UPDATE (6/19/02): The outstanding Epson 730c, the world's first sub-5 lb. 2000 ANSI lumen projector, has begun shipment this month and is being added to our "Recommended" list for mobile projection. See the review of the 730c. EP
In January and February we took a long hard look at the current crop of mobile presentation projectors on the market. We put them through their paces in our test lab and came up with the cream of the crop-products that stand out above the rest in their respective price/performance categories as the best the industry has to offer today. We are giving enthusiastic "buy" recommendations on the outstanding projectors featured in this article.
Evaluating dozens of projectors side-by-side and coming up with the best products in the group was largely a process of elimination, based on various performance factors. Here are some our general observations:
ANSI Lumen Ratings. Due to the highly competitive nature of the industry, specifications are a key battleground. People tend to buy based on specifications and ratings since there is no other method of comparison. And the "ANSI lumen" rating that indicates total brightness is one of the most important specifications that influences buying decisions. A few comments must be made here.
First, it is not uncommon for individual samples of projectors to vary from their official ANSI lumen ratings by as much as 20% due to tolerance variations in the production of lamps, optics and electronics. So taking a lumen reading on an individual projector and publishing the number as the "actual lumen output" to be expected from any sample of that particular model is misleading and irresponsible. So we don't publish those particular statistics.
Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that many (but not all) manufacturers tend to publish ANSI lumen specifications that are "best case" numbers. Sometimes they are even inflated unrealistically beyond best case. Our review confirms that this practice is still alive and well in the projector industry. Our ANSI lumen measurements tended to average 20% to 25% below the official rating for the product, with a few products measuring 35% or more below their official ratings. We had a couple of products rated at 2000 ANSI lumens that measured below 1300. They do not appear on the recommended list.
Though some vendors publish misleading specifications in this regard, others do not. The Epson 51c, rated at 1200 ANSI lumens, actually measured 1211 in our study, and was the only product we found that measured higher than its official rating. By comparison, units that compete with the 51c that are also rated at 1200 ANSI lumens tended to measure in the range of 850 to 1000 lumens-well outside the range of results that can be expected from production variances.
Products that were more than 30% below the rated lumen output were automatically disqualified from the recommendations. Products that measured less than 30% below their rating were judged based on a value assessment that factored their measured light output, image quality, and other performance characteristics vs. selling price, and how that value compared to other products in the price range.
The bottom line is this: manufacturer's specifications can be anywhere from accurate to bogus, depending on the degree to which the individual manufacturer is committed to publishing accurate data. There is no regulatory body that ensures their accuracy, and buyers should be cautious about making purchase decisions based on published specifications.
Keystone correction. Almost all digital projectors have digital keystone correction these days. That's the feature that lets you square up the image and eliminate the trapezoidal shape when you are projecting at an angle. Sounds good initially, except that all digital keystone adjustments require a rescaling of the image. This has little effect on the image quality of a Powerpoint presentation that consists of pie charts and bullet items. It usually has little effect on graphics or jpeg photographs. However, it significantly fuzzes detailed data such as financial reports on an Excel spreadsheet or text in a Word document.
All projectors reviewed for this article have this problem, and generally to about the same degree. Therefore no matter which projector you buy, we recommend that you not use the digital keystone adjustments if your presentation material consists of detailed financial or textual data. It is much easier on the eyes of your viewers if you display data in its unscaled format without keystone adjustments, and live with the trapezoidal image.
Native resolution. All projectors have a "native resolution" which is the physical number of pixels on their displays. An SVGA projector has a physical (native) display resolution of 800 x 600. An XGA projector has a physical display that is 1024 x 768. However, almost all projectors will display resolutions other than their native resolution. So most SVGA projectors will accept an XGA 1024 x 768 signal and compress it into its 800 x 600 physical array. Conversely, most XGA projectors will take an 800 x 600 signal and scale it up to its native 1024 x 768 array.
The problem is this. No projector compresses or scales a non-native signal cleanly. You end up with fuzzy spreadsheets and Word documents just like you do when you use the digital keystone adjustment. Therefore if your presentations consist of detailed material, make sure to match the resolution of your computer to the native resolution of the projector. In this review we looked for projectors that had particularly good scaling or compression of non-native resolutions. Though some are a bit better than others, they are all poor enough to render the feature irrelevant as a factor in selecting a projector.
Focus problems. Perhaps the biggest surprise in this review was the number of projectors that were unable to focus sharply from edge to edge and top to bottom. For example, the image may be in focus in the upper right quadrant or lower left quadrant, but not both simultaneously. Some products were able to render a clean focus initially, but when they heated up to normal operating temperature they would be unable to retain sharp focus throughout the image. All products that had focus problems of this nature were disqualified.
Remote control problems. A number of products had deficiencies with the remote control. Either the remote itself was poorly designed and difficult to manipulate, the range of the remote was limited, or the responsiveness of the projector to it was unreliable. Since the last thing a mobile presenter needs to deal with in the midst of a big presentation is an untrustworthy remote, we disqualified all products manifesting problems in this regard.
Fan noise. In general, fan noise is considerably lower in this new crop of projectors than it was on earlier generations of products. Though many of them are a lot better, there is still room for improvement. Mobile presenters, especially those who work in smaller conference room settings, need quiet products that won't distract the audience. Accordingly, we disqualified several units due in part to fan noise that was either too loud, too high in pitch, or both.
Thus, coming up with our "Recommended" list was largely a process of elimination. We looked at price, weight, lumen output, contrast, overall image quality in data and video, ease of use, and a variety of other features to come up with the cream of the crop--those products that represent the very best values in the market today.
Recommended XGA Resolution Projectors
(1100 ANSI lumens, 3.6 lbs)
This machine caught us absolutely by surprise as one of the best performing mini-projectors on the market. It weighs only 3.6 lbs and has a footprint of just 9" x 7." It throws an extremely sharp, clean image, perhaps the sharpest from DLP we've seen yet. Contrast is excellent, which improves its perceived brightness. A 32x digital zoom is as good as it gets on mobile projectors; both zoom and panning are quick and easy. Fan noise is remarkably low for the size of the projector and the brightness of the image, and the lowest we've seen in the sub-4 lb class. The 735 produces an exceptionally smooth video image, but it has difficulty in color accuracy, particularly in reds and oranges. It is not recommended for home theater if that is the primary application. However, it will provide good video images from both progressive scan DVD players and HDTV receivers. Owners will definitely want to use it as a weekend home theater machine instead of their regular TV set. The remote, while not the best ergonomic design, it isn't the worst either and with a little practice it is certainly functional. Overall, the EzPro 735 is a superb value, and a perfect solution for frequent travelers concerned about limiting the carrying weight of their presentation equipment. (see specs and dealers)
(2000 ANSI lumens, 7 lbs)
Hitachi put everything together for this outstanding 7 lb product. It is clearly the brightest of the current crop of portables rated at 2000 ANSI lumens. The image is razor sharp with excellent contrast. The white screen is clean with none of the slight color shifts that appear in some LCD projectors. Fan noise is moderate when used in full power, but not intrusive when used in a larger venue. Furthermore, it has a terrific whisper mode option that reduces lumen output by 20% and drops fan noise to very low-an excellent option for smaller conference room work. The remote is outstanding. It feels good in the hand, is easy to work with, and has great range. The projector responds immediately to the remote and the menu is easy to use. Very good video capability allows it to fill a secondary function as a home theater machine, especially in whisper mode, although it would not be our first choice as a dedicated home theater machine. For those who want the flexibility of maximum firepower for larger audiences, the ability to turn it down a notch for smaller venues, and a very respectable part time home theater solution as a bonus, the Hitachi CP-X380W gets our enthusiastic recommendation. (see specs and dealers)
(2000 ANSI lumens, 5.7 lbs)
PLUS has built a great reputation as a leading edge maker of the industry's smallest digital projectors. The new U2-X2000, at 5.7 lbs, is currently the smallest of the machines rated at 2000 ANSI lumens. It is the second brightest projector we found in the "2000 lumen" category, second only to the Hitachi CP-X380W. It throws a beautiful high contrast, razor sharp image. In terms of carrying weight, it is only 7.5 lbs including case, cables and remote. That's 2.7 lbs lighter than the Hitachi. And the U2-X2000 features a PC card reader that can let you load your presentation into the projector and go without your computer, saving quite a bit of extra weight and bulk. Onscreen pointers and chalkboard are additional bonus features for the mobile presenter. It is fully HDTV and 480p compatible and produces good video, but fan noise is too loud for use as a home theater unit. It is too loud for small conference room work also. This is the ideal projector for those who want the brightest picture possible in the smallest, most portable package, for presentation in larger venues where a little bit of extra fan noise is not an issue. (see specs and dealers)
