Trying to decide between a TV and a projector for your next display purchase? Sometimes the answer is obvious: a dedicated, light-controlled home theater room begs for a dedicated home theater projector, while a super-bright living room generally requires a super-bright LCD TV to match. For those who fall in between, however, the answer may not be as clear-cut.
A whole new crop of "home entertainment" projectors has emerged that is targeted at the more casual viewer who wants the big-screen benefits of front projection but doesn't have the dedicated room and cannot (or just doesn't want to) accommodate all the other pieces of a true home theater system, like the AV receiver and surround sound system. It's important to understand upfront that these home entertainment projectors really aren't targeted at the videophile: They are usually lower-priced projectors that emphasize image brightness over black level to suit a more casual, non-light-controlled room environment. They also try to mimic the TV experience by adding features like an integrated speaker and enhanced connectivity with network/USB sources.
With the new PF85U DLP home entertainment projector, LG takes that "mimic the TV experience" idea to a whole 'nother level. This 1080p projector is essentially an LG Smart TV in a projector chassis: It includes the company's complete Smart TV Web platform with built-in WiFi and WiDi, the motion-controlled Magic remote with voice search, a built-in DTV tuner, and an integrated speaker. Oh, and projector enthusiasts might be interested to know that the PF85U eschews the traditional bulb for an RGB LED light source. LG does not specify which TI chip is used in this DLP projector, but the brightness rating is listed at 1,000 lumens, and the stated contrast ratio is 100,000:1.
All of this comes in a petite (10.8 x 8.8 x 2.2 inches), easily portable, glossy-white box that weighs just 4.8 pounds...and all of it will cost you $1,299.
The PF85U's lens is positioned at the far left of the unit, with a manual focus ring around it. Fan vents running along each side panel, while the top panel appears to sport only an LG logo. Upon closer inspection, you'll find a set of touch-capacitance buttons that illuminate for power, navigation, enter, and "S" for Smart TV access.
Around back, the connection panel includes two HDMI 1.4 inputs (one of which supports MHL to connect a compatible smartphone or tablet), plus mini-jacks for component video and standard AV input (adapter cables included). I connected my Dish Hopper DVR and Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player via HDMI. Unfortunately, the HDMI ports do not support Audio Return Channel (ARC); so, if you'd prefer not to use the integrated speaker (which is highly likely, once you hear it), your options are optical digital audio or a headphone jack that can serve as a basic stereo audio output. A LAN port is available for those who prefer a wired network connection over the built-in WiFi, and two USB ports are available for media playback. The PF85U lacks RS-232 and a 12-volt trigger.
LG includes two remotes in the package: the basic IR model includes a wide array of buttons for setup, navigation, and smart TV control, while the Magic remote communicates over Bluetooth and does not require line-of-sight. Its minimalist button layout includes power, back, smart, microphone, volume, channel, mute, help, quick menu, and a navigation pad that surrounds a wheel that serves as both the enter key and a scroll wheel. The Magic remote has motion control: give it quick side-to-side shake, and a pointer appears on screen that aids with navigation. It's especially helpful when moving around the Smart TV menu and the built-in Web browser. The remote can be easily set up to control your cable/satellite set-top box without the use of an add-on IR blaster (more on this in the Performance section). LG also offers a free iOS/Android control app to control the projector over the network.
While the PF85U has a ton a TV-like features that you don't expect to find in a projector, it's missing some features that you do like to see in a projector. There's no lens shift to help position the image on your screen, which is a common omission at this price point. However, there's also no zoom at all, no onscreen pattern to help size/focus the image, and no adjustable feet. A single twist-down post on the bottom allows you to angle the projector upward, and vertical keystone is available, but that's it.
The PF85U supports a screen size of 20 to 120 inches (with a throw distance of 24.8 to 146.4 inches, respectively). The projector's "ratio of upward projection" is 100 percent, meaning that the bottom of the projected image is right in line with the lens height. This is a good thing for a projector that is likely to sit on a tabletop. Since there's no vertical lens shift, if you want the image higher on the wall, you need to set the projector on a higher surface; you can mount it on a tripod, if desired. It can also be set up for a rear-projection system.
The PF85U offers multiple picture modes (vivid, standard, cinema, game, and two expert modes) and a healthy complement of picture adjustments, including: multiple color gamut options (standard, wide, BT709, ECU, SMPTE); three gamma presets (1.9, 2.2, 2.4); two- and 20-point white balance controls; a six-point color management system; Super Resolution; noise reduction; and LG's TruMotion control to reduce film judder. LG's Picture Wizard II feature is onboard to walk you through a basic adjustment of controls like contrast, brightness, color, and tint. Aspect-ratio options are 16:9, Just Scan, Set by Program, 4:3, Zoom, and Cinema Zoom 1 to zoom in on 2.35:1 sources.
