DLP TCO Calculator: It Doesn’t Add Up.

DLP Booth at Infocomm 2009

While visiting the Texas Instruments DLP booth at the Infocomm 2009 show, I spotted a computer display running DLP’s Total Cost of Ownership Calculator program. It looked similar to the active online version, so I decided to run an ownership cost analysis between two similar-priced and Lumens-rated projectors, the Infocus IN2104 (2500 lumen claimed brightness) and the Epson Powerlite EMP-1715 (2200 lumens). Before starting, I noticed that the primary data fields in the display program were set to a typical school district’s smart board scenario: buy 100 units, use them for seven years, run them five hours a day, 5 days per week, and 43 weeks per year. I went with that and then selected the model numbers from the dropdown. Next, I hit calculate  and within seconds the display revealed that I would save an incredible $164,000 in only 7 years if I bought the Infocus models. WOW!! That’s three times as much as the original cost of purchasing 100 Epson models! But how on earth could anyone save so much? And why didn’t I have to fill in all the additional fields regarding bulb life, bulb cost, labor cost, etc., before the computer calculated the savings? (Usually, when you don’t fill those in on the TCO online version, windows pop up with suggestions for the amounts to fill in.)

There was obviously something wrong with this display. First, in the final tally and spec windows (upper right corner in the image above), the Powerlite 1715 was replaced by the Powerlite 83+, possibly for reasons that had to do with the discontinued status of the 1715 model. That was harmless enough, but the spec lists showed a Standard Lamp Life of 3000 hours for both the IN2104 projector and the Epson Powerlite 83+, even though Infocus claims 2000 hours in its brochures (with 3000 hours achievable in economy mode). That lamp-life figure is used to predict the cost of lamp replacement over time, so using 3000 hours skews the results in DLP’s favor. Plus, the program automatically tacked on $1,500 per Epson unit for filter cleaning over the seven year period, $32 each for filters, and the maintenance costs for all 100 Epson projectors. The final came to $153,200! Meanwhile, on the Infocus side, there were no maintenance or filter costs, yet there was a price of $55,000 for the replacement & labor cost of bulbs (based on 3000 hrs per bulb). But that wasn’t right either, as the program failed to tally the cost of bulb replacement and labor for the Epson units. Had it done so, the program would have calculated at least $50,000 higher savings for choosing the Infocus units.

It took some after-hours research to figure out how these final costs were generated, but fortunately I had the online version of the DLP TCO to help me out. For cleaning and replacement cost, it appears the show display program input replacing a filter every 2500 hours, cleaning the filter every 100 hours of use, and labor costs of $20 per hour (to clean only 2 filters per hour). That works out to over $22,000 a year just to clean the filters on 100 projectors!  Perhaps there are some places in the world where dust blows constantly through open classroom or boardrooms, requiring filter cleaning every 100 hours (or once a month in this case). However, there’s no mention of 100 hour intervals between cleanings in the Powerlite 1715c or 83+manuals, despite what the DLP booth rep told me the 100-hour figure was based on. Next, is $20 per hour to clean two 3LCD projector filters per hour a reasonable figure (or a tongue-twister)? Even if the projectors are mounted overhead it only takes a few seconds (or a minute if you’re really working the clock) to clean or even replace a filter. The proof is in the video:

How easy is it to clean or replace a filter in a 3LCD projector? Check out the video.

Meanwhile, you can’t even enter filter costs or labor amounts in those fields on the DLP side of the calculator, since most DLP models boast Filter-Free designs. But the design logic for Filter-Free projectors was built on claims by TI and its DLP partners that their projectors have Sealed Optics that keep out the dust. (I’ve personally sat through dozens of presentations over the last year where the sealed optic feature was touted in DLP projectors, while the need for dust filters in 3LCD projectors was ridiculed for added costs and inconvenience.) However, at this year’s Infocomm show, there wasn’t a single mention of sealed optics in any DLP presentation or literature, and only a vague mention of semi-sealed optics in a press release for a new Mitsubishi DLP projector. And as I wrote this, I could only find one mention of sealed optics on any DLP partner site, and that was Dell’s:

The mystery behind this sudden disappearing act was cleared up at the 3LCD booth. Apparently, Epson challenged Texas Instruments on the fact that it couldn’t find sealed optics in DLP projectors. To support this challenge, a display at the 3LCD booth showed the results from an independent lab’s dust test of DLP projectors. Photos clearly illustrated how dust accumulated on the projector bulb, condensing lens, color wheel, and mirror assemblies (all part of the optical path) as well as the circuit boards within the unit. There were also examples of image degradation caused by dust, as well as data showing that dust accumulation decreases Lumens output significantly and shortens bulb life. Soon after that challenge began, claims for sealed optics disappeared from the DLP website and most other partner  sites.

