Because it practically invented the budget projector category, we've always had some fondness for the old Epson PowerLite S1. Unfortunately, it was not until Epson's third try at this market segment when it debuted the PowerLite S3 (see LAPTOP, September 2005) that the company finally perfected the SVGA budget projector. Now, with the PowerLite S4, Epson has refreshed the S3 by increasing the brightness, adding a few features, and slashing the price to one of the lowest we have seen.
In size, weight, and general appearance, the new silver-clad S4 is practically identical to its older brother. The main external difference is a handy and sturdy sliding lens cover, which not only is impossible to lose, but will also automatically put the projector into standby mode when closed. No doubt owing to this superior lens cover, the S4 weighs slightly more than the older model, tipping the scales at an easily luggable 5.7 pounds.
Like Sony, Epson tends to favor LCD technology over DLP chips. Thus, like other Epson projectors, the S4 exploits the superior color accuracy provided by the 3LCD image engines. However, the images suffer from somewhat diminished contrast and a noticeable grid-like appearance.
As with the older S3, Epson clearly had to cut some corners to keep the price down. For example, this model has no optical zoom lens and comes with only a short six-foot AC cable. Compare this with Dell's 1200MP, which offers a rich assortment of eight cables (including USB and component video) and a carrying case for about the same price. The S4 is one of the few projectors equipped with an extension cord-friendly two-prong plug.
The remote control presents an interesting counterbalance of features. Its relatively small size fits nicely in the hand yet accommodates almost all the buttons you need, including those required for navigating through a PowerPoint slide show. The bad news is that there is no laser pointer (instead, you can display an arrow on the screen and move it around awkwardly with a four-way tilt button). Those PowerPoint navigation buttons do not work until you purchase a USB cable and connect the projector to your PC.
Such as it is in these larcenous times, many S4 users will appreciate the S4's new theft-deterring password option. A key component of this feature is a prominent sticker advertising its presence.
In its default mode, the S4 was quite bright. We measured 1461 lumens, which while almost 20 percent below the 1800 claimed is good enough for almost all conference-room applications. In addition to the default Presentation color mode, the projector has five others. These modes let you tweak the color temperature for special applications, such as movies or games. The Dell 1200MP is brighter, at a claimed 2000 lumens, but because of its excellent colors, the S4 is better for photos or movies.
As with all LCD projectors, the S4 turned in a relatively low contrast ratio of 223:1 in our checkerboard test. This result is easily offset by two other factors: the huge image size (49 inches in diagonal at a screen distance of five feet) and the S4's extremely quick warm-up and cool-down times (12 seconds and 3 seconds, respectively).
In our subjective entertainment tests, the S4 did quite well. The screen-door effect that is common among LCD projectors was visible but just barely so. We noticed more flicker than usual on some half-tone grays, but full-motion video was quite smooth, even for 1080i HDTV signals. One fault, however, was the fan noise, which in standard-power mode might be a bit too loud for home-entertainment applications. Fortunately, the low-power mode drops the noise substantially yet dims brightness by only 23 percent.
The Epson PowerLite S4 comes with a relatively generous two-year warranty, twice as long as that on all other budget projectors. The replacement lamp is also inexpensively priced at $199 and is said to last 2,000 hours.
While the Epson S4 may lack some of the features of the similarly priced Dell 1200MP, we would still choose it for multimedia and leave the Dell to business applications.