Digital projectors, once on the cusp of breaking into the consumer world in a big way, were a casualty of the flat screen war. Though capable of delivering literally wall-sized, high-definition images, their disadvantages - namely, that they require large spaces free of obstructions and no ambient lighting - forced them to take a back seat to panel technologies that have quickly fallen in price and, in many cases, deliver superior picture quality.
Still, they've managed to maintain a healthy little niche in the consumer world. Some people have large basement rumpus rooms free of light pollution that they'd like to turn into mini theatres. Others haul them out on big game days when they need a bigger picture to satisfy a room full of friends clamouring for a better view of the action. And some parents just want to be able to set up movie nights for the family in the backyard after dusk.
Epson's affordable MovieMate 85HD 3LCD projector is a good fit for all of these situations.
Weighing about four kilograms with a rotating handle on one end, this glossy black machine is a portable, easy-to-set-up, all-in-one entertainment centre featuring a built-in DVD player and a pair of stereo speakers. Just plug it in, pop in a disc, and you're ready to rock an image up to 12 times the size of a 40-inch television - assuming you can find a surface big enough to accommodate such an enormous picture.
Of course, it still suffers from traditional projector problems. Epson claims that it's a good performer in well-lit rooms, and with a brightness of 2500 lumens, it is indeed a powerful little machine. The 720p images it throws are vivid and filled with natural colour. But that's only when running in a dark space. As with any projector, use it an environment with less than complete darkness and images will begin to appear washed out.
I tried watching The Dark Knight in my living room on a cloudy day with the blinds shut, and even the modest, indirect light that seeped in between slats was enough to make the film's many subtle shadows smear together. Even a brightly coloured film like Toy Story looked far better viewed in a completely dark room. The lesson: It won't replace your living room LCD or plasma for daytime viewing.
But it should do a bang-up job in the sorts of scenarios I described earlier.
The MovieMate makes outdoor movie nights a snap. With its built in DVD player - which does a fine job of up-converting movies to 720p - and stereo speakers, the only extra equipment you'll need is an extension cord and a sheet of fabric. Plus, picture adjustments, playback, and volume can all be controlled from a single, simple, intuitive remote. The twin 10-watt drivers won't satisfy audiophiles looking for richness and nuance, but they're clear, even at louder levels. Imagine the sound quality of a pair of $100 computer speakers and you'll be close. Assuming you don't live next to a freeway, they should easily suffice for backyard movie shenanigans with the kids.
The MovieMate can also make for a good centrepiece for your basement theatre. With HDMI, component, composite, USB, and PC inputs, you can jack in pretty much any device you own, from set-top boxes and game systems to Blu-ray and MP3 players. You can ditch the onboard speakers and connect to your own sound system via coaxial digital audio output, and budding Beyoncés and Bublés can take advantage of the mic input to turn it into a karaoke machine.
Some will surely lament the MovieMate's lack of Blu-ray, but remember that its maximum resolution is only 1280-by-800, which means Blu-ray's 1080p potential would be wasted. Increasing resolution and adding a high-def optical disc system would likely bump the cost of this relatively affordable $1,049 projector to a price that many would find untenable for a secondary display.
And if that modest, four-figure price tag is still causing some hesitation, try looking online. I found a small American site selling it for about $850 with Canadian duties, tax, and shipping included. At that price, almost anyone can afford to set up their own little high-definition backyard drive-in this summer.