Just a few years ago, the introduction of a sub-$1,000 projector with a 1,920 x 1,080 resolution was major news, but now a quick perusal of a site like VisualApex.com reveals a number of full 1080p models at or close to the $1,000 price point. The growing number of highly affordable, positively reviewed 1080p projectors may cause some people to wonder why anyone would pay $2,500 to $5,000 for a projector these days. The truth is, there's still a noticeable performance gap between the $1,000 projector and the $2,500-plus projector. Reviewers and manufacturers will often use the phrase "home entertainment" or "home video" projector to describe these entry-level offerings, as opposed to the "home theater" designation we give to higher-priced models. That's our way of telling you up front that you should approach these projectors with different performance expectations, especially in terms of black level and contrast ratio. The home entertainment projector is targeted at the more casual viewer who wants a big-screen viewing experience but doesn't plan to use it in an actual home theater environment. The projector may see more daytime use, the room probably has a fair amount of ambient light, and HT components like an AV receiver and multichannel speaker system may not be part of the equation. Therefore the emphasis is more on light output than on black level, and you'll often see features like built-in speakers and the ability to accommodate less traditional sources like flash drives, smartphones, and tablets.
Epson's Home Cinema 2030 ($899.99) is the perfect example of a home entertainment projector, in both its design and its performance. From a design standpoint, this 1080p 3LCD projector is less than half the size of its higher-priced brethren in the Home Cinema line, including the 3020, the 5020UB, and the new 5030UB (stay tuned for a review). Measuring 11.69 by 9.72 by 4.13 inches and weighing just 6.4 pounds, the 2030 has a light and easily portable form factor. You wouldn't think twice about quickly picking it up and relocating outside for a movie night under the stars or taking it to a neighbor's house for some big-screen Monday Night Football. The projector's lens sits off the left of the front chassis, and there's a lever to manually open and close the screen cover to protect the lens during travel. The 2030 has an integrated speaker that also gives you flexibility to move your entertainment system around without needing to take speakers with you. The speaker doesn't have much in the way of dynamic ability, but it will get the job done. Perhaps a better option is to use the analog mini-jack output on the unit's backside to connect the projector to a good tabletop/wireless speaker to improve the audio experience without needing a complete HT setup.
Other back-panel connections include two HDMI inputs, one of which supports MHL so you can easily connect a compatible smartphone, tablet, or Roku Stick as a source. A PC RGB input and a composite video input (with stereo analog) are also available, but Epson has omitted the dedicated component video input found on the step-up models. Instead, you get a USB port that supports photo playback (JPEG only) and slideshows, via an attached thumb drive, hard drive, or camera. The 2030 also supports the addition of Epson's wireless LAN module ($99). Once you've added the module and loaded the EasyMP Network Projection software on your computer or the Epson iProjection app for iOS or Android on your phone/tablet, you can wirelessly stream content from your portable device. My review sample did not include the wireless LAN module, so I was unable to test this function.
Regarding setup tools to physically position the image, the 2030 has a 1.2x manual zoom, which isn't as generous as you'll find on higher-priced Epsons like the 5020UB (which has 2.1x zoom) but is on par with other models in this price range. The throw ratio range is 1.22 to 1.47. Also typical at this price is the lack of lens shifting, which means you don't have as much flexibility in where you place the projector in your room. The 2030 includes one pop-down, adjustable foot near the front of the unit to aim the lens up at a screen, and horizontal/vertical keystone correction is available to correctly shape the image. You can enable automatic vertical keystone; so, if you were to set the projector on a lower coffee table, it would automatically apply the correct amount of vertical keystone to fix the trapezoidal shape on the screen. This worked quite well in my setup, where I did put the projector on short table for the majority of my tests. Keep in mind, though, that the more keystone correction you apply to the image, the less crisp and detailed it will look. The 2030 has four aspect-ratio options: auto, normal, full, and zoom (not at all surprising is the omission of an anamorphic mode for use with an anamorphic lens attachment to show 2.35:1 movies with no black bars).
Now, let's talk performance. As I said, these home entertainment projectors tend to emphasize light output over black level, and the 2030 is no exception. Rated at 2,000 lumens (color and white output), this projector can certainly produce a very bright image. On my 100-inch, 1.1-gain Visual Apex VAPEX9100SE screen using a full white test pattern from a DVDO iScan Duo generator, I measured the 2030's Dynamic picture mode at about 75 foot-lamberts and its Living Room mode at about 53 ft-L. At these levels, I could easily watch well-saturated HDTV content during the day in my family room, with the room lights on and even with the blinds open on the window in the back of the room. Want to take in a mid-afternoon baseball game or cue up the gaming console when the kids' friends come over. Not a problem here. Even the more theater-oriented Cinema and Natural modes put out about 33 ftL in the Eco lamp mode, which makes for bright, vibrant primetime HDTV watching in a moderately well-lit room.
