What's the best projector under $1,000? When it comes to entry-level home theater, there are a lot of options out there. In the sub-$1,000 price bracket, there are five different models available right now that are particularly exciting: the BenQ HT1075, the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 2030, the InFocus IN8606HD, the Optoma HD26, and the Viewsonic PJD7820HD. All are native 1080p projectors, and all retail for less than $1,000. That's about where the similarities end, however.
What we've learned from this shootout is what we've always known: that there is no perfect projector for every situation, and that your individual needs are far more important than any notion of objective quality. So take a step back, decide where and how you're going to use your projector, and then decide which one of these scenarios best describes your needs.
Are you interested in:
- Home theater in a darkened room? (BenQ HT1075)
- Home video in a brightly-lit room? (Optoma HD26)
- Replacing your TV with a projector? (Epson 2030)
- Movies and TV on the go? (Viewsonic PJD7820HD)
- A projector with high-end bells and whistles? (InFocus IN8606HD)
BEST HOME THEATER:
The HT1075 is an incremental upgrade to the venerable W1070, which at two years old was due for a replacement. The addition of MHL and a new simplified menu system add to the already excellent image quality, color accuracy, and placement flexibility, but the projector is still available for a very reasonable $899 from authorized resellers.
The HT1075 is our choice for home theater for five reasons:
Picture quality. When it comes down to it, the HT1075 simply has a cleaner, more refined, more natural image than any of its competitors. This is due to a million little factors, from contrast to color to digital noise to detail clarity, but the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. When you set the BenQ HT1075 up next to any of the other projectors in the shootout, you get a better image out of the HT1075 - at least as far as home theater is concerned.
Excellent factory calibrations. Without changing a single setting, the HT1075 is ready for prime time. That's because the projector comes from the factory with accurate, well-saturated color and a smooth, level grayscale. Color accuracy both out of the box and after calibration is visibly better than the other projectors in the shootout. If you don't feel ready to learn the ins and outs of calibration, the HT1075 is a great projector to start with.
Fast color wheel. All single-chip DLP projectors can produce color separation artifacts, or rainbows, for some people. Lots of folks will see rainbows on a 2x-speed color wheel, which is what the other projectors in the shootout use, especially when the color wheel contains non-RGB segments. But the HT1075 uses a color wheel with only RGB segments, and it spins at either 4x or 6x speed depending on the input signal you give it.
Color brightness. Because the HT1075's color wheel only uses RGB segments, it produces bright, saturated colors that look balanced and natural next to bright highlights. When white light output is significantly higher than color light output, it makes colors look dull and drab and can make the image as a whole seem artificial. The other projectors in the shootout can also produce balanced white and color light output, but only by drastically lowering white light output to match.
Placement flexibility. The HT1075's 1.3:1 lens is good for this class of projector, but its inclusion of vertical lens shift is exceptional. Though the adjustment range is limited to just a few inches up or down, it is especially useful when you are permanently installing both the projector and its screen, because it gives you some ability to fine-tune the image's location on your wall. When you are going to use the same projector and screen over and over again, as you do in a home theater, getting the placement just right is especially important.
The HT1075 isn't the right projector for everyone, even though it has a lot of good qualities. It has higher input lag than the other projectors in the shootout, so it's not the best choice for fast-paced gaming. Those planning to use their projector as a TV replacement should note the relatively high price ($230) of the HT1075's lamps, which can add up quickly when you're using the projector for six to eight hours per day. And there's no VESA 3D sync port, which is a downside for anyone who doesn't want to use DLP Link 3D.
BEST for HOME VIDEO:
The Optoma HD26 is a low-cost, high-performance projector for home video. Optoma's followup to the HD25 moves away from pitch-black home theater applications by adding a serious brightness boost and some family-friendly features that make it a great all-purpose video projector.
We like the Optoma HD26 for home video for four reasons:
Picture quality. With the lights on, the HD26's extreme brightness preserves the appearance of contrast. With the lights off, though, it produces a nuanced and subtle image in Cinema mode, with balanced color and good shadow detail. It cannot match the pitch-perfect color performance of the BenQ HT1075, so it's not our number one pick for home theater, but as a dual-purpose machine it really shines.
