The hottest selling home theater projectors in the market these days are the inexpensive DLP projectors built around Texas Instruments' 854x480 resolution chip. With some of them selling at or below $1,000, these units deliver the best video quality for the money we've ever seen. They truly shine with NTSC DVD, since they display this high quality 480-line video source line-for-line with no vertical scaling. Furthermore, they generate amazingly good HDTV quality despite their lower resolution format.

If you want to step into the world of large screen home theater and don't want to spend a lot of money doing it, the new 480p projectors are the way to go. To help you decide which one might be best for you, we've lined up these seven popular models for comparison:

* (click here for updated information on the Optoma H27)

These are all small, portable projectors weighing 5 to 7 lbs. However, they are not business class projectors-they are designed for home theater. As a group they are not as bright as comparably sized business projectors might be. However, they produce video quality that is far superior to what you can get from a typical business class projector.

Each of these models features the 854x480 resolution DLP chip, which is the same native 16:9 widescreen format that you see on most of the new plasma and LCD TVs these days. They will display HDTV full-frame without black bars. Meanwhile, regular 4:3 video sources like standard television will typically be displayed in the center of the screen with black pillars on either side. You will want to use a 16:9 aspect ratio screen with these projectors (that is, 16 units in width for every 9 units in height).

The Issues

The first question in everyone's mind is "which projector has the best picture quality?" As it turns out, though this is an important question, there are several practical considerations that are quite relevant in helping to sort out which model is best for you. Image quality is just one of them.

Each of these projectors has a unique combination of features, so one of them will be better for your particular needs than the others. Here are the important things to consider before you buy:

Color wheel: rotation speed. As we've discussed at length on this site, distracting rainbow artifacts can be an undesirable side effect of single-chip DLP projectors due to sequential color updating from the spinning color wheel. Not only can the rainbows be visually distracting, but the effect of the color wheel can produce headaches and eyestrain for some viewers that can ultimately make the projector unwatchable. The rotation speed of the color wheel has a dramatic impact on whether viewers will be bothered by these side effects-projectors with 2x speed wheels tend to cause difficulty for a significant percentage of viewers, and those with 4x and faster wheels tend to reduce or eliminate the problem for all but a very small percentage of users.

Some people, like myself [EP], are not bothered by rainbow artifacts at all. I cannot see them, I don't get headaches, and I can watch a DLP projector with a 2x speed color wheel all day long with no problem. Now, if my wife and I were the only two persons to be watching our projector on a regular basis, and she was also immune to DLP rainbow artifacts, we could select from any of the seven models above with no worry about the color wheel speed. However, if she is bothered by rainbows, or if I plan to have other friends and neighbors watching my projector on a regular basis, I'd want to get a model with the 4x or faster color wheel just to make sure nobody could have a bad viewing experience. In this case, I would be limited to the InFocus Screenplay 4805, the Optoma H27, the Optoma H31, or the Toshiba MT200. The first three of these have 4x speed wheels, and the Toshiba has a 5x wheel.

 

The remaining three products in the list, the BenQ PE5120, the Mitsubishi HC100, and the NEC HT410, have 2x speed wheels. These models are more likely to create color wheel side effects among a wider group of viewers. However, they each have unique advantages that you might find particularly appealing. In that case, if your regular viewers have no susceptibility to rainbows, these might be better choices for you. You'll just need to road-test them to verify that no one in your household has adverse reactions after watching them for an hour or two.

Installation: Throw distance. Your room size and desired screen size can be important factors in choosing your projector. All seven of the models reviewed here have manual zoom lenses with a zoom range of 1.2x. That means, from any given position you can adjust the image size up to 20% from minimum to maximum, or for any fixed screen size you have a few feet of throw distance leeway in placing your projector to fill the screen. All of these models are within a fairly close range of each other. However, the longest throw distances are offered by the Optoma H27 and the Toshiba MT200, while the shortest throw distance range is provided by the BenQ PE5120. Once you determine how big you want your screen and where you want to place the projector, you can use the Projection Calculator to ensure that the model you want will fit the space and screen size you want.

