Best projector: 8 top HD models reviewed and rated
26th Sep 2012 | 10:40
Find the best HD projector for you
Best projector: which should you choose?
Bigger is better in display technology, right? If that's true, surely a projector painting a life-sized spectacle across your living room wall is going to be hard to beat?
The reality, of course, is much more complicated. On the one hand, projectors are capable of truly cinematic images, the likes of which no monitor or HDTV can possibly conceive.
That's an especially intriguing proposition when you consider that a decent enough projector with HD visuals can be had for as little as £400. It's also worth remembering that LCD panel technology of the sort that dominates PC monitors and HDTVs is not terribly suitable for multimedia viewing.
Things like viewing angles and contrast are problems that are unlikely to be properly solved before LCD panel tech is replaced by full LED displays (as opposed to LCD screens with LED backlights).
The other side of the coin involves practicality. Something like a large but conventional LCD monitor can turn its hand to most tasks you throw at it. Most monitors are great for soaking up web content or getting work done. They're usually pretty nice for playing games, too. Movies don't look bad, either.
More to the point, you can use them at any time of day in more or less any kind of room. Not so for projectors.
For starters, even powerful projectors look pants in daylight. Yes, you can get models with lamps bright enough to blow a hole in your living room wall, but it still won't look as vibrant as a monitor or HDTV. Projectors, for better or worse, are mostly nocturnal beasts. Even if lighting wasn't an issue, using a projector to do desktop work or browse the web would be ludicrous.
In that sense, projectors fall into the as-well-as rather than instead-of category. But here's the thing: when they're good, they're spectacular. Movies and games are taken to another level. And while we're not entirely won over by stereoscopic 3D tech, it works best playing games on a projector.
They cost less than you think
Now that we've won you over to the proposition of a projector, let's kick off with some good news. You can bag a decent beamer for as little as £400. Yes, we're talking HD and DLP, though as we'll see, the latter isn't compulsory for decent big screen giggles.
That matters because a projector isn't likely to usurp any of the screens you already have. It's a desirable extra, but an all-purpose, do-anything display a projector most certainly ain't. Of course, like most things, spend more and you'll get more.
The most obvious trade-offs involve resolution and support for 3D technology. We'll get into the details in a moment, but the question regarding resolution is whether you're happy with 720p for what is inherently a display technology optimised for very large images, or whether you're willing to stretch for full 1080p visuals.
As for 3D technology, it's largely a question of support for 120Hz refresh rates. That adds a certain amount of cost and complexity to the projector itself, but also has implications for your PC. Like we said, we'll come back to that.
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First, let's wind back a little and have a look at projector basics. The classic contest is between DLP and LCD technology. Strictly speaking, there's a third option: LCoS or Liquid Crystal on Silicon. But ever since Intel bailed out on LCoS back in 2004, the odds of it becoming mainstream have looked slim.
For the future, LED looks like it might become a contender for full-sized projectors. It's also more of a light source technology than image source and currently restricted to compact, portable units.
Now, it used to be the case that the choice for gamers and movie buffs was simple: you wanted DLP, but were you prepared to pay for it?
Part of the reason for that involves the fact that DLP, or Digital Light Processing, is something patented by Texas Instruments. With a monopoly on DLP, TI has tended to charge a premium. At the same time, DLP has had a number of critical advantages over LCD in terms of image quality.
To understand why, it's worth recapping the basics of both DLP and LCD in projectors.
As it's the easier to get to grips with, we'll start with LCD.
The basic principles are nearly identical to LCD monitors and TVs. Knock up an LCD panel with a grid of pixels. Shine a light through the back and turn the pixels on and off by manipulating the liquid crystals in each pixel to either block or allow light to pass through.
There are differences, of course. With a projector, the backlight is a lamp and much more powerful than what's found in monitors. And you're not directly viewing the LCD panel. Instead, the light is harnessed via optics, including lenses, prisms, polarisers and mirrors and thrown out onto a viewing surface.
Another major difference between LCD projectors and LCD monitors is colour production. For monitor panels, each pixel has three primary-coloured sub-pixel. Not so for LCD projectors, instead they have three individual panels, one for each primary colour. White light from the lamp is split using dichroic mirrors, sent through the three panels and then recombined with a prism.
