This year we've seen lots of action in the sub-$1000 home theater market, and several of those projectors turned out to be exceptionally good for the price. Three of the best garnered quite a bit of attention -- the BenQ W1070, Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 2030, and Optoma HD25. These three projectors are the strongest values in today's budget home theater market. All feature native 1080p resolution with full HD 3D capabilities. All cost less than $1000. But that's about where the similarities end.
While the W1070, 2030, and HD25 are all outstanding projectors for the money, they are all outstanding in their own ways, and their particular quirks mean that one person's perfect projector is another person's dud. Here is how to figure out which projector is right for you.
Update December 13 2013: As the Optoma HD25 has now been discontinued, this shootout has been updated to include its replacement, the Optoma HD25E.
Evaluating This Year's Projectors
Part of the difficulty in deciding between the BenQ W1070, Epson Home Cinema 2030, and Optoma HD25E is that they have similar specifications despite looking very different in actual use. All three projectors have similar light output, with bright modes producing a touch less than 2,000 lumens, and their contrast ratings are 10,000:1, 15,000:1, and 20,000:1, respectively. But the specs tell you nothing about how these projectors actually look.
The big question is always the same: "which projector should I buy?" And the answer, as always, is "it depends."
Rather than spend the next 2,000 words nitpicking each projector on a point-by-point basis, we've distilled each projector down to its essence by picking the best projector for each of several popular applications. By approaching your projector purchase from the angle of "what do I need my projector to do" rather than fussing over specifications, you will end up with a product that better suits your needs.
THE GAMER: Optoma HD25E
If you care about video games, there's no beating the Optoma HD25E. The HD25E's 17 millisecond input lag makes it the gamer's top choice, coming in a half-frame quicker than the W1070 at 24 ms and a full frame faster than the Home Cinema 2030's 34 ms top speed. Accurate out-of-the-box color makes calibration essentially optional, and the HD25E has excellent dynamic range for a sub-$1000 1080p projector. All of these factors add up to a wonderful gaming experience that's hard to match without spending a lot more money. Better yet, a 3,500/6,000 hour lamp life makes the projector inexpensive to use during extended play sessions--lamp replacements will not be a frequent occurrence.
The HD25E falls short when it comes to calibration, as it has only single-axis RGB controls rather than separate gain/bias adjustments. Additionally, the four preset factory image modes are locked, and there's only one User mode, so only one calibration can be saved at a time. These limitations make the HD25E less attractive for home theater use, but do not detract from its performance as a gaming projector.
The Optoma HD25E doesn't just replace the HD25; it also improves upon it. The HD25E uses a different lamp than the HD25, and replacements cost $179 instead of $399. Maximum light output in Bright mode is now 1725 lumens, compared to 1185 lumens on the old model. And the speakers are now 8W stereo instead of 5W stereo, though the difference isn't very dramatic in actual use.
THE THEATER BUFF: BenQ W1070
The BenQ W1070 ties with the Optoma HD25E for excellent 2D image quality; both projectors offer superb color and dynamic range. The W1070 also includes a 1.3:1 zoom lens with a limited amount of vertical lens shift, which is unique among the projectors in the group. This makes the W1070 ideal for a ceiling mount and just plain easier to mount all around. The projector also has a 6x speed RGBRGB color wheel, so only the most sensitive of viewers will get even a hint of rainbow effects; this is as good as it gets for single-chip DLP projectors and contributes to well-saturated color and a naturally balanced image. The W1070 uses DLP Link's inexpensive 3D glasses, making it affordable to stock up for those times when you have a large audience in your theater.
The W1070 has full calibration controls, including RGB gain/bias adjustments and a complete color management system. It also has two ISF user modes, which provide additional memory locations for user-defined settings. Those can come in handy when you want your projector to look its best both during the day and at night as ambient light levels change.
With a 24 ms frame delay, the W1070 has little input lag, but it does not have the fastest gaming performance -- that honor goes to the Optoma HD25E at 17 ms. It also lacks a VESA 3D sync port and is thus the only projector in this group limited solely to DLP Link glasses. Its factory settings are less color accurate than those on the HD25E, so calibration is something that serious movie buffs will want to invest in. But all in all, If you can do it yourself, a well-calibrated W1070 is the strongest option when it comes to pure 2D home theater performance in the sub-$1000 price category. Hiring a professional to calibrate it will cost a few bills more.
