Great Movie Projectors under $1000
May 13, 2009,
If you clicked to this article, you are probably like the vast majority of consumers these days who don't want to mess with a big home theater due to the cost and the space involved. But you'd love to be able to set up a portable projector and watch movies on a pop-up screen, or even on a white wall. And you want the best picture you can get for under $1000. Maybe even closer to $500. If you are looking for a great but inexpensive portable movie projector that you can use for both business and pleasure, read on.
Key Factors to Consider
Digital Input w/ HDCP. The single most important feature of a great movie projector is that it must have a digital input with HDCP compatibility. This type of input will enable you to get a high resolution signal from a Blu-ray player or your satellite/cable box into the projector. That uncompressed incoming HD signal will give you the best possible picture quality, no matter what resolution you choose.
You can get a digital input with HDCP one of two ways, either with an HDMI port, or with some version of DVI with HDCP. All HDMI ports automatically include HDCP, so it is not often noted on vendor spec sheets. Conversely, you can find projectors with DVI inputs that may not have HDCP. You must limit your search to those for which DVI with HDCP is specifically noted on the spec sheet.
It used to be hard to find projectors under $1000 with digital/HDCP inputs, but today there are over fifty models to choose from. If you want to see a list of them, you can search our projector database which currently contains about 1200 models. Just click to the Feature Search page, and select your desired price range and digital input.
Let's say you want to find all projectors between $0 and $1000. Click the down arrow next to Any Price, and the second option will be two blanks. Select that option, then enter 0 into the first box, and 1000 into the second box. Now click the Find Projectors button to the lower right. You will see that the system finds over 200 models currently in production that sell in that price range.
Now select a digital input. Click the arrow next to Any Input, and choose one. If you choose HDMI you will get the most hits, but you can choose any of the DVI options that have HDCP next to them as well. If you select HDMI (HDCP), the system will automatically update your list, and show you over two dozen projectors that sell for under $1000 and have HDMI inputs. The page will look like this.
Resolution and Aspect Ratio. The next decisions you can make are related to resolution and aspect ratio. Resolution is the density of pixels the projector uses to make the image. The higher the pixel density, the more detail the projector is capable of rendering. Also, the more pixels there are, the smaller they are, so there is less visible pixel structure in the image. This is sometimes called the screendoor effect, and the best movie projectors have as little of it as possible. As you might expect, higher resolution cost more than low resolution.
Related to resolution is aspect ratio. You have three to choose from; the standard television format 4:3, the HDTV format 16:9, or the common widescreen computer format 16:10.
Now, if all you are going to do with your projector is watch TV and DVD and Blu-ray, you can get a native 16:9 projector, say 1280 x 720, and be quite happy with it. One key advantage to selecting a 16:9 model is that they tend to have higher contrast because they are designed specifically for movie and TV display. On the other hand, they are not as bright as models made for dual-purpose presentation and movie display. And some of them are noticeably heavier and more cumbersome to haul back and forth between work and home--they are not built with portability in mind.
Many people are in fact using a projector for both work and home entertainment. If you are going to use your projector for computer presentations at the office or in the classroom, you will almost certainly want to get a projector that has a native resolution to match your computer screen. Pretty much everyone wants at least XGA resolution for computer presentation these days. You can select either standard XGA, which is a 4:3 format, or WXGA, which is widescreen.
Beyond that, there are two slightly different versions of WXGA. One is 1280 x 800, which is 16:10, and the other is 1280 x 768, which is 15:9. The important thing is to have at least 768 lines so you can display native XGA computer signals without compression, and all three of these formats will do that. In addition, if you happen to have a laptop with a 1280 x 800 screen, then a projector of that same native resolution will let you display your laptop screen image in native form without cropping or compression.
When it comes to watching widescreen 16:9 movies and HDTV, you should also keep in mind that there is a BIG difference in resolution between XGA and WXGA. A standard XGA projector is 1024x768 pixels, but that is a 4:3 image. To display a 16:9 picture, it uses only 1024x 576 pixels, or about 590,000 pixels. If you choose a WXGA model, it will use 1280x720 pixels to display the same 16:9 image. That is 921,600 pixels, which is a 56% increase in pixel density from standard XGA.
Let's assume you want the highest resolution widescreen projector you can get for under $1000. Currently that would be the 1280 x 800 WXGA format. So if you select that in the Resolution list, the system further reduces your model choices down to about a dozen (at the time of this writing). The list now looks like this.
Contrast. Another important feature for a great movie projector is high contrast. At this writing there are no projectors in our narrowed down list that exceed 3000:1 contrast but there are several at or above 2000:1. So if you click the arrow next to Contrast and select a contrast range of 2000:1 to 3000:1, the system will automatically generate a handful of models that meet all of your parameters. With the contrast range added, the list now looks like this.
