Portable projectors: 7 for the road

New projectors cover the spectrum of portability, performance

Projectors have been around in one form or another since 1867, when William Lincoln began showing moving pictures through a slit in his zoopraxiscope. And really, the phantasmagoria was sort of a spooky projector that was popular before that. Eventually, projectors began to make it into theaters thanks to Thomas Edison and the kinetoscope of 1891, which had a motor to drive film across a light source.

Fast-forward a hundred years or so, and we find projectors not only in entertainment venues such as theaters but also in homes and offices — and many without a frame of film in sight. Nothing really offers a shared experience like a giant screen that everyone in a room can watch, and projectors are the easiest way to make that happen most of the time. Some projectors have become so handy that business travelers can carry these powerful presentation tools from room to room or across the country.

This roundup review focuses on portable projectors. Of course, weight and size are important, but having a tiny size doesn’t help if the images are bad, the colors are off, or the light simply isn’t bright enough. To that end, we used internal GCN benchmarks and the DisplayMate Professional Benchmark suite to check for image quality, color accuracy and the all-important text display.

We tested brightness using a light meter 10 feet from the lens, which is a typical distance in conference rooms. We checked light at the center of the screen and corners to measure image uniformity.

Some companies, such as Epson, were invited to participate in this review but refused because of the way we measure lumens. They would prefer if we tested light power close to the lens, which is how companies can claim lumen specifications that are high, such as 3,000 lumens on a portable projector. However, we feel that is unrealistic because no screen will be less than three feet from a projector. If it were that close, your images would be so small that you’d be better off just gathering everyone around your laptop PC’s display. So we are sticking with our 10-foot measurements, as we have done for many years. Every projector goes through the same tests, by the way, so we don’t see why Epson objects. Each projector is either brighter or dimmer than its competitors, but we thought it was worth mentioning why that company wasn't included this year.

Every projector was set up in presentation mode for the tests, if such a configuration was available within the on board menus, because that’s the one most business travelers will likely want to use. If there was not a presentation mode, we set the brightness and contrast manually to equivalent levels.

In terms of trends, we are sad to report the death of the DVI connector, at least for portable projectors. Most companies said there simply wasn’t room for it on the smaller projectors. None in this review had one. Instead, all projectors had an analog port, and many also had HDMI and S-Video. A few sported component inputs, which would make hooking them up to a DVD player or VCR fairly straightforward.

But while DVI is on the outs, speakers are back in. We missed having sound on portable projectors in recent years. The speakers were simply too heavy and took up too much space. However, thin and light speakers are all the rage, and a few projectors here sported good sound, which helped their Features grade.

The Value score, as always, is based on the price of the unit relative to how well it scored on everything else. So a high-performing projector can be expected to be more expensive than a lower-performing one, though a lower price is always better for buyers — as long as quality isn’t sacrificed.

Dell 1510X projector's image is  worth the weight

The Dell 1510X is part of the company’s value line, though it has reasonably good image quality and color accuracy. What you are mostly giving up for the lower price is true portability because the 1510X weighs 5.3 pounds without its supporting cables and measures 9 inches by 12 inches. You can certainly pack it with your bags, but you will know it’s there, more so than with a truly portable unit.

The 1510X has a native 1,024 x 768 resolution. It could put 930 lumens in the center of a screen at 10 feet, with a drop-off of 100 lumens in the corners. Technically, someone might notice a 100 lumen difference in an image, though realistically, that is at the edge of human perception. And at 930 lumens, it’s enough that images can be projected in most lighting conditions. Of course, things always look better if you can at least dim the lights or close the blinds. We did all our testing in the complete darkness of the lab.