GOODBYE TELEVISION: Epson Home Cinema 2030
While all three of the projectors in this group offer good value for the money, the Epson Home Cinema 2030 is in a class of its own even among the budget kings. For the same sub-$1000 price as the other two projectors, the 2030 claims a longer run time of 5,000 hours with the lamp at full power, versus 3,500 hours on the W1070 and HD25E. More importantly, replacement lamps for the 2030 cost only $99 (versus $249 for the W1070 and $179 for the HD25E), making it an obvious candidate for heavy usage applications like TV replacement. It doesn't hurt that the 2030's two-year warranty is twice as long as the competitors' one-year warranties, either.
The 2030 is the only projector in the group with an MHL-enabled HDMI port, which allows for the use of media devices like the Roku Streaming Stick to create a compact TV replacement system complete with media access without running a ton of cables. The projector's relatively high black level is less of a concern in a living room-type installation where ambient light is omnipresent, but at night the projector's auto iris can bring back a reasonable facsimile of black level performance.
The Home Cinema 2030 is an LCD projector, so there's no spinning color wheel to worry about and zero chance of rainbow artifacts. The 2030 uses Epson's excellent radio-frequency 3D glasses, though none are included. Glasses cost $99 per pair, which is more than the typical DLP Link 3D glasses used by the W1070 or HD25E, but the 2030 uses radio-frequency sync by default whereas the HD25E requires an adapter and the W1070 cannot use anything except DLP Link. As such, 3D eyewear can get pricey for a large group, but the quality of that eyewear is very high.
The Home Cinema 2030 does have a few weaknesses. It has a tiny 2W speaker, whereas each of its competitors has more robust audio output. The projector's lensing is unique (a less kind term would be "non-traditional"), and installing the 2030 can require more thought than installing either the HD25E or the W1070. While the W1070 and HD25E have a mild upward throw angle that makes ceiling mounting easy, the Epson 2030 projects a portion of the image below the centerline of the lens. As such, ceiling mounts will likely require a long extension tube. In standard video operating modes, input lag is 100ms (6 frames), but switching to "Fast" processing reduces that to 34ms (2 frames) which is still usable to most gamers.
TAKING IT ON THE ROAD: Optoma HD25E
The differences between the HD25 and HD25E are relatively minor, but in combination they manage to steal the portable crown from the W1070. Here's why.
The W1070 is still lighter than the HD25E by about half a pound, and it still has a placement advantage with its 1.3:1 zoom lens and vertical lens shift, though the shift range is small and the zoom advantage minimal. But the HD25E's stereo 8W speakers are louder than the 10W mono speaker on the W1070, and the HD25E's superior out-of-the-box color gives it a hassle-free setup.
The HD25E produces 1440 lumens in Cinema mode, about as much as the W1070 produces in Dynamic. The Epson Home Cinema 2030 is still brighter, but the Epson 2030's unconventional lensing (a portion of the image is projected below the centerline of the lens) makes it difficult to set up on the fly without tilting the projector and applying keystone correction, making it ill-suited to portable use. And while the HD25E's $179 replacement lamp can't match the $99 of the Epson 2030, it's also not as expensive as the $249 lamp in the W1070.
DEDICATED 3D THEATER: Optoma HD25E
Previously, we recommended the Optoma HD25-LV for dedicated 3D theater due to that projector's high brightness. We measured 1124 lumens from the HD25-LV during 3D viewing, a 40% premium over the HD25. The HD25E fares much better than its predecessor, and our test sample measured around 900 lumens during 3D use. Using a total 3D transmission figure of about 12.5% (this depends on which glasses you use) and a screen gain of 1.3, that gives you a 100" diagonal 16:9 image at just under 5 foot-Lamberts, which is above the 4 fL threshold for acceptable 3D viewing in a darkened environment. In other words, it is possible to watch large-format 3D on the HD25E without giving yourself a headache.
The HD25-LV is still brighter, however, and if you have the extra cash we'd still recommend it over the HD25E for this application. But for less than $1000, the HD25E is our pick.