As for DLP technology, you could say it's the polar opposite of LCD. Instead of relying on light transmission through a panel, DLP is all about reflection. The really clever bit is known as the digital micro-mirror device.
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This is essentially a chip with a grid composed of thousands, or even millions (in a full HD projector), of tiny mirrors arranged in a grid. Light from a powerful lamp is directed onto the chip and each mirror can be angled individually to either reflect light into the optics, which is effectively the 'on' state for each pixel, or dump it onto a heat sink.
While some really high-end projectors have multiple chips to create colours, the sort of projectors we're dealing with tend to use colour wheels. The idea here is to shine light through a series of coloured filters, switching the mirrors for each colour. Do the process fast enough and the human eye resolves the cycling images into a single, full colour image.
If that's the basics, what are the pros and cons of LCD and DLP? In the LCD ledger we'll put colour accuracy and pixel definition. The pixels in an LCD projector are essentially perfectly defined, whereas DLP pixels have slightly soft edges. For projecting data, that gives LCD a clear advantage.
However, for games and movies you could argue that a soft edge to pixels gives a smoother, more natural image. What's more, DLP pixels tend to be more tightly spaced. Put the two together and the result is that the pixel grid tends to be less visible with DLP than LCD. Win, in other words.
As for colour accuracy, part of the problem for DLP is that colour wheel. It makes resolving colours accurately more difficult. However, while the colours from LCD panels are strictly speaking more accurate, DLP colours tend to look more natural and vibrant. Again, the balance tilts in favour of DLP.
While we're talking colour wheels, one other very clear disadvantage of DLP is the so-called 'rainbow effect' suffered by single-chip models. In theory, the colour wheel spins fast enough that the entire is invisible.
In practice, some cheaper projectors have wheel speeds and colour segment counts low enough to create a problem for a small subset of particularly sensitive users. What they see is hard to describe, but in simple terms involves a separation of colours, particularly when the viewer moves his eyes across the screen. Whether you'll be one of those sensitive types is tricky to predict. But avoiding the very cheapest models is advisable if you want to be absolutely sure.
As for DLP, its killer advantage has traditionally been contrast. Again, this comes down to the transmission-versus-reflection divide. An LCD panel capable of blocking all or very nearly all light has yet to be devised.
For DLP, generating a truly black pixel is much more straightforward, with the mirror effortlessly diverting light away from the optics. Of course, there's always a little background noise in the optical system. But DLP projectors come very close to delivering truly black pixels. When it comes to cooking up really cinematic visuals that counts for a lot.
Having said all that, as competing technologies improve, they also tend to converge. Scope out the latest 1080p LCD units, for instance, and you'll find the pixel grid is borderline invisible. LCD as a technology for home cinema has come a long way, too, which helps to keep Texas Instruments and its DLP technology honest.
To find out more about the comparison between DLP and LCD, check out the individual projector reviews overleaf.
But what else do you need to know? Well, first up is the question of resolution. In isolation, the answer is simple. Go for 1080p. The rough starting price for a full HD projector is £700 and while that's a hefty premium, it's worth the extra.
Partly, that's because the whole point of projectors is to paint a big picture. But it's also because 1080p is likely to be the standard for HD visuals for many years to come. In other words, unlike most technologies which are in constant peril of being outmoded or usurped, 1080p has legs. Buy a full HD projector today and you won't be coveting something clearly superior almost overnight.
However, if you add stereoscopic 3D into the mix, it's not so simple. There are a couple of reasons for that: in simple terms, 3D adds yet another premium, so 1080p plus 3D can get pricey. You've got to draw the line somewhere.
The other problem involves system performance and compatibility. Today's 3D projectors rely on active-shutter technology. As with any 3D technology, each eye gets its own view with a unique - if only slightly - perspective. With active shutter technology, the images are alternated rather than overlaid. That creates a need for double the frame rate compared to conventional projectors; typically 120Hz for a 3D projector compared with 60Hz for a normal model. And that, in turn, can create a number of problems.
