You may not know it, but video projectors don't have to cost an arm and a leg. We're getting used to seeing video-friendly projectors that sell for under £1,500. Yet we’ve been caught on the hop by BenQ's W100 -- a DLP projector that can be yours for just £500. Surely such a ludicrously affordable projector can't be much cop, or can it?
The W100 is far less offensive to the eye than you might expect of such a cheap unit, thanks to a glossy white finish that distracts surprisingly successfully from the projector's slightly messy design lines and plastic build quality.
On the projector's top there's a section cut out above the lens barrel inside which reside simple rotating adjusters for the lens's zoom and focus, while a silver keypad on the opposite corner provides access to all the projector's features, if you happen to lose the remote.
Not that you should lose the remote. It's unusually big by projector standards -- a good thing in our opinion as it makes it easier to lay your hands on it in the sort of darkened room you're likely to watch a film in. What's more, the size allows the buttons to be laid out with plenty of fumble-proof space between them and there's even a backlight.
The W100 initially looks impressive in terms of connectivity as well. For starters there's not one but two sets of HD-capable component video input -- one more than you'll find on many projectors costing much more. Then there's a DVI socket for analogue PC and digital HDTV sources as well, together with the more common, lower-quality S-Video and composite video fall-backs.
Some precursory tests of the DVI jack courtesy of a QED HDMI-to-DVI adaptor and our resident Sky HD box and Marantz DV9600 upscaling DVD player confirm that this DVI jack does, as BenQ claims, work perfectly well with the AV world's HDCP anti-piracy system.
Arguably the most significant feature of the W100 is something it's not -- that is, HD Ready. The native pixel resolution of 854x480 on its DLP chipset simply isn't high enough to satisfy the HD Ready specification wish list.
This does not mean the W100 can't actually play high definition, though. It has no problems producing analogue HD pictures via its component jacks from our Xbox 360 or the component outputs on the Sky HD receiver, and as we mentioned a moment ago, digital sources via the HDMI outputs on our Sky HD receiver and Marantz upscaling DVD player.
Other specifications of interest include a seven-segment colour wheel, an excellent (for this price point) claimed contrast ratio of 2500:1 and an unusually bright 1300ANSI Lumen light output.
Setting the projector up is more or less effortless. Simple drop-down legs help you get the picture angled onto your screen, there's an adequate amount of zoom available in the lens, and the onscreen menus work well with the remote.
It does no harm to the projector's usability, either, that it doesn't actually have very many features for you to get your head around. The only details that are even worth a passing mention, in fact, are a selection of presets (including Home Theater and Cinema modes), two greyscale settings for NTSC and PAL sources, and an Eco mode that cuts the projector's brightness output in return for deeper black levels, longer lamp life and quieter running. Still, it's hardly surprising to find that a £500 projector is somewhat short on features.
Although this is not as damning as it might initially sound, we have to open this part of the review by saying that the W100's piffling price is to some extent evident in the pictures it delivers.
For instance, dark areas of the picture are blighted by some quite hefty amounts of green/grey pixel noise -- a problem that used to plague many DLP projectors but which is now controlled by almost every rival DLP model better than it is here. As well as making dark pictures look quite grainy and fuzzy, this also slightly reduces the impact of the W100's black level response.
Next, the lack of native pixels relative to many rivals means that if you use the projector to deliver a picture of any sort of size -- certainly anything above 2.5m -- you see a grid-like pattern caused by the lines of separation between the DLP chipset's pixels. The lack of resolution probably also explains why HD sources look somewhat softer on the W100 than on more expensive rivals.
Also evident is DLP's rainbow effect, where especially bright parts of the picture produce almost subliminal flashes of pure red, green and blue stripes in your peripheral vision.
Finally, the picture looks a touch unstable, especially with HD sources -- and we have to report that the projector runs more noisily than we'd like, even in its Eco mode.
You might be surprised after all this downbeat stuff to hear that we still don't think you should write off the W100. It has two very important aces up its sleeve that make it more of a movie machine than any other projectors in its absurdly low price bracket.
The single most significant of these is its black level response, as it manages to portray dark scenes far better than its £500 LCD model rivals. For instance, dark parts of the picture are much less afflicted than usual by the sort of greying-over problems associated with lower-contrast LCD machines. As a result, they also retain more background detail, giving dark scenes a more involving sense of scale.
The other key budget advantage of the W100 concerns its colours. They're not as bright as those of some LCD models, perhaps, but in keeping with most DLP models, they're a lot more natural -- a benefit we'd take over pure gaudiness every time.
Ultimately the W100's argument is simple and persuasive. While you can certainly get DLP and even LCD models that comfortably outperform it, they'll cost you far more. Which leaves the W100, almost by default, as the only truly enjoyable home cinema machine in its class.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Elizabeth Griffin