Model:Throw Distance for 100" Diagonal:
BenQ PE5120
11.3 to 13.9 feet
Mitsubishi HC100
11.7 to 14.0 feet
NEC HT410
12.0 to 14.3 feet
Optoma H31
12.0 to 14.6 feet
InFocus SP 4805
12.9 to 15.5 feet
Toshiba MT200
13.6 to 16.3 feet
Optoma H27
13.6 to 16.4 feet

Installation: Throw angle offset and lens shift. All of the models in this group, with the notable exception of the NEC HT410, have a fixed upward angle at which they will project the image. In other words, if you set the projector on a coffee table and point it directly at the wall, the image will be higher than the elevation of the projector. Each of the models herein have a different angle of offset.

The NEC HT410 is unique in this regard, in that it is the only model in the group with vertical lens shift. This feature lets you position the image on the wall at various heights without moving the projector. Thus it provides more latitude in installation planning. The rest of them have a fixed, built-in throw angle that you will need to work with.

If you set up the projector on a coffee table with no upward tilt, such that the centerline of the lens is perpendicular to the wall, each of these projectors will display the image above the centerline. Each of these models is ranked according to their offset as a percentage of the picture height:

Model:Offset:
Optoma H2757%
Toshiba MT20054%
Mitsubishi HC10051%
NEC HT410- 17% to +36%
(due to vertical lens shift)
Optoma H3135%
InFocus SP 480534%
BenQ PE512033%

Thus, for example, if you plan to have a 110" diagonal 16:9 screen size, that image will be 54" in height. If you select the BenQ PE5120, it will place the bottom edge of the image 33% of the picture height above the point at which the centerline of the lens intersects the wall, or 18", since 18" is 33% of 54". On the other hand, the Optoma H27 has the most aggressive upward angle; it will place the bottom edge of the image at 31" above the centerline, since 57% of the 54" picture height is 31".

Of course, you can tilt the projector to change the placement on the wall. However, this will require the use of keystone adjustments to square it up-something we'd suggest trying to avoid if possible. Therefore, in planning your installation, determine where you want the image, and where you want the projector, and make sure the geometry works with the model you select. (By the way, if you invert the projector for ceiling mounting or placement on a high rear shelf, the image will be thrown down from the centerline of the lens rather than up, at the same vertical distances noted above.)

Fan noise. Home theater projectors in general are much quieter than they used to be. However, on some projectors fan noise can still be noticeable during quieter interludes in a movie. In this group of seven, the InFocus SP 4805 stands out as the unit with the highest audible noise. We would not operate the 4805 in anything but low power mode for quality home theater, and even in low power mode there is a bit more audible noise than on any of the other units in this review. On the other hand, the NEC HT410 is virtually stone silent. When all units are set to low power mode for longest lamp life and quietest fan noise, an ordinal ranking of the seven models from quietest to loudest is as follows:

  1. NEC HT410
  2. Optoma H27
  3. BenQ PE5120
  4. Optoma H31
  5. Mitsubishi HC100
  6. Toshiba MT200
  7. InFocus SP 4805

If you have a larger viewing room, and the projector will be ceiling mounted or placed at a good distance from the viewers, fan noise is not a big factor in the decision. However, in a small viewing room where the projector is in close proximity to the viewers, fan noise becomes more of an issue to be aware of in selecting your projector.

