Picture quality. Why should you buy a projector like the MG-850HD over any of the countless other sub-$800 WXGA projectors out there? Setting aside the slew of home entertainment features, it all boils down to picture quality. The MG-850HD is built from the ground up with home entertainment in mind--movies, home video, television, pictures, music, and games. While it shares certain features in common with a data projector, namely its 1280x800 native resolution, it also has many things in common with its brethren in Epson's home theater lineup. The MG-850HD delivers a bright, colorful, high-contrast image with plenty of detail.
Light output. In a living room or other non-theater space, the MG-850HD's high lumen output allows it to be used at large screen sizes even in the presence of ambient light. The MG-850HD has a maximum output of 2800 lumens on paper, and we were able to hit that number in Dynamic mode with both Contrast and Brightness sliders cranked all the way up. These adjustments kill color saturation and dynamic range, so it isn't much good for anything beyond text display, but it can be handy when you need that extra little bit of oomph out of the projector. Bringing contrast and brightness back down to normal, Dynamic mode measured 2365 lumens with the lamp set to Normal. Dynamic mode lives up to its name, with big bold highlights and highly saturated colors. It is a great choice for sports and animation as well as video games--basically anywhere you want the biggest screen size you can manage, since Dynamic is the brightest of all pre-calibrated modes. Color isn't as accurate as it is in the following presets, but when you just need a big picture on the wall, color accuracy is not the primary concern.
Living Room mode, the next preset, has better color accuracy and contrast than Dynamic mode, but also lower lumen output. At 1431 lumens in high lamp mode, Living Room is a good choice if you have some control over ambient light in your viewing space, but still want to keep the lights up--say, when you're eating dinner while watching a movie, or chowing down on snacks during the game, or playing a video game. Game mode is almost identical to Living Room, except the former is about ten lumens brighter and color temperature is a little cooler. Functionally, these two modes are interchangeable.
The MG-850HD with iPad attached
The final available mode is Cinema. Cinema mode has a warmer color temperature than Dynamic, Game, or Living Room, deeper black levels, and a more subtle, film-like appearance. It is the ideal mode for film or video in a darkened space, though a small amount of ambient light is not intolerable thanks to Cinema mode's 1350 lumens.
Cinema mode at default uses the Eco lamp setting, which measures 1070 lumens (a 21% reduction in output). While the other image modes default to Normal lamp, anyone finding the projector too bright can switch to Eco lamp for a 21% reduction in light output in any of these preset modes.
Contrast. In ambient light, brightness creates contrast. However, in a darkened viewing space, the MH-850HD has respectable contrast all its own. Dynamic range is sufficient to properly display shadow detail from most Blu-ray movies without crushed blacks or blown highlights. Black level is aided by the MG-850HD's auto iris, which operates in total silence and helps keep dark scenes looking black instead of gray. The iris is not very aggressive at times; some unquestionably "dark" scenes in certain movies did not trigger the iris.
Color. The MG-850HD has solid color performance, even straight out of the box. As the projector costs less than $800, it is unlikely that many users will spend the time and money to have it professionally calibrated, making a good factory preset even more important. Even at defaults, color is balanced and well-saturated, and color temperature is within 500K of the D65 ideal in Cinema mode without any adjustment. Videophiles may want to spend time fine-tuning the MG-850HD anyway, as the projector has a full suite of RGB Gain/Bias controls and responds well to calibration.
The MG-850HD's side panel. Note the carrying handle.
Portability. Any projector owner will tell you that, when game day rolls around, their house becomes the go-to gathering place. While that can be a lot of fun, it is also a lot of work. The MG-850HD is highly portable--not just because it is small and light (which it is) but because it was designed with an eye for portability. On the side of the projector is a sturdy fold-out carrying handle, perfect for lugging the projector from place to place. All of the ports, including the iPod dock, are either covered or retractable. The lens cap is a part of the body itself and therefore cannot be lost. The projector has a set of 10W stereo speakers, so an external audio system isn't required. All of these features make the MG-850HD the ideal projector to bring to a friend's house, set up on the coffee table, and start watching the game. Even if you don't plan to travel with the projector, the MG-850HD makes it easy to put the projector away when you're not using it, then set it up again later. For multi-use rooms like the living room, this is vital.
iPod connectivity. Smartphones and portable media devices become more and more ubiquitous every day, and the MG-850HD provides an easy way to share content from these devices. Any smartphone or tablet can use one of the MG-850HD's video ports, of course, or perhaps connect directly using the projector's USB port. However, Apple's suite of iOS devices (comprised of the iPhone, iPod, and iPad) can attach directly to the MG-850HD's dock connector. This not only allows audio and video to be passed from device to projector, but also allows you to control the device using the projector's remote control. While the interface can be a little awkward at times, the system works well when connected to an iPod classic.
The rear of the MG-850HD with VGA port exposed and iPod dock extended.
Fan noise. In Normal lamp mode, the MG-850HD's fan emits a constant low rush of air, which while not objectionable is certainly noticeable. While watching a movie with the speakers turned up, the noise becomes much harder to notice. On the other hand, Eco mode lowers fan noise to the point where it is basically undetectable even with no other noise in the room. If you want to show a photo slideshow with no music, Eco mode is the way to go.
Speakers. The MG-850HD has a pair of 10W stereo speakers built in. These speakers are powerful enough that a small group, say 5-10 people, should be able to watch a movie or television program without turning up the volume past the halfway point. Turning up the volume too far will result in some tinny character and the occasional rattling noise which is characteristic of small speakers being driven too hard. To its credit, the MG-850HD performs better in this regard than many other projectors in its price range, and the mere inclusion of 10W stereo speakers is an accomplishment in itself. What's more, the speakers are mounted on the rear panel of the projector, so in a tabletop mount they will face directly back at the audience.
Connectivity. In addition to the iPod dock, the MG-850HD incorporates most standard connection options. The projector has a single HDMI port, a set of component video inputs, and a composite video port with associated L/R RCA audio input. On the rear panel is a VGA port as well as two USB ports, and the MG-850HD can use these ports to connect to all manner of mobile devices. All ports have detachable covers, protecting the delicate pieces and making the projector's surface perfectly smooth when those ports are not in use.