Brilens Technology Co. is a relatively new projector maker based in Changsha, China. They don't have any distribution in the United States other than through Amazon. Their latest DLP-based 1280x800 projector, the Brilens LS1280, has drawn attention due to an attractive array of specs: a hybrid laser/LED light source with a 50,000 hour predicted life span, a 3800 lumen brightness rating and 50,000:1 contrast. It has a slim, portable "carry in your briefcase" type design that weighs just over 5 pounds. For the asking price of $999, it appears to be a reasonable value proposition. So when the Brilens marketing folks took the proactive step to send it to us for review it we decided to take a look.
At the outset we must note that there is some confusion about several of the specs. Though this projector is advertised on Amazon as having a 50,000 hour light source, a Brilens manager quoted it as 20,000 hours in a recent video interview. We have seen the contrast ratio quoted in Brilens materials at both 50,000:1 and 100,000:1. The warranty has been quoted as either one year or two years. And though the brightness rating is a whopping 3800 lumens, our test unit measured a maximum of 750 lumens, leading us to conclude that there is an error in the official lumen spec.
Last summer we reviewed several of the very cheap $200 projectors coming direct from China and being sold on Amazon under brands such as Digital Galaxy, Fugetek, and HTP (see review). These products are as bad as it gets when it comes to quality and performance--junk projectors at the bottom of the barrel. The Brilens LS1280 is definitely not in that junk class. Using a DLP engine with a hybrid laser/LED light source, it represents a much more serious attempt at designing a viable projector. And once it is tuned up properly it can deliver a solid, watchable picture. Moreover, the fact that the Brilens team sought us out for review indicates a level of professionalism that we have not seen from other Chinese brands. As will become evident, we were not quite as enthused by this particular product as they are. But this is a group that has the potential to produce some interesting products going forward once they get beyond their initial learning curve.
The Brilens LS1280 came elegantly packed in a glossy white clamshell box which gives an initial impression of quality and company pride. It is compact and slim, standing at a height of just 2.7 inches, with a footprint of 10" x 7.5". The projector itself weighs 3.5 lbs., and a separate outboard power supply with cables is an additional two pounds. So the whole rig including a quality fabric carrying case brings total tote weight up to 6.5 lbs. For some reason the published specs on Amazon list the LS1280's weight at 7.7 lbs, which is wrong, but it is quite refreshing to see a spec err on the conservative side for a change. Most manufacturers would call this a 3.5 lb. projector and hope you don't notice the power brick. (As an alternative to AC power, the LS1280 apparently has a battery option, but the battery did not come with our test sample so we can't comment further on it.)
Right out of the box, the LS1280 does not look particularly good. In its preset color modes (Dynamic, Standard, and Movie) the picture is oversharpened, oversaturated, and way out of color balance. And you have no access to picture controls in any of these operating modes to fix it--all settings for brightness, contrast, color, tint, and sharpness are locked and grayed out. Thankfully there is a fourth choice that does give you access to the picture controls - User mode. This gives you the freedom to adjust the picture and tune it up to where it looks a lot better than it does under the factory default settings.
Once you are in User mode, significant adjustments need to be made to sharpness, color saturation and RGB color balance, but once these are made the LS1280 is capable of producing a smooth, clean image with very high contrast and impressive three-dimensionality and shadow detail. It also delivers reasonably decent black levels, and acceptable if not fully accurate color balance. One needs to keep in mind that this is not a home theater projector. It is only 1280x800 resolution and it does not have the more extensive color and gamma controls required to dial in high performance home theater quality. But the picture that it can produce after some tweaking is quite acceptable for relatively inexpensive consumer movie and gaming use. Stop signs look red, grass looks green, and flesh tones look acceptably natural. Serious home theater enthusiasts will notice the inaccuracies, but most typical consumers probably won't.
Brightness. Our test sample measured 750 lumens in Dynamic and Standard mode, and 657 in Movie mode. This is far below the 3800 lumen spec. In this regard it is reminiscent of the other Chinese products we saw last summer, which all measured even farther below their lumen specs than this one does. One begins to suspect that they may have a different understanding of ANSI lumens in China than we have here in the USA.
