Portable projectors — Big pictures, little packages

Ian Yates
15 August, 2007
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It’s been about twelve months since we looked at portable projectors and there have been some subtle changes in the market. This time last year the big buzz was DLP — the Digital Light Processor technology from Texas Instruments — which allowed manufacturers to shrink their products to about the size of a retail software package. The weight also came down with the size and several models hovered around the 1kg mark.

Swimming against the tide was Epson with its triple-LCD design offering a brighter image while avoiding some of the fringing and rainbow artefacts associated with DLP technology. It’s worth mentioning that the rainbow effect isn’t always obvious to everyone, but once you catch a glimpse of it, you seem able to spot it forever after. Of course, you won’t notice it on stationary images, only on fast moving images. And there’s the clue to the popularity of the triple-LCD design.

AMW Lab can really only think of one reason to sacrifice portability and choose the LCD option, and that’s to improve your movie watching experience, although it’s just possible you need to present a lot of moving images in the boardroom. Epson no longer has the triple-LCD game to itself however — with Sony, Sanyo and Hitachi joining it on that path — while Toshiba, LG and Acer persist with DLP. The weight penalty for choosing LCD isn’t as bad as it used to be either — the Epson weighs in at 1.6kg, just 300g heavier than the Acer, and actually 300g lighter than the LG, both of which use DLP technology. Bright ideas. The brightest image comes from the biggest lamp and that requires a bigger, heavier box, with the chunky Sanyo tipping the scales at 2.4kg — although the Sony at 1.9kg manages to be almost as bright.

Maximum brightness matters most if you can’t project in a darkened room, or if you’re forced to rely on coloured walls. The best approach for the mobile presenter would be to choose the most portable projector and take along a portable screen such as the ones on offer from companies like Herma. AMW Lab evaluated the projectors using Herma’s “2C Carry IT” screen which when folded is no larger than a decent video camera tripod, to view the projected images. If you’re taking your show on the road, something like the 2C Carry IT is essential equipment, unless you’re confident that your clients won’t object to you repainting their walls. You’re right if you’re thinking that these projectors can do more than just enhance your Keynote presentations. They can also conveniently connect to your DVD player and project a true widescreen image on the lounge room wall. The manufacturers of these toys also know what you’re going to be doing after hours with their kit, as each one we tested had a 16:9 setting for just this purpose.

If you do plan to use one of these projectors as a TV replacement, it’s worth noting that although they all support “high definition” digital images, they don’t support “full” HD — the new marketing term the industry hurriedly invented after it had exhausted all credibility by referring to 768p televisions as “HD”. Another reason you might not be tempted to treat these portable projectors as TVs is the falling prices of real LCD TVs. Although “full” HD screens are still pricey, you can now buy LCD TVs with equivalent resolution for less money than is being asked for these projectors, and you don’t have to watch them in the dark.

In use. Choosing the right projector for your use will primarily depend on your budget and your brand preference, as AMW Lab would be quite happy with any one of the test units chosen at random — the difference in picture quality really is that subtle — unless you use the projector primarily for moving images and find the DLP rainbow distracting. All the projectors also support S-Video and composite video connectors, which is quite handy for DVD players and home theatre setups. None have the latest HDMI inputs. However, since they’re not capable of “full” HD resolution the lack of HDMI isn’t really surprising.

If you want to control your slideshow using the projector’s remote control, you plug a USB cable into your notebook as well as the VGA cable. This only gives you limited control to move forward and backward in your presentation, not the total control you get from a wireless remote mouse. We used a PowerBook G4 Titanium as the presentation platform, and Mac OS X correctly discovered and recognised every projector as soon as we plugged in the VGA cable. No need for any additional drivers, just click on “displays” and “detect” and then your choice of “mirroring” the main display or running your show in a separate window using the PowerBook’s dual display ability.

Getting a picture on the screen was also easy, with most projectors automatically hunting their inputs for a signal, or at worst making you press one button on the remote to pick between computer and video sources. The resulting picture on the screen was nothing short of stunning from every one of these units, giving a crystal clear result at 1024×768 resolution. Although that is the “native” resolution of this crop of projectors, they can all operate in “compressed” mode up to 1600×1200 if required.There’s hardly any noticeable difference in picture quality with the DLP-equipped projectors, no doubt because their innards are all very similar. Other criteria such as maximum brightness and flexibility will come into play when choosing a model that’s just right for your needs. The triple-LCD projectors also show a surprisingly similar picture quality, with brightness level being the only obvious variation between them.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. The Toshiba gets our vote for most portable projector, with the Acer a close runner-up. However, if you prefer the smoother image of the triple-LCD take a look at the Epson and the Hitachi which, although slightly heavier than the DLP projectors, won’t give you a hernia. The Hitachi is particularly attractive with a street price under $1500, and the ability to project images independently of your computer via a USB memory-stick. Whichever projector you choose, budget an extra $500 or so for a spare lamp, or you might end up whistling in the dark instead of impressing your clients.

Acer PD323 DLP

Ports VGA, S-video, Composite, Component, USB
Cons Pricey
Pros Light weight
Rating 4
Type Portable projector
Weight 1.3kg
SRP AUD$2699
Distributor Acer 02 8762 3000
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Epson EMP-1700 LCD

Ports VGA, S-Video, Composite, Component, USB
Cons Pricey
Pros Light weight for LCD
Rating 4
Type Portable projector
Weight 1.6kg
SRP AUD$2300
Distributor Epson Australia 02 8899 3666
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Hitachi CP-X1 LCD

Ports VGA x 2, S-Video, Composite, Component, USB x 2
Cons None really
Pros Good price, light weight for LCD
Rating 4.5
Type Portable projector
Weight 1.7kg
SRP AUD$1903
Distributor Hitachi Australia 1800 448 224
Reviewer: Ian Yates

LG DX130 DLP

Ports DVI, Composite, Component, S-Video, USB
Cons Heavy for a DLP projector
Pros Well priced
Rating 3
Type Portable projector
Weight 1.9kg
SRP AUD$1695
Distributor LG Electronics 02 8805 4000
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Sony VPLCX21 LCD

Weight 1.9kg
Ports VGA, S-video, Composite, Component, USB
Cons Pricey
Pros Fast switch off, remote height adjust
Rating 3
Type portable projector
SRP AUD$2695
Distributor Sony Australia 1300 137 669
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Toshiba TDP-P8 DLP

Ports VGA, S-Video, Composite, Component, USB
Cons Complex menu
Pros Light-weight
Rating 4
Type portable projector
Weight 1.0kg
SRP AUD$2430
Distributor Toshiba Australia 02 9887 6000
Reviewer: Ian Yates

Sanyo PLC-XU74 LCD

Ports VGA x 2, S-Video, Composite, Component, USB
Cons Heavy
Pros Brightest image
Rating 3
Type portable projector
Weight 2.4kg
SRP AUD$2199
Distributor Sanyo Australia 1300 360 230
Reviewer: Ian Yates

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