The Best $500 Projector Today

By Geoff Morrison, Wirecutter

If I were in the market for a $500 projector, I’d buy the Acer H5380BD. I base this on 40 hours of research and objective testing with over $20,000 of test gear and side-by-side comparisons with the main competition.

If I were in the market for a $500 projector, I’d buy the Acer H5380BD. I base this on 40 hours of research and objective testing with over $20,000 of test gear and side-by-side comparisons with the main competition. The H5380BD offers the best overall picture quality in its class; minus a slight resolution bump (720p down from 1080p), our pick here is surprisingly comparable to our $1,000 projector pick. The H5380BD is bright, has a decent contrast ratio, and its color accuracy is similar to other projectors in its price range

Fed decent video content (like Blu-ray), the H5380BD puts out an extremely watchable image. And its input lag is low—faster than most TVs and high-end projectors—making it a good choice for gaming.

However, the difference between several runners-up was very close. The H5380BD is very similar to the $389 Vivitek D557W and $604 D803W. All perform reasonably well, given their prices, and each has its own picture quality issues. So while we feel the H5380BD is the best for reasons we’ll explain in this guide, the difference between it and its two main competitors is very close.

The Acer H5380BD compares well to our favorite $1,000 projector for half the price. It’s bright, has good contrast ratio, and has great overall picture quality.

If for whatever reason the Acer becomes unavailable temporarily, we recommend getting the aforementioned $389 Vivitek D557W. It doesn’t look quite as good, with slightly more washed out colors and a lower contrast ratio, but its picture quality is fairly similar, just as bright, and a bit cheaper.

If you’re susceptible/hateful of the DLP artifact known as “rainbows,” check out the Epson 730HD. It’s brighter than our pick but has a much worse contrast ratio, so it doesn’t look as good overall. It’s LCD, though, so no rainbows.

If you have a small room or want a “short throw” projector that only needs to be a few feet from the screen, consider the $589 Optoma GT760. It puts out a similar image to the Acer and Vivitek, but isn’t as suitable for a more traditional projector/screen placement.

Who am I?

I’ve been testing and reviewing projectors for over 12 years, and I’ve used a projector as my main “TV” for over a decade. I was Video Editor and later Technical Editor of Home Theater magazine for seven years, and currently I review and write about projectors for CNET, Forbes, Sound+Vision magazine, and several other publications.

Who is this for and should I upgrade?

This projector is for someone who finds “regular” TVs too small but doesn’t want to spend too much money to get a massive image. It will also work for someone who just wants to project occasional movies/TV shows/games, perhaps on a wall. If you’re new to the idea of projectors, check out Projectors vs. TVs: Giant-screen pros and cons.

The performance of the Acer is such that it can work perfectly as a budget home theater so long as you’re willing to settle for 720p resolution. In fact, the only major difference, spec-wise, between this and our $1,000 pick is that our $1,000 pick has the higher resolution at 1080p.

If your projector is less than 4 years old (roughly), and bright enough on your screen, you’re probably fine for a few more years.

While most people would consider these projectors “portable” because of their size, they do not have batteries. “Portable projectors” is actually a different category and really more of a novelty than something you’d build a home theater around. These rely on AC power only.

If you already have a projector and are considering an upgrade, whether or not this one is worth it largely depends on when you bought your current projector. If your projector is more than a few years old or isn’t HD, this might be an improvement. If your projector is “OK, but not very bright” then this willdefinitely be an improvement (though check the lamp life left; an old lamp is way dimmer than a new one). If your projector is less than 4 years old (roughly), and bright enough on your screen, you’re probably fine for a few more years.

How we picked and tested

Since our previous pick by Acer has been discontinued, its replacement, the Acer H5380BD, needed to be tested. In addition, two new projectors from Vivitek had come to market, so we called those in as well.

Some readers have asked for a short throw option, and Optoma had a candidate that was in our price range, so we called that in too.

Here’s how we got to last year’s winner (so we could build on that this year). Out of the roughly 40 possibilities, I disregarded those without HDMI, those with lower-than-720p resolutions, those over $500 with only a slight increase in claimed light output, those marketed as business projectors, and those without a zoom lens.

Out of the roughly 40 possibilities, I disregarded those without HDMI, those with lower-than-720p resolutions, those over $500 with only a slight increase in claimed light output, those marketed as business projectors, and those without a zoom lens.