First, the video interface needs double the bandwidth. Most recent PC video cards support HDMI 1.3, which is the interface of choice for 3D. But not all do. You'll also need quite a powerful video card, since you're doubling up on the rendering load, too. At 720p, that's not a major issue. But rendering two 1080p games in high detail? That's a significant ask if we're talking the latest, greatest games.
Then again, if you're considering getting a 3D projector for games, you've probably got a decent budget to play with.
Doubling up on the image also has implications for quality. For starters, running projectors in 3D mode makes for a duller image. With a DLP projector, that's partly because you need even more wheel segments and rotation of colours. But for any projector type, each eye is effectively only being lit up for half the time.
All of this, of course, assumes you buy into stereoscopic 3D in the first place. We're not convinced 3D tech has truly come of age. Whether it's silly glasses, reduced image quality or the discomfort that comes with viewing 3D stuff for hours on end, it doesn't seem quite right yet.
That said, if there's an activity that lends itself best to stereoscopic 3D, it's got to be games. 3D cinema is a gimmick and 3D video on an HDTV, likewise. 3D games on a projector, we have to admit can be pretty spectacular.
As for other general rules of projector purchasing, we'd say think LCD monitor. By that we mean many of the same caveats apply. Just like LCD panels, you should take quoted specifications with a proverbial pinch. The classic example for LCD screens is contrast ratios and that applies to projectors, too.
The big problem is manufacturers quoting dynamic numbers. That involves varying the light source intensity and it's just no substitute for good, native contrast. Unfortunately, some manufacturers don't quote native contrast and for that reason, it's hard to put a figure on the minimum you should be looking for. Where it is quoted, 1,000:1 and better is acceptable.
As for brightness, don't be fooled into thinking brighter must be better. Yes, a stronger lamp makes for better viewing during the day and a powerful lamp of 2,000 lumens or more makes for a flexible beamer. But all projectors look best at night and 1,000 lumens is plenty in that context.
We'd also warn against using keystone correction if at all possible. The idea here is to digitally tweak the image so that the projector needn't be mounted perfectly central. However, there's no avoiding image degradation when correcting the image this way.
One handy way to sidestep the problem is to use a ceiling mount of some kind, which keeps the projector from cluttering up your living rooms. It's also great for keeping the projector out of harm's way if you have kids or pets tearing up the floor space.
In short then, lets forget the neighbours and their silly little flat screens, and let's break out the beamers.
Best projector: 1-8
1. Acer H5360 - £414
720p DLP Projector
When it comes to stereoscopic 3D, we have to admit that we've got a bit of a soft spot for the Acer H5360. It was our first taste of a 3D product that actually had us tempted to take the plunge and hand over cash.
That's significant given a context where we'd previously found pretty much all 3D video content to be a bit meh. Likewise 3D monitors and HDTVs were all rather bleh. But our first experience of a PC game that was properly coded for stereoscopic 3D running on a projector? Well, that was something a little bit special.
We reckon the greater viewing distance compared to a monitor makes it easier for your eyes to cope with the contortions demanded by the fake depth of view. Not only does that make for more comfortable viewing, it also means that the overall three-dimensional illusion is much more convincing.
2. Benq W1060 - £678
1080p DLP Projector
Some say that looks can kill. Well if they could, then BenQ's W1060 beamer would butcher the competition. It's a slick and stylish machine, no doubt, with a chassis that whets the appetite for some spectacular cinema-honed visuals.
Then there's the actual specification. We're talking full-HD 1080p in terms of pixels, each and every one driven by a microscopic mirror. Yup, it's DLP technology. Short of industrial-grade 2k projection technology, in other words, this really is as good as it gets.
Take a closer look at the rest of the spec sheet and it's nearly all good news. BenQ claims native contrast of 5,000 to one, for instance. The 2,000 lumens lamp doesn't sound too shabby, either.
Okay, you don't get fancy optics with lens shift or even focus that holds steady when you adjust the image size. But the only real blot on the W1060's copy paper is the 3x speed, six-segment colour wheel.
3. Epson EH-TW3200 - £829
1080p LCD Projector
LCD projection is for data, DLP is for movies. We all know it and it's just that simple. At least it used to be. But like most competing technologies, LCD and DLP tech have now converged as the major protagonists in the projector game have honed their games. And that means more choice and stiffer competition. Which makes for a big, fat yay when it comes to prices.
