Review: Three Ultra-Portable DLP Projectors

Can these two-pound projectors from NEC, Optoma, and Dell handle both high quality PowerPoint and HD images?

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 31, 2005

13 Min Read

The dream goes something like this. You’re pitching a major client on a mucho-dollar deal at their offices. The client tells you he’s booked conference room #1 for the meeting, which has a humongous CRT you can plug your laptop and PowerPoint presentation into. Unfortunately, when you arrive, the CEO has commandeered the conference room, bumping you to conference room #3, which is sans display.

No worries. In two minutes flat, you set up your portable DLP projector and focus the image on the ubiquitous white board in generic conference room #3. Your clients are stunned by your adaptability and by the astonishingly high-quality image your tiny portable creates. In an instant, a pitch, a sale, and a superstar are made.

Oh, and by the way, when you get home, you and your family can use the same projector to watch DVDs and 1080i/HD programming at sizes over 15 diagonal feet.

Hello, DLP!
DLP stands for Digital Light Processing. Developed by Texas Instruments, DLP images are created by a series of hundreds of thousands of microscopic mirrors laid out on a semiconductor chip known as a Digital Micromirror Device, or DMD. With its high image quality and entirely digital nature -- which results in increased compatibility with PCs and other digital devices -- DLP has rapidly curried favor with home theater gamers as well as IT types.

With this in mind, Desktop Pipeline rounded up three ultra-portable DLP projectors from three well-known manufacturers. We were curious: Would these two-pound XGA projectors meet our primary need of projecting big-screen, high quality images at high resolutions? And could these same projectors also function effectively as home theater projectors?

How We Tested
To find out, we put each projector through a series of tests. First, we calibrated the projectors using Displaymate’s calibration utility. Next, we clinically evaluated each using Displaymate’s diagnostic utility. Finally, we analyzed each in a series of four real-world tests: a 24-slide PowerPoint presentation with widely varying graphics and fonts, two movies (Kingdom of Heaven and Star Wars Episode IV), and Discovery Channel’s HD signal. To simulate common corporate environments, we tested the projectors in an environment lit by low levels of moderate, indirect sunlight. Weighing in at 2.2 pounds, NEC’s LT20 projector offers an admirable and affordable package of features and functionality.

The LT20’s elegant silver chassis is identical to Optoma’s EP729. An adjustable elevating foot at the bottom-front of the unit and a tilt-adjusting wheel in the back-left allow for easy image stabilization, and a zoom/focus lever right above the lens allows for easy focusing. S-Video, VGA, and composite video cables, as well as a soft vinyl carrying case, are included.

Setting up the LT20 is a snap, and consists of plugging the unit’s power and video cables in. Calibrating the LT20 was also a breeze; the projector’s menu-based options allow for rapid adjustment of screen shape, color, contrast, brightness, and other settings. The included remote control allows easy access to menu functionality and calibration settings. Unfortunately, this remote lacks the mouse-control conveniences found in the other two units reviewed here.

The LT20 is able to project an upside down image -- a convenience that allows you to mount the projector on a ceiling -- but it lacks the ability to project a reversed image. This prevents you from projecting an image from the rear onto a translucent screen. Admittedly, this is a minor feature most office users won’t miss. But both Optoma and Dell’s 3400MP projector include this functionality.

One mild frustration: When my laptop’s power-saving feature dimmed my screen, I occasionally experienced frustration re-synching the projector with the video source. In some cases, I even had to resort to logging out of Windows and then back in to re-synch.

Image Quality
With one exception, the LT20 breezed through most of Displaymate’s battery of tests, which produce a series of images that challenge all facets of a display’s capabilities. At all times, I witnessed robust colors and flicker-free images with no streaking, ghosting, or artifacts of any kind.

However, the pincushion test, which displays a series of parallel vertical lines near the edge of the screen to gauge image distortion, did result in the projection of undesirable crooked vertical lines at the edges of the image. This does not necessarily result in poor image quality, but it is a concern. In the LT20’s defense, many big-screen displays also struggle with this test.

Unfortunately the LT20 also struggled with the PowerPoint presentation. Graphics and large, beefy fonts appeared vivid and colorful, but large thin fonts displayed noticeable jaggies and annoying, uneven characteristics. This reduced the overall quality level of the presentation by about 25 percent. This flaw was not confined to PowerPoint, and occurred in all Windows applications. While not a deal breaker, this could reduce the professionalism of your presentation in some cases.

On the home theater front, the LT20 breezed through the DVD and HD tests, consistently producing amazing image quality at both 480i and 1080i. While the native aspect ratio is 4:3, a 16:9 conversion option also results in a rich, dynamic picture that ranked second to Dell’s projector. The black level wasn’t quite as deep as Optoma’s EP729 or Dell’s 3400MP, but the difference won’t be noticeable to most home office users. Optoma EP729
Based on the same chassis, Optoma’s EP729 looks almost exactly like the NEC LT20, weighing 2.2 pounds and boasting the exact same external features, including an adjustable height stand, focus/zoom lever, and top-mounted menu options.