As far as image brightness goes, there are two differences between the LS1280 and the cheaper Chinese offerings. First, the LS1280 is very high in contrast and saturation, so it actually looks a little bit brighter than the meter says it should. Second, even 750 lumens is substantially brighter than the other units we saw, and this amount of light is sufficient to fill a 100" or even a 120" screen in a dark room. So in short the LS1280 can be used for engaging, watchable, large format video display. The same cannot be said of the cheaper competition.
The LS1280 has three lumen output modes under a function called "lightbrightness." The brightest of the three is "Text," which is the mode that generated 750 lumens. The second brightest is "Image" (reducing lumen output by 16%), and the third is "Saving"(reduces lumen output by 56%).
Brightness Uniformity. Our test unit measured 88%, which is excellent for an inexpensive DLP projector.
Color Uniformity. A white field test pattern is not neutral white from edge to edge, but shows a greenish bias on the left and a pinkish bias on the right. On occasions, if you are looking for it, these color biases can appear as subtle shifts in tone in the video image, but for the most part the color saturation and contrast are adequate to mask the errors. If you were to use this projector for the display of text documents and financial spreadsheets, the color shift would be visible.
Input lag. The LS1280 measured 33 ms lag, which is common for many DLP projectors and sufficiently fast for most video gaming use. Serious gamers will want to look for faster projectors, but there are not that many out there to choose from.
Color balance. Even with the controls available in User mode it is not possible to get a fully accurate color palette on the screen. So the LS1280 will not match the performance of projectors that have been designed with color accuracy as a primary objective. However, the human brain is extremely forgiving of color inaccuracies. If you do not have a calibrated reference monitor sitting nearby to tell you want the image is supposed to look like, the mind will interpret all but the more erroneous colors as reasonably accurate. With adjustments available in User mode, the picture can be rendered close enough to accurate so that most typical consumers can watch without being aware that the color is not what it would be on a tuned home theater projector.
Fan noise. The first thing you notice when firing up the LS1280 is fan noise, which is relatively loud, high in pitch, and variable based on changes in the internal operating temperature. The projector has a tendency to call attention to itself as the pitch and dB of the fan noise oscillate over time. This is nothing surprising for compact laser/LED hybrid projectors; they are all rather loud. But the LS1280 is one of the louder ones we've heard. We would not use this projector in a conference room for business presentation due to the fan noise. And unfortunately, the lower brightness options referred to as Image and Saving, (commonly called eco-modes on other products), do not reduce fan noise. It is possible that both fan noise and brightness are reduced when the unit is under battery power, but this is purely speculative on our part--we were not able to test this due to lack of a battery.
Preprogrammed Color Modes. The Dynamic, Standard and Movie color modes overdrive color saturation and sharpness, and are not well color balanced. No picture adjustments are available in these modes, so they are not recommended for use. This projector does its best after adjustments to sharpness, color balance and color saturation that are only available in User mode.
User interface. The LS1280 has a small remote with buttons identified by icons only--there are no English cues to identify their function. Many of the icons are a puzzle and it is hard to know what the buttons are for. The projector did not come with a manual, so we experimented with the remote to see what each button would do, and the projector did not respond to several of them. Moreover, the remote did not have a great range while it lasted--it was necessary to point the remote directly at the front of the unit to get a response. Eventually the remote failed during our testing, leaving us with the one alternative of controlling the projector via the buttons on the top case. These buttons are tiny with no backlighting, so impossible to see in the dark. They do have English identifiers (Power, Menu, Sourc, Quick) but a flashlight is required to see them. The Menu button is adjacent to the Power button, so it is easy to mistakenly turn off the projector while trying to access the menu. The directional menu navigation control is flimsy and the tactile feedback is poor. Overall, the user interface is extremely remedial.
