Light output. The "UB" in the 5020UBe's name stands for Ultra Black, but it could just as easily mean Ultra Bright. The projector's specifications state a maximum brightness of 2400 lumens, and our test sample met this easily.
Dynamic is the brightest preset image mode available on the projector. On our test sample, Dynamic mode measured 2432 lumens with the lamp set to Normal, the full-power setting. Dynamic mode emphasizes light output above all other considerations, and as such black level is not as impressive nor is color as accurate as in the 5020UBe's other image modes.
The same is not true for Living Room mode. Living Room mode is, as the name might suggest, an image mode designed for use in a non-traditional theater space with significant ambient light -- i.e. a living room, family room, or other such gathering area. Contrast is much improved compared to Dynamic mode, and color has an intentional blue tint. Why? Well, most folks' indoor lighting tends towards the warm side, especially if that lighting is from incandescent bulbs. In the additive color system, if you want to cancel out an excess of yellow, you add blue. Living room mode measures 1820 lumens.
However, let's say you just want a very bright picture because you want to use a large screen, and you don't need to cancel out any yellow. In that case, you can still use Living Room mode -- just change the "Abs. Color Temp" control from 7500K to 6500K. The result is a bright, perfectly color-balanced picture at 1725 lumens.
The remaining three modes can get a little confusing: they are THX, Natural, and Cinema. THX mode is best suited for traditional dark-room home theater use in a room with zero ambient light and blacked-out walls. It measures 766 lumens with the lamp set to Normal, but it has a very subdued, natural appearance with regards to color and contrast. This is the mode the projector defaults to upon startup, and after viewing the Natural and Cinema modes it didn't get a lot of use.
Which brings us to Natural and Cinema modes. Natural and Cinema are nearly identical. They both have excellent color balance, only needing a small amount of adjustment. They both offer the best contrast available on the 5020UBe. They even have similar light output, at 908 lumens for Natural and 914 lumens for Cinema. The only significant difference we can find is that Natural mode's color gamut closely adheres to the Rec. 709 standard, while Cinema offers an expanded gamut which gives the image a bit more pop.
Most of our testing occurred in Cinema mode because it creates a bright, colorful, high-contrast picture that is nonetheless easy to calibrate and easy to watch. Some folks will be drawn to THX mode either due to its subdued appearance or because of those three magic letters that add some kind of mystic legitimacy to the picture on the screen. We would urge owners of the 5020UBe to cycle through the three modes using a variety of content and decide for themselves which they like the best.
One thing you may have noticed is that none of the preset modes drop much below 800 lumens, which can be far too bright on a smaller-sized screen. Even a 120" diagonal screen at a modest 1.3 gain doesn't need that much light. In these instances, the best choice is to switch to Eco lamp mode, which drops light output by 25% in each of the above modes. That brings Cinema mode to a much more reasonable 685 lumens. If you need further light output reduction, consider moving the projector back for a longer throw distance; using the telephoto end of the lens will decrease light output by up to 32%.
Contrast. Last year, the 5010 had the best black levels in its price range. This year, while we haven't yet seen all of the home theater projectors under $5,000, indications are strong that Epson is coming back for a repeat performance. The 5020UBe features the same deep black levels that the 5010 had, especially in dark scenes. The projector's auto iris has two settings, Normal and High Speed, and while they differ in terms of response time and sensitivity the net effect is the same -- dark scenes receive a significant black level boost.
In terms of shadow detail, the 5020UBe's gamma settings are good even before calibration. The default setting of 2.4 preserves deep shadow detail without blowing out highlights or crushing blacks. If you plan to use the 5020UBe in areas with ambient light, a milder gamma setting like 2.2 will lighten some shadow detail, making it more visible in that environment.
Color. The 5020UBe has excellent, comprehensive color controls for both white balance and gamut. However, we ended up not using the gamut controls, because our instruments indicate that the differences between the 5020UBe's gamut and the Rec. 709 gamut should not be visible to the human eye. There are some differences between the various image modes, as illustrated below.
Note that THX and Natural have nearly identical gamut plots, and indeed the measurements are very similar. The difference is that Natural has quite a bit more "pop" behind it, and is overall quite similar to Cinema in terms of white balance, contrast, and overall appearance on screen. Some folks will prefer Natural over Cinema for this reason. The expanded gamut present in Cinema mode is a preferential thing; some people will enjoy it while others will not. Other than this gamut shift, Cinema and Natural are largely identical.
Dynamic mode, as mentioned earlier, pushes green in order to enhance light output. As a result, its RGB levels look a little wonky, especially as you move towards pure white.
In Cinema mode, the projector measured about 6000K out of the box, but it was easy to bring the projector up to 6500K with a bit of fine-tuning. Below are pre-calibration and post-calibration graphs of Cinema mode's RGB levels, along with the settings we used to get there.
On our test sample, the RGB settings looked like this:
The real surprise of the 5020UBe's color performance, though, was Living Room. With not a single stitch of adjustment save for a quick change of the Abs. Color Temp control from 7500K to 6500K, we obtained a white balance that looked like this:
Above: Living Room, pre-calibration. Below: post-calibration.
The long and short of it is that the 5020UBe has solid color out of the box, but a touch of adjustment -- in some cases a very small touch -- can make it really shine.
Sharpness and clarity. The 5020UBe looks great when you feed it native resolution 1080p material, but the same is true for most 1080p projectors. The days of worrying about de-interlacing and scaling are long since over. However, the 5020UBe does have a leg-up on the competition when it comes to standard definition material, such as that pile of DVDs you haven't watched in years. It's called Super Resolution.
Super Resolution is a smart sharpening algorithm that picks up the latent detail in standard definition material and makes it stand out more. I don't know if you've looked at an average DVD lately, but they tend to look kind of muddy and ill-defined at all but the best of times. Super Resolution takes those scenes and makes them look almost high-definition. It's not as good as buying the Blu-ray version, but DVDs look better on the 5020UBe than they do on most other home theater projectors.