The EP729 comes bundled with a remote control, S-Video, VGA, and component video cables, as well as a USB cable and a soft carrying case. The remote control is a dramatic improvement over NEC’s, with a laser-pointer and full mouse functionality (provided by the USB cable). Road warriors will appreciate being able to navigate, and even browse and open, PowerPoint files without being tethered to their laptop.

Setting up the EP729 is a breeze, requiring minimal time and energy to plug in, turn on, and calibrate. On the downside, the annoying sleep-mode flaw is here as well; the projector has difficulty finding and re-synching with the video signal when a laptop goes into sleep mode and deactivates the display. If you’ve worked with projectors before, you probably recognize this as a common, if unfortunate flaw.

One advantage this projector and Dell’s 3400MP have over NEC’s LT20 is that you can also project a reversed image for rear projection through translucent screens. The EP729 gets extra points here because it is the only projector that can project a reversed and upside-down image. Again, this is more likely to appeal to home theater fans, but it’s nice touch.

Image Quality
DisplayMate tests progressed smoothly; the device projected vibrant colors and a strong, bright, flicker free image. I’ll say it again -- the big-screen image quality you can get at this affordable price range is impressive. Unfortunately, this projector also struggled to display straight lines at the edge of the screen in DisplayMate’s pincushion tests. Again, no amount of adjusting could remedy this.

In the PowerPoint tests, the EP729 produced even more pronounced distortion in the large, thin fonts than NEC’s LT20. Onscreen letters were often uneven and suffered from noticeable jaggies and occasional artifacts. This shortcoming manifests itself not only in PowerPoint, but Windows in general. Thicker, beefier fonts and all images in the PowerPoint file looked sharp and accurate, however, with no deterioration whatsoever.

The EP729’s performance in DVD and HD theater tests was exceptional. At both 480p and 1080i, the projector displayed incredible color depth and a tremendous range with dark tones and blacks. Unfortunately, I did experience minor jaggedness in vertical lines while watching infrared wildlife footage on Discovery HD. That was disappointing. Dell 3400MP
Weighing in at 2.4 pounds, Dell’s 3400MP DLP weighs slightly more than the other two ultra-portable projectors reviewed here, but makes up for these .2 pounds with increased functionality and quality.

Like the Optoma EP729 and the NEC LT20, the 3400MP comes bundled with S-Video and composite video cables. However, this projector deviates from the VGA standard, using a higher-quality DVI connector instead. As such, it comes with a VGA-to-DVI connector cable. This is a welcome improvement that results in much higher image quality.

Dell’s remote is also at the top of this class. In addition to featuring a laser pointer and full mouse functionality, this remote even allows you to scroll a page up and down. Furthermore, the unit’s protective carrying case is more durable and portable.

Not surprisingly, setting up and calibrating the 3400MP is easy. Unfortunately, while you can project a reversed image from the rear, you can not project the image upside down, which means you can not mount it upside down in home theaters.

During tests, I encountered the same sleep-mode flaw that caused the other two units to periodically lose the video signal. In this case, however, the projector was consistently able to re-synch, so I never had to log off of Windows to re-establish the connection.

Image Quality
The 3400MP’s performance in DisplayMate’s battery of tests was not surprising, projecting rich, vibrant colors and excellent dark tones. Just like the LT20 and the EP729, this projector failed to display perfectly vertical lines in the pincushion tests. Additionally -- and more problematically -- I noticed a slight, uncorrectable flicker during the pixel-tracking and timing lock tests, which check for the accuracy of the mapping of image pixels onto display pixels.

Real-world tests quickly eliminated these concerns. In the PowerPoint presentation, which displays a series of varying images and fonts, Dell’s projector displayed images and, more importantly, fonts of all shapes and sizes with practically no jaggies or other font degradation. More than likely, this is the result of the system’s superior DVI video connection. You’ll experience no embarrassment doing presentations with this unit.

The DVD and HD tests netted similarly high quality. Although the 3400MP’s image is not quite as sharp as NEC’s and Optoma’s ultra-portables, the image has excellent color and presentation of blacks and dark shades. Given the superior quality of DVI, I recommend watching movies played off a laptop connected to the projector rather than an S-Video cable connected to a DVD player or set-top box we used for these tests. (Unless you’re lucky enough to have a DVD or cable box with a DVI out connector.)

Superior in most categories, the 3400MP is a revelation. If you use your projector for traditional presentation purposes, this is easily the best of the batch. Conclusions
If you’ve read through the entire story, you already know my conclusion. Dell’s 3400MP is clearly the best in show. This ultra-portable projector combines superior Windows text and image quality -- the single most important attribute for a portable projector -- with high home theater functionality.

I should note that I was pleasantly surprised across the board by the brightness of the projectors reviewed here. Even in very bright direct daylight conditions, projected images could be seen clearly and vividly. Additionally, while the Optoma and NEC projectors struggled to accurately display fonts, all three projectors displayed DVD and HD content at much higher qualities than I expected.

One final note: It’s worth noting that the all of the projectors reviewed here work best in XGA (1024 x 768 pixel) mode. While each projector can project a 1280 x 1024 signal, the resulting quality level is consistently disappointing. Given the high numbers of laptops with native SXGA displays and beyond, this means you’ll have to resize your laptop desktop if you’re running at resolution greater than 1024 x 768.

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