Using those criteria, I narrowed the field down to five serious contenders: the Acer H5370BD, BenQ MW519, Epson 730HD, Optoma H180X, and theViewsonic PJD5533w. These projectors had the requisite resolution and brightness specs, were designed for home theater use, had lens zoom, and featured at least one HDMI input. Since there were few (if any) reviews of these models, I got them all in for testing in my lab.

If the projectors were equipped with UP lamps, we ran the bulbs for approximately 50 hours before calibration or measuring.

For subjective image quality comparisons, a Monoprice 4×1 splitter sent 720p, 1080i, and 1080p video to all four projectors (the short-throw Optoma was tested separately). Images were aligned on screen. Using manual masking, pairs of projectors were assessed, and we cycled so that each was compared. This same method was then used to compare our winner to our $1,000 pick.

Luminance (light output) measurements were taken using a Minolta LS-100 light meter off a Stewart StudioTek 100 1.0-gain, 102-inch screen. Illuminance measurements were taken (as a cross-check) using a AEMC CA813 positioned approximately 8 inches in front of the lens in the center of the projected image.

Color and color temperature measurements were taken using a Photo Research PR-650photospectrometer running patterns from an AVFoundry VideoForge.

Our Pick

The Acer H5380BD came out on top by having a better image than the $389 Vivitek D557W and displaying a similar picture to the $604 D803W while costing less.

The Acer H5380BD compares well to our favorite $1,000 projector for half the price. It’s bright, has good contrast ratio, and has great overall picture quality.

The H5380BD was bright, putting over 54 footlamberts on my 102-inch screen. This is brighter than most projectors that cost 5-10x as much. And that was after video calibration to the D6500 color temperature standard; it can be even brighter at the expense of an accurate color temperature.

This is brighter than most projectors that cost 5-10x as much.

For comparison, 54 fL is brighter than most plasma televisions and only slightly dimmer than most LED LCDs. In a dark room, 30 fL would seem bright, so this is bright (though not enough to compete with ambient light in the room; see the Setup Tips section at the bottom). You could have a 150-inch diagonal screen and still have an image here that’s brighter than most movie theaters’.

The H5380BD’s contrast ratio was also decent for a DLP projector. I measured 1920:1, which is higher than its main competitors (though just barely). This is roughly the same as our $1,000 projector pick. The ratio is still lower than a good plasma television’s, but greater than or equal to most LCD TVs’.

Color accuracy is roughly the same as the competition. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. Some colors look a little off. Greens, for instance, lack a richness you can get with a more accurate display. However, in this price range, you’re not going to get 100% accurate color. In fact, the colors of the two Viviteks were almost identical to the Acer.

Interestingly, last year’s H5370BD had a color management system, so you could adjust the colors if you had the equipment to measure them. The H5380BD doesn’t have this even though the Viviteks do. However, the amount of adjustment is meager, and the calibrated images didn’t look any better. In some ways, they looked worse, adding odd artifacts. Normally I’d consider a CMS a bonus, but in this case it was irrelevant.

No projector in this price range has lens shift, though the Acer (and the more expensive Vivitek) has three adjustable feet (the cheaper Vivitek has two, though there’s a threaded hole if you want to make your own third). Also new this year is an audio output jack, so you can connect speakers instead of having to use the wimpy internal speaker.

The Acer loses one HDMI input compared to last year’s model, but it still has MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link).

The input lag is a low 33 ms, which means it’s great for gaming. This is about the same as other DLP projectors, and faster than most TVs and higher-end projectors. Below 40 ms is fast, around 60 is average, and above 80 is considered slow.

Like last year, I stacked the three contenders and watched a variety of content. With Blu-ray, all the images were acceptable. The Acer looked a little richer than the cheaper Vivitek, and roughly similar to the more expensive Vivitek. Considering the price, the image was really good. Even though resolution is an easily quoted and compared number, it matters less than you’d think. If you’re sitting close enough or have a large enough image, you’ll see the pixels of the H5380BD. These are especially noticeable around white lettering on a dark background (credits, for example). Normal video, though, looks quite detailed. This is also partly due to how little motion blur DLP has. All LCD-based displays blur with motion, an issue DLP doesn’t have.

