Rob On: Epson Powerlite S1

 

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The Epson Powerlite S1 Multimedia projector has a lot to recommend it for someone looking for a front projection home theatre setup on a budget.  I watch a lot of movies, and with widescreen presentations on my 37" screen offering an image only about a foot high, I was looking for a larger image with good picture quality.  This the S1 delivers at a very affordable price. 

(Epson Powerlite S1 wall mounted upside down.)

Features

The S1 is an SVGA projector (800x600) with a 4:3 aspect ratio and a rated 1200 ANSI lumen output.  It accepts a whole variety of inputs, I'll talk about them more below.

Turning the S1 on takes about 20 seconds to picture and about a minute before it hits full brightness, turning it off takes a very fast 15 seconds before the fan shuts off.  You'll like the fan in the S1, while it is audible, it doesn't stand out and you won't notice it while watching most programs, even with the projector only a few feet from your ears.

The S1 is not heavy and looks to be built well.  It comes with a nice padded vinyl carrying case with a shoulder strap if you are planning on taking it on the road. 

The remote control for the S1 is particularly cute, fits in the palm of your hand, and is laid out well.  It is about the size of a credit card and just 1/4" thick.  The S1 has infrared receivers both on the front and back of the projector, so no matter where you are, the remote always works, even when you bounce it off the screen.  My only criticism is that I tend to lose the remote in the pile of papers on the coffee table.

The S1 comes with a mouse adaptor that lets you use the second remote as a mouse for your computer, but I've never tried this.

Lamp life on the S1 is 2000 hours per $200 bulb, which is as good or better than most projectors on the market.  It does lack a "bulb-saver" feature which lowers the brightness in exchange for longer lamp life, but in a 1200 lumen projector, I don't think I'd use such a feature anyway.

Picture

I must admit I am a bit of a TV snob.  I insist on good picture quality, black blacks, white whites and crisp clean colors.  I have been very pleasantly surprised by the S1.

The picture quality of the S1 depends very much on the signal you send it.  If you connect the S1 to a computer with its screen resolution set to 800x600, the picture is SPECTACULAR.  Big, bright, sharp, wow!  If you connect it to a DVD player using a component to VGA cable (Epson offers this cable, but it is $100 for a 10' length which is way overpriced,) the picture is also amazing.  If you connect it using S-Video cables, the image will be blurrier, passable, but disappointing.  If you connect it using a composite cable, the image will be even worse than with S-Video.  With either of these connections the picture is workable, but nothing to write home about.

Some of the reviews I have read attribute the fuzzy picture with S-Video/composite to a poor quality deinterlacing chip in the S1, however comparing interlaced to progressive scan from a high-end DVD player with Faroudja DCDi deinterlacer through the component inputs, I could see only a slight improvement in the image when using progressive scan leading me to believe the problem is actually in the electronics of the S-Video/composite inputs.  An inexpensive Sony DVD player offered a similar picture with its interlaced component connection.

Once you have the S1 set up however, you are going to enjoy watching DVD's with it.  It really is like having your own theatre, just without the annoying woman in the next seat who's cell phone keeps ringing.  The S1 combines three 1/2" LCD panels with a micro lens array to greatly reduce the screen door like grid pattern typical of LCD projectors.  I have very good vision, and at my viewing distance of 9' (or 1.5x the screen width) the screen door effect on the S1 is barely noticeable, at 12' (2x) it is gone.   The PolySi LCD's offer a higher refresh rate than traditional LCD's which as far as I can see eliminates smearing or ghosting typical of such displays when there is fast motion on screen.

If you're concerned about the 800x600 resolution of the S1 or are thinking you'd rather go 16:9 for your home theatre, you might want to reconsider.  DVD's are roughly 720x480 at 16:9 and if you do the math, that comes out nearly pixel perfect on an 800x600 display.  If you have HD through cable or satellite,  then you probably want to consider a higher resolution display. 