Text looked good down to 6.8 points, the smallest our tests go. And colors were mostly accurate. The 1510X does have some problems with very light images, which tend to get washed out. That is evident when running a color stepping test, in which we attempt to display a variety of different hues of a single color, each being just one step from the previous one along a 64- or 128-stop grid. For the 1510X, colors on the dark end were well defined, but on the light side, they tended to blend into one solid mass with no definition. That would only become a problem with very fine or very light images. You can bring the 1510X’s darker colors more in line by adjusting the brightness and contrast settings, but that comes at the expense of the opposite end of the light/dark spectrum.

Dell projecter_400

The 1510X would be good for displaying movies. It’s bright enough and did nearly perfectly on the color registration tests, which measures suitability for video. As an extra feature, the 1510X can read closed-captioning signals, so people with hearing disabilities can read the dialogue on the screen of most programs. It is also 3-D-ready, a trend we noticed with most projectors in this review.

The 1510X is a great, inexpensive way to add presentation ability to a conference room. It’s a little large for extensive roadwork, but if you want to save money at the expense of extra weight, the 1510X would make a good travel companion.

Dell, www.dell.com/projector

Dell 1510X Value Series Projector

Pros: Good image quality; good price; lots of inputs.
Cons: Large model; heavy.
Image Quality: B+
Color Accuracy: A-
Features: B+
Portability: C
Brightness: A-
Value: A
Price: $749

Dell M210X projector matches quality with portability

The Dell M210X shows what happens in a good marriage of portability and quality. The M210X is tiny, at 9 inches by 7 inches and 2.6 pounds. Even so, it was able to ace most of the image quality tests we threw at it, and it had a reasonably bright light to boot.

The M210X impressed us early in the tests with a perfect score on our single-pixel display test. This test puts a single pixel — actually several in a grid — across the screen. There was no distortion at all, so the M210X would be great for displaying even fine images accurately.

It was one of the only projectors in the review to show no pixel-tracking errors and no moiré noise, which is those little swirls behind an image, even when testing with a standard analog signal.

Colors were rendered almost perfectly, with no measurable difference between the true color and what was displayed on the screen. And text display, which is extremely important for most presentations, looked good all the way down to 6.8 points, which is as far as our test takes it. The M210X could probably go a touch lower.

Dell projecter

The projector put 830 lumens in the center of our test screen at 10 feet, which means it would work well in most lighting environments other than very bright rooms or direct sunlight. There were 750 lumens in the corners of the image, so the drop-off is less than the human eye can detect.

Its only problem is a minor one. In presentation mode, which is the default we set all projectors to before running our video obstacle course, there was some washout of lighter colors. It could only display low-saturation colors down to 8 percent. High-end projectors have been known to get all the way down to 2 percent. However, displaying very faint images over a white background is probably a pretty isolated case. Most PowerPoint presentations will be a bit bolder than that.

The M210X is a perfect tool for any road warrior. The projector comes with a padded carrying case, though the unit could easily slip into most laptop PC carriers along with a computer and hardly be noticed. It would probably take up less space than the laptop. It earns a Reviewer’s Choice designation for this roundup.

Dell, www.dell.com/projector

Dell M210X Mobile Series

Pros: Portable; bright; great text display.
Cons: Low-saturation colors wash out.
Image Quality: A-
Color Accuracy: A
Features: A-
Portability: A
Brightness: A-
Value: A-
Price: $849

Reviewer’s Choice

HP Notebook Projection Companion offers a dim view

The HP Notebook Projection Companion is an idea whose time has not quite come. It’s an extremely innovative idea to have a projector weigh in at 0.9 pounds and be just 3.6 inches by 4.4 inches. It’s about as large as a wallet — well, a very rich person’s wallet.

And the little device comes with an even more innovative way to set it up. You can screw the Companion into its special tripod, just like a camera, only this one is tiny. Once mounted on the tripod, the projector not only is stable because of the three sturdy legs but also can be moved and pointed in almost any direction.