The Acer (and a surprising number of projectors in this range) is also 3D capable. Pair it with a 3D Blu-ray player and a 3D Blu-ray, and you’ve got 3D. You can use any DLP Link certified glasses, which can be had for less than $50. The 3D effect is actually quite good, thanks in part to the brightness of the projector. There’s a fair amount of depth, and not a lot of crosstalk (the ghosting around sharp edges common with many 3D systems). There’s a bit of judder, but I’ve seen many projectors (and TVs) that cost a lot more than have far worse 3D performance.

Flaws (but not necessarily dealbreakers)

You may have noticed that thus far I’ve only mentioned how good the H5380BD looks with Blu-ray. That’s because it, and the Viviteks, don’t look nearly as good with less pristine content. Watching 1080i content from AT&T U-Verse showed some mild artifacts, especially with dark content. There’s a shimmer, almost like a texture overlayed on some dark areas of the image. It’s slight, but noticeable. Increasing the brightness control slightly can minimize it. With bright content, the artifacts are fine.

To put it another way, as the quality of the signal you send the Acer worsens, so too does the end result. Higher-end projectors, by comparison, have processing that can somewhat minimize the effects of mediocre content quality.

Interestingly, several $1,000 projectors I’ve tested also have this issue, some even worse.

…because it has the best blend of contrast ratio and light output, the $490 H5380BD is our pick.

The Acer is still perfectly watchable, but those hoping for a perfect picture will not get it at this price range, sadly. I found the image to be great for $490, but our $1,000 pick definitely looks a lot better.

Stepping up even further, our Best Projector looks significantly better, with 2.5x the contrast ratio, near-perfect color, and whisper-quiet performance. It’s five times more expensive, though.

Like all projectors, the Acer makes audible noise due to tiny fans furiously trying to keep the high temperature and high-pressure lamp from melting down the entire case. In addition, because it’s a DLP projector, there’s an additional high-pitched sound of the rapidly spinning color wheel. It’s not louder than other small projectors, but it’s not as quiet as larger projectors.

These tradeoffs come with the territory, though. Despite these smaller issues, the Acer generally succeeds at throwing up a solid image; because it has the best blend of contrast ratio and light output, the $490 H5380BD is our pick.

The runner up

The Vivitek D557W has similar picture quality to our main pick and is just as bright, though the colors are more washed out. It’s still a good choice if the main pick is sold out.

If the Acer is sold out, consider the $389 Vivitek D557W. It doesn’t quite have the contrast ratio of the Acer, but 1675:1 is only slightly lower. With the projectors stacked and us switching between them, we noted that the D557W looks a little washed out in comparison to our pick. The colors, too, seemed less saturated. It’s just as bright as the Acer, has similar inputs (though no MHL on the HDMI), and still includes an audio output. For roughly 10% more, the Acer looks more than 10% better. If the Acer sells out or for whatever reason becomes unavailable, the D557W isn’t a bad alternate.

A step up

If you plan on sitting close to the screen (like 9 feet from a 100-inch screen, or a larger screen from slightly further away), and you want slightly better color accuracy (and are willing to pay over twice as much money for a projector) our $1,000 pick is better suited to your needs.

Normally I make great pains to explain that resolution is only one aspect of picture quality, and for most displays, not one of the more important ones. In this case, however, the answer is less clear cut. With the massive screen sizes projectors are capable of (and the Acer can create a huge image), you’ll almost certainly be able to see the difference between a 720p and 1080p projector. In fact, if the image is large enough (or you’re sitting close enough), you might even be able to see the individual pixels that make up the image with the Acer.

With the massive screen sizes projectors are capable of (and the Acer can create a huge image), you’ll almost certainly be able to see the difference between a 720p and 1080p projector.

I sit about 9 feet from a 102-inch screen, and, switching between the two, the BenQ W1070’s picture appeared slightly more detailed than the Acer. It’s not nearly as big a difference as you might expect. On bright objects, I could just make out individual pixels with the Acer.

Is this a big deal? If the idea of seeing pixels keeps you up at night, save up for the BenQ. Otherwise, the image the Acer creates is very good.

