Saturday, October 12, 2013

State of the Art: Silver Screen and LEDs Join at Last

And now, finally, projectors.

Projectors are amazing these days — the ones in corporate boardrooms, the ones in home theaters and the ones that fulfill both functions. But most still have a regular old light bulb inside. A very, very bright one that gets very, very hot and costs very, very much to replace — maybe $300 or $400. And that’s after about 2,000 hours of use.

If you could replace that hot, expensive bulb with LED lights, you’d use half as much power, so you’d be polluting less. Because it would need less cooling, your projector could be much smaller and lighter.

Above all, you’d never have to replace the bulb. The LED projectors in this roundup are rated at 20,000 hours or more — at least 10 times the life of a regular bulb. That’s long enough for you to watch a different movie every night for 27 years, or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy twice.

I tried out seven LED projectors priced at $1,000 or less. Each comes with carrying case and remote control. Each offers every conceivable input — VGA so you can plug in your laptop, HDMI for Blu-ray players and game consoles, USB and memory-card slots (so you can project PowerPoint files and slide shows and movies without even needing a computer). All produce a 1,280-by-800-pixel image. A few, with the purchase of a Wi-Fi adapter, can display videos and slides wirelessly from a phone, tablet or laptop.

These LED projectors tend to fall into two categories, mobile projectors and business projectors.

Mobile projectors are tiny, tiny boxes; the smallest could be mistaken for a brownie. Then again, the power-cord brick is nearly a third the size of the projector.

These models are cheap and plastic. There’s no height adjustment. The speaker inside is usually 2 watts, mono — awful for watching a movie. You’ll want to connect a real speaker.

The image from these mobile models is nothing like the huge, bright, even, crisp picture that a $1,200 traditional projector gives you. But for their size and cost, these projectors display a surprisingly big, bright image. In a dark room, the image is still bright enough when it’s maybe eight feet wide; with the lights on, you’d probably want to go no larger than five feet wide. (Of course, an actual movie screen — as opposed to a wall — works wonders.)

The mobile models manage 300 or 500 lumens, which are the units of projectors’ light output. That seems pretty feeble compared with the 2,000 lumens of traditional projectors, but our eyes perceive brightness logarithmically. Doubling the lumens doesn’t double the brightness. A 500-lumen projector isn’t half as bright as a 1,000-lumen model; it looks brighter.

And that concludes the science lesson. Here’s what stands out among the mobile LED projectors:

DELL M115 ($520) At about four inches square and 13 ounces, this 450-lumen model is the smallest and lightest projector in the roundup. You could cover it up with a hamburger.

And yet this tiny, black plastic Dell is among the best mobile projectors. The picture is bright and the colors are true, especially in the dark. The buttons on the projector light up when you touch them, which is useful, but their labels are dark gray on black, and therefore pretty much impossible to read. The slot accommodates only Micro SD cards, not standard ones. And a remote is $25 extra (booooo!).

But you can transfer one gigabyte of PowerPoint, Word, Excel, PDF, picture, music and movie files into the projector, turning it into a self-contained, ready-to-use presentation device that fits in your pocket.

AAXA SHOWTIME 3D ($450) This 450-lumen projector offers cheap black plastic, inscrutable no-words menu system, no card slot, orangey skin tones and bursts of blotch in fast scene changes. Not impressed.

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