A few weeks after the show (on July 9, 2009) the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureau (NAD) found that TI was wrong to claim that its DLP projectors contained a sealed optical system, and TI agreed to remove mentions of sealed optics. This is an excerpt from that finding:
“The challenger (Epson) objected to the advertiser’s (TI) claims that its projectors have a completely enclosed optical system, which is sealed in a protective tube from lamp to lens. It also objected to the message that because DLP-based projectors features such a system, they are impenetrable to dust, which results in certain performance and cost of ownership advantages over 3LCD-based projectors. The challenger noted that these claims not only appear in advertising published by the advertiser, but they have also been adopted and widely disseminated by the projector manufacturers that use the technology.

In response to NAD’s inquiry, the advertiser asserted that it has discontinued, and will cease dissemination of, materials with claims concerning or visually depicting DLP-based projectors as completely enclosed and completely sealed as well as completely free from or unaffected by dust.

Further, the advertiser said it will no longer use claims that DLP-based projectors have sealed optics or enclosed optics or are completely free from or unaffected by dust.The advertiser noted that it is in the process of revising its DLP sales brochures and online advertising to reflect these changes, and that these revisions should be completed soon. It also stated that it has permanently discontinued the animation showing how dust affects LCD and DLP projectors, and the portion of the video showing the same, from its Website.”

I don’t like being mislead by false product claims. But what else can you call it? Imagine if Canon or Nikon sold “optically sealed” lenses or compact cameras that easily allowed dust to enter and accumulate? They’d be sued left and right.
Now that we know that DLP projectors are actually semi-sealed and open to dust,  the 10-million dollar question is: How can DLP manufacturers continue to claim that their  “filter-free” designs provide lower maintenance costs over the life of the projector if dust accumulation shortens bulb life and creates image-quality problems? And how can you come out ahead on Total Cost Of Ownership with minor filter cleaning and replacement cost savings if you shorten bulb life and substantially increase the total cost for new bulbs? (Projector bulbs cost $300-$400 each, dust filters about $12!) It’s not easy, unless you believe the instructions that pop up on the TCO calculator when you fail to input the cost of cleaning labor for 3LCD projectors:

Apparently, there are quite a few purchasing agents in school districts around the country  who do believe that it costs $15-30 an hour to clean two filters per hour, and a few actually based huge (in one case, 2,000 units!) purchases on the results of the TCO calculator (See the DLP Case Studies.) However, given the recent revelation about “sealed-optics” and potential for short lived bulbs (not to mention image quality degradation), I wonder if any of those buyers will be asking for their money back? Or will they still think they got the deal based on yet another questionable cost added to the tally? This one called Color Decay, and described as follows in the TCO Calculator:

When I ran the booth version of the TCO calculator, it added $735 per Epson projector for the repair of LCD panel Color Decay (for a total of $73,500 for 100 units). That’s more to replace faded 3LCD panels than you’d spend on new projectors.  Where did this figure come from? Again, with help from  the online version, I discovered that the $73,500 was based on repairing the LCD panels in every one of those 3LCD projectors after only 2000 hours of use—even before it’s time to replace your first bulb at 3000 hours! Considering the 7525 hours of use in this scenario, that would mean that you’d spend nearly $200 every 2000 hours to repair faded LCD panels. If there was any truth to this repair cost, I can guarantee that thousands of owners of 3LCD projectors would be cursing and swearing at the manufacturers for making and selling defective products. Where is the evidence to support this 2000-hour self destruct sequence, or the extravagent repair costs? The only solid links I found to the existence of Color Decay in modern 3LCD projectors dates back to DLP-sponsored studies done using single-panel LCD projectors in 2002 and 2003. And after a close read, those tests only proved to me that if you ran old-model LCD projectors 24/7 for several months at a time, overheating might damage an LCD panel and not a single-chip DLP imager. If Color Decay does exist in modern 3LCD projectors, then TI should prove it.

By the way, many of the latest 3LCD projectors feature E-TORL lamps with bulb life ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 hours in standard (full) brightness, while the best single-chip DLP models max out at 3,000 hours, with 4000 in low (or ECO) modes. But if you compare those models using the online TCO calculator, or put in reasonable costs for replacing bulbs or cleaning filters with any competitive pair, something odd happens to the results in the TCO calculator. It tells you that you would save $0 if you purchased the 3LCD model, and not a negative number based on the total costs actually calculated on another line. (Also note that bulb replacement is the biggest cost overall.) That’s not fair, is it? If TI wants to keep calling this thing a Total Cost Of Ownership calculator, why doesn’t it work in both directions? Perhaps a better meaning for TCO would be Total Concoction Online.

About Author

Michael J. McNamara
Michael J. McNamara

Michael J. McNamara is the Editor-in-Chief of the McNamara Report, Director of In-Depth Focus Labs, and former Exec. Technology Editor at Popular Photography Magazine. His photo and video portfolios can be viewed at www.McPhotoVideo.com.