Since these are all widescreen models with 1280 x 800 resolution, and all have digital inputs and good contrast ratings, these are potential candidates as good movie projectors. We can't know for sure that they are good movie projectors without actually looking at them, but these are some of the models we'd want to look at first.
Look closely at the specs as reported in the list. You will notice that several models are LCD and a couple are DLP. These are two different imaging technologies that each have different characteristics and advantages.
DLP projectors in this price and performance group tend to have higher contrast and deeper black levels. They also have a single color wheel which is both good and not so good. The use of a single color wheel means that the image can never go out of convergence like it can on an LCD projector, or any projector with three separate imaging devices. But the downside is that DLP projectors in this price range generally have 2x speed wheels, which is a rather slow refresh rate for video. 2x wheels are fine for static presentation material, photography, and so on. But in full motion video many people see distracting color separation artifacts that interfere with the enjoyment of the picture.
Another thing to think about is color saturation. Most business/commercial DLP projectors under $1000 have white segments in the color wheel to boost image brightness. The downside is that the extra white can reduce color saturation. Some models give you the option to turn off the extra white boost. That reduces the brightness of the picture, but you end up with better color saturation. DLP projectors behave differently in this regard from model to model based on how the vendors have designed them.
LCD projectors in this price class have their own advantages and limitations. As mentioned, the LCD panels can be out of convergence, which means the pixels on the three panels are not in perfect alignment. This can soften the picture a bit, and if they are severely out of alignment it can produce some color shifts. LCD projectors have air filters which need to be cleaned periodically. If not properly maintained, dust particles can get into the unit and settle on the LCD panels. This can create dust spots on the picture, and may require that the unit be sent in for cleaning. Vendors claim that new improvements in air filtration have reduced this problem to a minimum, but we have no data on this.
LCD's primary advantages stem from the absence of the color wheel. There are no rainbow artifacts on LCD products. Due to the lack of a "white channel" analogous to the white segment in a color wheel, colors tend to be brighter and more saturated, although this is not always the case. And there is no audible noise from a spinning color wheel, which on DLP products can sometimes sound like a high-pitched whine. LCD projectors tend to use lower wattage lamps for any given lumen output, thus reducing heat and (depending on how they are constructed) fan noise.
While we are on this subject fan noise is an important thing to focus on. If you are watching movies at home, you want fan noise from the projector kept to a minimum. On a portable projector that is designed for both presentation use and movies, fan noise is generally louder than it is on projectors that are designed exclusively for home theater use. And this is true of both LCD and DLP products. Putting the projector into eco-mode is almost always a great way to reduce fan noise, and these models are so bright that you probably won't miss the reduction in lumen output.
In general, the smaller the portable projector, the more potential there is for distracting fan noise. Notice the Dell M409WX, which came up in our list of finalists. It weighs only 2.6 lbs, which is terrific for portability. But it has a noise rating of 39 dB with lamp on full, and 32 dB in eco mode. That is noticeably louder than the others in the list. The spec suggests that fan noise on this unit might be a distraction if you were to use it for a lot of home movie watching. The Epson models are rated at 35 dB in full lamp mode, and 28 dB in eco-mode. Since every 10 dB represents a perceived doubling of sound volume, if these specs are accurate, we would expect the Epson models to be somewhat quieter than the Dell. There also might be an important difference in pitch as well--the higher the frequency of the noise, the more distracting it is, and this information is not discernible in the audible noise dB spec.
On the other hand, though the Epsons might be quieter, keep in mind that they weigh 6.2 lbs. So they are more of an effort to tote back and forth. These trade-offs are worth contemplating if you are buying a portable unit for both professional and home use.
Finally, on-board audio is a variable worth considering as well. In our example, the 6.2 lb. Epson models have a 7-watt speaker on board, whereas the smaller and lighter DLP units have a 1-watt speaker. That is a big difference in sound quality and volume. Now, most folks using a projector at home can run the audio signal through a stereo system and end up with much better sound than you could possibly get on a projector. But if on-board audio is a consideration for either your professional or home use, keep in mind that the small super-portables tend to have very minimal audio compared to models that are a few pounds heavier.
Using ProjectorCentral's database, you can narrow down your search for a great movie projector by selecting the criteria that are most important to you. But ultimately, the projectors need to be auditioned to evaluate them for picture quality, fan noise, ease of use, and so forth. Based on the search we just did in this article, it looks like the Epson 700 and W6 models are strong candidates as portable projectors for use in both office or classroom, as well as home entertainment. We will review them within the next week or so to see how they actually measure up.
If we get a strong reader response to this article, we will invest more time reviewing inexpensive portable units that can function well in the dual role of professional presentation, and as great home movie projectors. Meanwhile, do your own search of our database using the criteria that are most important to you. If you find some particular models you want us to review, please drop us a note here and ask for them. We will put the most frequently requested models on our review schedule.
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