The result is that this entry-level 1080p model from Epson has multimedia chops that are unrecognisable from the LCD projectors of just a few years ago. The most immediate and obvious upgrade involves colour rendering. Boot the Epson EH-TW3200 into the Windows desktop and you'll be treated to rich, vivid and decidedly unwonky colours.
That's significant, because it wasn't that long ago that you could pick out an LCD projector in picoseconds based purely on the appearance of its slightly sludgy colours. Spool up your favourite movie and the TW3200 keeps delivering the goods, too.
4. Epson EH-TW5900 - £920
1080p LCD Projector
Lies. Damned lies. And projector specifications. For proof, look no further than the fact that the Epson EH-TW5900's claimed contrast ratio is poorer than its cheaper TW3200 sibling. Frankly, we're not sure why they bother with these things.
In this particular example, part of the explanation is that we're talking dynamic contrast achieved thanks to ruses like dynamic irises, lamp modulation and image processing. What you'll actually find much more useful when making your choices are the given measures of native or static contrast, which can give you an idea of what sorts of blacks and whites a projector is inherently capable of rendering.
Sadly, Epson doesn't see fit to furnish us with that data, so pointless dynamic numbers it is. But never mind, because we've actually got one in, looked at the thing running and can tell you what it's really like.
Fortunately, it's pretty damn good.
5. NEC V300W - £490
720p DLP Projector
With full 1080p projectors now available for £600 or less, you might think the case for cheaping out on the 720p model like the NEC V300W is pretty marginal. To an extent, you'd be right. We certainly think an extra £100 or so is worth it for the future proofing and peace of mind that 1080p buys you. But that's an argument that mainly applies to conventional home cinema and gaming larks.
Chuck stereoscopic 3D into the equation, and the sums begin to work out a little differently. For starters, adding 3D to a 1080p projector pumps up that premium.
There's also an important performance issue to ponder. Most decent graphics cards can handle the 1,920 x 1,080 pixel grid of a 1080p projector at 60Hz. But up the ante to 120Hz for stereoscopic 3D as per Nvidia 3D Vision, which the V300W supports, and you've just doubled the workload.
In that context, settling for 720p visuals and a better shot at smooth frame rates for the foreseeable future might just make sense.
6. Optoma HD23 - £749
1080p DLP Projector
Polar opposites has become the running theme for this month's projector pow-wow. First, there's the DLP versus LCD conundrum. Have the two dominant projector techs converged enough to make old distinctions irrelevant? And what about the permanent or portable problem? How much image quality do you give up in return for a more flexible and travel-friendly projector?
While we're at it, let's make it a three-way theme by chucking the Optoma HD23 into the contest. The question here is whether a specialist projector outfit like Optoma has the edge or whether the current clout of bigger, more generalist brands makes for a better beamer. Game on.
The HD23 is one of Optoma's cheaper full-high def 1080p models, though it's worth noting the HD230X is even more affordable. Optoma is a home cinema specialist, so it's no surprise to find DLP kit underpinning the HD23's visuals.
7. Viewsonic Pro6200 - £440
720p DLP Projector
Are projectors good value for money? That's a tough question to answer. The argument in favour points out that a half decent projector will generate an image significantly larger and infinitely more cinematic than any HDTV. That counts for a lot when you consider the thousands of pounds charged for really big, high-end HDTVs.
On the other hand, you don't get any more pixels than a £120 PC monitor. In fact, with a beamer like the Viewsonic Pro6200 and its 1,280 x 720 pixel grid, you get significantly fewer. What's more, projectors are pretty pants in the daytime.
Whatever you pay for one, using it is going to be a relatively niche activity. And yet, we reckon projectors are pretty awesome things. If you can afford one, you'll get a huge amount of enjoyment out of it.
So the real question for the Pro6200 is twofold. Do all 720p beamers fall into the false-economy category compared to more expensive 1080p models? And if not, how does it compare with other offerings in the 720p class?
8. Viewsonic Pro8200 - £765
1080p DLP Projector
Has LCD vs DLP become the classic projector conundrum? Even if it is, there's at least one further beamer-based dichotomy to ponder. Are you going for a full-on permanent installation or something a bit more flexible, a bit more portable?