As to the 4:3 vs 16:9 question, if you are going to watch any 4:3 material at all, get the 4:3 display.  The reason is simple.  The biggest issue of screen size is width, not height.  Will the screen fit between the bookcases?  On the wall?  Can we cover that door?  Those are the questions to answer.  If you get a 4:3 screen, you get your 4:3 material at full size and your 16:9 material at full width.  If you get a 16:9 screen, you still get your 16:9 material at full width, but your 4:3 material ends up about 1/2 the width of the screen or about 1/4 the size you would have with the same width 4:3 screen because of the reduced height.

On the topic of DLP vs LCD, I selected an LCD after seeing demonstrations of both for two reasons, first, the color on the LCD displays seemed better, and second, although I didn't experience any problems during demonstrations of DLP projectors, I wanted to avoid the possibility of rainbow or other adverse effects some people experience with DLP's, particularly with less expensive units.

Setup

The S1 has a fixed lens and only a digital zoom, this means that you are going to have to carefully measure and plan your installation in order to get a square image that fits your screen.  What is really nice about the S1 is that it throws a very large image at a short distance.  I made a 90" diagonal (54"x72") screen which I mounted about 9' from the lens.  According to what I have read, you can expect about 10" diagonal for every foot back from the screen.

The digital zoom can be used to fine adjust the picture size, and I didn't notice any picture degradation using this, however you will still end up with a slightly lit border at the edges of the image so the use of a black surround and careful projector placement is preferable.

The S1 also only has digital keystone correction to make sure your image is square, as with the digital zoom, it works alright, but careful projector placement is a better solution.

Light control is particularly important, as you are going to want to watch the S1 in a dark room.  At 1200 lumens, the S1 produces a very bright picture, but it isn't enough for a fully lit room with my 90" screen (it will be better if your screen is smaller.)  At night with a lamp on is fine, but it is better with the lamp off.  The alternative is to pick up a 7000 lumen projector that will work in full daylight, but you are going to be spending a lot more money.  A cheaper solution is to line your drapes with inexpensive blackout cloth or keep a TV around for daytime watching (my solution.)

I was particularly impressed by the lack of light spillage from this projector.  No white blotches on the screen, none on the walls or ceiling.  Very nice.

I mounted my projector to the wall just below the ceiling using a very flexible commercial mounting solution.  The fine adjustment this mount offered for the distance to the screen allowed me to size the image perfectly, as little as a 1/2" adjustment makes a several inch difference to the projected image size. The S1 can be configured for either front or rear projection, and for table or ceiling mounting which is unusual for a projector in this price range.  Note that the mounting screw holes on the S1 are metric, it took me a while in Home Depot's screw aisle to figure this out.

Tricks and Tips

There are a couple of tips I picked up through extensive comparisons of various settings on the S1.  For watching widescreen movies, you will get a sharper picture if you set your DVD player to 16:9 mode if it supports this output and then select the 16:9 aspect ratio using the S1's remote.  Doing this increases the vertical resolution and makes the picture noticeably sharper.  The drawback of this is that if you have a 4:3 DVD you want to watch, it may be shrunk to only a small portion of the centre of the screen (some will go fullscreen if you just change the aspect ratio using the S1 remote back, it depends on the disk) so you will likely be switching your DVD player back and forth from 16:9 to 4:3 if you want the absolute best picture quality.  On the DVD players I have tried, you can access the screen setup menus by pressing the Display or Setup buttons when the DVD is stopped. 

Another tip is to set up the picture very carefully.  The default settings on the S1 produce a very bright image with pretty terrible color, this can be greatly improved.  I used the THX optimizer which can be found on many DVD's nowadays to set up the display.  Note that you will have to do this for each set of inputs (composite, S-Video, component, VGA, etc) as the picture will vary widely depending on the source.  It is nice that the S1 keeps track of each input's settings separately for you.

My settings for the various inputs ended up as below, and the wide variation for the settings really shows it is worth taking the time to tune your S1 from the factory presets (all 0's.)  

Setting Composite Video S-Video Component Video
Brightness -2 -4 -12
Contrast 3 3 -11
Saturation 7 11 0
Tint -3 -4 0
Color Temperature Medium Medium Medium
Sharpness 0 0 0

I have the projector set to Theatre mode, this gives the best color, but not the brightest picture.  In either case, the picture is very bright.  The picture is now pretty similar for all inputs.

Problems

As with any lower-priced product, there are going to be some problems.  Arguably the biggest is the picture quality from the composite and S-Video connectors.  It's watchable, but other than the size, it is just passable.  Get a component cable, you'll be much happier (my wife greatly appreciated the difference, yours will too.)   If you're not going to do that, never hook up a computer to the S1, there simply is no going back once you've seen what it can do.

Another problem I had is that the S1 sometimes has trouble locking a signal from S-Video or composite inputs.  Getting S-Video to work, even from the DVD took some connector wiggling, power off/on's and swearing, but once it is working, it tends to keep working.  I also found that composite and S-Video outputs  from the cable box cause the S1 to produce a black screen on and off every couple of seconds on one or two channels which is very annoying, the problem is worse with the composite cable.  

My one criticism of the S1's color reproduction is that it doesn't do yellows as well as it should.  They just don't have much life.

Some S1 owners have reported problems with pixel defects on their units.  My unit has three problem pixels, two green and one red.  They are not like the pixel defects I've seen on LCD panels on laptops though, the pixels aren't one color all the time or black, they are black when the screen is black, white when the screen is white, and whatever color they are supposed to be when the computer is driving the display, but when you are watching video, I have one red and two green pixels.  Fortunately because they sort of work, they are not particularly noticeable when watching (although one is top centre.)  If you get up close, you can see that there are a number of other pixels which are a little greener than they should be, but this isn't noticeable from viewing distance.  Pixel defects are usually straight from the factory, they don't develop over time (unless you drop the unit) so if your unit is good, it should stay that way.  Fortunately Epson has a very good exchange policy, and they will overnight you a replacement unit if you are having problems.

Alternatives

I should mention that there's absolutely nothing wrong with my TV, and if you are looking for best picture quality for the buck and any-time viewing, go buy a conventional CRT TV.  I wanted a solution that would let me display DVD's, digital cable and videos on a screen at least twice the size of my 37" TV which itself is near the upper size limit of CRT's.

If you don't need a 90" picture, you might also consider rear-projection screens.  These are the big screen big-black-box TV's you often see in bars.  While in past years these displays suffered from image problems (blurriness, bright bands, inability to see the screen unless you were directly in front of it) and were very big and heavy, recent models are now much shallower, sharper, and can be viewed from a much wider angle.  For me the picture quality is finally good enough, but they are still very expensive.

A luxury option is a gas plasma panel, which offers a flat, shallow display, big picture size and good quality.  The problem with these though is that they have a short lifespan unlike LCD or CRT TV's, some articles I have read give their usable lifespan at as little as 5 years compared to 30 years for a CRT.  They are even more expensive.

LCD TV's are a new option on the market.  They offer the best picture I have seen and good viewing angles, but the screens are still small and very, very expensive.

Summary

If you want to watch DVD's, want a giant screen for that theatre experience, and are looking for an affordable front projection system, it is hard not to recommend the S1.  The picture using the component and VGA inputs is spectacular, big, bright and sharp.  If you want to watch in a lit room, you'll need a backup TV or a much brighter projector.

For watching VCR tapes and television through S-Video or composite cables, the S1 is passable, but won't wow anyone.  The problems I had getting it to lock onto signals on some channels will be a killer for some, for me the channels that don't work are ones I don't watch anyway plus I have a backup display. 

Having used this projector for a while now, the biggest thing I notice different from my small TV is that I can now see everyone's eye color.  Family reaction is initially "holy cow that's too big" but once they sit down in front of it for a few minutes, they think it is the coolest thing ever.  One of them even commented that he forgot he was in someone's house rather than a movie theatre.  Be warned though, once you've tried one of these, there's no going back.

I've long had better sound than my local theatres, now I've got the big bright picture as well.  It isn't film, but it is as close as you can get in your living room.  I'm very happy with the S1, my wife thinks its great.  I spent just $1200 Canadian on it, the list price is US$999 so shop around for a deal.

More Information

Epson's Powerlite S1 Product Page

Projector Central Summary and Reviews

 

Copyright 2003 Rob. All Rights Reserved.