Brightness: All projectors measure significantly lower lumen outputs when optimized for best home theater performance. In general, the theoretical maximum rated lumen output does not correlate to actual lumen output in optimized video, and there is no constant ratio between the two that can be assumed. Some projectors, like the Mitsubishi HC100 and the NEC HT410, have a wide range of lumen output options depending on desired usage, thus making them more flexible for applications requiring ambient room light. However, when calibrated for home theater use in a fully darkened viewing area, most projectors measure a fraction of their rated potential. Once set up for video, and with lamp modes set to low for maximum lamp life and minimum fan noise, the actual lumen readings we measured on these seven models were as follows:

Model:Rated:Actual:
BenQ PE51201100380
InFocus SP4805750350
Toshiba MT200700330
Optoma H31850325
Mitsubishi HC1001300300
NEC HT4101000250
Optoma H27850250*

* (click here for updated information on the Optoma H27)

When evaluating these statistics, keep in mind that the human eye cannot easily detect small differences in lumen output. In a dark room, the eye will adjust to the average light level, so differences within the 300 to 400 lumen range are largely irrelevant. Even side-by-side you would not normally notice a 20% differential in luminance when viewing regular video material unless you were told to look for it.

In general, color saturation and contrast will degrade as you increase the image size and spread the fixed amount of light over a larger surface area. Thus, we always encourage users who want maximum image quality to not go too big with their screen sizes. All of these projectors can produce 120" diagonal pictures or larger. However, they look their best when kept to a 90" to 100" diagonal range.

Image quality. Overall image quality is determined by a variety of factors including contrast, black level, color saturation, color accuracy, and the precision of the projector's deinterlacing and scaling. Together these factors determine the degree to which a picture looks clean, sharp, and realistic. The best way to sort it all out is to set them up side-by-side, feed them identical signals, and note any differences that are apparent. The results of our comparative evaluation are as follows:

The best overall image quality was delivered by the Optoma H31. This unit had a visibly deeper black level and better contrast than any of its competitors, lending the image an overall sparkle that was extremely impressive. The image was razor sharp, stable, well-saturated, and just plain enjoyable to watch. No matter which model we put up against the H31, when seen side by side there was not any doubt about which image was better.

There was a two-way tie for second place: The InFocus SP4805 and the Toshiba MT200 produced extremely satisfying images that could only be distinguished in ways too subtle to bother mentioning. They both look outstanding on their own.

The Mitsubishi HC100U was very close in image quality to the SP4805 and the MT200. It was equal to them in contrast, black level, and sharpness, but was slightly weaker in color saturation. Nevertheless, standing alone the HC100 looks beautiful, and it has the potential for much higher lumen output than the H31, the SP4805, and the MT200. So for those who have applications requiring a higher lumen output, the HC100 was the strongest unit of the seven in its capability to deliver both impressive image quality and high lumen output when needed.

The remaining three units did not fare quite as well. Though quite bright, the BenQ PE5120 lacked the black level and saturation of the units just mentioned. The NEC HT410, while producing a satisfying image on its own, does not have the black level, contrast or color saturation of its competitors. However it, like the Mitsubishi HC100, has a wide range of lumen output options to give it more flexibility for use in ambient light. And the 410's lens shift and silent operation are unique advantages that none of the other models in the group could match.

The Optoma H27 trailed the entire pack with an image that was much dimmer and less vibrant. Though rated at 2500:1 contrast, we did not see evidence of it on our test unit. Due to its lower contrast and low lumen output, the H27 should be reserved as an option for those on the most limited of budgets. For best results, screen size should be limited to no more than 80" diagonal.

Conclusion

The final factor in selecting a projector is of keen interest to all-the price tag. Since prices are dynamic and change rapidly over time, we won't quote specific prices in this article. We can say, however, that at this writing, for dark theater viewing, the best overall values in the 480p class of projector are the Optoma H31 and the InFocus Screenplay 4805. At this writing, the Toshiba MT200 is selling at street prices notably higher than its competitors, and there is nothing about the MT200 that, in our estimation, would warrant a premium price.

It is our hope that this overview will help put the various buying factors into focus. Though image quality is important, the practical aspects of throw distances, throw angles, fan noise, the ability to turn up lumen output for ambient light conditions, etc., all contribute to ease of installation and long term satisfaction with your projector. Each buyer has a different set of objectives and a particular room size that he or she is dealing with. Take all of these things into consideration, then select the model that best suits your particular needs.