Until now, that ability was found only in flat panels. Today, I’m checking out BenQ’s new i500 Smart Projector. It’s a DLP with an LED light engine, streaming apps and a built-in speaker. Add to that a lightweight portable chassis and you’ve got a potential winner for only $749.
BenQ i500 LED Smart Projector
- Portable DLP projector with long-life LED light engine
- Built-in speaker
- WiFi for streaming from multiple sources
- Smart app interface
- Short-throw lens
- 1280×800 resolution, accepts 1080p signals
These days it’s almost impossible to buy an HDTV without some sort of smart interface. Thanks to the vast amount of content that can be streamed from the Internet, one can literally watch television without connecting a source component. This has been a boon to those wishing to cut ties with their pricey cable and satellite providers. And network speeds have increased to the point where we can experience things like Ultra HD resolution and HDR without using physical media.
Native aspect ratio:
1280 x 800
Yes, Frame-sequential, Top/bottom, Side-by-side
5% fixed vertical, above axis
Light output (mfr):
1 x HDMI, 1 x VGA, 1 x stereo audio (3.5mm)
1 x stereo audio (3.5mm)
1 x USB
2 x 5 watts
Rated LED life:
20,000 hours ECO, 30,000 hours Normal
3.7" H x 8.5" W x 7.9" D
BenQ, BenQ i500, DLP, LED Projector, Projector Reviews, Projector Reviews 2016
It was only a matter of time until this level of convenience found its way to a projector. After all it’s only software and a few integrated circuits right? BenQ may very well have started a trend with its new i500 LED Smart Projector. This lightweight portable display sports some attractive features like an LED light-engine, short-throw lens and built-in streaming apps. You also get two internal speakers and lots of connection options both wired and wireless thanks to integrated WiFi. Does its performance match the impressive feature set? Let’s take a look.
Inside, the i500 sports a single DLP chip with 1280×800 pixels in a 16:10 native aspect ratio. 16:9 signals are displayed with bars on the top and bottom which can easily be zoomed off the screen. The short-throw lens means a 92-inch image can be projected from only 3’6” away. This makes it ideal for easy setup on a coffee table. The lens offset is fixed at five percent below the screen edge. There is no zoom or shift but you can use the auto-keystone feature to square the picture if the projector isn’t parallel to the screen. Just remember that this will reduce resolution. An extendable foot drops down in front if you need it and the rear feet can be used for leveling. One neat touch I noticed is the magnetic lens cover.
Light and compact is the name of the game here and i500 delivers on that count. Though I have seen smaller projectors, this one ranks among the smallest. Despite that, it packs a lot of features into its diminutive chassis. In addition to built-in WiFi there are two decent-sized speakers driven by five-watt amps. These can be used with Bluetooth sources as well through a simple pairing process initiated with a large button on top of the case.
The only other control here is a power toggle. Other functions must be accessed with the remote. You also get indicators for LED and high-temp warning. The Bluetooth speaker can pair with devices like phones or tablets to stream audio content.
There are similar vents on both sides of the i500. The fan is extremely quiet and the grills do not leak light. The dial adjusts lens focus. The small jack in the photo is for the external power supply brick which is finished in the same white as the projector. This removes a source of heat from the chassis as well as making the projector smaller and lighter.
The i500’s slick styling extends around back where you’ll find a metal grill finished in a gold color. The input cover is magnetic like the lens cap and reveals many connection options. You get HDMI, VGA, USB and an RJ45 port for wired Ethernet. The three 3.5mm audio jacks support input, output and a microphone.
The remote is small and thin with a membrane control surface. As such it is not backlit. You can’t really operate it by feel since all the buttons are the same. However, there aren’t that many of them so you’ll get comfortable pretty quickly. On top is an input toggle, screen blanker and the menu key. Volume keys follow and in the center is OSD navigation. At the bottom is return, home (for the smart interface), and a button for network setup options.
The i500 can be installed using both wired and wireless connections. The HDMI port supports 3D and resolutions up to 1080p with 24fps compatibility. You can also hook up a computer via the VGA port if you wish.
In lieu of traditional calibration controls, there are five picture modes. Bright, Vivid, Game and User all default to the projector’s native color gamut which is somewhat over-saturated in red and blue. Cinema comes pretty close to the Rec.709 gamut but its grayscale runs slightly cool and cannot be adjusted.
The OSD appears on the left side of the screen and is simple to navigate. Each icon has left and right arrows which changes the setting up or down. If you change the color temp preset, the projector automatically switches to User mode which means you’ll have to live with the larger native color gamut. After running the benchmarks, I settled on Cinema as the best preset for general viewing. There is a handy wall-color offset feature that can compensate when you project the image on common paint colors like yellow, blue, green and pink. OK maybe pink isn’t so common!