Unfortunately, the Companion’s light power is extremely weak. It’s only rated to 100 lumens, and we all know by now that the ratings on the box almost never match real-world performance. HP said the maximum throw distance for projections is 8.5 feet, and they mean it. At 10 feet, we couldn’t even make out images in our test patterns. So we did something that we have never done before: We changed the test distance. Moving the Companion up the track 18 inches brought the images into view once again. But they were very dim, even in a completely darkened room.

HP projector

The Companion was able to eke out 44 lumens in the center of an image at 8.5 feet on our shortened test bed. In the corners, the image was 38 lumens. But given that the maximum rating of 100 lumens for the Companion is within the human eye’s ability to detect differences, it wasn’t surprising that it passed this test.

The dim illumination seemed to brood over the rest of the testing, exaggerating flaws, especially at the dark end of the spectrum. For example, in color stepping, we could see differences clearly on the light end. But when things got dark, about 25 percent of the test grid was simply lost in blackness. Colors in general were fairly accurate, but it was difficult to take readings because of the dimness of the projected images.

The zoom level of the Companion is fixed, and it has no remote. Using the menus requires hitting minuscule buttons on the main unit. The process, though not impossible, can be frustrating.

Although its size is a good example of what portable projectors could become, its anemic lumens makes the Companion practically unusable. When you have trouble seeing images in a completely dark room, it means any other lighting environment would kill your display. If the Companion were something you picked up on a whim for less than $100, like in an airport lobby alongside the magazines, it might be worth it. But with a $499 price tag, it’s just not something we can recommend to anyone unless HP can somehow triple — at least — the lumens the Companion can project.

HP, www.hp.com

HP Notebook Projection Companion

Pros: Extremely portable; innovative tripod setup.
Cons: Very dim; no remote; many image problems made worse by dim display.
Image Quality: C
Color Accuracy: B+
Features: B
Portability: A+
Brightness: D
Value: C
Price: $499

NEC NP64 projector is practically fool-proof

Portability on the road is important, but so is ease of use. We won’t say that the NEC NP64 is idiot-proof, but it would take a pretty big fool to mess up when using it.

The NP64 is a reasonably sized, 3.8-pound projector. But beyond just weight, the designers made it so presenters on the road don’t need to worry about the situation they are walking into. It’s pretty much auto-everything. When you plug the NP64 into a power source, it tries to do everything you need. It will detect the screen or the wall you’re using for projection and automatically focus on it. It will automatically adjust the keystone in case your projector is below the screen or slightly off to one side. Finally, it will scan all of its inputs and put anything it finds on the screen. That’s pretty darn easy.

After displaying the images, it becomes obvious that this is no low-end system. It was able to produce 1,085 lumens in the center of an image, one of the brightest for portable projectors that we have recorded over the years. The drop-off to 950 in the corners is a slight cause for concern because someone might be able to notice a difference, but it is close to the 100-lumen threshold where levels of brightness are unnoticeable without special instruments.

NP projector

Colors with the NP64 are perfect, with screen displays exactly matching their real-world counterparts. The NP64 has a six-segment color wheel instead of the traditional three- or four-wheel design. The spinning color wheel is what the white light of the DLP projector passes through before traveling to the micro mirrors. More segments often means more accurate colors, though sometimes at the expense of brightness because there are more spokes on the wheel. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for the bright NP64, yet it retains all the advantages of the higher number of segments. The important thing is that colors look realistic without any of the rainbow-type artifacts that appear with some lower-segment wheels.

The NP64 was also perfect in our color registration testing, so it would be an ideal projector for video. And it comes with loud speakers, which were the best in the review. You don’t need to hook up external speakers for most applications, though you probably still would want to for something like watching a movie. Nevertheless, it’s functional without them.

Finally, as if to add icing to the cake, the NP64 has an eco mode. That setting generally lowers the brightness a little, though not by much. When you turn the projector off, it will tell you how much of a carbon footprint has been saved by running in eco mode. Also, you can set intelligent actions on the projector, such as having it turn off automatically if it’s been sitting unused for two hours. So you should have no more problems with people accidentally leaving it on in a conference room, which wastes electricity and bulb life.