Longer than average throw distance. If you want a 120" diagonal image on the wall, you need to set the LS1280 a distance of about 16 to 19.5 feet, which is longer than average for a small portable projector with a 1.2x zoom range. The throw ratio (throw distance divided by image width) is about 1.9 - 2.25. Most smaller portables with limited zoom ranges have shorter throw ratios more like 1.5, producing a bigger picture from a closer distance. This may be an advantage or a limitation in any given situation, but the restriction is worth noting.
Color and Tint functions reversed. On pretty much every projector and TV made, the "Color" slider controls color saturation--turning it to zero will (hopefully) turn the picture to black and white. Meanwhile the Tint control is used to adjust color balance along the magenta/green axis. On the LS1280 these functions are reversed, which can create a lot of confusion. The Color slider adjusts tint, and the Tint control adjusts saturation. This is not a big issue once you realize what's going on, but clearly something got lost in translation here.
Remote control battery not included. We have never seen a $1000 projector come without a battery for the remote. To make this a little extra annoying, the remote requires the relatively rare dime-shaped battery (Duracell DL2016) that you are not likely to have sitting around with your stash of double A's. So a trip to the store will likely be required to get the remote in operation.
Price. At the date of this review the price on Amazon is $999 (see current Amazon price). This is relatively steep for a 1280x800 projector that falls so far short of its lumen spec. The major advantage, in theory, is the advertised 50,000 hour light source (more likely 20,000), which in either case eliminates the need for replacement lamps. You pay a premium for this up front. Whether this is a benefit to you will depend on the number of hours you plan to use the projector (see more discussion below).
Is it worth paying a premium for an LED/laser hybrid light source with a forecasted 20,000 to 50,000 hour life? Let's look at one of the competitive alternatives--the newly released Viewsonic PJD5555W. This is another DLP-based product with native 1280x800 resolution. The LS1280 is rated at 3800 lumens and the PJD5555W rating is almost the same, at 3200 lumens. Both weigh about 5 lbs., although the Viewsonic is physically a bit larger since the power supply is built into the casework, whereas the Brilens is a two-piece unit with the external power brick.
The salient differences on paper are these: the Brilens is rated at 50,000:1 contrast, while the Viewsonic is only 15,000:1. The Brilens boasts a 50,000 hour lamp life in the Amazon ad, although we are inclined to believe the 20,000 hour quote from the Brilens rep at CES. Meanwhile the Viewsonic's high pressure lamp will deliver 5,000 hours in full power and 8,000 hours in eco-mode. And most notably, the Brilens is $999, while the Viewsonic is half the price, at just $499 (official minimum advertised price). However, the price of a replacement lamp on the Viewsonic is $279, or a bit more than half the price of the projector itself.
This is what causes so many people to choke on the issue of replacement lamps, and it is also what drives the strong interest in laser or LED light sources. But notice that with the price of a replacement lamp factored in, the investment is $778, or still two hundred bucks less than the LS1280. And that gives you 10,000 hours in full lamp power or 16,000 hours in eco mode. How many hours are you planning to spend watching video in the next few years?
So ... which is the better deal?
When these two projectors are put up side by side, the Viewsonic PJD5555W trumps the Brilens LS1280 in three obvious ways - color accuracy, brightness, and fan noise.
First, in terms of color accuracy, if one views the LS1280 on its own without any independent color reference, it can be quite watchable since the large majority of viewers would not be aware of the inaccuracies. However, light up the PJD5555W next to it, put it into its "Viewmatch" color mode, and the reaction from just about any viewer would be, "Oh, so that's what the color is supposed to look like." In point of fact the comparison is rather dramatic. The PJD5555W has been designed to optimize color performance, and for its modest price it does a superb job of getting much closer to the reference monitor ideal than the LS1280 can. Not only that, but it comes that way out of the box. The Viewmatch color mode (according to Viewsonic) is intended to eliminate the need for the user to make any adjustments to optimize the picture for color balance.
