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Home theater and home entertainment are very different beasts. Epson makes projectors for both. Their new MegaPlex MG-850HD is the latter, a home entertainment projector that's designed for family fun in the living room. Perfect for video games or movies, the MG-850 features an iPod/iPad dock as well as a USB port for easy connectivity with all of your mobile devices in addition to the standard video connections. Selling for less than $800, the MG-850HD is a great addition to any family room, game room, or other communal space.
The Viewing Experience
Normally, we set up projectors in our darkened theater room in order to test them under optimal conditions. While we did the same thing with the MG-850HD, our comments here reflect the projector's performance in a living room setting with some ambient light. This is the setting in which the MG-850HD was designed to be used. So we set the projector on a coffee table, hooked up a couple of different sources, and let it rip.
The MG-850HD is built with portability in mind and even has a carry handle built in to the side of the case. The lens cap is also built in, with a small slider carrying it back and forth in front of the lens when required. All of the ports on the connection panel are recessed, and a small cover snaps into place to protect them when not in use. Even the iPod dock on the rear of the projector retracts when it's not needed. In other words, the MG-850HD isn't just portable because it weighs very little; it's portable because it was designed to be.
The MG-850HD has a 1.2:1 zoom lens and a fixed throw angle. When you place the projector on your coffee table, the bottom edge of the image will be even with the centerline of the lens. On a low coffee table, this might place the bottom of the image lower than you'd prefer, at which point you can either raise the projector by placing it on top of something or tilt it using the extendable front foot.
The Epson MegaPlex MG-850HD
The MG-850HD has automatic vertical keystone, so it will square the image for you, but you will lose some resolution. As for horizontal offset, the projector also has horizontal keystone, activated via a slider on the top of the case. This system makes it easier to set up the projector on the fly, which is especially handy if you take advantage of the MG-850HD's portability and bring it with you. If you have it set up on a table at home, then the quick-adjust keystone correction is less vital.
The first thing you'll notice when you fire up the MG-850HD is that it's very bright. Living rooms and other similar environments often have some ambient light, even with the curtains closed or the blinds drawn. To combat this, the MG-850HD cranks out almost 2400 lumens in its brightest mode, allowing you to put up a 100" diagonal picture even when there's some light in the room. Of course, this isn't universally true; the more ambient light you have, the smaller you'll have to make your image. The MG-850HD has a 1.2:1 zoom lens, so you can adjust the picture size somewhat without being forced to move the projector.
Image quality is top notch for a projector in this price range. The MG-850HD's bright picture has strong, saturated color, and the Cinema preset isn't too far off from the 6500K standard for color temperature. The projector's 1280x800 native resolution means that there are some slight black bars at top and bottom when viewing 16:9 content, but these bars all but disappear when there is significant ambient light in the room. Contrast is respectable, though black level is only about average. Video and game content from PC sources is sharp and clear, doubly so since computer output can be tailored to match the projector's native 1280x800 pixel matrix. Most importantly, 1080p from our Blu-ray player maintained most, if not all, of the clarity and detail of the original HD source despite the MG-850HD's 720p resolution.
Picture quality. Why should you buy a projector like the MG-850HD over any of the countless other sub-$800 WXGA projectors out there? Setting aside the slew of home entertainment features, it all boils down to picture quality. The MG-850HD is built from the ground up with home entertainment in mind--movies, home video, television, pictures, music, and games. While it shares certain features in common with a data projector, namely its 1280x800 native resolution, it also has many things in common with its brethren in Epson's home theater lineup. The MG-850HD delivers a bright, colorful, high-contrast image with plenty of detail.
Light output. In a living room or other non-theater space, the MG-850HD's high lumen output allows it to be used at large screen sizes even in the presence of ambient light. The MG-850HD has a maximum output of 2800 lumens on paper, and we were able to hit that number in Dynamic mode with both Contrast and Brightness sliders cranked all the way up. These adjustments kill color saturation and dynamic range, so it isn't much good for anything beyond text display, but it can be handy when you need that extra little bit of oomph out of the projector. Bringing contrast and brightness back down to normal, Dynamic mode measured 2365 lumens with the lamp set to Normal. Dynamic mode lives up to its name, with big bold highlights and highly saturated colors. It is a great choice for sports and animation as well as video games--basically anywhere you want the biggest screen size you can manage, since Dynamic is the brightest of all pre-calibrated modes. Color isn't as accurate as it is in the following presets, but when you just need a big picture on the wall, color accuracy is not the primary concern.