(2000 ANSI lumens, 7 lbs)
This was another 7 lb machine rated at 2000 ANSI lumens. It was in the middle of the pack in terms of actual light output for the "2000 lumen" products. However, the strengths of the XD200 are low fan noise and remarkably strong performance in video. These two factors make it the best overall projector in the review for serving double duty as a home theater projector and mobile presentation tool. Color in video is particularly outstanding, and the DLP light engine delivers a smooth, pixel-free image. The data image is sharp and contrast is good. The remote is a bit of a weakness, but it is functional once you get used to it. If your objective is to use your projector regularly for home theater and yet have it portable enough to take on the road and bright enough to address a large audience, the Mitsubishi XD200 Colorview is the perfect solution. (see specs and dealers)
(1200 ANSI lumens, 6.3 lbs)
Epson is too conservative with its specifications given the highly competitive nature of the industry it competes in. The 713c is rated by Epson at 1200 ANSI lumens, but it measured as bright as competing units rated at 1500 ANSI lumens. The 713c is a popular machine and for good reason. The magnificent color in graphics, photographs, Internet Websites, etc., that it delivers was not matched by any competing machine in this review. To emphasize the point, though it is a mobile presentation product, any art museum that wants to project accurate photographic reproductions of Monets and Rembrandts in its visitor's center theaters should be using the Epson 713c. Fan noise is moderate; not one of the quietest machines in the review, but not the loudest either, and not so loud as to be intrusive in a normal conference room. The design and responsiveness of the remote is one of the best from any maker. The 713c does not have a strong video package-no HDTV, 480p or component inputs, so it isn't the ideal home theater product. But if you have a need to display beautiful graphics and photographs in your presentations, nothing beats the 713c. (see specs and dealers)
Recommended SVGA Resolution Projectors
(1200 ANSI lumens, 7 lbs)
Panasonic has hit a home run with this new 7 lb, 1200 lumen machine. Fan noise is very low, contrast is great, and it has a short throw lens that lets you put a BIG image on the wall from a short distance. Not only is it a great price/performer for mobile presentation, but it delivers the best video we've seen yet in projectors selling close to the $2000 mark. Thus for those on a limited budget, it is our current recommendation for a dedicated home theater projector as well. For outstanding value in both mobile presentation and home theater rolled into one, this one cannot be beat. (see specs and dealers)
(1200 ANSI lumens, 6.8 lbs)
Though this product is rated at 1200 ANSI lumens, Epson's ratings are conservative compared to the industry at large. The 51c is as bright as many 1600 lumen machines on the market today. It is by far the brightest of the portable SVGA machines selling in the low $2000s. The 51c is a rugged machine that will hold up well on the road. The remote is terrific in design and ease of use, and presentation highlighters on board are a nice bonus. The 51c delivers the most accurate color of any machine in its price class for graphics, jpeg photos, Internet surfing, etc. If you are presenting graphics and photographic material for which you want the best possible color reproduction, either the 51c or Epson's XGA-resolution 713c noted above are both strongly recommended selections. (see specs and dealers)
(1000 ANSI lumens, 7.2 lbs)
The V1 sells for well below $2,000 and earns our recommendation as the best machine for those on the tightest of budgets. It puts a sharp image on the wall and hums along with a quiet fan that is low in pitch. The V1 is the best economy-budget solution to great PowerPoint side presentations that we've seen yet. It takes a signal from a progressive scan DVD player too, and for the money puts a very nice video image on the wall. Not the ideal choice for a primary home theater device, but overall the Luxeon V1 delivers great performance for the money. (see specs and dealers)
(1000 ANSI lumens, 5.3 lbs)
Sony has packaged up a great product with the VPL-CS4, delivering all the key elements that the frequent presenter would want at a price in the low $2,000s. It delivers excellent contrast and sharpness, and it is the brightest of the machines in the review rated 1000 ANSI lumens. The remote is without a doubt the best compact, credit-card sized remote we've seen. Fan noise is low. The CS4 is the smallest and lightest of the SVGAs on our recommended list, weighing 5.3 lbs. This is a business product only; composite and S-video is available and performs well enough, but there is no HDTV, 480p, or component capability on this product, so if you are looking for a part time home theater unit, you should look elsewhere. But as a business presentation tool, it is superb. (see specs and dealers)