Second, in terms of brightness, there is no contest. The PJD5555W's Viewmatch mode registered 2400 lumens with BrilliantColor on and 1000 lumens with BrilliantColor turned all the way off. Putting the projector into eco-mode brought it down to about 820 lumens, still visibly brighter than the LS1280 after some rudimentary color adjustments.
Third, in full power mode the Viewsonic fan noise is much lower than the Brilens, and if you drop it into eco-mode, it puts out just a soft purr. Compared to the very present fan noise of the LS1280, it is again no contest.
Other observations include the following:
Input lag. Both projectors measure 33 ms, so in terms of response time are equally good for most gaming applications.
Contrast. The LS1280 has an advantage in contrast, but how dramatic the difference is depends on the mode you using on the PJD5555W. With its Brilliant Color setting on 10, which is maximum, it puts out 2400 lumens, but at the price of some contrast and color saturation. The Viewsonic is roughly four times brighter than the Brilens, but the Brilens shows more picture depth and shadow definition. When you turn BrilliantColor off, the lumen output of the PJD5555W drops to 1000, but the contrast and saturation improve quite noticeably. In this comparison the Brilens still has an edge in contrast, but not much, and not enough to compensate for the color inaccuracies in the picture.
Black levels. The Viewsonic has much more solid blacks in dark scenes. Not only are they blacker but they are neutral in color. The Brilens blacks show a decidedly green tint unless you are in User mode and decide to pull green way down. That will minimize the green tint at the expense of lumen output, making the picture that much dimmer.
User Interface. Viewsonic has been making projectors for many years, and their menus and remotes are far more sophisticated than those in the Brilens product. All buttons have verbal cues, and the tactile response is excellent. The IR range on the PJD5555W's remote is sufficient to communicate with the projector via bounced signals from the screen.
Warranty. The PJD5555W comes with a 3-year warranty, and service is available in the USA. The LS1280 comes with either a 1-year or 2-year warranty depending on which source is accurate. Brilens intends to offer service in the USA starting this year sometime, but until then it may be necessary to return the unit to China for service.
And finally, the lamp cost issue....
If you were to acquire the Brilens LS1280, you would never get more light out of it than you would the Viewsonic PJD5555W in its eco-mode. So the appropriate comparison is the presumed 20,000 hour life of the Brilens vs. the presumed 8000 hour lamp life of the Viewsonic in eco-mode.
We suggest you do some quick ciphering to see how long it will take you to burn through 8000 hours. If you average one 2-hour movie a night every day of the year, that lamp would last 11 years. If you play 5 hours of video games every day, you'll burn through it in a bit over four years. And once you've done that, you need to spend an additional $279 to get another four years. So based on your predicted usage, does it make sense to spend $999 today to get 20,000 hours of use, just to avoid the purchase of a $279 lamp down the line?
This is the exercise every potential projector buyer should be going through before making any decision to go LED or LED/laser instead of the high pressure lamp. Many buyers will soon realize that replacement lamp cost is not the problem it used to be due to much longer life lamps.
The Brilens LS1280 is an impressive first attempt at an LED/laser hybrid DLP projector by a company that has no long history making and marketing projectors, at least under its own label. But the flaws in the product appear to stem from a lack of experience. The company is going up against competitors who have far more expertise in projector design. Nevertheless, the LS1280 is unquestionably head and shoulders above the other products we have seen coming direct from China under largely unknown labels. If Brilens were to hire a good video systems consultant to help get some of the basic wrinkles ironed out, it appears that they may have the capability to produce some interesting and competitive products in the future.
At the moment, the LS1280 at $999 does not represent a viable competitive value in today's market despite its 20,000 hour claim on lamp life. Brilens faces formidable competition from companies like Viewsonic that are both aggressively priced for the mass consumer market, and now kicking it up several notches when it comes to picture quality and performance. This comparison just drove home the point for us that Viewsonic PJD5555W is the most impressive video projector we've yet seen under $500. see current Amazon price listings. Brilens product management might want to take a close look at the PJD5555W and use it as a benchmark to be surpassed in their next generation products.