Epson's $820 MegaPlex MG-850HD home entertainment projector is making a convincing argument for my post-Christmas gift card cash. It's such a good little performer for its price that its integrated Apple device dock – an undeniably useful feature that's ostensibly the projector's biggest draw – ends up being merely a nice extra.
The dark gray box weighs a little less than four kilograms and is equipped with a handle for easy toting. It has all the standard physical accoutrements, including adjustable feet, manual lens controls for zoom and focus and a smattering of buttons and indicator lights. A keystone slider facilitates horizontal adjustments; vertical orientation is fixed automatically.
Its most evident differentiator is a retractable iDevice dock on the unit's rear. Plug in an iPod, iPhone, or iPad (tablets require a back support that attaches to the top of the projector) and the MegaPlex automatically brings up a simple, user-friendly menu from which to choose movies, TV shows, music and photos. It's useful, especially if you have plenty of videos and pictures stored on your iGadget. Of course, it becomes a lot less handy should you mount the MegaPlex to the ceiling. The dock also charges devices, regardless of whether the projector is switched on.
A removable, non-tethered hatch (which many users will likely lose within the first couple of months) on the projector's side protects HDMI, component, and composite inputs, as well as a microphone port in case you want to add live narration to slide shows. VGA and USB ports exist, too, hidden under one of three matching, unmarked panels on the unit's rear.
The back of the projector also hosts a pair of 10-watt speakers that are somehow louder and clearer than their specification would lead one to believe. Voices in music and movies sound warm and rich, and the bass is powerful enough to rumble walls a couple of rooms away (as I discovered from an annoyed neighbour in my building).
Luckily, you won't need to turn it up very loud to be able to hear. The fan is blissfully quiet; while running in eco mode I couldn't even detect the sound of airflow.
The main attraction, however, is picture quality. At 2,800 lumens, the MegaPlex casts exceptionally bright images in pitch-black rooms. The picture remains quite viewable if moved to environments with mild ambient lighting or indirect sunlight. Similarly priced projectors that generate this kind of luminosity are rare.
It has excellent colour performance, too. Dynamic mode delivers highly saturated pictures that make Pixar movies pop. Living Room mode provide more naturally hued images, while Cinema mode delivers the most authentic pictures of all (the trade-off being a reduction in brightness – it's best for darker spaces). A suite of picture correction controls is available to savvy projectionists who want to tinker beyond the presets.
Resolution, sadly, tops out at 720p. Projectors throw images that can measure more than 150-inches across, which makes for some mighty big pixels – especially if you're sitting closer than a few metres. The MegaPlex's points of light seem to have a soft-edged quality that allows them blend into each other a little, but they still appear as clearly distinguishable boxes. 1080p would have been a definite boon.
An even lower resolution MegaPlex model, the MG-50, offers a resolution of only 540p. I didn't see it in action, but with pixel count such an important piece of the projector puzzle, I'd recommend shelling out the extra $100 for the MG-850HD.
Replacing expensive lamps remains a turn-off for many potential projector buyers, but bulb life has slowly increased over the years. Epson rates the MegaPlex's lamp, which costs around $230, to last around 6,000 hours. That's good enough to watch one movie every night for more than eight years. Unless you plan on making the MegaPlex your primary daily display, you probably won't need to replace its bulb until you're in the market for a new projector.
The included svelte black remote deserves a few words, too, if only because it has a neat button designated by a coffee cup that stops the current program – assuming you're playing back media from an iPad or iPhone – and turns the screen bright white, providing ample light to help you make your way to the kitchen to fix a snack (or get a cup of joe). Tap the cup again and the show will resume. The remote also features backlit media control keys, a cheap and simple luxury that really ought to be standard on all living room remotes.
As is often the case with projectors – even those that are brand new – Epson's MegaPlex can be found on sale for significantly less than its $819.99 suggested retail price. Canadian big box electronics stores were selling it for $719.99 at the time of this writing, and international online retailers listed it for even cheaper. You can find home entertainment projectors for less, but I doubt you'll find any that perform better.