The NP64 earns a Reviewer’s Choice designation for this review. It’s extremely bright, reasonably portable and packed with loads of useful extra features. With the NP64, you can worry about your presentation and not your projection equipment. At $1,099, it’s one of the more expensive units in its class, but this is definitely a case of getting what you pay for, so its value grade remains high.

NEC Display Solutions, www.necdisplay.com


Pros: Practically auto-everything; bright; eco mode to save energy and lamp life; loud speakers.
Cons: Some image problems with very light colors.
Image Quality: A-
Color Accuracy: A
Features: A+
Portability: A-
Brightness: A
Value: A-
Price: $1,099

Reviewer’s Choice

Samsung SP-255 projector lets you leave your PC at home

The Samsung SP-255 is on the large side but makes up for it with some cool features that might let you leave your PC back at the office.

The SP-255 is 5.25 pounds and measures 11.5 inches by 9.5 inches. But one of its coolest features is the addition of a USB port in the back of the unit. Using that port, you can display images without the use of a PC. When you insert a USB drive, the projector will bring up a browser window that lets you look in folders for supported file formats. It can display PowerPoint files, JPEG files, Excel and Word documents and, of course, text files right from the drive. It can even play MP3 music over the reasonably powerful 7-watt internal speaker. As a cool extra, the remote has a Safely Remove Hardware button which locks thumb drives down so they can be taken out. The on-projector browser is one of the best we’ve seen. Of course, it also has HDMI, RGB, S-Video and component inputs.

Colors displayed by the SP-255 are accurate except for green, which is slightly off in the direction of yellow. Text looks good down to 7.5 points but tends to mess up with certain fonts below that size.

Unlike most projectors in this review, the SP-255 seems to do much better with light colors than dark ones. It could display very low saturation colors down to 2 percent, the best a projector can do in that test. However, darker colors tended to fade into the background a bit, which we found odd given that the projector could display 580 lumens in the center of the screen and 569 in the corners at 10 feet. That’s pretty good for most lighting environments, but you probably want to either dim the lights or shut the blinds, especially if you plan to display darker colors.

Samsung projector

Perhaps the best feature of the SP-255 is the price. At just $699, you get a lot of machine for not much money. At that price — and another 4 percent off for government customers — it’s easy to overlook a few slight flaws. We can recommend the SP-255 to just about anyone who wants a very good 3LCD-type projector for the money. It could find a home in a conference room or out on the road where it could make carrying a laptop PC completely optional.

Samsung America, www.samsung.com

Samsung SP-255

Pros: Set up to display images from USB drives; lots of inputs; good fine image detail.
Cons: Greens slightly off from true; some moiré effects when using analog input.
Image Quality: A
Color Accuracy: B+
Features: A
Portability: B
Brightness: B
Value: A+
Price: $699

Sharp PG-D3010X projector adds an extra dimension

The Sharp PG-D3010X is part of the company’s Notevision line and is packed with features that make it an example of what a lot of projectors will likely look like in the future. It’s a little too expensive and heavy to be considered truly portable, but it would make a good addition to the home or office.

The PG-D3010X is a DLP projector with a six-segment color wheel. As such, the images it produces are extremely accurate. It was one of the few projectors in this roundup that could get high marks for image quality with very light and very dark colors.

Although many projectors are now 3-D-Ready, only the PG-D3010X could show how 3-D works. Sharp sent along a set of 3-D glasses. These high-tech shades look like extreme sunglasses, so forget those flimsy red and blue paper glasses of yesteryear. You need to connect the PG-D3010X to a compatible video card, which is expensive. Thankfully, we had a few in the lab that fit the bill. After you do that, you can begin watching 3-D content. Basically, the DLP technology is so fast inside the projector that it can generate two images at the same time. One goes in your left eye and another goes in your right when you’re wearing the special polarized glasses. The effect is brilliant 3-D.

A lot of content is set up for 3-D imaging, mostly in the education and entertainment field. We found some demos that showed the solar system, complete with rotating planets that appeared to go spinning into and around the lab as we watched dumbfounded. And of course, if you can watch 2-D content sans the somewhat dorky-looking specs.

Sharp Projector

The images that the PG-D3010X produces are accurate and high quality. The PG-D3010X was perfect in our color registration tests, meaning that it would be great for watching video. Viewing 3-D movies at home, here we come.

The PG-D3010X was able to put 1,138 lumens in the center of the screen, and 1,041 in the corners, within the drop-off where the human eye can’t tell the difference. Colors were mostly accurate too, in both 2-D and 3-D modes.

By the standards we set for this review, the PG-D3010X probably isn’t a real road warrior. At 6.3 pounds and 10 inches by 12.5 inches, it’s bigger than something you would want to take with you on the road. Also, we wonder how many government applications will require or make use of 3-D. The high $1,395 price tag does not include 3-D glasses, and when using 3-D, everyone will need to have a pair to see the images. The PG-D3010X could easily find a home in the classroom, where a majority of 3-D applications seem to reside, or a home where the latest version of "Toy Story" can mimic the 3-D movie experience perfectly — or perhaps even better than in the theater. But you probably want something a little more sensible for the road.

Sharp Electronics, www.sharpusa.com

Sharp PG-D3010X

Pros: Nearly perfect image display; great text display.
Cons: A bit heavy; expensive.
Image Quality: A+
Color Accuracy: A
Features: A-
Portability: B-
Brightness: A
Value: B
Price: $1,395

ViewSonic PJD6221 projector is priced right for government

The Viewsonic PJD6221 is a good projector offered to government at a great price. It’s not the most portable or the best in terms of color and image accuracy, but it doesn’t score badly in any area. Although the consumer price of $999 would be a little steep for a projector such as this one, Viewsonic is offering it to government for just $579.

The best thing that we can say about the PJD6221 is that it has no notable flaws. It has some slight problems displaying very light images on a white background, and there are also some pixel-tracking errors when using a standard analog input. But those are both fairly common for projectors and not extreme in the case of the PJD6221.

The worst thing that we can say about the PJD6221 is that it doesn’t totally dominate any one area. There are projectors in this review that are better at text display, image quality and color accuracy. And there are projectors that are a lot brighter and more portable. But looking at the performance of the PJD6221 compared to the low $579 government price gives us a clear picture of a good projector being offered for a wonderful price.

The PJD6221 is 5.14 pounds and measures 9 inches by 11.5 inches. It was able to put 735 lumens in the center of a screen 10 feet away. That same image was still 710 lumens in the corners of the screen, so everything will appear to be homogeneous to the human eye.

Viewsonic projector

The PJD6221 produces mostly accurate colors, though it has a few problems with shades of green, which shift a bit toward the yellow spectrum. It was able to almost perfectly reproduce a color stepping test with very fine differences between colors when those colors were darker, but it experienced some washouts when displaying brighter shades.

It comes with integrated 2-watt stereo speakers that sound good but are a little weak for anything other than PowerPoint sound effects. It also comes with a nice credit card-sized remote that has a lot of functions packed onto the panel.

We were impressed with the PJD6221 because of its lack of flaws and generally good performance in all areas. Had the only price been the $999 retail one, we would probably point to others here for our recommendations. However, the $579 government price is pretty amazing given the performance the PJD6221 offers. If you are looking for a projector that performs well, consider sneaking a cheap PJD6221 into your next budget.

Viewsonic, www.viewsonic.com

Viewsonic PJD6221

Pros: Good display of fine details; good video display.
Cons: Some problems with very light images; pixel tracking errors.
Image Quality: A-
Color Accuracy: A-
Features: B+
Portability: B
Brightness: B+
Value: A+
Price: $999 ($579 government price)


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