Super bright picture. In its brightest mode, the HD26 has the highest light output of any projector in the shootout. That's ideal when you need a brilliant image due to ambient light, and that's part of why the HD26 is a great choice for those rooms where ambient light can't be controlled. And in the projector's Cinema mode, it still produces over 1,000 lumens for a satisfying experience once the sun goes down.
Lamp life and cost. Even at full power, the HD26's 190-watt lamp is rated to last 5,000 hours, longer than any of its competitors. That jumps to 6,500 hours in Eco mode. When it finally comes time to replace the lamp, replacements are only $179.
Jack of all trades. The HD26 also includes MHL, a ten-watt speaker, low 33ms input lag, and a VESA 3D synchronization port. These features are not unique to the HD26, but no other projector has this particular combination. They allow the HD26 to be a powerful do-all projector in your living room, functioning well in whatever role you need it to perform.
While its image is impressive, especially considering its low price, the HD26 cannot quite match the impeccable color performance of the BenQ HT1075. And though it is lighter than its predecessor, the HD26 is larger and heavier than our portable pick, the Viewsonic PJD7820HD.
BEST for TV Replacement:
Epson Home Cinema 2030
As the only non-DLP projector in this shootout, the Epson 2030 already stands out quite a bit. But its combination of high-end features, great color, and a bright calibrated mode make it a compelling option even for those who aren't bothered by rainbow effects, and $99 lamp replacements make maintenance a painless experience.
We like the Epson Home Cinema 2030 for TV replacement for five reasons:
Picture quality. The Home Cinema 2030 has a perfectly balanced picture with accurate, vibrant color. The image is smooth and natural, with cleanly-rendered detail but no hint of artificiality. Black level is comparatively weak, though shadow detail is still well-defined, and the so-so black levels don't matter as much in a bright room. And with over 1400 lumens in Cinema mode, the Home Cinema 2030 can easily handle a room with some ambient light.
Lamp life and cost. Even at full power, the Home Cinema 2030's lamps are rated to last 5,000 hours. That number jumps to 6,000 hours in Eco mode, but also entails a 32% drop in light output. However, since lamp replacements are only $99 for real, genuine Epson lamps, there's not much reason to conserve lamp hours if you need the extra brightness.
No rainbows. Rainbow effects are a natural consequence of DLP projectors' use of sequential color display. Those with faster color wheels are better at reducing or eliminating rainbows than those with slower color wheels, but even the BenQ HT1075, which has the fastest color wheel in this shootout, will cause rainbows for some people. If you already know that you are hyper-sensitive to rainbow effects, the Home Cinema 2030 is the only 3-chip projector in this shootout, and therefore the only projector that will absolutely not cause any rainbows.
Two-year warranty. Though it can't match the three year coverage of the Viewsonic PJD7820HD, a two-year warranty should help assuage any fears you might have about running a projector instead of a television. And since going without TV is something that most folks don't want to contemplate, Epson will cross-ship a replacement projector to you during the warranty period thanks to their ExtraCare program (though they do require a credit card authorization in order to use this service).
Input lag. If you switch Image Processing from "Fine" to "Fast," the Home Cinema 2030 clocks in at only 34 milliseconds of lag. That's right on par with the other projectors in this shootout. However, Fast processing also reduces resolution, which can be an issue if you were counting on pixel-perfect source reproduction. "Fine" processing isn't an option for gamers, as it measures about 100 milliseconds using this option.
The Home Cinema 2030 is a great TV replacement, but it can be difficult to mount due to an atypical throw offset. If the projector is level, the projector will place about 8% of the image below the centerline of the lens. This makes coffee table placement difficult, and means that ceiling mounts will require an extension tube. You could also tilt the projector and apply keystone correction, but part of the benefit of a native 1080p projector is the ability to display 1080p sources at a 1:1 pixel match. That benefit disappears as soon as you apply keystone correction. A weak two-watt speaker means you'll want external speakers for any kind of serious viewing.
BEST for PORTABLE USE:
Having a 1080p projector is great. Having a 1080p projector you can take along with you and use almost anywhere is even better. The Viewsonic PJD7820HD takes the features and functions of a 1080p projector and stuffs them into a tiny case that weighs less than five pounds. That's no small feat, and it's why the PJD7820HD is our favorite projector for portable 1080p projection.