Click on over to Page 2 for the High Points, Low Points, Competition and Comparison and Conclusion . . .
On the flip side, the 2030's black level is decent but not great. In darker TV and movie scenes, blacks look quite gray, and the resulting image contrast is only average. The Home Cinema 2030's rated dynamic contrast ratio is 15,000:1, which is again on par with others in this price class. Epson has included an auto iris on the 2030, something you don't always see at this price, and it helps a bit to improve black level in darker scenes. Still, you shouldn't expect the kind of black level and contrast you get from step-up models like Epson's new $2,600 Home Cinema 5030UB. I spent several weeks with the 5030UB before reviewing this model, and the performance difference is not subtle when it comes to the richness and depth of a Blu-ray film image.
The 2030 is equipped with a solid number of advanced picture controls to fine-tune the picture quality, including: multiple color-temperature presets, plus RGB offset and gain controls to more precisely dial in the white balance; noise reduction; normal and eco lamp modes (the 2030 uses a 200-watt UHF E-TORL lamp rated at 6,000 hours in eco mode), the aforementioned auto iris with normal and high-speed modes; and a color management system to adjust the hue, saturation, and brightness of all six color points. Some notable omissions are the frame-interpolation modes found in the higher-priced models that help to reduce motion blur and film judder, the skintone control, and most importantly the adjustable gamma control. All four of the picture modes measured a very light gamma -- in the 1.69 to 1.93 range - nowhere near the recommended 2.2 to 2.4 target. This further contributes to the 2030's grayish blacks and is another sign of the projector's emphasis on brighter-room performance. On the plus side, the 2030 did a solid job reproducing finer black details in my favorite black-level demos from The Bourne Supremacy (Universal), Flags of the Our Fathers (Paramount), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista).
Of the four picture modes, the Natural mode was the closest to reference standards out of the box, with a grayscale Delta Error of 8.83, a slightly blue color temperature, and a 1.88 gamma average. I was able to use the RGB offset and gain controls to dial in a pretty neutral color temperature; but, with no ability to correct the gamma, the calibrated grayscale Delta Error was still 7.46. None of the six color points came in under the DE3 target, but they weren't excessively far off the mark, either (with Delta Errors ranging from 3.5 to 7.3). Unfortunately, using the color management system was an exercise in frustration for me. I was able to fix the luminance value (brightness) of all six colors, but the hue or saturation of each color was generally off the mark, and I could not make any meaningful correction to hue or saturation without adversely affecting the luminance in a major way. Thus, I was not able to successfully bring all three parameters into proper balance. To sum up all this tech speak, the Home Cinema 2030 can produce a fairly accurate picture, but it lacks the complete range of controls to take the performance to that next level of precision.
Finally, the Home Cinema 2030 is a 3D-capable projector with a built-in 3D transmitter; the RF glasses are sold separately and will run you $99 apiece. A few quick 3D demos showed good performance in this area. The 2030's high light output helps compensate for the loss of light due to the active-shutter glasses, allowing 3D content to remain nice and bright. I saw very little crosstalk in my demo scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens (20th Century Fox), Life of Pi (20th Century Fox), and Ice Age 3 (20th Century Fox) - perhaps a bit more than I saw with the 5030UB that uses Epson's 480Hz Drive technology, but overall I had no complaints with the 2030's 3D performance.
Competition and Comparison
The BenQ W1080ST DLP projector is a 1080p projector that has similar specs (2,000 lumens of brightness, 10,000:1 contrast, 3D support, 1.2x zoom, USB port, built-in speaker and audio output) and currently sells for $999. Viewsonic's PJD7820HD and Pro8300 DLP projectors also share similar specs and pricing. Optoma sells several 1080p models around or below the $1,000 price point, including the HD25e ($855), HD25-LV ($1,055), and HD131Xe ($799). Epson's own Home Cinema 2000, which has a slightly lower brightness rating of 1,800 lumens, sells for $850.
The Epson Home Cinema 2030 is loaded with features and offers good performance for a projector in its price class. It's important to understand the different goals of the home entertainment projector versus the home theater projector and shop accordingly. If you're looking for a budget projector for a more traditional theater environment that has good light control, there are other 1080p projectors in this price range that can perform in little better in the black level and contrast departments to produce a more "theater-worthy" image, at the expense of light output. If, on the other hand, you're in the market for a very bright, plug-and-play projector that's going to see more use in a den or family room with abundant ambient light - and you want to connect sources via WiFi and MHL - then the 2030 definitely belongs on your audition list.