Here's the situation: you need a projector, but you have less than $400 to spend. The projector needs to be bright enough to use in a conference room or living room, which rules out the cheap projectors that you see all over Amazon and eBay. You don't need especially high resolution, just a high-quality image with decent color and contrast from a projector that actually does what it claims to do on the spec sheet.
The Epson VS230 is an SVGA LCD projector that solves all of these problems. At $340, it is inexpensive enough to compete directly with the cheap projectors, but it is a quality product built by one of the largest projector manufacturers in the business. When you need a projector on a shoestring budget, the VS230 is definitely worth a look.
The Viewing Experience
Let's say this up front: the Epson VS230 is not a home theater projector or a home video projector. The VS230 is a low cost presentation projector, built for conference rooms and offices with mild to moderate ambient light. It has lower resolution than home video projectors, a 4:3 aspect ratio, and it does not include many of the advanced video processing features found on home theater projectors.
By our own admission, it is not fair to evaluate the VS230 as a home video projector, but we're doing it anyway. Why? Simply put, there is incredible demand for cheap projectors, and the people who want these cheap projectors usually want to use them for film and video.
So what do you get for your $340? A bright picture, for one. I set up the VS230 on the coffee table in my living room and turned it on. A few seconds later, a blazing bright picture appeared on the wall, with rich colors and decent black levels. With the open curtains and cellular shades, my living room measured almost 300 lux -- enough light to read by without straining your eyes. At this level of ambient illumination, the VS230 is still bright enough to put out a TV-sized image of 60" diagonal and enough color and contrast performance to make video look good. With ambient lighting reduced, like after the sun goes down, image sizes of up to 140" are possible. If anything, the VS230 is too bright for nighttime use at small image sizes, as it produces over 2400 lumens in its brightest mode and over 1000 lumens even in its dimmest one.
The VS230 teaches us that today's business and data projectors can be great for video under the right conditions. The projector is certainly more capable than the cheap junk being advertised for video use on sites like Amazon, and it doesn't cost much more.
Image quality. Even in its brightest modes, the VS230's image is natural and lifelike. Dynamic mode, which on many projectors denotes an unbalanced picture that's heavy on green, is well-balanced and high in contrast on the VS230. Colors are vibrant and the image as a whole looks very natural. In the more subdued modes, like Theatre, the VS230 does a better job of balancing highlights and shadows and gives more detail to the deepest, darkest areas of the image. This does reduce light output by almost 40%, though.
Bright picture. The VS230 can put out over 2400 lumens in Dynamic mode, which is a lot of light. It's enough to put a TV-sized picture in a bright living room, or a truly giant picture in a darkened theater room. Widescreen signals will be about 25% less bright due to using only a portion of the image area, but that's still a heck of a lot of light -- especially when you're comparing the VS230 to projectors that only produce about 200 lumens. The VS230's dimmest mode is at least five times brighter than the cheap projectors we tested.
Vibrant color. The VS230 produces bright colors that are rich and well-saturated, giving the picture a warm, inviting feel. Unlike the cheap projectors, the VS230 uses a 3LCD light engine. Each primary color gets its own LCD panel. The result is a depth and variety of color that is not seen on single-LCD products, giving the VS230 a richer, more saturated appearance.
Great sound. On paper, the VS230 doesn't have much of a sound system -- just a two-watt mono speaker. However, that little speaker is loud. It is more than enough volume for a living room with six or eight of your friends chatting and moving around. During quieter moments, or when watching a movie, you don't even need to turn the volume up very high. Cranked up to maximum volume, there's no reason you couldn't use the VS230 for backyard movies.
Extended lamp life. The VS230's lamp is expected to last 5,000 hours at full power, or 6,000 hours when used in ECO mode. Replacement lamps (Epson part ELPLP78) cost only $99. This is as good as it gets for lamp-based projectors. The only way to get longer lamp life is to move to solid-state illumination, which spikes cost and slashes light output.
Light and portable. At only five pounds, the VS230 is small and easy to move. The lens cap is integrated into the body of the projector, so you can't lose it. A carrying case is not included, but you can always tuck the projector under your arm -- it's small enough.
Smooth, natural image. You might be thinking that you can't use an SVGA projector, especially an LCD SVGA projector, because of the screen door effect. But times have changed. The inter-pixel gap is much smaller on the VS230 than it was on projectors from past years, to the point where you can't really see it if you are seated at 1.2 times the screen width or further from the screen. The end result is that you just see the picture, not the pixels.
Meaningful warranty. The VS230 comes with a one-year warranty, but so do some of the cheap projectors. What's the difference? Epson has been in business since 1942 and making projectors since 1989. They have repair facilities around the world and a track record of honoring their warranties and standing by their products. If you buy an Epson projector, you can be confident that Epson will be around when it breaks and that they will honor their warranty. You can't take that for granted with some of the cheap brands.
Light output. The most immediate and striking difference between the VS230 and the cheap projectors is light output. Dynamic mode, the VS230's brightest, produced 2439 ANSI lumens on our test unit. That is 87% of the specification (none of the cheap projectors exceeded 10% of their own specs). Brightness uniformity is 89%, so the projected image has no visible hot spots or vignetting.
Since Dynamic mode produces a very watchable image, some folks will opt to use it all the time, and that's fine. Those looking for a little bit more balance in the image could instead opt for Presentation mode (1854 lumens) or Theatre mode (1536 lumens), both of which have better shadow detail than Dynamic. Alternately, you can extend lamp life by reducing lamp power to ECO in any image mode. ECO lamp power cuts light output by about 30%, but increases estimated lamp life by 1,000 hours. Using ECO, Dynamic measures 1634 lumens and Theatre comes in at 1075 lumens.
Contrast. The VS230 includes an automatic iris (!), which is unusual in such an inexpensive projector. The iris helps to reduce black levels when ambient light permits. There's no point in using the iris in a bright room. Since the iris makes the picture dimmer, it will actually make the image appear lower in contrast unless you are in a darkened, or at least partially darkened, room.
Dynamic mode showed some crushing of deep shadow detail, which is not unexpected. If you are watching a movie with a lot of dark, shadowy scenes, consider moving to either Presentation or Theatre mode, as these modes are better at preserving shadow detail.
Color. Excellent color brightness and saturation has been a traditional strength of 3LCD projectors, and the VS230 is no different. White balance is a little bluer than the 6500K standard, but the VS230 produces bright, well-saturated color that blows away underpowered cheap projectors.
Sharpness and clarity. Unlike the cheap models, the VS230 produces a sharp image with a small inter-pixel gap and maintains perfect focus across the entire image. Like the cheap projectors, it lacks lens shift but includes keystone correction. But its keystone correction is digital, not physical. This makes it much easier to make small, precise adjustments -- and to return to the neutral position later.
No zoom. Most inexpensive projectors have limited zoom ranges, so placement flexibility is limited no matter which model you buy. The VS230 has no zoom at all. To adjust image size, change the projector's distance from the screen.
Low resolution. While the VS230 is an impressive SVGA projector, it's still an SVGA projector. High-resolution content is scaled as well as can be expected, but you still lose plenty of detail in HD material, especially in areas of fine detail or small text. Subtitles are still legible, though they do appear pixelated.
Aspect ratio. Since the VS230 is 4:3 and most video these days is 16:9 or wider, you end up using only a portion of the projector's pixels to display your image. A 16:9 full HD image (1920x1080 pixels) is downscaled such that the longest edge fits the VS230's native SVGA resolution, bringing that HD image down to 800x480 pixels -- or about 1.6 million pixels less than when you started.
This also means you lose some of the projector's brightness. The VS230 measured 2439 lumens in Dynamic mode with a 4:3 image. Since a 16:9 image uses only 75% of a 4:3 frame, you only get 75% of the light. In this case, that's 1805 lumens.
I have to apologize to the Epson VS230, because this review evaluates the projector in a way it was never meant to be used. Despite this, it turns in a respectable performance when forced into service as a home video projector. Its high light output, rich color, and sharp image put cheap projectors to shame, while its bargain price makes it affordable even on the most shoestring of budgets. In a world where the Epson VS230 exists, there is no reason to ever buy one of the cheap projectors.
Our star ratings for the VS230 reflect two things. The first is that the VS230 outperforms, in every conceivable category, all of the cheap projectors we've seen. The second is that its market niche is dominated by business-oriented DLP projectors with 2x speed color wheels that produce rainbow artifacts in video applications. They are also among the worst performers in color brightness as well. So the VS230 is unmatched in its ability to display photography, film, and video in this price class. For these reasons, the VS230 deserves solid five-star ratings in both Performance and Value, and a spot on our Highly Rated list.
Part of our series on Cheap Projectors: