Compact Projectors

Compact projectors are playing new roles on the road and in the home. Easy to tote, the latest models weigh about the same as or less than your PowerBook, and they're around the same size as the lunch box you may have carried when you were a kid. But don't think their diminutive size and weight mean compromised image quality. The models we tested project bright, sharp, colorful images. And each projector has an array of inputs that allow it to play well with Macs, PCs, gaming consoles, and home-theater setups (in standard analog or digital HDTV).

Macworld Lab tested five models that range in price from $2,295 to $4,599 and weigh in at 3.8 to 6.4 pounds. All are based on 1,024-by-768-pixel imaging systems that scale to display other resolutions. Three models use LCD (liquid-crystal display) technology: the Canon LV-X1, Epson PowerLite 720c, and ViewSonic PJ550. The other two employ Texas Instruments' DLP (Digital Light Processing) technology: the BenQ SL705X and the Boxlight Cinema 17SF. In past reviews, LCD-based models have fared better in our tests; however, the DLP-based Cinema 17SF impressed us with its stunning contrast and color quality. (For our last projector roundup, see Reviews, June 2001).

Hooking Up

Each projector comes with all the inputs you'll need to connect to your Mac -- and nearly anything else that generates a video signal. All come with the connections you'd expect: analog VGA, to hook up to your Mac or other computers, as well as composite video, S-Video, and component video for home-theater and gaming setups. Only the Cinema 17SF projector also includes a DVI connection -- the emerging standard for digital-video connection -- which is used on the latest Titanium PowerBook G4s and Power Mac G4s.

Each projector connected without a hitch to our Titanium PowerBook G4's VGA port. (The latest PowerBook models ship with a DVI port but include a VGA adapter.) Fortunately, we already knew how to change our PowerBook's video resolution to exactly match each projector's 1,024-by-768-pixel imaging system. We also knew how to enable video mirroring so that the projected image would be identical to the PowerBook's. But if you're not armed with this knowledge, you may not have it so easy: the PowerLite 720c is the only projector in this roundup that features detailed setup instructions for both OS 9 and OS X in its instruction manual -- a small but appreciated touch for Mac owners.

Welcome Extras

Another plus of the PowerLite 720c is its ability to store any image -- via any of its video-in ports -- as the splash screen that comes up when you turn on the projector. This can be an important detail for an image-conscious business that wants its own logo -- instead of that of a projector company's -- to come up when an employee turns on the projector. This feature could also be used to provide internal technical-support contact information if the projector is shared by many employees.

Remote controls come standard with each projector, allowing you to turn the projector on and off and operate all of its menu-driven adjustments. The SL705X, LV-X1, PowerLite 720c, and PJ550 come with small, thin remotes. The Cinema 17SF's remote was larger, but it was also the only one with backlit buttons, which are useful if you're fumbling to operate your projector in a dark room. The PowerLite 720c and LV-X1 remotes do double duty as rudimentary pointing and clicking devices, sending signals to the projector, which has a USB port. BenQ bundles a laser pointer with a remote scroll wheel -- but it's not Mac-compatible.

Four of these models come with a padded carrying case, but if you want Boxlight's case for the Cinema 17SF, it'll cost you an extra $50.

How They Look

Much like slide or movie projectors, digital projectors use a high-intensity light source and lens system to project images onto a screen. One of two techniques is employed to make a picture. LCD projectors rely on an assembly of beam-splitting mirrors that channel red, green, and blue light through three separate LCD modules, one for each color channel. Prisms reassemble the light beams into one, which is then projected onto the screen by the lens.

DLP projectors, on the other hand, use a digital micromirror device (DMD) chip, which has microscopic cells that rotate ever so slightly to send light through or away from the projector's lens. Varying shades are created by pixels that switch on and off thousands of times a second. Because a DMD chip can't create color on its own, portable DLP projectors employ a rotating color wheel to filter light into repeating pulses of red, green, and blue; the DMD chip displays subframes of color information precisely in sync with each colored light pulse.

We connected our PowerBook G4 and ran our standard suite of projector tests. First, we displayed Excel charts and text with the room's overhead lights turned on. We were impressed by the superbright PowerLite 720c, which featured an ample 1,500 ANSI lumens, compared with the 1,000 to 1,200 ANSI lumens of the other models in this roundup. (ANSI lumens are a standard measurement published by projector manufacturers for comparison of brightness among models.) This extra brightness will come in handy should you need to project a large image an audience will view from many feet away.

All of the projectors clearly replicated the text in our documents, though there were slight differences. On the SL705X, the small text in our Excel spreadsheet was slightly smeared, and a small amount of jitter was noticeable up close; however, from a normal viewing distance of six feet or more, even the smallest text was clear and readable. The Cinema 17SF, LV-X1, PowerLite 720c, and PJ550 displayed sharp text with no jitter -- even when viewed up close.

We switched off the overhead lights to evaluate each projector's ability to display black-and-white and color photographs, which were used to assess each projector's contrast and color capabilities. In these tests, only one projector -- the Cinema 17SF -- displayed believable blacks. This isn't surprising, considering its factory spec for contrast ratio -- 1,000:1, which is much higher than any other model we tested. But the other projectors' contrast was quite acceptable, and they're likely to perform well in conditions in which there's a lot of background light.

In our color test, we had to tweak some models a bit to yield the best results. These projectors offer many welcome controls -- beyond brightness, contrast, and tint -- for adjusting color balance. With the exception of the SL705X, which projected too- dark reds and undersaturated greens, the models we tested displayed excellent color, which makes them ideal as a projection source for digital photographs. Overall, we liked the Cinema 17SF the best, because it displayed very accurate color without needing any adjustments.

The Cinema 17SF's excellent color quality and contrast made a repeat performance in our DVD video test. The others performed well enough to use for your next Super Bowl party, but the Cinema 17SF is the only model we'd consider for permanent installation in a home theater or other setting where its primary function would be playing DVD movies. (For more on using these projectors in the home, see "Tips for Home Use".)

As we'd expected, we did see the occasional red-green-blue pulses of light following fast-moving objects in our test DVD movie, X-Men, on both the Cinema 17SF and SL705X, owing to their single-DMD designs. The LCD-based projectors fared significantly better with motion, although they had their own visible artifacts -- the mask between each pixel was visible and made it seem as if we were watching our videos through a window screen. This problem also occurred on the DLP-based models, but it was more prominent on the LCD projectors.

A projector's optics produce a perfectly rectangular image when the projector is positioned at an ideal height, not at the height of the projection screen or wall on which the image is being displayed. This ideal height is almost impossible to reach, so most projectors display a form of projected-image distortion known as keystoning, in which the top of the projected image is larger than the bottom, or vice-versa. Thankfully, each projector comes with a digital keystone control, which predistorts the projected image so that it looks perfect on the screen. The PowerLite 720c is the only model with a sensor that automatically enables keystone correction. This sensor did a pretty good job and will come in handy if you're not a perfectionist.

These projectors are designed for years of trouble-free service, but there's one long-term operating cost you should consider. Each projector uses a metal-halide arc lamp, which has a fairly long life -- on the order of 1,000 to 2,000 hours, depending on the projector model. Arc lamps lack a filament, so they won't be damaged by the vibration and jostling that occurs when you tote the projector around. Also, instead of burning out all at once, these lamps get gradually dimmer as they age, giving you some idea of when you'll be stuck without a lamp. Eventually, the projector's built-in lamp-life timer will tell you it's time to replace the lamp, which -- take a deep breath -- typically costs $350 to $500.

A jury of experts evaluated each projector and rated quality as excellent, acceptable, or poor. Our test images included color and gray-scale Photoshop 7.0 files and Microsoft X, Excel X, and PowerPoint X files. All tests were performed using a Titanium PowerBook G4 running Mac OS X, with screen resolution set to 1,024 by 768 pixels and video mirroring enabled. DVD video tests were performed using the PowerBook's built-in DVD player. Each projector was connected with its supplied VGA cable to the PowerBook's video-out port. -- Macworld lab testing by James Galbraith

Tiny Equals Tinny

All the projectors produced tinny sound quality from their built-in speakers, but that's not surprising, considering both the speakers' and projectors' small size. These projectors include only a small speaker, which results in low-fidelity sound. That isn't adequate for a conference room, classroom, or auditorium. In these cases, you'll want to hook the projector up to amplified speakers or a room's public-address system.

Another sound detail worth mentioning is fan noise. Each projector is rated well under 40 decibels, which means that fan noise is noticeable when you're seated close to the projector. The Cinema 17SF had the

quietest fan, rated at 32 decibels -- we had to sit right next to the projector to hear its fan. The quiet fan is intentional, as is the Cinema 17SF's off-white color, which is intended to blend into surroundings when it's mounted on the ceiling in a home or office. The other projectors are some combination of black, silver, and blue, which looks just fine on a tabletop -- and all but the SL705X can be mounted on the ceiling as well.

Macworld's Buying Advice

One projector won't do the trick for all intended uses. Though it wasn't as bright as the others, our favorite was the DLP-based Boxlight Cinema 17SF; its impressive color and contrast, built-in DVI connector, quiet fan, and decor-friendly casing make it the best choice for a permanent home or office installation where multimedia and movies are a must. If you're not in the market for a $4,599 projector, we recommend the $3,499 LCD-based Epson PowerLite 720c, which has enough lumens to overcome ambient light and project onto very large screens.

Tips for Home Use

Whether you plan to use a compact projector in your home only occasionally or install one as part of a permanent home-theater setup, here are a few ways to maximize your enjoyment.

Location There are several places you can set up your compact projector. The easiest -- but also the most intrusive -- place is on a coffee table between your seating and the projection screen or wall. To reduce the distraction of the projector's fan noise, you may want to put the projector on a shelf behind the seating area or, if your projector allows, mount it to your ceiling with an optional ceiling mount.

For the best contrast and color quality, you'll want to use your projector in a very dark room. If your viewing room has a lot of windows, you may want to invest in room-darkening shades or drapes.

Screen You can project an image directly onto a wall, as long as your wall is painted white or a near-white shade. But you'll get the best results if you purchase a projection screen, particularly one with a coating that maximizes the amount of light reflected into the viewing area.

Cables Even if you plan to use a compact projector only occasionally, you'll want to run appropriate video cables to where your projector will be located. The simplest approach is to run them under a carpet or rug. For a permanent installation, however, you'll want to run cable in the floor, ceiling, or walls.

Sound Projectors can manage only stereo, not surround sound. And long cable runs will degrade sound quality. For these reasons, we recommend that you use your home-theater receiver to switch audio signals. And for the best sound experience, you'll want to position your speakers around your viewing screen or on your wall.

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