen is a matter of feet if not inches. However, units designed for the display of computer data or high definition television images need higher resolutions even if the distance between lamp and screen is very short.

The warranty implications of projector specifications aren't as clear-cut. It's common for one manufacturer to sell competing home, office, and large room product lines with overlapping price points and different warranties. For instance, Mitsubishi's $2,000 HC3000U has a two-year warranty but its $1,250 XL9U has a three-year warranty. And the ES100U has a one-year lamp warranty despite its comparatively low selling price. But five other manufacturers warrant their entire projector product lines for the same period.

In the list below, we've gathered representative samplings from 16 manufacturers -- from their low end, midrange, and high end offerings. Where there were different warranty periods, we listed their models in ascending order based upon the length of the warranty and then the price. Where there were no differences, we included an abbreviated list ranked by price alone.

Lamp Warranty Considerations

As the list below details, one could buy a projector backed for one, two, or even three years. Parts and labor warranty periods are usually identical, except in the case of NEC Visual Systems. What seems to matter more are the lamp warranty periods, which for all but some NEC and Hewlett-Packard models are shorter than the overall parts and labor warranties.

Most projector bulbs are warranted for either 90 days or one year, but some also have usage-based warranty periods. If the lamp is used heavily, perhaps as a home TV that's on six hours a day, the warranty could therefore expire on usage alone after only one or two months. With replacement projector lamps typically selling in a range of $300 to $450 each, this could be a significant purchasing consideration.

If the lamp is used only one or two hours per day, such as might be the case with a traveling salesman, the warranty might expire on the calendar alone, but as a worst case -- with the lamp consistently burning out on day 91 -- this could involve a materials cost of $150 a month in quarterly bulb replacements. What's more likely is that the lamp in a gently used unit will last 3,000 or 4,000 hours, implying replacements perhaps every other year. But still, even if the lamp is replaced only occasionally, the cost is significant compared to the typical $1,500 selling price of the projector itself. So with this product type, we're going to list lamp warranties as a third metric, alongside the overall parts and labor warranties.

Repair vs. Replace

Unlike other consumer electronics categories that use a year's parts warranty and a 90-day labor warranty to discourage the pursuit of warranty claims late in the year, most front projector manufacturers will pay for the repair for as long as they'll pay for the parts. A customer will not be hit with a labor bill if the claim is filed between 91 and 365 days after their purchase, and they will not therefore discard their unit in frustration. With projector lamps, in fact, the shorter warranty encourages replacement purchases, and boosts aftermarket revenue. And the customer usually does the replacing themselves, since labor is not usually covered at all.

The repair/replace decision is more akin to what happens with computer printers. Nobody would dispose of a printer simply because it ran out of ink. Nor would anyone dispose of a $1,500 projector because it needs a new $300 lamp. With printers, however, neither the paper nor the ink carries an express warranty (although toner cartridges that are clearly defective out of the box would be replaced). So the analogy is less than perfect. And while there may be a significant ongoing operating cost for printers in terms of consumables, and while the ongoing replenishment of ink and paper supplies is a given, this has no bearing on the hardware warranty.

With MP3 players and digital cameras, the rechargeable batteries sometimes have shorter warranties than the rest of the unit. While this fact may cause some unhappiness when discovered by the consumer in need of a new battery, it rarely leads to the disposal of the entire unit (though iPod users are reported to be particularly unhappy). With televisions, especially flat screens, the glass also usually has a separate and shorter warranty, but it's not ordinarily considered replaceable. So a cracked screen is usually a total loss, especially with CRTs, and the shorter warranty period on the screen encourages disposal.

With rear projection televisions, it gets a little trickier. Both the screen and the lamp frequently have shorter warranties than the electronics inside, and like these front projectors listed below, the bulbs tend to wear out over time. So perhaps this metric deserves scrutiny too? If readers agree, we may need to go back and revisit the list in the Sept. 7 column. But the replacement bulbs for these rear projection units are priced closer to $200 to $250, and they don't burn as bright or as fast as front projection lamps. So replacements are to be expected every three to five years, and the cost is more manageable.

With rear projection TVs, lamp life and the cost of their replacement should be a significant consideration before making a purchase. We would think that after such a consideration, many potential buyers might turn to a CRT or flat screen purchase instead. But with front projectors, there really is no alternative technology to consider. If you want to project an image on a wall or a screen, you have to buy a projector. But you shouldn't neglect asking about its lamp's expected life and warranty period, not to mention its replacement cost. If you buy a unit that uses expensive lamps that carry short warranties, you can't later claim "I didn't know" when the ongoing cost of ownership become clear.

