Nothing comes closer to that cinematic experience than watching a film in front of a big screen. And home cinema projectors have never been more affordable.
It wasn't so long ago that the idea of spending less than £1,000 on a DLP (digital light projection) projector was almost inconceivable. But Toshiba's attractive MT400 features a no-frills specification that can be found for as little as £770.
Its native PAL widescreen resolution perfectly complements standard-definition broadcasts and DVDs without any need for scaling. It's not HD Ready, although you can still receive downscaled high-definition signals via a digital DVI input.
However, picture quality for the price is outstanding and it's incredibly easy to use. As an affordable alternative for watching traditional DVDs and TV on a super-size screen, it's ideal.
While some budget projectors look more like souped-up fan heaters, Toshiba's MT400 has taken a page from the iPod book of design. The casing has been given a pearlescent cover, complimented by an aluminium front that's designed not to offend interior designs. The compact dimensions and weight -- it's less than 3kg -- means it's extremely easy to transport or stow away.
For the price, build quality is excellent with all controls and connections intelligently arranged and easily accessible. A set of chromed controls on top of the unit can be used to manually select sources or enter the main menu system. The same functions can be found on the cute, miniature remote that uses glow-in-the-dark controls for when the lights go down.
There's an impressive range of connection inputs aligned across the back of the projector, with both analogue and digital options accounted for. Although the MT400 can't claim to be HD Ready, there is a digital DVI input that's HDCP compliant and will receive high-definition signals. Of course, they'll then be compressed to fit the projector's low native resolution -- which defeats the object, but at least there's the option. The DVI input is also compatible with HDMI using an adaptor cable.
Otherwise, all remaining input options are analogue-based. You can make low-quality composite or S-Video connections, with both cables generously supplied by Toshiba. But the best performance is reserved for the component inputs, which can progressive-scan images from a compatible DVD player or games console.
Although the MT400 is essentially a home cinema projector, there's still a standard VGA PC input for business applications (or games, if you're really hardcore). Unfortunately, there's no accompanying PC audio input, but there is an RS-232 control input that lets you connect to a home-automation system -- so you can setup an electric screen to be lowered the moment the projector turns on, for instance.
High definition may be getting all the headlines, but while the MT400 is high-definition 'compatible', you'll need to spend considerably more if you want a true HD Ready projector. Instead, Toshiba has used the older version 'Matterhorn' DMD chipset from Texas Instruments with a native widescreen resolution of 1,024x576 pixels.
This resolution has been cleverly chosen as it perfectly fits our European PAL broadcasts and standard-definition DVD images. This means there's no need for any scaling from standard sources, producing exact and undistorted images from the original signal.
Toshiba has integrated its own TruVision scaler, but it's not likely to be employed unless you're using a non-DVD source. The ordinary specification is completed by a basic six-segment colour wheel and an unexceptional contrast ratio of 3,000:1 -- both indicative of cost-cutting compromises.
The unit can be floor- or ceiling-mounted to project images from the front or rear. A throw distance of between 1.2 and 12m will suit smaller rooms -- although for a typical 3m-wide screen you'll need a distance of around 5m. Adjustable feet beneath the unit help alter the horizontal and vertical viewing angles.
For the uninitiated, setting up a projector can seem confusing, but once you've negotiated positioning, operation is gratefully uncomplicated. On-screen menus are graphically presented with a full range of typical picture settings, including several preset modes, of which Theatre seems to work best with DVDs.
You can individually adjust red, green and blue colour levels, which helps tone down the yellow images inherited from the default settings. And there's also an easy-to-use digital keystone system that corrects image distortion incurred by the projector's placement angle. All adjustments can be controlled by the remote, which also allows you to temporarily cut out the picture or freeze the image.
Despite a low noise rating of 32dB, you'll find the high-pitched hum of the projector's fan a little distracting. It's not exceptionally loud, but it does carry a distinctive sound that's annoying, especially if you're sat too close to it.
The specification may appear average on paper, but in practice the MT400 puts in a class-leading performance at this price.
Progressive-scan DVD images appear enviably stable and unpolluted by picture noise. Edges are sharply defined and straight lines remain solid and shimmer-free, even with diagonals. Colours need a little correcting to eliminate initial yellow tinges, but otherwise they appear well balanced, with inconspicuous gradation between shades.
Black levels are not exceptionally deep but still expose impressive detail, even in dark scenes, and encourage enough contrast to give pictures a depth-defining sense of realism. Movement is noticeably smooth and cohesive.
Like other DLP projectors, the MT400 keeps its composure when faced with small spaces with only small, discreet spaces between pixels and none of the 'chicken-wire effect' that afflicts LCD models.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide