|5 Projector Shootout
March 5, 2004
We have attempted to give a quantitative projector review as a result of frequent requests from you, our audience. The approach we took is not perfect and if we are to continue with it, it will undergo change. We welcome your comments and suggestions.
To rank these projectors, we did two value ratings. The first value rating excludes digital data and video as only three of the projectors had this capability. The second value rating adds the digital rating to the first rating. If digital is not an important consideration for you, then ignore the digital value rating. Since digital data and video represent the highest image quality and it is the direction of the entire electronics industry, we consider it worthy of separate mention.
To determine value for each category, we divided the Street Price by the Rating to come up with a Value (cost per rating point). The lower the number the greater the value.
The rating system uses a maximum value of 100 points for each image source tested, with the best performer being given 100 and the others rated relative to that number. All other items used a maximum value of 10 points, except Features (see the bottom of Page 2), which had a maximum potential of 50 points that were allocated as follows:
- 5 points - Portrait
- 10 points - Wireless if included, 3 points if an option
- 10 points - PC Card if included, 3 points if an option
- 10 points - Mouse/Presentation
- 3 points each for 5 other features
As highly mobile projectors, these small units necessarily limit the number of inputs in order to keep the size and weight down. To wit, all the projectors offer 4 inputs: audio, composite video, S-Video, and a data connection. There are no outputs, such as RGB loop-through for a local monitor.
As small, high light-output projectors they did a credible job of moving air without a lot of noise. This is always a challenge when space for moving air is at a premium. Sometimes it isn't the level of the noise, but the frequency of the noise that can be most irritating. The higher the number the noisier the projector. Pay attention to the audible noise rating mentioned on Page 1. If presentations are your primary application, the noise level of these projectors are not offensive. If theater mode is your primary application, then you'll want to either run in economy mode or choose a projector with a lower dB rating.
HP was the only projector that had an upright orientation. HP explains that this design allows the projector to sit on a table or desk and project the image over any obstacles that might be present. Because of the upright nature of this projector, HP integrated an expandable base that gives the projector additional stability. NEC is shaped like a carton of cigarettes, albeit larger, so everything is built from the lens backwards making the projector long and narrow with a nice soft touch to the case finish. Philips, Mitsubishi and BenQ were more rectangular with the low profile design that is common in the industry.
Light leakage occurs on all projectors, but it is important to note where the leakage is directed. You want to avoid getting extraneous light onto the screen or into the eyes of those in the room. NEC did the best job of containing and directing extraneous light. Mitsubishi, HP and Philips have some leakage to the front of the room and BenQ has some leakage to the back of the room. None of them had extraneous light output that was distracting while viewing.
Projectors produce a lot of heat and air flow is essential to keeping them cool. Unless you have a cold room, you don't want to place anyone in the exhaust flow of the fan. BenQ exhausts hot air to the rear of the projector while the others exhaust hot air to the front of the room.
Although these are portable projectors, none of them come with a handle, as they are all small enough to carry in your hand at some risk. Each comes with a soft carrying case, except the HP, which uses a ruggedized case. HP claims the projector can survive a drop when in the case. We did not test this statement. Philips, NEC and Mitsubishi use a separate bag for packing and transporting cables and the remote control.
The menu system will be explored heavily when you first buy a projector. Once you've tweaked the settings to your liking, chances are you won't use it much. However, for those of us who test projectors, ease of use and functionality are important and even the casual user will appreciate a well designed menu system. We evaluated and rated the menu systems based on the following criteria:
- Visually pleasing
- Easy navigation
- Return to last function
- Rapid response
- Minimal menu present when making changes
Composite Video & S-Video
We tested composite video and S-Video using NTSC and PAL signal sources with a variety of material. Composite video and S-Video, more properly known as Y/C, are processed by the same de-interlacer and analog processor in each projector. Interlaced video is turned into progressive video by the projectors and the resulting image is marginally better than the same material would be if viewed in interlaced mode. As we would expect, S-Video had a slight improvement over composite video as it is a better video source. Although PAL, a European standard, delivers a slightly higher resolution image, the results are much the same as NTSC. The jagged edges that are common with interlaced video are reduced and fine detail is restored by the progressive scan capability of these projectors.