Lamp Warranty Roundup

So here's a roundup of some of the fine print terms and conditions attached to projector lamps: Epson warrants most of its projectors for two years, but the projector's lamp is warranted for only 90 days. Even on models with three-year warranties, the projector's lamp is warranted for only 90 days. Optoma Corp. does likewise, giving the basic unit either a two- or three-year warranty period, but the bulb is warranted for only 90 days.

InFocus grants either a 90-day or a 180-day warranty on the projector bulb, depending upon the model. ViewSonic warrants the original lamp for one year, while the overall unit is warranted for three years. HP has units with either one- or three-year overall warranties, but the lamp is warranted for one year in all. Canon settled upon the unusual number of 120 days for its lamp warranty period.

When replacement lamps are purchased separately, the warranty period is typically the same as the original lamp. However, some manufacturers also impose a usage clause into their warranty terms and conditions. For instance, Hitachi warrants its projector lamps for 90 days or 180 hours of use, whichever comes first. BenQ warrants its projector lamps for 90 days or 500 hours. NEC warrants most of its projector lamps for one year or 500 hours, but some at the low end carry only a 90-day warranty.

Mitsubishi warrants most of its lamps for 90 days or 300 hours of use, while the lamps in some models such as the ES100U and the XD490U carry an industry-leading one-year/1,000-hour warranty. All bulb warranties are parts-only, meaning that from day one the customer must either replace the bulb themselves or pay for a technician to do so.

On some models, Panasonic caps both its projectors and its lamps with usage limits. For instance, the PT-AE900U projector is warranted for one year or 2,000 hours, whichever comes first, while the lamp is warranted for 90 days or 500 hours. The projector warranties cover both parts and labor, while the lamps are parts only (customer replaceable units).

Projector vs. Plasma or LCD

With plasma and LCD screens, it's common for manufacturers to place sharp limits into the warranty terms and conditions for units used in commercial applications. Some even void the warranty if the screen is used for commercial applications. With projectors, no such differences were found. It matters more how long the unit is used rather than what it's being used for (home vs. office, PowerPoint vs. feature films, etc.). So while the burn-in of persistent images is a problem for plasma screens used as commercial displays, the burn-out of the lamp within a projector is more a function of usage and less a function of use.

A note about replacement cost: while most lamps fall into that $300 to $450 range, some are priced far above that range. For instance, Sony sells the VPL-VW100 home theater projector at a list price of $9,000. The unit is warranted for two years, but the lamp is warranted for only 90 days. Xenon replacement lamps for this unit (part number LMP-H400) cost $1,000 each, so an extended warranty of some kind would be a compelling add-on purchase.

With projector manufacturers expressing their warranties like passenger car manufacturers (though it's hours instead of miles or kilometers), it's somewhat surprising they don't seem to pay much attention to branding. Global automakers frequently resort to numbering schemes for their export models to avoid language-dependent model names (the Fiat 500 is perhaps the best example of this). But they rarely use what sound like part numbers. In the list below, however, only Canon, Epson, and Lenovo seem to make any effort to give their units a brand identity. Everyone else seems to be using VIN numbers.