An additional menu accesses features like OSD language, test patterns, keystone correction, LED brightness, projector orientation and others. You can also reset the i500 to its factory defaults. Auto Source Search is handy for automatically locking onto active signals. It saves the user from toggling through unused inputs. If you use an analog source, a phase control can help correct any image distortion.
An additional menu (not shown) has 3D options for format and left/right swap. The i500 is compatible with any DLP-Link glasses. For my tests, I used a pair made by Xpand which you can buy online for around $30.
When you first turn the projector on, it runs you through a quick setup routine which includes connection to any WiFi routers it finds. I was able to link up to my home network without issue on the first attempt.
It can be tricky to evaluate a non-1080p display simply because that resolution is so commonplace that one rarely sees anything less. That being said, the i500 was extremely impressive-looking. I zoomed the image to fill my 92-inch Stewart screen and while there were a few clues to the lower resolution, the picture looked excellent for the most part. Here are a few specific examples.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is a great test of contrast for any projector. The transfer has some black crush issues and color can look drab at times. The i500 did an admirable job rendering muted shades and preserved detail in all but the darkest material. Pops of color appeared here and there such as Ilsa’s gold dress in the opera sequence which glittered mightily. I saw a little more film grain than I’ve seen on other projectors but at no time did the lower resolution become obvious. The scaling solution used here is quite good.
Furious 7 has lots of frenetic action that can sometimes cause motion blur on LCD and LCoS displays. The DLP engine used in the i500 had no problem keeping up however. Regardless of intensity, motion was always smoothly and accurately rendered. Resolution stayed solid and looked better than what I’ve seen from some more-expensive projectors and HDTVs.
Batman vs Superman, Dawn of Justice seems to take place mainly at night. There is a lot of highly-detailed dark material here and I saw some loss of information that is there in the original transfer. I suspect a few scenes have levels below digital 16; the i500 won’t render those in either RGB or YPbPr signal modes. It didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the film at all but I found some parts looked a little flat. As in the previous example, motion processing is fantastic with every action scene looking incredibly smooth and realistic.
The i500’s 3D quality depends largely on the material being shown. With so little light output available, it’s not an ideal candidate given its over-80-percent drop in brightness. I watched a number of scenes from The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey and Hugo. In both films, bright material looked fine with a deep 3D effect and no visible ghosting. Dark scenes lacked detail and looked generally murky. Your best bet will be CGI animated films which maintain a high brightness level throughout. The projector has a feature which changes the left-right sync of the glasses. I had to use this when watching The Hobbit to render foreground and background objects properly.
To access the i500’s smart interface, simply press the Home button on the remote. You’ll see icons representing the various apps which correspond to different content feeds. On the extreme left is an input selector which takes you back to any devices connected via HDMI, VGA or USB.
The apps don’t include any of the mainstream services like Netflix or Amazon but you do get Vimeo and Spotify in the default suite. You can download additional apps for ChefTV and other feeds. The software is fairly intuitive but navigation with the tiny remote can be time-consuming especially when typing with the on-screen keyboard. Video quality varies from good to poor depending on the feed and the amount of compression used. The projector does a good job with scaling and de-interlacing but you’ll never mistake these sources for a Blu-ray.
All grayscale, gamma and chroma readings are taken from the projector’s lens using an X-Rite i1Pro with the diffuser attachment. Contrast tests are performed with a Spectracal C6 tri-stimulus meter positioned at the lens axis and measuring from the screen at a 12-foot throw distance. This method provides an accurate picture of the contrast performance seen in a typical viewing environment.
My reference screen is a Stewart Filmscreen LuminEsse fixed-frame system configured with StudioTek 130 material. It has a gain of 1.3 and is 92 inches diagonal in size. Patterns come from an Accupel DVG-5000 signal generator and the whole procedure is controlled by CalMAN version 5. Color standards are Rec.709 with a white point of 6500 Kelvins. Gamma is compared to the BT.1886 spec or the 2.2 power function where appropriate.
A full calibration is not possible with the i500 but careful selection of picture modes and color temps yield a couple of choices that aren’t too far off the mark. As shipped, the projector comes set to its Vivid picture mode.
The first thing I’m seeing is near-perfect gamma. The i500 has relatively low contrast and this goes a long way to adding some depth and dimension back in. Grayscale runs a little cool though the errors are not too far above the visible threshold. This is excellent out-of-box performance, especially at this price point.
Cinema mode shows nearly identical results to Vivid. The main difference occurs in the color gamut measurement which I’ll show you below. Gamma is still right on the 2.2 mark and the average DeltaE values are about the same.