HP lacked color saturation with non-progressive sources; however, it could be recovered by adjusting color saturation. All of the projectors had evidence of video noise, which is common for this type of source material. The NEC, Philips and Mitsubishi projectors did a better job with both video sources using factory defaults with Mitsubishi requiring slightly more setup to optimize results.
When given a choice among analog signals, component video (YPbPr) or RGB is the preferred connection as it provides the least signal encoding, and therefore, better quality than composite video or S-Video. All of our reviewed projectors included an RGB cable that accepts RGB or component video with the proper adapter. A component video cable can also be purchased separately.
In comparing analog component video we found we could improve flesh tones and image definition with adjustments to color temperature and gamma, although for the most part our participating projectors performed well out-of-the-box. NEC and Philips rendered excellent flesh tones and color fidelity with Philips having the edge in definition due to its higher contrast rating. Projectors capable of quality images that are also high in contrast and lumen output will maintain higher quality images under ambient light. Consider your projector environment when making your decision.
All projectors tend to be optimized for brightness in data mode, which tends to sacrifice color fidelity. The images will look harsh when compared to the warmth of a CRT monitor, but you can soften the image at the expense of brightness using color temperature and/or small brightness and contrast adjustments. Some hue or tint adjustment that takes out some of the green will also help warm the image. The high brightness is generally preferred for viewing presentations, text and data; however, when browsing the Internet, viewing graphics or playing games, we could get a more satisfying image with some fine-tuning.
Each of the projectors we tested would have passed anyone's data viewing test as the images were all clean, crisp and bright, but in a side-by-side, we felt HP had the edge in color fidelity.
Digital Data and Video
Three of our five projectors, Philips, Mitsubishi and HP, supported DVI, but interestingly none of them shipped with a DVI to DVI cable. The supplied cable for all three of these DVI projectors is DVI to RGB because the world is still largely analog. This will change in time. The Mitsubishi ships with a DVI-I to RGB cable. The Philips and the HP ship with an M1-DA to RGB/USB cable. The USB cable head, when connected to your computer, empowers the projector remote control with mouse capability.
We used a DVI-D to DVI-D cable to test the Mitsubishi and M1-D to DVI-D cable to test the HP and the Philips. Testing included 480p, 720p, 1080i video and XGA and SXGA data. What was most striking about both the video and data testing is how similar the images were. This due to the elimination of the analog to digital conversion that takes place with analog sources. The images are noticably brighter, crisper and cleaner with better color fidelity and less noise. Like looking through a window as someone once said. Once you've gone digital, you'll find it hard to go back.
As you can see from the results below, these projectors were farther apart in price than they were in performance as they measured closely in rating points, but differed considerably in value. Keeping value as our goal, NEC's LT170 was the editor's choice for analog only applications. However, it had the lowest contrast (1000:1) and lowest lumen (1500) output of the projectors tested. If your projection application must deal with ambient light, you should consider a projector with higher contrast and higher lumens. To that end, Philips and HP address that need at 2000:1 contrast and 1700 and 1800 lumens respectively.
From a presentation and data perspective, HP has a nice offering, but is still a little pricey compared to the competition in this review. At a comparable street price, it would be a strong offering. Mitsubishi includes the PC Card capability which undoubtedly affects its price point. For those who prefer to deliver presentations without having to lug around a computer, it is the only solution among our review candidates. We gave this feature 10 rating points. If you rate it higher, it would fair better in our value calculation. BenQ was a standout with its menu system and with some refinements in color temperature, it would have faired better as it has the same brightness and contrast as the Philips.
Due to the extent of our testing, it is not uncommon for us to find technical problems with projectors. Such was the case with the Philips bCool XG1. We discovered an obscure problem in 480p and a menu select issue when using digital video. To Philips' credit they promptly rectified the problems with software release 4.5 and we have tested and confirmed the problem is resolved.
On a related issue, Philips intends to discontinue projector sales in the hotly contested U.S. projector market effective March 31st; however, the company will continue to provide service and support for 3 years. Philips will continue projector sales in Canada and elsewhere in the world.
The Street Prices shown below are as stated by the manufacturer. You may find lower pricing through the links at the end of this page.
Street Price ÷ Rating
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