We like the PJD7820HD for portable viewing for four reasons:
Picture quality. In its ViewMatch mode, the PJD7820HD produces a vibrant image that's high in contrast and low in digital noise. In dark rooms, Dynamic Eco mode can give you deeper black levels, and turning off BrilliantColor gives you a more balanced picture that's better for movies.
Smallest and lightest. A portable projector has to be small and light, or no one will want to lug it around. The PJD7820HD's footprint is about the size of a sheet of paper, and it is only three inches tall, so it will fit nicely in a messenger bag or large laptop bag. It weighs about as much as a laptop, too, at 4.6 pounds. Unlike tiny ultraportables, it does not require a bulky power brick.
Placement flexibility. The PJD7820HD has a handy 1.3:1 zoom lens to give you some flexibility in image size when you're setting up the projector. The lens has a fixed upward throw offset, and on a 100" diagonal image, the bottom of the image will be about six inches above the centerline of the lens. That works out well if you're placing the projector on a coffee table - and as a bonus, the heat exhaust vents are all on the front of the case, so hot air is directed away from you and your friends.
Three-year warranty. Portable projectors take a beating, even when you're careful. But the PJD7820HD has a three-year warranty, better than any other projector in the shootout, so that accidental smack against the door jamb won't necessarily cost you another seven hundred bucks.
While it is small and light, the PJD7820HD had to make some necessary compromises to get that way. Brightness uniformity, which measures how evenly the projector's light is spread across the screen, is only 67%. The top left and right corners of the image are noticeably dimmer than the bottom center. This isn't normally visible when you're watching movies or television, but it can sometimes appear in scenes with a bright sky or other uniform area near the top of the image. And while it is highly portable, it has the weakest onboard speaker of the bunch at only two watts. If you do plan to travel with this projector, you should consider investing in a small portable speaker system to boost the PJD7820HD's meager audio output.
The InFocus IN8606HD is a bit of an odd duck. It has some high-end features, like a 12-volt trigger, a 1.5:1 zoom lens, ISFccc calibration compatibility, and a VESA 3D sync port. But it suffers due to a calibrated mode that isn't as bright as its competitors and locked image presets. The specific features of the IN8606HD can make it an appealing choice for some folks, but it has some weaknesses that keep it from taking the top prize in any single category.
These are some of the things we like about the IN8606HD:
Picture quality. The IN8606HD's Movie mode produces a balanced image and well-saturated colors. Movie mode has good shadow detail and respectable black levels after you make some adjustments, but doing so will shift you into User mode, which we'll talk about more below.
Flexible brightness. In its brightest mode, the IN8606HD measured over 1830 lumens, which is enough for rooms with some ambient light. But in Movie mode, output drops to a more modest 703 lumens, which is better for small screens in darkened rooms.
Great zoom range. The projector has a 1.5:1 zoom lens, better than any of its competitors. This gives you more flexibility to place the projector where you want it, not where it demands. So if you want a 100" diagonal image, you can put the IN8606HD anywhere between 10' and 15' from the screen. In comparison, the BenQ HT1075's range is a more limited 8 to 10 feet.
12V trigger. Normally only found on more expensive models, a 12-volt trigger can be used to actuate a powered screen, masking system, anamorphic lens, or even room lighting. Lots of theater accessories use a 12V trigger, and the IN8606HD is the only way you'll get one on a projector under $1,000.
With so many theater-driven features, like a VESA port and ISF modes, you'd expect the IN8606HD to perform well in a theater. But the ISF modes are only accessible to calibration professionals, which adds cost. You can calibrate the projector yourself, but you can't change any of the named image modes; all of your settings are applied to the projector's single User mode instead. The 1.5:1 lens adds flexibility, but the projector has a long throw overall, making it more difficult to install in smaller rooms. Low lumen output in Cinema mode is further reduced by using the telephoto end of the zoom lens (21% reduction) or Eco mode (24% reduction) so the final image can be very dim by modern standards. That's great if you want a small 80" to 100" screen, but not so great if you want to watch 3D movies or use the projector in a room with ambient light.