The world is discovering LED lights, and for good reason. They last 25 times as long as regular bulbs, they use a fraction of the power, they don't get as hot and they're very rugged. They're cropping up everywhere: in homes, flashlights, car headlights, flat-panel TV screens, movie lights and Christmas lights.
And now, finally, projectors.
Projectors are amazing these days -- the ones in corporate boardrooms, the ones in home theaters and the ones that fulfill both functions. But most still have a regular old light bulb inside. A very, very bright one that gets very, very hot and costs very, very much to replace -- maybe $300 or $400. And that's after about 2,000 hours of use.
If you could replace that hot, expensive bulb with LED lights, you'd use half as much power, so you'd be polluting less. Because it would need less cooling, your projector could be much smaller and lighter.
Above all, you'd never have to replace the bulb. The LED projectors in this roundup are rated at 20,000 hours or more -- at least 10 times the life of a regular bulb. That's long enough for you to watch a different movie every night for 27 years, or the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy twice.
I tried out seven LED projectors priced at $1,000 or less. Each comes with carrying case and remote control. Each offers every conceivable input -- VGA so you can plug in your laptop, HDMI for Blu-ray players and game consoles, USB and memory-card slots (so you can project PowerPoint files and slide shows and movies without even needing a computer). All produce a 1,280-by-800-pixel image. A few, with the purchase of a Wi-Fi adapter, can display videos and slides wirelessly from a phone, tablet or laptop.
These LED projectors tend to fall into two categories, mobile projectors and business projectors.
Mobile projectors are tiny, tiny boxes; the smallest could be mistaken for a brownie. Then again, the power-cord brick is nearly a third the size of the projector.
These models are cheap and plastic. There's no height adjustment. The speaker inside is usually 2 watts, mono -- awful for watching a movie. You'll want to connect a real speaker.
The image from these mobile models is nothing like the huge, bright, even, crisp picture that a $1,200 traditional projector gives you. But for their size and cost, these projectors display a surprisingly big, bright image. In a dark room, the image is still bright enough when it's maybe eight feet wide; with the lights on, you'd probably want to go no larger than five feet wide. (Of course, an actual movie screen -- as opposed to a wall -- works wonders.)
The mobile models manage 300 or 500 lumens, which are the units of projectors' light output. That seems pretty feeble compared with the 2,000 lumens of traditional projectors, but our eyes perceive brightness logarithmically. Doubling the lumens doesn't double the brightness. A 500-lumen projector isn't half as bright as a 1,000-lumen model; it looks brighter.
And that concludes the science lesson. Here's what stands out among the mobile LED projectors:
DELL M115 ($520) At about four inches square and 13 ounces, this 450-lumen model is the smallest and lightest projector in the roundup. You could cover it up with a hamburger.
And yet this tiny, black plastic Dell is among the best mobile projectors. The picture is bright and the colors are true, especially in the dark. The buttons on the projector light up when you touch them, which is useful, but their labels are dark gray on black, and therefore pretty much impossible to read. The slot accommodates only Micro SD cards, not standard ones. And a remote is $25 extra (booooo!).
But you can transfer one gigabyte of PowerPoint, Word, Excel, PDF, picture, music and movie files into the projector, turning it into a self-contained, ready-to-use presentation device that fits in your pocket.
AAXA SHOWTIME 3D ($450) This 450-lumen projector offers cheap black plastic, inscrutable no-words menu system, no card slot, orangey skin tones and bursts of blotch in fast scene changes. Not impressed.
INFOCUS IN1144 ($540) It's another small black box -- very small -- this time offering 500 lumens and a good picture. At 1.8 pounds, it's got more than twice the heft of the Dell. The LED lasts 30,000 hours, the company says. A good package over all.
ELMO BOXI ($630) Elmo (no relation to the red Muppet) is best known for its overhead projectors and cameras, like the ones from biology class in 1975.
This attractive, white 300-lumen projector is a super short-thrower. You can put it very close to the wall or screen (three feet) and get a surprisingly big image (50 inches).
Remarkably, Wi-Fi is built in; once you install the free iPhone or Android app, or Windows program, you can project images and Office files wirelessly.
If you can figure it out, that is; the documentation and user interface are horrible.
The second category, LED business projectors, gives you more of everything -- weight, cost and size. You won't fit one of these in your pocket unless you live at the top of a beanstalk in the sky.
But you also get more brightness, image quality and polish. All three offer automatic keystone adjustment, where a built-in level sensor tells the projector how to make the image perfectly rectangular automatically.
OPTOMA ML1000 ($1,000) A thousand bucks for a thousand lumens. It's a standard rectangular box, but its cool design makes it look like a wedge. Weirdly, there are no buttons on the projector, only a laptop-style trackpad. You point and click your way through the menus. It works.
The image is excellent. Like several of these projectors, this one is "3-D compatible," which means very little; you'd have to buy both 3-D glasses and a "quad-buffered graphics card" for your PC. And then find something to watch in 3-D.
VIEWSONIC PLED-W500 ($600) This puppy looks almost exactly like a laptop ("small enough to fit in your suitcase," the Web site cheerfully observes). It feels infinitely more businesslike and well designed than its mobile-projector rivals, right down to the super-convenient laser pointer that's built into the remote. The buttons on the projector light up, there's one gigabyte of built-in storage and there's no power brick on the cord. An Eco mode is available. It dims the image by 20 percent, but extends the LED life by 50 percent (and reduces the fan noise).
This model and the Casio, next, offer fantastic features like Zoom (makes the picture bigger or smaller without having to move the projector) and buttons that blank the screen or freeze the frame.
CASIO XJ-A141 ($1,000) There's something fishy going on here. This projector creates a truly cinematic 2,500-lumen image, ridiculously bright and clear and true, even when the lights are on. How could this one model be so much better than all of its rivals?
Casio says that it uses a hybrid laser/LED system that nobody else has, but you still get the longevity, energy, heat and reliability benefits of LED. Well, whatever. This baby rocks. It's loaded with features -- Eco mode, automatic keystone correction, password protection, auto-on when you plug it in -- and it looks slim and fantastic.
The Casio's the clear winner among the pro models; the InFocus strikes the best image/size ratio; the Dell is a mighty mini. LED has always been a bright idea. It's about time that lovely light reaches the big screen.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 9, 2013 9:06 PM