For most of us without the luxury of a spare room to dedicate to home cinema, let's be honest, it's probably the latter. And if that's the case, then ViewSonic's Pro8200 is certainly worth a look.
Make no mistake, this is no pocket-sized pico projector powered by LED technology. It's a conventional DLP unit with an old school lamp. But it's also fairly compact, comes with a padded carry case and weighs in around 5kg.
Like any conventional projector with a filament-based lamp, the Pro8200 isn't the sort of thing you'd want to lug around daily. It's too fragile for that, not to mention too heavy, even if it is a couple of kilos lighter than the bulkier units here. But it's also easily small enough to pop in the car or take on the train for a special occasion.
How we tested
We've a comprehensive testing remit. So we put each and every projector that's taking part in out supertest through a gruelling gauntlet of games, movies and more.
We kick off by calibrating the projector using test images to determine the projector's objective accuracy and dynamic range. Once that's assessed, we then test the subjective image quality, first using high bit rate 1080p video.
Crucially, we use both dark and bright as well as action scenes and lingering statics to get a proper feel for the projector's full range. All the while, we're cycling through the various image quality presets and comparing those to our calibrated theoretical ideal. Sometimes, projectors don't look best when calibrated to render test images correctly.
We also test any image quality enhancement technologies that are onboard, such as dynamic contrast. We have a damn good look at the projectors' ingame chops, too, sniffing around for things like input lag, blurring and, where relevant, the rainbow effect.
We're also interested in getting an independent feel for just how big an image you can expect from each product. We therefore set up each projector with the lens precisely 2.25m from the projection surface, which is the sort of distance you'd typically end up with in a smallish living room, and then measured the maximum available image size. Simples.
And the winner is Optoma HD23
With one exception, these beamers are all bloody lovely. That's the really good news. More to the point, the one and only dud is more disappointing by comparison than an outright failure. There's not a single projector here that doesn't deliver decent black level, good geometry and even focus across the entire image.
In those regards, there's been massive progress in the last five years. There's also been significant convergence between DLP and LCD technology. We still prefer the former for its marginally deeper blacks and more natural colours.
But LCD has become a genuine alternative, rather than a technology best reserved for data duties. All of which means we honestly think you'll get a better big-screen experience out of any of these beamers than you will at your local cinema. We also reckon projectors make the best case of all for stereoscopic 3D tech. We still wouldn't want to watch movies in 3D. But games in 3D? They're actually a lot of fun.
The best bit of all is that the price of projectors has become much more reasonable of late. Okay, £400 isn't exactly throwaway money. But if you make it part of your broader home entertainment budget and realise that a projector makes spending masses of money on a massive HDTV look very silly, it suddenly all makes sense.
With that in mind, it's time for the final reckoning.
Bringing up the rear is BenQ's W1060. It's far from awful, but it's nothing special by any image quality metric and the slightly odd interpolated look of the pixels is a deal breaker.
From here on, the competition is much, much tougher. If you're a DLP rainbow effect sufferer, we'd go with the Epson EH-TW5900. It's a bit pricier than the TW3200, but it's worth it for the superior blacks and nifty lens shift optics.
For everyone else, we still think DLP is the way to go. DLP's visuals are still a little richer, more cinematic. What's more, DLP image quality is more stable over time. LCD projectors tend to turn a little sludgy as they age.
The 720p DLP trio are awfully tightly packed. But we'd go with the Acer H5360. It's fully 3D compliant. It's pretty much of a muchness regards overall image quality. And it's cheaper than the others.
That said, the NEC V300W gets honourable mention for delivering perhaps the best blacks of any projector here.
However, hand on heart, it's the full 1080p treatment we desire and that means the final contest is between ViewSonic's Pro8200 and the Optoma HD23. The ViewSonic looks super strong on paper thanks to its 4x speed, seven-segment wheel. It's probably the best choice here if you're worried about the rainbow effect.
Despite that, it's the Optoma that gets the final nod. It's not perfect. But it's still a damn fine big-screen machine and produces truly breathtaking images, the likes of which were barely possible just a few years ago and even then only with projectors costing thousands of pounds. Believe us when we say this thing will blow you away. Buy one. You won't regret it.