Epson EMP 740; InFocus LP70+, LP120; NEC LT10; NEC LT170; Optoma EP725; HP mp3130; HP mp3222; BenQ PB2220

Introduction

Turning up to pitch an idea or product requires more than a couple of OHP slides and a shiny suit these days. PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentations are best displayed on a big screen, and screens don’t get bigger than projected displays. We’ve gathered a selection of ultra-portable data projectors to see which ones will help your image best.

Years ago, portable projectors were best described as “luggable”; most would have benefited by having wheels attached. Now, some of the models we looked at would fit comfortably into a handbag. When the designers put together a projector, there are a number of criteria they consider. Ideally, the projector should be small and light to be easily portable. The image should be bright so blackout curtains aren’t needed in order to see the images, and it should be as cheap as possible.

Other considerations are colour quality and noise levels. With all these criteria, there are conflicting demands. For example, the smaller the projector, the hotter and noisier it will get. That’s because if the bulb is the same as one in a bigger projector, it doesn’t have the same cooling properties. So somewhere along the line a compromise must be made: either install a bigger (and noisier) fan, or make the projector bigger.

Another compromise is image quality and brightness. To get a pleasant image, you need a good contrast range. In DLP (Digital Light Processor) projectors, the light is directed through a colour wheel. The wheel has red green and blue segments, plus a clear (or white) segment. The bigger the clear segment, the brighter the image – but the contrast is adversely affected. In most business-graphics presentations, contrast isn’t as important as the ability to see the image in relatively bright conditions. So home-cinema projectors tend not to have a clear segment, which results in great quality but dimmer images.

When the designers we coming up with the designs for the projectors we looked at, all these and more compromises would have been weighed up. The differences may appear subtle in many cases, but the more accurately you can predict how you will use your projector, the better you will be able to make your choice.

The first thing to consider is where you’ll be using your projector. The models we looked at were made to be portable, but there’s nothing stopping you having them permanently in a meeting room. They’ll certainly take up less space, but they may be more expensive and potentially noisier than larger models. But if you’re going to use a projector on the road, how small does it need to be? Many people drive to meetings – so if you are travelling by car, size is less important. If, however, you’re in London or another big city where cars are less sensible for travelling, you may want to consider one of the ultra-super-feather-light models. The ability to fit a laptop and projector in one bag is also convenient for flying, because you can then take both in hand luggage.

Once you have a realistic idea of portability needs, consider what you’ll be projecting. When projectors are small enough to slip in a briefcase, they’re often taken home for big-screen sports events and home-movie watching. The brightness of the projectors ranges from 1,100 to 2,500 lumens. The brightness of a projector has become something of an all-round quality measurement in many people’s eyes, and manufacturers make a big deal about it. In reality, the difference between an 1,100 lumen projector and a 2,500 projectors isn’t as great as it may sound. If you’re projecting on a wall bathed in direct sunlight, even the most powerful projector will be inadequate. Sensible things like drawing the curtains and dimming the lights means even the weakest projector can work well. So, high-power projectors aren’t necessarily better – just more versatile.

If you want to watch movies on any of these projectors, you should understand that they really aren’t designed for that – although they still do a decent job. Colour reproduction isn’t perfect, but your eyes adjust to that quickly. I wouldn’t recommend any of these models for watching movies if that was their primary function, but they’re definitely up to the job for special occasions.
In our tests, we displayed a number of different images. There was the obligatory PowerPoint presentation, a video clip, and some still photographic images. I was a little disappointed with almost all the projectors when it came to colour quality. The InFocus and Epson models nosed ahead of the crowd, however. The Epson was the best image, with no adjustment necessary to get a well-balanced projection.

The Epson EMP-740 is a bigger model, but still under our 2kg threshold. The larger size allows it to pump out an impressive 2,500 lumens without getting hot under the collar. The excellent colour is probably explained by the three-LCD projection system. Epson is the only manufacturer in the tests that’s still using LCD technology. Others use DLP technology instead, which claims (among other advantages) a longevity that LCD has failed in the past to deliver. Using a three-LCD system should improve on this problem, but LCDs will fade after a lot of use. If you want a projector to be a real workhorse that will be on eight hours a day, a DLP model will be a better choice – but for lighter use, there’s an image-quality advantage with LCD.

The InFocus models both set a standard for ultra light and compact projectors. InFocus was first to market with these machines, but there is an increasing level of competition now. Other manufacturers have appeared, and previous ones have moved to DLP. InFocus still
keeps its advantage in the DLP market in out tests.

Both models performed well, and the design sets them apart from the crowd. You will pay a small premium for the privilege of the miniscule InFocus designs, but not so much it should put you off buying one.

The LP170 gets the nod for the best compact design. Optoma may not be a familiar name, mostly because it’s an OEM manufacturer that has bigger names on its designs. This year, though, Optoma is coming out of the shadows and has launched its own branded projectors. While the performance wasn’t overly impressive – the colours needed a little adjustment to get them right – the price certainly is. If you aren’t a labels person, you can save around £400 on the tiny NEC LT10 – and the only noticeable difference is the badge.

The other NEC projector uses an interesting form factor: it has a long rather than wide case. It’s bulkier than the InFocus LP120, which also has a long body, but it’s small enough to slip in beside a laptop. The NEC LT looks more like a security camera.

HP has a vertical standing model, the mp3130, which pumps out an impressive 1,800 lumens. Unfortunately, the price you pay for such power is a slightly noisy projector. At 37dB, it’s only slightly noisier than the quietest model, the InFocus LP70+ which claims 32dB. But the difference is quite pronounced when the projectors were side by side. The loudest of all the projectors was the NEC LT170, at 38dB – but like many of the projectors, there’s a quieter energy-saving mode.

The HP mp3222 is HP’s latest projector boasting 1,800 lumens and the knockdown price of just £1,199 excluding VAT. The trade-off in this case is with size: the case is a little boxy, though quite attractive. You won’t lose this one down the back of the sofa – but it performs very well indeed, and for the price it’s good value.

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