Review: Epson MegaPlex MG-850HD Digital Projector + Speaker Combo
Under some circumstances, bigger is better -- put another way, certain things tend to perform better when they're bigger; video projectors and speakers are prime examples. Recent technologies have enabled developers to make tiny accessories that run off of rechargeable battery power, but the tradeoff is often mediocre quality, as we've seen on small iOS-compatible units in the past. Epson's MegaPlex MG-850HD Digital Projector + Speaker Combo ($800) doesn't compromise. While it's far from the largest video projector and speaker system we've ever seen, it's the biggest we've yet tested with an iOS specific interface, choosing to provide large TV-like video and sound quality rather than a sub-par experience. Consequently, it carries a price tag that takes it out of the impulse buy category and into the "HDTV" range, but users looking for a relatively no-nonsense, well-designed video projector will really like what's here, even though there are a few issues that need to be understood up front.
It’s easy enough to understand MG-850HD’s appeal relative to a traditional flat-screen TV. Unlike a TV set, this glossy black plastic-bodied unit weighs only 8.6 pounds and measures 13.4” by 11.5” by 4.6”, with a pop-out handle on the side that lets you carry the projector anywhere. You’ll need to have a clear path between the lens on the front and a wall or other projection surface; if so, MG-850HD can create an image ranging from 33” to 320” in size on the diagonal, backed by 2800 lumens of lighting—around 100 times the light of iOS pico projectors, and enough to let video comparable to or larger than any HDTV be seen in normal ambient light. Contrast this with last year’s smaller $450 Optoma Neo-i, and there’s no comparison: MG-850HD is certainly bigger and more expensive, but it’s also considerably more powerful in every way. It also supports the iPad, which Neo-i didn’t.
The most glaring difference is image quality: MG-850HD has a native resolution of 1280 by 800, outputting at either 4:3 or 16:9 (1280x720/720p)—more than twice the pixels than Neo-i’s 854x480 resolution. While Epson’s resolution falls short of projectors that deliver 1920x1080/1080p output, and additional pixels are especially important and noticeable for the huge images projectors can create, the decision to equip MG-850HD this way makes sense. Most of Apple’s devices are capped at 720p or lower output resolutions, and even those that aren’t are still largely playing 720p or lower-resolution videos. While the just-released iPad and Apple TV are capable of full 1080p output, and the iTunes Store is in the process of adding more 1080p content, 1080p projectors remain expensive—more expensive, generally, than MG-850HD. Two or three years from now, both the hardware and content will likely have caught up, and 1080p projector prices will have fallen; at that point, 1080p might seem more mandatory and useful for an iOS-focused video display than it does today.
Even when it’s projecting a 720p image at, say, a 70” size, MG-850HD’s performance is several orders of magnitude better than smaller projectors. You have the ability to control the size of the image using a slider in front of the lens, and need to adjust the focus manually to match; the unit automatically makes keystoning adjustments based on its orientation and leveling, with optional perspective corrections accessible via another slider on the unit’s top. When that’s done, the projector’s ready to go, and we were seriously impressed by the results: thanks to the powerful lamp inside and 3LCD technology that generates more accurate color than smaller projectors, colors popped vividly even on the unit’s default settings; fine details were sharp and obvious even in gloomily-lit films such as The Dark Knight with regular ambient light in the room.
Close the shutters and the picture becomes arguably better than on most 720p TVs, because it’s capable of becoming so much larger. A well-built 720p set will have darker blacks and higher than 3000:1 contrast, but you may well struggle to find one with a 100” screen for $800 or less.
The key caveats MG-850HD carries, however, relate to that bright light source. Optoma promises over 20,000 hours of life for its considerably dimmer 50 lumens bulb, versus “up to 5,000” for Epson’s 2,800 lumens lamp, and though projectors vary from model to model, they generally don’t last as long between bulbs as conventional TVs. If you need a replacement lamp, the price is $199—quite a bit to pay just to keep a projector running. MG-850HD also has a relatively loud fan system that needs to blow all the time to keep the system running cool, and is actually hot to the touch on one side—not the one with a removable filter for the fan. Thankfully, the two built-in 10-watt speakers have more than enough volume to overcome the fan noise, and sound perfectly fine for listening to movies and TV shows, but if you’re used to silence during quiet scenes in movies, you won’t get it here. It’s noteworthy that Epson left out external speaker support from this unit, amongst certain other features that can be found on otherwise comparable non-iOS projectors.
Additional settings, including brightness and more granular color controls, are found in clear, nice-looking menus that are only accessible via the included Infrared remote control, which works well but leads to one of the unit’s two user interface challenges. Epson deserves kudos for building MG-850HD with a clean, simple iOS device navigation menu that enables the Infrared remote control to access videos, music, photos, and settings very simply, but it doesn’t mirror the navigation buttons on the unit, nor does it allow iOS users to manually access their media while the device is plugged into the rear-mounted universal dock. The screen of apps such as Videos goes gray, indicating that the only means to control playback is through the accessory. If you misplace the remote, you’ll want to find it quickly.
Similarly, while the dock looks neat—it hides inside the unit when not in use, and has a flexible Dock Connector to accommodate different devices—it doesn’t play well with cases, and is located in a position that may well preclude you from accessing your iPad, iPhone, or iPod screen. The Infrared remote is obviously there as an alternative interface, but given that Apple’s devices can now output video while doing something else, there’s an argument to be made that a projector has less need for an iOS dock than a way to connect an Apple TV for AirPlay streaming, assuming you have Wi-Fi access for this purpose. Thankfully, MG-850HD has a standard HDMI port on its side for that purpose, as well as plenty of other input options ranging from VGA to component to USB; then again, so do many other projectors.
It’s worth emphasizing that the overall MG-850HD user experience is seriously solid by projector standards: between the attractively soft-edged design of the projector, the quality of the video, and the loud enough output of the speakers, it’s the rare iOS-ready video device that’s actually worth watching for extended periods of time. Thanks to its keystoning and perspective-switching capabilities, you can use it to project videos under all sorts of circumstances and from great distances, assuming that you’re near a wall power source and able to keep the unit on the right angle for projection. It doesn’t have a battery power option, nor the ability to be turned upside down for ceiling mounting—Epson cites the dock-focused design as the reason for the latter omission—but as a classroom, home, or office projector, it otherwise has a lot going for it.
Overall, the MegaPlex MG-850HD Digital Projector + Speaker Combo is a good option, and given that it can be had for under $700, it’s a viable and worthwhile alternative for users who need its specific features: room-to-room portability, integrated iOS device menu navigation, and comparatively fantastic image quality relative to other iOS-specific solutions. The beauty of the video it produces is the single biggest reason it rates a B+ rather than a flat B; between the brightness and color, it’s very hard to fault visually. True, it’s impossible to ignore some of its issues, such as the rear location of its dock, the iOS UI interaction limitations, lamp replacement, and other caveats that might weigh in favor of an alternative combination of an Apple TV with a less expensive 720p or more expensive 1080p projector, but if you want an all-in-one that delivers a good viewing experience, this is certainly worth considering.