Living Room mode, the next preset, has better color accuracy and contrast than Dynamic mode, but also lower lumen output. At 1431 lumens in high lamp mode, Living Room is a good choice if you have some control over ambient light in your viewing space, but still want to keep the lights up--say, when you're eating dinner while watching a movie, or chowing down on snacks during the game, or playing a video game. Game mode is almost identical to Living Room, except the former is about ten lumens brighter and color temperature is a little cooler. Functionally, these two modes are interchangeable.
The MG-850HD with iPad attached
The final available mode is Cinema. Cinema mode has a warmer color temperature than Dynamic, Game, or Living Room, deeper black levels, and a more subtle, film-like appearance. It is the ideal mode for film or video in a darkened space, though a small amount of ambient light is not intolerable thanks to Cinema mode's 1350 lumens.
Cinema mode at default uses the Eco lamp setting, which measures 1070 lumens (a 21% reduction in output). While the other image modes default to Normal lamp, anyone finding the projector too bright can switch to Eco lamp for a 21% reduction in light output in any of these preset modes.
Contrast. In ambient light, brightness creates contrast. However, in a darkened viewing space, the MH-850HD has respectable contrast all its own. Dynamic range is sufficient to properly display shadow detail from most Blu-ray movies without crushed blacks or blown highlights. Black level is aided by the MG-850HD's auto iris, which operates in total silence and helps keep dark scenes looking black instead of gray. The iris is not very aggressive at times; some unquestionably "dark" scenes in certain movies did not trigger the iris.
Color. The MG-850HD has solid color performance, even straight out of the box. As the projector costs less than $800, it is unlikely that many users will spend the time and money to have it professionally calibrated, making a good factory preset even more important. Even at defaults, color is balanced and well-saturated, and color temperature is within 500K of the D65 ideal in Cinema mode without any adjustment. Videophiles may want to spend time fine-tuning the MG-850HD anyway, as the projector has a full suite of RGB Gain/Bias controls and responds well to calibration.
The MG-850HD's side panel. Note the carrying handle.
Portability. Any projector owner will tell you that, when game day rolls around, their house becomes the go-to gathering place. While that can be a lot of fun, it is also a lot of work. The MG-850HD is highly portable--not just because it is small and light (which it is) but because it was designed with an eye for portability. On the side of the projector is a sturdy fold-out carrying handle, perfect for lugging the projector from place to place. All of the ports, including the iPod dock, are either covered or retractable. The lens cap is a part of the body itself and therefore cannot be lost. The projector has a set of 10W stereo speakers, so an external audio system isn't required. All of these features make the MG-850HD the ideal projector to bring to a friend's house, set up on the coffee table, and start watching the game. Even if you don't plan to travel with the projector, the MG-850HD makes it easy to put the projector away when you're not using it, then set it up again later. For multi-use rooms like the living room, this is vital.
iPod connectivity. Smartphones and portable media devices become more and more ubiquitous every day, and the MG-850HD provides an easy way to share content from these devices. Any smartphone or tablet can use one of the MG-850HD's video ports, of course, or perhaps connect directly using the projector's USB port. However, Apple's suite of iOS devices (comprised of the iPhone, iPod, and iPad) can attach directly to the MG-850HD's dock connector. This not only allows audio and video to be passed from device to projector, but also allows you to control the device using the projector's remote control. While the interface can be a little awkward at times, the system works well when connected to an iPod classic.
The rear of the MG-850HD with VGA port exposed and iPod dock extended.
Fan noise. In Normal lamp mode, the MG-850HD's fan emits a constant low rush of air, which while not objectionable is certainly noticeable. While watching a movie with the speakers turned up, the noise becomes much harder to notice. On the other hand, Eco mode lowers fan noise to the point where it is basically undetectable even with no other noise in the room. If you want to show a photo slideshow with no music, Eco mode is the way to go.
Speakers. The MG-850HD has a pair of 10W stereo speakers built in. These speakers are powerful enough that a small group, say 5-10 people, should be able to watch a movie or television program without turning up the volume past the halfway point. Turning up the volume too far will result in some tinny character and the occasional rattling noise which is characteristic of small speakers being driven too hard. To its credit, the MG-850HD performs better in this regard than many other projectors in its price range, and the mere inclusion of 10W stereo speakers is an accomplishment in itself. What's more, the speakers are mounted on the rear panel of the projector, so in a tabletop mount they will face directly back at the audience.
Connectivity. In addition to the iPod dock, the MG-850HD incorporates most standard connection options. The projector has a single HDMI port, a set of component video inputs, and a composite video port with associated L/R RCA audio input. On the rear panel is a VGA port as well as two USB ports, and the MG-850HD can use these ports to connect to all manner of mobile devices. All ports have detachable covers, protecting the delicate pieces and making the projector's surface perfectly smooth when those ports are not in use.
iPod quirks. The difficulty with designing an iPod interface is simple: how do you take a device like an iPod and map its controls onto a more traditional remote? The MG-850 tries its best and mostly succeeds. An on-screen menu helps you navigate the iPod's hierarchical menu structure, and the remote control features a directional pad, play/stop/track skip buttons, and a button to take you up one level in the iPod's menu system. This works well when using the iPod Classic, though there are occasional quirks. For example, when starting a photo slideshow, after navigating to the photo folder the MG-850HD instructed me to start the slideshow from my iPod--literally get up off of the couch and go punch the button. And while the interface works well with the old-style iPod Classic, I have to wonder how well it will handle navigating the newer-style iOS devices, which are entirely touchscreen-based. If you plan on using this capability frequently, find a retailer with a generous return policy and try it out before you commit.
Black level. The one place where the MG-850HD really falls short as a movie projector is black level. Even with an auto iris, the MG-850HD's black level often came closer to deep gray than true black. While this is not unusual in inexpensive projectors, it remains the only substantive area where we were disappointed with the MG-850HD's performance.
Remote control backlight. The MG-850HD uses a slim, attractive remote control that is unique to the MegaPlex line. While the remote itself is easy to use when the lights are on, the backlight does not illuminate all of the buttons--only the play, pause, volume, and track skip buttons are illuminated. The buttons used to access the projector's menu, change the source, switch color modes, and change lamp power remain dark. It seems as if it would have been trivial to extend backlighting to all of the buttons instead of just a subset, so this is slightly disappointing.
Connection panel. The MG-850HD has plenty of video and data connections, but these connections are located all over the projector. On the rear panel are the iPod dock, VGA port, and two USB ports. On the right side panel are the HDMI, composite, and component video connections. On the right side, all by itself, sits the power cable. The end result is that you can end up with cables feeding out of the projector in every direction, creating a jumbled mess. However, as a portable projector, few people will use all of these connections simultaneously.
The MegaPlex MG-850HD is not the first home entertainment projector from Epson. Previously, the Epson MovieMate series occupied the same niche, incorporating an onboard DVD player to create a complete home entertainment solution in a box. Epson also released the PowerLite Home Cinema 700 and 705HD, two entertainment projectors focused on USB projection and integration with mobile devices.
The MegaPlex series takes cues from both the MovieMate series and the Home Cinema 700 series projectors. In a way, it updates both of these concepts for the new decade, solidifying the link between home entertainment and mobile devices and making it more intuitive. With the MG-850HD, they have created a bright, high-resolution home entertainment projector that's perfect for the living room. It creates a way to share content that has typically been limited to tiny screens. With family or friends gathered around, a simple game or video clip can become an experience.
When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, the MG-850HD delivers on its promise. The iPod dock functions well, and navigation is mostly straightforward. Black level is slightly high, but in a bright room black level becomes functionally irrelevant. The same goes for the remote control backlight--annoying in the dark, but the MG-850HD is not built for the dark. All in all, the MG-850HD is a strong performer and a great addition to any family space.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Epson MegaPlex MG-850HD projector page.