Changing the color temp preset to warm produces a little extra red which can be seen in brightness levels from 60 percent and up. Gamma is still right where it should be, which is a good thing. The only problem is that you’re forced into the User mode whenever you change the color temp setting. This results in a color shift which you’ll see in the next series of charts.
The i500 has a large native color gamut which offers quite a lot of bonus red and blue. This certainly adds makes the picture vivid but it can look cartoonish depending on content. Fortunately the 20-80 percent saturation levels are closer to their targets so only the brightest material is significantly affected. Color luminance is lowered somewhat to compensate and the resulting errors aren’t too high except in the blue primary.
The Cinema preset renders a gamut that’s pretty close to all the Rec.709 targets. There are some hue errors in magenta and yellow but they don’t impact image quality too much. Errors are just visible which to most viewers means the picture looks natural and correct. This is the preset where I did the majority of my movie-watching.
In the User mode, you can select a warmer color temp but you’re forced back to the over-saturated color gamut I found in Vivid. It represents something of a compromise. It also has the most obvious color errors of the three choices. After looking over all the charts, it seems that Cinema mode is the best choice for those who want an image that comes close to broadcast standards. Vivid and User are good when a little room light is present.
The i500 is designed for up-close viewing and works best in a near-dark or totally black room. To keep things consistent, I installed it about three feet back to fill my 92-inch screen from edge-to-edge. Given the test results, this is about as large an image as you’d want. Anything bigger will be too dim.
In the Cinema mode with the LED set to Normal power, I measured a peak white level of 15.1931fL, a minimum black of .0208fL and a contrast ratio of 729.6:1.
You can extend the LED light engine’s lifespan by 10,000 hours if you select the Eco mode. That results in a peak white level of 12.2687fL, a minimum black of .0169fL and a contrast ratio of 726:1.
The Vivid mode offers greater color saturation in red and blue but no more light output. Here the peak white is 15.3368fL, the black level is .021fL and the contrast ratio is 731.8:1.
The i500 supports 3D operation with DLP-Link glasses but I’d recommend sticking to bright content if you plan to use it this way. In this mode, peak output is 1.7804fL, the black level is .0032fL and the contrast ratio is 561.5:1. While this suggests an almost unwatchable picture, the 3D effect is clear and deep and looks pretty good when the material is bright. Dark scenes however lack detail and depth.
Since the i500 is not a native 1080p display, my resolution tests do not apply. It will accept a 1080p signal and it correctly processes 24fps content from Blu-ray discs. It aced all my de-interlacing tests and even locked onto the 2:2 pulldown clip within half-a-second. Furthermore, it passed the Mixed Content Vertical test which almost every display fails. Jaggies are kept to a minimum with an aggressive anti-aliasing algorithm. It can be seen as ringing on diagonal-line test patterns but in actual content, there is only minimal edge enhancement visible. Scaling of 1080p signals to the projector’s native 1280×800 resolution is exceptional with smooth pixel fill and no screen-door effect at a normal viewing distance.
THE BENQ I500 isn’t the only Sub-$1000 Portable on the Market but it is Unique in its Offering of an LED Light-engine and a Smart Interface to Pull In Streamed Content From the Internet. At $749 it’s a Compelling Value.
- Decent out-of-box color accuracy
- Perfect gamma tracking
- Good contrast
- Excellent scaling and video processing
- Compact and lightweight
- Solid build quality
- Great value
- 1080p resolution
- More light output
- Backlit remote
- More streaming services and apps
I’m a strong proponent of physical media, but I am also aware of the rising popularity of streamed content. Just as the iPod relegated CDs to the back seat of the car, it seems inevitable that the same thing will happen to video. To stay relevant, displays must accommodate that trend rather than fighting it. While I believe we’ll always have Blu-ray and future high-res/high-bitrate formats, streaming is something that is here to stay.
BenQ obviously agrees and is very timely with its introduction of the i500. While the interface I experienced lacks mainstream providers like Netflix and Amazon, it’s a good start. Obviously it can and will be expanded in the near future through additional apps.
As a display, the i500 performs well as a portable device that can be set up quickly and easily to create a large image. Even when projecting on a wall, it pumps out sufficient light to create an 80-inch picture that will provide quality entertainment to people on the road or for those who don’t have space for a big HDTV. Its short-throw lens and ideal offset make setup on a coffee table a breeze. And a small lightweight chassis means you can pack it up in an overnight bag and take it with you.
I appreciated nice touches like the magnetic lens and input panel covers. And one rarely sees metal trim on any projector, regardless of price. With decent out-of-box accuracy, no calibration is needed to enjoy a natural-looking picture with contrast that’s above-average at this price point.
For its value, innovation, solid build and image quality, I give the BenQ i500 a strong recommendation. If you’re shopping for a portable projector, this one should be on your short list.