On the audio side, you can enable LG's Smart Sound mode for the two five-watt speakers, or you can choose from six sound modes. Clear Voice II can (and does) help with dialogue intelligibility, and AV sync is available to align the audio and video signals.
One reason why some projector enthusiasts are excited about LED projection is the extended lamp life it offers compared with a traditional bulb. LG claims 30,000 hours for the LED light source, whereas 4,000 to 6,000 hours is a common spec for a bulb. Plus the LED source purportedly doesn't dim as significantly as a bulb over its lifespan. Another perk of LED is the rapid on/off function; this baby powers right up, with no need to wait for the bulb to reach full brightness, and it shuts down instantly.
The first step in my evaluation process was to measure the PF85U's different picture modes and choose one for calibration. As is usually the case, the cinema mode measured the closest to reference standards at its default settings, with a grayscale Delta Error of 7.17, good red/green/blue color balance, and an average gamma of 2.0. (For an explanation of calibration terms and results, check out How We Evaluate and Measure HDTVs.) Those are respectable numbers that should satisfy the majority of people shopping for this type of lower-priced home entertainment projector. In doing some casual movie/TV watching in the default cinema mode, I found that the PF85U serves up a pleasing image without a lot of adjustment required: the color balance looked neutral, skintones looked natural, and black detail was good. The one area of concern was color accuracy: even the eye could see that many colors looked a bit dark, and team jerseys in several NFL preseason games didn't have quite the correct shade or hue of a particular color. But I will say that this DLP projector's color was rich and engaging, even if not entirely accurate.
I'm skeptical that anyone shopping for this type of projector in this price range will pay the extra money for a professional calibration; and frankly, in this case, I'm not sure it would be worth it if you did. Yes, I was able to use the white balance controls to get an even better RGB color balance, but I could not get a gamma number any darker than 2.07, so the overall grayscale Delta Error was still 5.67 after calibration. Likewise, in the color realm, I fought with the color management system to get some points closer to Rec 709, but other colors simply weren't correctable (the color luminance/brightness was way off on red, green, and cyan). To be honest, after all my effort, I just wasn't happy with the real-world results and preferred how the colors looked before I started.
LED projectors have been slow to take off in the market primarily because they generally aren't as bright as bulb-based projectors, especially the UHP lamps used in many of today's LCD projectors. As I said in the introduction, home entertainment projectors usually value brightness over black level, so the fact that LG went with LED in this projector is interesting. When mated with my 100-inch, 1.1-gain VAPEX9100SE screen, the PF85U put out about 11.5 ftL in cinema mode, 14.5 ftL in standard mode, and 15.3 ftL in the brightest but least accurate vivid mode. Those are solid numbers, but they certainly don't compete with the current crop of budget LCD projectors with lumens ratings of 2,000 and above. The one home entertainment projector I had on hand for direct comparison was the $899 Epson Home Cinema 2030, which has twice the lumens rating and cranked out 75 ftL in its dynamic mode and over 30 ftL in its cinema mode.
Switching to a smaller, higher-gain screen - the 92-inch, 1.3-gain Screen Innovations Pure White 1.3 screen - added about three to four foot-lamberts to the PF85U's light output. Obviously, as you continue to move down in screen size and move up in gain, the brightness will increase. So, the question of whether or not the PF85U is bright enough will depend on your screen and your viewing environment. In my case, the 100-inch screen really pushed the brightness limits of what I'd want from a projector; I preferred the level of brightness I got with the 92-inch, 1.3-gain screen, which allowed me to watch fairly well saturated HDTV and sports content in the evenings with the room lamp turned all the way up, although the image certainly didn't pop the way it did with the Epson 2030, which is bright enough even for daytime use. If you're thinking about the PF85U as a TV replacement, a screen in the 75- to 80-inch range would probably be ideal.
On the flip side, when I switched over to my favorite black-level demo scenes from Gravity, The Bourne Supremacy, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the PF85U far outperformed the Epson 2030 in its ability to render a darker shade of black, leading to better image saturation with film content in a dark room. No, the LG could not compete at all in black-level performance or overall contrast with the $5,000 JVC DLA-X500R or even the $2,599 Epson 5020UB; but, for its price class, it did a solid job with both movie and HDTV reproduction in a light-controlled environment.
In the processing realm, the PF85U passed all of the 480i and 1080i processing tests on my HQV Benchmark and Spears & Munsil test discs. It serves up a well-detailed image, provided you don't use the keystone adjustment. Automatic keystone adjustment is enabled by default, so the projector will automatically fix vertical geometry issues, but the loss in detail that comes from this fix was noticeable in both test patterns and real-world signals. I highly recommend you avoid using keystone unless it's absolutely necessary.
Unlike TruMotion in some LG TVs, the TruMotion control in this projector only deals with film judder, not blur reduction. I ran through the FPD Benchmark motion-resolution tests and saw no improvement in detail with TruMotion engaged, regardless of which setting I used. On the plus side, the PF85U's motion resolution was better to begin with than other recent projectors I've auditioned, with the FPD motion-resolution chart showing clean lines up to an HD720 resolution. For those who like the smoothing effects of de-judder technology (I don't), the low TruMotion mode reduces judder without introducing many artifacts, while the user mode allows you to adjust how aggressive the smoothing effect is.
Finally, I spent some time with the Smart TV platform, which was very similar in design and navigation to what I saw last year in the 55LA7400 HDTV. LG's interface is divided into five panels: the Premium panel contains big-name apps like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, etc.; the Smart World panel takes you to LG's app store; My Interests tailors weather and news to your area and preferences; Smart Share lets you access personal media via DLNA, USB, or mobile (it worked great with my Seagate DLNA NAS drive, and the menu was well designed); and finally, the On Now panel that allows you to browse your cable/satellite provider's offerings and various video-on-demand choices, with recommendations. The On Now interface worked very well in conjunction with the Magic remote to control my Dish Hopper. However, the absence of transport controls and a number pad on the Magic remote still make the Dish remote or a traditional universal remote the easier control option. On the plus side, the voice search worked very well, and the responsiveness of the remote's motion control continues to improve.
A "toolbar" runs along the bottom of the Smart TV interface that allows you to jump quickly to popular apps, inputs, the setup menu, the built-in Web browser (with Flash support), and more. All in all, I continue to like LG's Smart TV implementation; it has most every perk you could want, and everything generally works the way it's supposed to.
The PF85U's fan noise is quite loud. According to my iPhone's DecibelMeter app, the LG added an average of about nine to 10 decibels to my room noise. In front of the projector, the average was sometimes almost 20 dB louder. In comparison, the Epson 2030's high lamp mode was just as loud, but its eco lamp mode only added a couple dB. Since the PF85U lacks adjustable "lamp" modes, you're stuck with the same amount of noise no matter which picture mode you choose.
The lack of zoom, lens shift, adjustable feet, and horizontal keystone make it more challenging to position the LG's projected image on a screen. If you're going to mate this product with a basic pull-down screen or have yet to choose a screen size/location, I recommend you put the projector exactly where you want it in the room and configure your screen around its image. Those who already have a screen locked in place might find it challenging to integrate this projector into their system.
The internal speaker sounds thin and hollow. You have to push the volume pretty high to get even decent dynamics (and hear over the fan noise), and I found Clear Voice to be essential for dialogue intelligibility. I definitely recommend you send your audio to an external audio device, and it's a shame that the HDMI ports don't have ARC to help with this process.
Finally, the PF85U lacks 3D capability, which you can find on other projectors in this price range.
Comparison and Competition
A variety of home entertainment projectors, with built-in speakers, are available around or under the LG's $1,300 price point - including Epson's Home Cinema 2030 ($899), BenQ's brand new HT1075 ($1,199) and HT1085ST ($1,299), Optoma's HD25-LV ($899), and InFocus' IN8606HD ($800). Some of these other projectors are 3D-capable, but none includes the built-in DTV tuner, voice/motion remote, and Web platform found on the LG. While the bulb-based projectors are generally less expensive, you might want to factor the cost of bulb replacement into the long-term price, compared with the LED model.
I confess, I'm having a hard time rendering a final verdict on the LG PF85U DLP projector. Its performance is solid in all respects, but it doesn't really distinguish itself as a great home theater projector for a dark room (i.e., contrast and color accuracy) or as a great home entertainment projector for a bright room (light output). Even within the budget category, you can find better performers on either the home theater or home entertainment side of the fence, but the LG does successfully straddle the fence to give you solid performance in both areas. Where the PF85U does distinguish itself is in its long-life, instant-on LED light source and its TV-esque list of Web- and network-friendly features. If your heart is set on a larger screen, you do most of your TV/movie watching in the evenings, and you really want the integrated smart TV experience, consider this: the least expensive large-screen TV option on LG's website (as I type this) is the 70-inch 70LB7100 LED/LCD for $3,099. Even when you factor in a few hundred dollars for a screen, the PF85U is about half the price, with the flexibility to go up in screen size (although I wouldn't go too high up). So, if you want more LG TV for your money, maybe this LG projector is worth a look.
• LG 55LA7400 LED/LCD HDTV Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• LG Introduces New 55-Inch OLED TV at HomeTheaterReview.com
• LG Launches 2014 Ultra HD Lineup at hometheaterReview.com