Digital Projector Warranties

  Brand, Make & Model  Parts  Warranty  (years)  Labor  Warranty  (years)  Lamp  Warranty  (years)
  BenQ MP610 1 1 0.25
  BenQ W100 1 1 0.25
  BenQ CP220 1 1 0.25
  BenQ CP120 1 1 0.25
  BenQ MP770 2 2 0.25
  BenQ PB8263 2 2 0.25
  BenQ PE8720 3 3 0.25
  Canon LV-X6 3 3 0.33
  Canon LV-7255 3 3 0.33
  Canon Realis SX600 3 3 0.33
  Canon Realis SX6 3 3 0.33
  Dell 1200MP 1 1 0.25
  Dell 3400MP 2 2 0.25
  Dell 5100MP 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite S4 V11H221020 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite 76c V11H177020 2 2 0.25
  Epson MovieMate 25 V11H181020SC with DVD 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 400 V11H251020 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite 1715c V11H228020 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite 835p V11H145020 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite 7900NL V11H170920 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite 8300NL V11H068920 2 2 0.25
  Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema 800 V11H223020MB 3 3 0.25
  Hitachi CP-RS56 3 3 0.25
  Hitachi PJ-LC7 Illumina 3 3 0.25
  Hitachi ED-S3350 3 3 0.25
  Hitachi CP-X255 3 3 0.25
  Hitachi CP-X445 3 3 0.25
  Hitachi CP-X605 3 3 0.25
  Hitachi CP-SX1350 3 3 0.25
  HP xp7010 1 1 1
  HP vp6320 1 1 1
  HP xp7030 3 3 1
  InFocus X1a 1 1 0.25
  InFocus LP120 1 1 0.25
  InFocus LP600 1 1 0.25
  InFocus LP850 1 1 0.25
  InFocus LP860 1 1 0.25
  InFocus IN24 1 1 0.5
  InFocus IN34 1 1 0.5
  InFocus IN76 1 1 0.5
  Lenovo ThinkVision E500 3 3 0.25
  Lenovo ThinkVision M500 3 3 0.25
  Lenovo ThinkVision C500 3 3 0.25
  Lenovo ThinkVision C400 3 3 0.25
  Mitsubishi SD205R 2 2 0.25
  Mitsubishi HC100U 2 2 0.25
  Mitsubishi HC3000U 2 2 0.25
  Mitsubishi ES100U 2 2 1
  Mitsubishi XL9U 3 3 0.25
  Mitsubishi XD430U 3 3 0.25
  Mitsubishi XD80U 3 3 0.25
  Mitsubishi HD4000U 3 3 0.25
  Mitsubishi XL5980U/LU 3 3 0.25
  Mitsubishi XD490U 3 3 1
  NEC LT20E 2 2 0.25
  NEC WT610E 2 2 0.25
  NEC VT480 3 1 1
  NEC VT580 3 1 1
  NEC LT30 3 1 1
  NEC NP1000 3 1 1
  NEC NP2000 3 1 1
  Optoma H27 2 2 0.25
  Optoma EP729 2 2 0.25
  Optoma EP1690 2 2 0.25
  Optoma H78DC3 2 2 0.25
  Optoma TS400 3 3 0.25
  Optoma TX700 3 3 0.25
  Optoma EP910 3 3 0.25
  Optoma HD7300 3 3 0.25
  Panasonic PT-AE900U 1 1 0.25
  Panasonic PT-D3500U 1 1 0.25
  Panasonic PT-DW7000U 1 1 0.25
  Panasonic PT-D7700U 1 1 0.25
  Panasonic PT-D5500U 2 2 0.25
  Panasonic PT-P1SDU 3 3 0.25
  Panasonic PT-LB50U 3 3 0.25
  Sharp DT-100 1 1 0.25
  Sharp DT-500 1 1 0.25
  Sharp XV-Z3000 1 1 0.25
  Sharp XV-Z10000U 1 1 0.25
  Sharp XR-10S 3 3 0.25
  Sharp PG-B10S 3 3 0.25
  Sharp XR-20X 3 3 0.25
  Sharp PG-MB60X 3 3 0.25
  Sharp XG-PH50X 3 3 0.25
  Sharp XG-V10XU 3 3 0.25
  Sony VPL-HS60 2 2 0.25
  Sony VPL-VW100 2 2 0.25
  Sony VPL-ES3 3 3 0.25
  Sony VPL-CS20A 3 3 0.25
  Sony VPL-CX21 3 3 0.25
  Sony VPL-CX61 3 3 0.25
  Sony VPL-CX86 3 3 0.25
  Sony VPL-FX52L 3 3 0.25
  Toshiba TDP-T45U 2 2 0.25
  Toshiba TDP-ET20U 2 2 0.25
  Toshiba TLP-XC2500U 2 2 0.25
  Toshiba TDP-TW350U 2 2 0.25
  ViewSonic PJ400 3 3 1
  ViewSonic PJ656 3 3 1
  ViewSonic PJ1172 3 3 1

Next week we're going to take another detour on our summer warranty tour to bring you the details on product warranty claims paid by the 100 largest U.S.-based manufacturers during the first half of 2006. Summer is ending this week and we're still finding product lines to profile within the converging worlds of computer peripherals, office equipment, and home entertainment systems. We've yet to get around to covering kitchen appliances or telephone gear, not to mention medical equipment, sports gear, or commercial food storage equipment. And we still need to go back to the automotive sector to cover trucks, buses, construction equipment, and other large vehicles. So perhaps we'll make this warranty tour a monthly feature that will last through the cold months.

Other Stops on the Warranty Tour

Automotive Warranties

Computer Warranties

Consumer Electronics

AMT Warranty Corp.
Fulcrum Analytics
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