If you’re curious about what resolution you might need, Wirecutter contributor Chris Heinonen has a great calculator. It should give you an idea what size screen, and from how far, 1080p starts being noticeable. Keep in mind, though, that this is just one aspect of picture quality. You’re not getting twice the picture quality by spending twice as much on the higher-resolution projector.

However, if you really care about picture quality, I highly suggest looking into our pick for Best Projector, which offers much better contrast and color accuracy. The difference is dramatically noticeable and easily worth the money for those who really want to commit to building a cinema-quality home theater.

An LCD option (“no rainbows”)

If you’re sensitive to “rainbows,” the Epson 730HD is a good LCD option. The picture quality isn’t nearly as good as our main pick, but there are certainly no rainbow artifacts!

There’s a visual artifact known as “rainbows” inherent in all single-chip DLP projectors (and basically all inexpensive DLP projectors are single-chip). I’ve been writing about and reviewing DLP projectors since their emergence into the mainstream, and I’ve found there to be 3 groups of people: those who can’t see rainbows; those who can see rainbows and don’t care; and those who can see rainbows and really care. The latter tend to be a very vocal minority.

Since most people aren’t bothered by this artifact, it shouldn’t be a concern. However, if you know you can’t stand rainbows, or it turns out after you’ve gotten a DLP projector that you can’t stand rainbows, your only option in this price range is an LCD projector like the Epson 730HD.

(We hesitate to go into detail on how to look for rainbows if you don’t already notice them, since many people don’t notice or care. Since the only way to tell if you’re annoyed by rainbows is to watch a single-chip DLP projector, there’s no simple way to predetermine who will end up being annoyed by them and who won’t.)

It’s important to reiterate that most people don’t notice or don’t care about rainbows.

What are rainbows? A single-chip DLP projector creates color sequentially; at any given moment, only one color is on the screen at a time. This is done fast enough that your eye/brain combines them into a full color image.

Most of the time, this works great. Sometimes, and for some people, there can be a rainbow-like trail to certain objects on screen. The most common occurrence of rainbows is a small bright light on a dark background, like streetlamps on a night highway (or subtitles). In addition to the bright object, there’s an almost imperceptible rainbow trail.

It’s important to reiterate that most people don’t notice or don’t care about rainbows. Unless you’re willing to spend a lot more money, the non-DLP choices in this price range take a significant performance hit.

The Epson 730HD LCD projector has incredible light output (up to a staggering 79.5 ftL on our 102-inch test screen). However, its contrast ratio is significantly worse than any of the DLP options—around 204:1, which is sadly not a typo (recall that our pick averages 1920:1). This results in a very washed-out and flat-looking image. Overall, the Acer’s image looks far better. But if you’re bothered by rainbows, the Epson at least will get you massive image for cheap.

It’s worth noting that LED-based DLP projectors (like this InFocus mentioned in the footnotes) generally have much harder-to-see rainbows, but again you’re stuck with inferior light output.

A short-throw option

The Optoma GT760 is a good choice for small rooms or in places where the projector needs to be only a few feet from the screen.

For those with smaller rooms, or those unable/unwilling to mount a projector where it would normally go (above or behind the sofa), there is an option. Short-throw projectors have big round lenses, almost like a fish-eye lens on a camera, that let you position the projector much closer to the screen. The $589 Optoma GT760 was able to produce a 102-inch image from only 3.5 feet away. Our main pick needs about 11 feet to do that.

The $589 Optoma GT760 was able to produce a 102-inch image from only 3.5 feet away. Our main pick needs about 11 feet to do that.

The GT760 puts out a bright image that’s not quite as bright as its regular-throw cousins. I measured 36.54 fL on my 102-inch, 1.0-gain screen. The contrast ratio was also slightly lower—1655:1. Color accuracy was similar to the other projectors here (okay but not great). Resolution was also 720p, and the input lag is also 33 ms.

It’s really all about the short throw. There isn’t even a zoom lens, so you need to move it even closer to the screen if you want a smaller image (or away for bigger).

If your coffee table is crying out to be the host of a video display, or you sit on the long wall of a narrow room that can’t fit a normal projector, the GT760 is likely the ticket. If you don’t need a short throw or can make your room work without it, the Acer is brighter, has better picture quality, and is $150 cheaper.

