If you're in the market for a projector and you're a little tight on budget, there's good news. The price of projectors are headed for the sub-$1000 mark. There are 20 SVGA projectors and 2 XGA projector that are now under $2,000 Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) and the number seems to increase weekly. We looked at two projectors that are currently at or near the bottom of the MSRP and were pleased with what we found.

The Epson PowerLite 30c and the NEC VT460; hereinafter, referred to as the 30c and VT460, are aggressively priced at $1,299 and $1,595 MSRP respectively. Both are SVGA (800 x 600) resolution and have similar functionality. NEC stated that it's street price is $1,199 and a $995 price is available to educators through the SMARTer Kids grant program! No street price was stated by Epson.

We looked at the features of these units and compared them to each other. We also compared them to the Toshiba TDP-MT8U a.k.a. InFocus Screenplay 7200 with MSRPs of $9,999, not because these projectors are in their class, but rather to see if we could an find $8,000 to $9,000 difference in performance. More on that later.

The 30c has been in the market since September of last year and the VT460 was introduced last month. Four to five months would be considered a long time in any technology market, but the truth is there hasn't been much change in the basic technology in that time.

So what do they have? Where do they differ? What do you get for your money?

Brightness - The most obvious difference between our subject projectors is the lumen output. The VT460 is rated at 1500 ANSI Lumens and the 30c at 800. This means roughly twice the light output, so there is a noticeable difference in brightness between the units. How is this achieved you may wonder, since they're both about a quarter of a cubic foot in volume and weigh 6.5 pounds.

Two things.

First, the VT460 has a slightly larger set of LCDs at 0.7 inch versus 0.5 inch for the 30c making it easier to collect more light from the projector lamp. Second, the lamp is brighter.

To put the value of lumens in perspective, we found that the average cost per lumen of the under $2,000 projectors was $1.91. The NEC VT460 and the Epson 30c have a $1.06 and $1.62 cost/lumen respectively making them the 1st and 10th lowest cost/lumen among this group. It's interesting that just 3 weeks ago, the Epson was 3rd on that list.

Now you might think that within a class of projectors that the larger the lumen rating the lower the cost per lumen would be. Not necessarily so. The average cost per lumen for all SVGA greater than $2,000 MSRP was $2.74 or 43% higher than the under $2,000. Clearly there's more to cost than lumens.

Although it is possible these days to have too much light output in a projector, brightness has a lot of benefits when dealing with ambient light or when you have a large audience and need a larger image. You should also keep in mind that lamp light output diminishes with time as metal deposits build on the inside of the lamp. For the NEC this means its 1500 lumens will slowly diminish to 750 lumens over the 2000 hours of its lamp life. For the Epson its 800 lumens will reduce to 400 lumens over 1500 hours of use.

If all other things are equal, and they rarely are, then the value for the VT460 appears to be exceptional for a product of this class. So what are 700 extra lumens worth? At the minimum going rate of $1.06 for products in this class it would be $742. Sounds like a deal to us.

Color Management - The 30c and the VT460 each offer 6 preset selections called Color Mode and Picture Management respectively. These presets are designed to optimize image quality for the type of material you are viewing. For example, presets are provided for different content such as movies, graphics, data and presentations. When you identify your source material, either by plugging into a specific connector or selecting a preset from the menu, the image attributes are automatically adjusted to optimize the image according to your choice. If you don't like a setting you can easily select another.

One of the differences between the projectors is that the VT460 allows you to define your own setting when in User mode. If you're a videophile, you'll probably like this level of control as you can tune the image to your own taste, but it's not for the casual user.

Another difference is that the 30c includes a Cinema Filter that, when attached to the projection lens, does a dramatic job of improving a video image and flesh tones. Epson describes it as a filter for producing optimum tint. LCD projectors are notorious for pumping out a lot of green light in order to boost lumen ratings and the Cinema Filter seems to tone down the green, which also reduces the lumen output, but dramatically improves the video quality.

We could approximate similar flesh tones on the VT460 using the User mode; however, the telltale sign of green was always present. We then tried the Cinema Filter on the VT460 and found that it had a similar affect on the image, toning down green and improving flesh tones.

If we've learned one thing in our years of testing projectors, it's that everyone has a different opinion about what setup looks best to them. In our experiment, if I showed you the first projector, you'd like the image. If I showed you the second projector, you'd like it too. If I showed them to you side-by-side, you'd definitely have a preference and it wouldn't be the same for everyone.

Connectivity - Both projectors provide similar connectivity. The items in common include:

  • RGB input that allows a computer connection or a component video input.
  • RGB monitor loop-through so you can plug in a monitor for local viewing.
  • S-Video, Composite, component video, 1080i, 720p, 480p,and 480i.

The biggest connector difference between the projectors is that the VT460 offers individual stereo audio input and output for S-Video, Video, and RGB/Component Video. The 30c offers one monaural input for Video/S-Video and one monaural input for RGB/Component video and no audio output. Both units are equipped with a single one-watt speaker.

Each offers a serial connection, but for difference purposes. The 30c uses a RS-232 connector to allow remote control of the projector from a computer. The VT460 offers a USB connector that allows you to connect your computer so the VT460 remote control can serve as your computer mouse. The VT460 also has a PC Control connector that apparently is for the exclusive use of service personnel.

Fan Noise - The 30c and the VT460 generate modest fan noise and they are rated at 35 dB and 37 dB respectively. The pitch of the 30c was slightly higher than the VT460.

Contrast - Both projectors are rated by the manufacturers at 400:1 contrasts and in the course of our testing it is evident that the brighter VT460 produces a whiter white and the 30c produces a blacker black. This is because the VT460 has a higher lumen output which tends to brighten whites and lighten blacks, so contrast remains the same between these projectors but the brightness of the images are very different.

Scaling - Today's projectors automatically scale the source signal to fit the native resolution of the projector. If you can avoid scaling, do so. Matching the computer to the native resolution of a projector will always produce the best image when projecting data. Since computers allow a wide range of resolution settings, it is easy to change the resolution to match the projector. When viewing video, you generally don't have much control over scaling and the artifacts of a good scaler are hardly evident except in the movie credits.

Although great strides have been made by projector manufacturers to improve image scaling, it is marginal at best in computer mode. The problem is not hard to understand when you consider that the text that I typed in this article was originally Arial 10 pt and the characters were formed with columns and rows of single pixel widths. Going from SVGA (800 x 600) to XGA (1024 x 768) is a 28% increase in the vertical and horizontal resolution. It's very hard to take the pixels of my typed characters and add 28% of a pixel in both directions. Since pixels are indivisible, the solution is to gray scale and the result is fuzzy letters.

If you must scale a data image, use larger text. In my example, I moved from 10pt to 14pt and got acceptable results. However, if you're dealing with fine line drawings or any small detail, scaling artifacts will be very evident. Both projectors behave similarly when the image is scaled.

Keystoning - Your audience will expect your image to be rectangular. This means the projector must be at the right height and perpendicular to the screen. If not, the immediate result is a keystone affect where the sides of the image converge and the top and bottom of the image are of different lengths. You can generally fix this problem by either raising the projector or lowering the screen, but if that is not an option there are two types of solutions.

One method is lens shift where the optics can be shifted slightly to allow the image to be moved up or down to reduce or eliminate keystoning. This is the best solution, as it does not distort the content.

The other method is digital keystone correction where the image is electronically compressed to "square" the image. Of the two methods, lens shift is preferred because you do not lose content, but it is only available in about 15% of the projectors in the market today.

Digital keystone is now the preference of manufacturers because it is electronic, making it both economical and reliable. In the case of the 30c and the VT460, both have digital keystone correction. The 30c allows manual adjustment from the menu. The VT460 offers an automatic adjustment that is either enabled or disabled.

Digital keystone correction is a lot like scaling from a higher resolution to a lower resolution, except that it is scaled non-uniformly with the longest horizontal line scaled the most and the shortest horizontal line not at all. And like scaling, digital keystone correction has significantly less visible impact on the image quality when viewing video or large text than data with fine detail.

When enabled, the VT460 can automatically correct keystoning quickly on-the-fly as you move the projector around, which is very handy if you're a mobile presenter. The 30c requires manual adjustment using the menu system.

Zoom Lens - The NEC offers a 1.2:1 optical zoom lens that's manually adjusted at the lens. The 30c does not have an optical zoom lens; however, it does offer a 1.2:1 digital zoom. The problem with digital zoom is that it introduces scaling artifacts and although it's handy to have if you need it, we suggest avoiding it if you can.

Remote Control - The 30c offers a credit card size remote control. Easy to handle and easy hide in the palm of your hand. We had trouble bouncing the signal off of the screen, but it worked fine when pointed at the back or front receiver of the projector. The range was at least 20 feet line-of-site, which was the limitation of our room.

The VT460 offers a handheld remote control that is comfortable to hold and operate, although it is considerably larger than the 30c remote. We had no trouble bouncing the signal off of a screen at 20 feet.

Warranty - And last but not least is the Warranty. You hope you never need it, but you're paying for it so take the time to check it out.

Epson 30c NEC VT460
1-year 3-year
Lamp: 90 days Lamp: 180 days or 1000 hours, whichever comes first.
Extra Care Road Service Program - Overnight delivery of replacement unit in U.S. or Canada. Return original unit within 3 days using pre-paid airway bill and packaging.

Warranty repair in any of 45 countries regardless of country of purchase.

Toll-free support line 6a.m to 6p.m. PST Monday -Friday.
InstaCare - 1st year provides the original owner limited concurrent 3-business day repair/return or next business day exchange.

Conclusion - Had we reviewed these units sequentially rather than side-by-side, we would have come away from both feeling quite astonished at the quality for the money. However, we did see them side-by-side and we also saw them up against the Toshiba TDP-MT8U, which is 6 to 8 times the price. While the Toshiba unit was not a fair comparison, it helped put quality and price in perspective.

The Toshiba projector is a fine product targeted at the home theater market. The video image is stunning due to the high contrast ratio (1400:1), higher resolution (1280 x 720), excellent color balance, and offers enough light output for a home theater product. But the inescapable fact is that these low cost products produce a very fine image in data and video. The differences in data are not nearly as dramatic as the differences in video unless you're viewing photos or graphics, but even the difference in video is not what you would expect.

With the Cinema Filter attached to the Epson we were able to get excellent video color balance, although the image lacked the depth and crispness of the Toshiba because it lacks the contrast and resolution of the Toshiba.

By adjusting the user settings on the NEC we got similar results to the Epson and like the Epson, the Toshiba stands out for its color depth and image crispness for the same reasons. But where the NEC stands tall is brightness. The whites were whiter than the Epson and the Toshiba and gave the image life. Don't misunderstand. The Toshiba image is clearly superior to the other two products, but this is were money becomes a consideration.

The NEC VT460 and Epson PowerLite 30c at 16% and 13% of the price of the Toshiba respectively, offer a remarkable image for the price. If budget is your issue, these products are worth a look.

When comparing the NEC VT460 and Epson 30c to each other, we found that the higher light output, the optical zoom lens, and the stronger warranty make the NEC the better value dispite the $296 higher retail price.