Power projection: Boardroom-worthy projectors reviewed

Slide shows and overhead projectors with images that are crooked, upside down, mirror imaged, or simply lost, are well and truly a thing of the past. We take you through some of the brightest possibilities.

Slide shows and overhead projectors with images that are crooked, upside down, mirror imaged, or simply lost, are well and truly a thing of the past. Data projectors suited to PowerPoint presentations and video projection are now quite affordable.

Prices vary with the features included, but not surprisingly the cost of projectors has dropped significantly in recent years. In 2003 the devices ranged in price from about AU$8000 to AU$15,000. The machines featured in this review range from AU$3600 up to AU$10,000.

The rise in the home theatre market has seen prices reduced through high-volume sales and every company with an electronics background seems to be making data projectors to cash in on this expanding market.

Little seems to have happened in terms of lamp technology since similar products were reviewed in 2003. Prices, lifespan, and brightness seem to have gone nowhere fast. Lamp price is something we would like to see drop given that it costs six to eight hundred dollars for a single lamp, which means about thirty to forty cents per hour (plus electricity). Efficiency is a tiny bit better since 2003, and most machines have an energy-saving mode, which uses a lower light level and can reduce machine noise significantly.

All projectors have vertical keystone correction, but some also have horizontal correction. Image brightness and size will also vary, so consider the size of the room that you will be using and the amount of ambient light -- some rooms are difficult to get really dark, but with a powerful lamp this may not be a serious issue.

Canon XEED SX50
The XEED SX50 is a special projector from Canon. It's the first projector we've seen that can display images at 1400 x 1050 -- and that's in native mode. Its lumens rating is above average at 2500, with a modest contrast ratio of 1000:1 and a 1.7x optical zoom.

The SX50 uses an exclusive technology from Canon called Aspectual Illumination System (AISYS) as well as super slim Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCOS) panels.

Setup was easy -- there's a large tilt underneath the front of the projector as well as a stabiliser and a little leg on the back.

The control buttons are small and a little fiddly. The remote control is quite small and has quite a few buttons but they are well laid out and some are coloured to make it easy to quickly identify adjustments. The buttons also light up.

The menu system, which includes a quiet mode, is very comprehensive allowing adjustments to be made to the image. There are a couple of different image modes you can choose such as standard, cinema, and presentation. The lamp counter displays a bar graph with green and red when you are nearing the end of the lamp's life but this wasn't much use -- we would prefer it just displayed the number of hours the lamp has been running.

On the side of the projector there is a limited number of connectors with component, RCA audio, and networking connections are absent.

The image quality of this projector was second to none. Its contrast was excellent and detail was superb in all aspects. Video playback also appeared very smooth. Even though it came second last in the lux tests (measuring brightness), its projection was very even across the screen. The only real downfalls of this projector are the high price tag and short lamp life.

Product Canon XEED SX50
Price AU$7,689
Vendor Canon
Phone 02 9805 2000
Web www.canon.com.au
 
Interoperability
½
Has DVI but not networking.
Futureproofing
½
Bright enough for a decent-sized meeting room. Excellent uniformity across the screen.
ROI
½
Pricey but offers the best picture quality out of all review products here.
Service
½
2 years (1 and 2 years extended warranty available on top of manufacturer's warranty); lamp: 90 days.
Rating
Canon XEED SX50
Epson EMP-835
This is a serious corporate LCD projector. At 3000 ANSI lumens this projector is rated the second brightest alongside the Mitsubishi but when we took its lux measurements it turned out to be third brightest; behind the Hitachi and Mitsubishi.

The EMP-835 is a large projector (although not as large as the Hitachi!), and it has a handle to make it easy to carry. The base has three adjustable legs but you will most likely mount this sort of projector to a ceiling.

At the rear you will find all the video and audio connectors but DVI and Component are noticeably absent. Your network basics are covered though as the Epson features an integrated network port and a PC Card slot for a Wi-Fi card (supplied). It also has USB connectivity so you can plug in a memory key and run a presentation directly from it.

Just like the Hitachi, the Epson has a motorised focus and 1.6x optical zoom. There's a lot of control buttons on the projector, which can be a bit overwhelming, and the same can be said about the remote control. However more buttons means it has more adjustments and more features on offer.

The on-screen menu includes a large number of predefined colour modes and it has a great lamp counter keeping track of low- and high-mode lamp hours. There's also a feature which can automatically detect the colour of the projection surface and adjust the image colour accordingly. This feature will no doubt become more popular in portable projectors where they are exposed to different environments.

The EMP-835 runs nice and cool thanks to its large fan and exhaust grill. It has a fast shutdown feature similar to the Panasonic, allowing you to turn it off without waiting for it to cool down. We measured how long it took for the fan to completely stop after being turned off -- it was about 200 seconds. You can pull the power cord and the sound of the fan cooling is still minimal.

Image quality was above average, only the Canon and Hitachi scored better in this area. Colours were warm and bright and we could see good detail in black objects. There were some jagged edges around some text and a little shadowing but nothing too great. The last bit of good news is that this projector is well priced for its features.

Product Epson EMP 835
Price AU$6,199
Vendor Epson
Phone 1300 361 054
Web www.epson.com.au
 
Interoperability
No DVI, offers both wired and unwired networking.
Futureproofing
Heaps of features, this is a serious meeting room projector.
ROI
Very good picture quality and well priced.
Service
2 years; lamp: 3 months or 500 hours.
Rating
Epson EMP-835
Hitachi CP-X1250W
The Hitachi CP-X1250W is the largest and brightest unit we tested -- many of the other projectors offer less than half of the brightness offered by this one.

This model is a serious boardroom projector. It's very bright -- rated at a whopping 4500 lumens -- providing excellent performance, even in well-lit rooms. The high lumens count means your audience can take notes and read documents without having to work in the dark.

This projector also features the most connectors out of all the products in this review. The lineup includes DVI, BNC, VGA, Component, Composite, S-Video, RCA, and a mini jack Audio as well as network.

The Hitachi uses a motorised focus and 1.5x zoom and has a lens shift feature which lets you move the picture vertically on the screen. More impressive is that you have a choice of four different lenses allowing you to position the projector to suit your environment. Hitachi claims you can project onto a 100-inch screen from 2.3m to 14.8m depending on the lens.

There are a lot of buttons on the projector but they are not confusing. The remote looks almost identical to the Mitsubishi remote and the menu features a broad range of adjustments.

It has the shortest shutdown time of all the products in this review, which is especially impressive considering its size. Speaking of size, it does comes with a carry handle but with such a large projector you're most likely not going to want to lug it around.

This projector scored highly in image quality -- the brightness was excellent with colours appearing rich and the text nice and sharp. There isn't much to say about this projector that is bad. To nit-pick, there was a slight flyscreen effect that was more noticeable than on some of the other LCD-based projectors we reviewed. Also, the evenness across the screen was a little varied but because this projector was so bright you couldn't really pick it without knowing where to look.

The Hitachi recorded a very low temperature but it unfortunately was the loudest of the group. Overall, it's a fantastic projector but you'll have to dig deep into your pocket because its going to set you back almost AU$10,000.

Product Hitachi CP-X1250W
Price AU$9,999
Vendor Hitachi Australia
Phone 1800 448 2244
Web www.hitachi.com.au
 
Interoperability
½
Connectors with the lot.
Futureproofing
Excellent features. Is the brightest out of the products we tested.
ROI
Excellent picture with a high price tag.
Service
½
2 years; lamp: 12 months or 500 hours.
Rating
Hitachi CP-X1250W
InFocus LP640
InFocus specifically lists this product as a meeting room projector. It has a reasonably high lumens rating of 2200 but a low contrast ratio of only 400:1. Don't let this low contrast ratio deter you though because the actual contrast we saw was quite good.

The LP640 has an easy-to-use set of control buttons and an LCD which can give you some meaningful information on the status of the projector. The focus and zoom can be easily adjusted through ring dials -- normally we don't like ring dials but these are wide and offer good grip.

The menu itself is very easy to use. It has a lamp-hours counter but unfortunately offers no option to run the projector in an economy mode.

The LP640 projector came with a LiteShow adaptor featuring an 11Mbps wireless adapter card that plugs into the DVI port of the projector, and Wireless Lan Card that plugs into your notebook. Client software is also supplied so you can manage the projector from your notebook.

It also comes with wired network capabilities. On the back all of the standard connectors are there, including DVI, but no component video.

This projector was the quietest tested, recording less than 50db. It has a quick warm up time but the cool down time took a longer than most. This is probably because it runs so hot -- the air coming out of the main fan grill was 70 degrees at one stage. While the projector is cooling down it displays how much longer it needs to continue cooling before you can unplug it -- a very handy feature. It also displays how long before it can fire up an image on the screen.

Picture quality was very good in our tests and the LP640 is up there as one of the sharper projectors of the group. Its contrast was good and our only real complaint isthat we noticed some blue shadowing around white text and there was a noticeable fly screen effect -- even from a distance.

Product InFocus LP640
Price AU$3,699
Vendor InFocus, distributor IDT
Phone (IDT) 1300 666 099
Web www.myinfocus.com.au
 
Interoperability
Excellent connectivity.
Futureproofing
½
Good brightness, doesn't have any standout features.
ROI
½
Good picture quality for the price.
Service
2 years; lamp: 90 days or 500 hours.
Rating
½
InFocus LP640
Mitsubishi XD480U
The Mitsubishi XD480U, a DLP projector, has a sleek design with little feet on the back and front to help you get the projection on the screen just right.

This projector has a well-designed focus and zoom lever making it easy to fine tune both settings -- much simpler than the ring adjustments found on other projectors.

At the rear is a DVI connector with all your other standard ones but no component. Networking isn't integrated but you can buy an external kit for another AU$915.

The menu offers good picture adjustment options but has no lamp-life counter -- something we have found missing on many of their previous models projectors. To be fair, Mitsubishi claims the lamp will last you 5000 hours in eco mode and, if true, you probably won't need to keep much of an eye on it.

This projector has an ANSI lumens rating of 3000 and a contrast ratio of 2200:1. It scored well on the brightness test, coming second overall. However, it did show the largest variance across the screen. The least bright part, like the Hitachi, was the top left-hand corner of the screen.

With such a high contrast rating we thought this projector would perform really well, yet it was actually the opposite. Colours appeared dull and very flat. Yellows were more mustard coloured and fine lines were actually quite coarse. In some movie scenes the sky appeared grainy -- a problem not found in the other projectors.

Overall, the image quality was a little disappointing, to say the least.

Product Mitsubishi XD480U
Price AU$4,799
Vendor Mitsubishi Electric
Phone 02 9684 7777
Web www.mitsubishielectric.com.au
 
Interoperability
½
Good connecting options, also has networking (external option + AU$915).
Futureproofing
Very bright but projection is not very even.
ROI
½
Lacks in image quality and lamps are expensive to replace.
Service
½
2 years; lamp: 90 days or 1200 hours.
Rating
Mitsubishi XD480U
Panasonic PT-LB20NTEA
The PT-LB20NTEA is an ultra-portable wireless LCD projector. It's rated at the low end of the field at just 2000 ANSI lumens and has a contrast ratio of 400:1.

That said, Panasonic has Daylight View Technology which it claims improves the performance in well-lit environments and says its performance should equal or exceed the previous 3000 lumens models. In our tests it exceeded the brightness performance of the Canon which is rated higher than the Panasonic.

It has built-in wireless capabilities and features the standard video and audio connectors with no DVI. The menu buttons are located in an unusual position at the rear and are quite small, very close together, and unmarked -- making them difficult to navigate and too easy to knock the focus or zoom adjustment out of position.

The remote control too is very small and would be quite easy to lose.

The menu system is a little tricky you might get lost working out where you are at times but it just takes getting used to.

In terms of picture quality, the result wasn't great with blacks looking quite washed and the text a little fuzzy up close. The Panasonic also ran very hot compared to the rest. We recorded an operating temperature of 73 degrees Celcius. On the positive side, a standout feature is the index window. This splits the display into two windows so you can use one as your index and the other as a working window. You can also have a multiple-windows index that can receive data from multiple PCs.

Another standout feature is the direct power-off, which enables you to disconnect the power while the cooling fan keeps cooling the lamp -- something no other projector in this review has. The good news continues on price -- the Panasonic has the lowest upfront cost and is also the cheapest to run at 30 cents an hour.

Product Panasonic PT-LB20NTEA
Price AU$3,599
Vendor Panasonic
Phone 13 26 00
Web www.panasonic.com.au
 
Interoperability
½
No DVI but offers integrated wireless.
Futureproofing
½
Good brightness and excellent features.
ROI
½
Average in terms of picture quality but least expensive and cheap to run.
Service
2 years; lamp: 3 months or 500 hours.
Rating
½
Panasonic PT-LB20NTEA
How we tested
The test rig used to "drive" the projectors was an Apple Power Mac Dual 2.7 we tested as part of the "Desktop dream machine" review. This machine was equipped with nVidia Geforce 6800 card with DVI. All the projectors which had DVI were connected to the Apple. While the Epson and Panasonic, which only had VGA inputs, were connected to an Acer Veriton 7800 which also had an nVidia Geforce 6800 based graphics.

Each of the projectors were connected to the test rig and given adequate time for the lamp to heat up and stabilise. All the projectors were placed between 4.5 and five metres away to display an image that would fit our 100-inch diagonal screen.

In addition to image quality, the projectors were assessed for workmanship, design, as well as location of controls and ports. We also considered ease of use.

We measured the relative brightness of each projector with a Topcon IM-2D digital luxmeter. Included was a series of subjective "jury" display quality tests -- for this purpose we used the DisplayMate for Windows from Sonera Technologies. This series of images is designed to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a range of attributes, including geometric patterns, colour scales, greyscales, uniformity, and resolution.

The jury tests consisted primarily of examining images from DisplayMate, each of which is designed to highlight specific flaws. Firstly, by whether they showed any of these flaws and if they did, the jurors decided whether the flaws were "barely visible", "easily visible -- but not an issue for real-world use," or "distracting in at least some circumstances".

We also rated each of the projectors in the areas of interoperability, future proofing, ROI, and service.

Warm up/cool down
This was done to see how quickly a user can power up and shut down a projector. We connected a projector to a PC that was already running and then turned the projector on and timed how long it takes it to display an image on the screen. We also allowed the projector to run for 60 minutes before we would power it down and then time how long it took for the projector's fan to shut off.

Noise
We performed a sound level test to see how loud a projector's fan can get. Projectors tend to be quite loud when first started and turned off. We measured their fan noise after letting them run for 30 minutes. The background noise was less than 50 decibels prior to noise testing each projector.

Temperature
We measured how hot a projector gets using a digital thermometer which we held 10cm from the hottest part of a projector's hottest part -- its main fan exhaust grill. All the projectors were running for 30 minutes before we recorded any temperature readings.

Lux pattern
Lux pattern
We measured the uniformity and relative brightness of each projector with a Topcon IM-2D digital luxmeter. The Topcon allowed us to measure the brightness of the display from 13 points around the screen and derive an average, maximum, and minimum range for each projector that we then plotted. We developed a special test pattern for this purpose with a very pale green background and 13 large white "target" spots for the Topcon to take a lux value from.

Master test pattern
The MTP was used as an ancillary check for interference patterns arising from the blocks of fine lines and dither patterns.

Extreme greyscale and colour bars test
The clustered dark greyscale tests the black level and accurate intensity reproduction near black. Most of the steps should be visible and distinct. Alternatively the clustered bright grey-scale tests for white saturation and accurate intensity reproduction near peak white. All of the steps should be visible and distinct. The colour bars in this test image, red, green, and blue in particular were subjectively examined for colour richness. We also played back two DVDs, The Incredibles animation movie which has a lot of vivid colours and digitally created characters and The Matrix which is quite a dark movie allowing us to see the detail displayed in dark objects.


Master test pattern


Extreme greyscale and colour bars test
Results

Specifications

Model Hitachi CP-X1250W Canon XEED SX50 InFocus LP640 Epson EMP-835 Mitsubishi XD480U Panasonic PT-LB20NTEA
Company Hitachi Canon InFocus Epson Mitsubishi Electric Panasonic
Phone number 1800 448 2244 02 9805 2000 IDT (distributor):
1300 666 099
1300 361 054 02 9684 7777 13 26 00
Web www.hitachi.com.au www.canon.com.au www.myinfocus.com www.epson.com.au www.mitsubishi
electric.com.au
www.panasonic.
com.au
Projector warranty 2 years 2 years (extended warranty available) 2 years parts and labour 2 years 2 years 2 years
Lamp warranty 12 months or 500 hours 90 days 90 days or 500 hours 3 months or 500 hours 90 days or 1200 hours 3 months or 500 hours
RRP AU$9,999 AU$7,689 AU$3,699 AU$6,199 AU$4,799 AU$3,599
Lamp RRP AU$795 AU$688 AU$750 AU$699 AU$799 AU$600
Display type LCD LCOS LCD LCD DLP LCD
Native resolution 1024 x 768 1400 x 1050 1024 x 768 1024 x 768 1024 x 768 1024 x 768
Projection distance coverage 1.2 ~ 23.2m (std lens) 1.2 ~ 9.1m 1.2 ~ > 7.5m 60in from 18m ~ 2.9m 1.3 ~ 10m 1.1 ~ 10.7m
Screen size 40in ~ 500in 40in ~ 300in 40in ~ > 300in 30in ~ 300in 40in ~ 300in 33in ~ 300in
H-Sync range 15KHz ~ 91KHz 15KHz ~ 80KHz 16KHz ~ 110KHz 15KHz ~ 107KHz 15KHz ~ 100KHz 15KHz ~ 91KHz
V-Sync range 50Hz ~ 120Hz 50Hz ~ 100Hz 50Hz ~ 85Hz 50Hz ~ 120Hz 50Hz ~ 120Hz 50Hz ~ 85Hz
Brightness (ANSI Lumens) 4500 2500 2200 3000 3000 2000
Contrast ratio 800:1 1000:1 400:1 600:1 2200:1 400:1
Built-in speaker 2 x 1W 1W 2W 5W 2W 1W
Lamp watts 310W UHB 200W NSH 170W UHP 200W UHE 250W (200W eco mode) 155W UHM
Lamp life (hours) 2000 1500 2000 2000 (3000 eco mode) 2000 (5000 eco mode) 2000
Weight 7.7kg 3.9kg 3.4kg 4.7kg 2.9kg 2.2kg
Connections (ports) DVI, BNC, RGB, S-Video, Component, Composite Video, Audio 3.5m and RCA, Serial Control, Remote Control, USB Mouse DVI, RGB, S-Video, Composite Video, Audio 3.5mm, Service Port, USB DVI, RGBx2, S-Video, Composite Video, Audio 3.5m and RCA, Serial, USB RGBx3, S-Video, Composite Video, Audio 3.5m & RCA, Serial, USB DVI, RGBx2, S-Video, Composite Video, Audio 3.5m & RCA, Serial, USB RGBx2, S-Video, Composite Video, Audio RCA, Serial
Wireless connectivity Optional No Yes Yes No Yes
Wired networking Yes No Yes Yes Yes (external) No
PC card slot No No No Yes No No
What to look for
  • Brightness: Technically the brighter the better but this depends on your operating environment and application.
  • Contrast ratio: The higher the ratio, the better the image quality (blacks appear blacker and depth of field deeper).
  • LCD vs DLP vs LCOS: Firstly weigh up what your intended usage patterns are going to be ie: 90 percent data and 10 percent video, then make your decision based on the costs of the differing technologies. There is no point in paying the extra dollars for a technology you will rarely benefit from.
  • Lamp life: Just remember a projector that is always on the move and is constantly being turned on and off is going to go through lamps at a far greater rate than a permanently mounted projector that is switched on for longer periods. Also look for projectors that can run in eco mode.
  • Connectors: DVI, Component Video, and RCA Audio are some of the standard connectors you will find on a projector. Some projectors include PC Card slots or USB ports, which means you can do a presentation without the need of a PC. Wireless and wired network capabilities are also now becoming mainstream.
  • Resolution: Aim for resolutions of 1024 x 768 or above. The lower the resolution the more obvious the pixelation will be.

Conclusion
In summary we reviewed the latest in projector offerings from the leaders in this area. Since our last review we've seen more features being fitted to these products and their footprints reduced. Image quality has also improved, the Canon was a prime example of how a projector should display images. Higher resolutions are also coming our way; the only thing we are still waiting on is for improved lamp life and cheaper lamps.

Scenario
This company wants to replace all of its meeting room projectors with network data projectors.

Requires: Three projectors with high brightness and networking.

Concerns: Meeting rooms allow a lot of natural light into the room so brightness is critical. Image quality and network capability are of equal importance. 1024 x 768 or above resolutions preferred.

Scenario winner and Editor's choice: Epson EMP-835
It was pretty easy finding a winner this year. The Epson was one of the brightest projectors tested. It offered very good image quality and more features than any of the other projectors all at a price we couldn't go past. The Canon also deserves a mention as its image quality was most impressive. Unfortunately it didn't offer networking and that, plus price, is why it didn't win.

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