Setup Tips

No display, TV, or projector looks its best out of the box. As previously mentioned, spending $20 on a setup disc like Disney’s World of Wonder will pay off significantly in terms of picture quality for this and future TV purchases. All those settings like contrast, brightness, color, and tint? The WoW disc will show you how to set them correctly. You can, alternately, set a TV up by eye, but a disc is way better. I always use a disc and test patterns to set up displays I review.

Since our pick is a 720p projector, I often get the question of what resolution to set a cable box, either 1080i or 720p. Well it’s actually pretty complicated and depends on a number of factors. Check out Set-top box setup: Which resolution is best?

The Acer has adjustments for wall color (as in, if you have a blue wall, it will compensate slightly for that inherent color shift). In a pinch this is OK, but for the best image, your best bet it either a neutral gray/white wall, or a screen. For the latter, check out Projection screen basics.

And don’t use keystone adjustments! It’s tempting to “fix” improper placement with keystone adjustments (electronically cancelling out a trapezoid-shaped image). All keystone adjustments reduce available resolution, as you’re not longer using the entire imaging chip. Wasting pixels aside, you’re also potentially adding artifacts like jagged lines due to the processing. Avoid if possible.

What makes a good $500 home projector

For $500, you’re able to get between 2,000 and 2,500 lumens of brightness. Well, at least “claimed” brightness; always take manufacturer’s specs with a grain of salt. This much light output should be able to fill a big (100-inch-plus) screen with plenty of light in a dark room. More light output is generally better, though if it comes at the cost of contrast ratio, the overall image quality will suffer.

There are many models, slightly more expensive than those we included here, that offer slightly more rated lumens for slightly more money. It’s unlikely you’d notice a difference between 2,500 and 2,800 lumens, for example, and you probably wouldn’t even notice a jump to 3,000.

All the finalists here offered staggering light output (more than projectors that cost several times the price). More light would be like buying a car that has a top speed of 200 mph instead of 225. Do you really care when you’re not going to use either?

For instance, the Acer could fill a 150-inch screen and still be brighter than some more expensive projectors on a 100-inch screen. So would I pay $50-$100 more for a few extra claimed lumens? Nope; it’d be overkill for all but the most extreme situations.

More light would be like buying a car that has a top speed of 200 mph instead of 225. Do you really care when you’re not going to use either?

Since nearly all the projectors for this money include an HDMI input, I considered that a requirement. After all, what good is a projector if you can’t send it content? An HDMI connection offers the most flexibility in this regard, allowing you to hook up a Blu-ray player, a media streamer, and even most laptops.

Most are either 1280 x 720 (720p) or 1280 x 800 resolution, so I considered 1280 x 720 a minimum requirement. There are a lot of 1024 x 768 projectors out there, but this is a bigger difference than it seems. Most of the content you’ll be watching on a projector (movies, TV shows, games) have a 16×9 (1.78:1) aspect ratio. With 16×9 content on a 1024 x 768 projector, you’re only using 1024 x 576 pixels. That’s 589,824 total pixels versus the 921,600 pixels when using a 1280 x 720 projector (or the 16×9 portion of a 1280 x 800 projector). That 57% increase in pixels is going to be noticeable.

Another “must-have” is a zoom lens. This lets you position the projector closer or further from the screen and still have the same screen size. Or, if you have a fixed location, it can make the image larger or smaller. It adds a bit of flexibility, which seems important in a “portable” display. However, most of the zooms in this price range are meager at best. Many only allow a couple of feet of flexibility. Still, every bit helps.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more, the next jump in picture quality gets you 1080p resolution. As we’ve written in earlier sections, a 1080p projector will look more detailed than a 720p projector. However, resolution is just one aspect of picture quality; spending twice as much does not get you twice the picture quality.

What else might spending more get you? Overall picture quality also improves, in addition to resolution. You get a little better color accuracy, a little smoother of an image (less video “noise,” almost like film grain). To get longer zoom ranges, higher contrast ratios, and quieter projectors, you have to spend a lot more money. For those, check out the Sony and JVC in Best Projector, which are over $2,000.

The Competition

We tested another Vivitek in this latest round, the $604 D803W. The D803W is a lot more expensive than the Acer, and I’m not sure why. The contrast ratio is slightly less (1893:1), though that’s within the error range of the measurements. It’s a little brighter, at 59 fL, but that’s less than 10%. Color is slightly better, but not by a huge amount.

The biggest drawback for the D803W, other than its higher price, is the fact that the fan exhaust is on the front, and there’s a lot of light thrown towards the front of the room that has nothing to do with the image (called light leakage). All inexpensive projectors have some light leakage, but to have so much of it thrown front is an odd (but fairly common) design choice. The Acer has a little of this, but not nearly as much.

Input lag was an impressive 16.3 ms. I’ve never measured a display that low. I don’t think this is enough of a difference to justify the higher price over the Acer (which is an already fast 33 ms).

On some scenes and content, the D803W looks a little better than the Acer, but not enough to justify the higher price. It does have fewer of 1080i low brightness artifacts compared to the other Vivitek and Acer. I don’t think that’s worth a $140 premium though.

The Rest

When I said we considered everything, I really meant it.

Acer P1340W – Has similar similar specs to our pick, but is more money.

Acer H6510BD – Is out of our price range.

Acer H5370BD – Last year’s winner, replaced by the H5380BD mentioned above.

BenQ MW516 – The claimed light output is only slightly higher than our contenders for more money.

BenQ MW663 – Seems to be discontinued. It is (was) a lot more money.

BenQ MW519 – very similar to last year’s Acer H5370BD, but not quite as good. It is just as bright, and has a very slightly higher contrast ratio (2,681:1). However, its color isn’t as good. Green was a little yellowish. The Acer looks a little more realistic because of this. Though its price fluctuates, for the month leading up to this article’s publication, the BenQ was also $100 more expensive than the Acer. A new model, the MW523, is due by year’s end.

Canon LE-5W – Has the same specs as our InFocus LED pick, but costs a lot more money.

Canon LV-7292M – Only has 1024 x 768 resolution.

Dell M110 – Though cheaper than the InFocus, it’s even dimmer.

Dell M210X – Only 1024 x 768.

Epson 707 – Discontinued.

Epson EX7210 – This is only slightly brighter and is more expensive.

Epson 1261W – In our range, but is a business projector.

Epson 710 HD – The 730HD mentioned in the article replaces the 710HD.

InFocus IN116 – Discontinued. The replacement, the IN116A, is due in January.

InFocus IN126 – Too far out of our price range.

LG PA75U – Similar to the InFocus, but a lot more expensive.

LG BD460 – Only slightly brighter, but for more money.

NEC NP-L50W – Another LED, but a lot more expensive than the InFocus.

NEC NP-V300W – Is slightly brighter for more money.

Optoma ML300 – LED, but even dimmer than InFocus.

Optoma HD66 – Discontinued. The H180X reviewed in the article is the replacement.

Optoma DW312 – A business projector.

Optoma W303 – Is slightly brighter for more money.

Optoma TW631-3D – Slightly brighter for more money.

Optoma H180X – also similar to last year’s Acer and BenQ. Light output was roughly the same, but it’s contrast ratio is a little lower (1893:1). Like the BenQ, its color isn’t as good as the Acer. Green was a little yellow and undersaturated (not “deep” enough). It was also louder than the Acer. Like the BenQ, the price has been $100 more than the Acer.

Sony VPLDX120 – Only 1024 x 768 resolution.

Sony VPLDW120 – Listed, oddly, as WXGA, but “1024 x 768”. WXGA would be 1280 x 800. Regardless, it has similar specs to our semifinalists but for a lot more money.

Sony VPLEX225 – Only 1024 x 768.

Sony VPLDX140 – Only 1024 x 768.

ViewSonic PLED-W200 – This LED projector is dimmer than the InFocus.

ViewSonic PJL6233 – Only 1024 x 768.

ViewSonic PJD6235 – Only 1024 x 768.

Viewsonic PJD5533w – nearly our winner last year. It’s brighter than the Acer H5370BD (by about 20%) and had the best contrast ratio in that year’s test (by about 50%). Its colors, out of the box, are actually a little better than the Acer’s out-of-the-box colors. However, when viewing actual video content, the image had significant smearing and strange ghost shadows with darker images. It was severe and distracting enough that I can’t recommend it.

Wrapping It Up

The Acer combines a decent contrast ratio and high brightness to create an image that’s just better than the competition. It’s a lot more projector than you’d expect for the money, and our pick for the best $500 projector.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 5/27/14 and is republished here with permission.