Projector Reviews

Other Classroom Projectors Considered – Interactive and UST Projectors 2

Our last two projectors consist of another Epson projector – this one, the Powerlite 680 is a UST but not fully interactive, and the other, the Optoma UST projector, the ZW300UST  offers a  solid state laser light engine.  There is an interactive version of the Optoma – the ZW300USTi, but we have not reviewed it.

When I say “not fully interactive,” I’m referring to the fact that these days, virtually every projector offers at least some interactive features. MHL, for example typically allows interactivity through an app, that might allow students to interactively add text or graphics to a projected image from their phones and tablets.

We wish to thank Epson America for sponsoring this year’s Best Classroom Projectors report.

Epson Powerlite 680

For the most part, there’s little difference between an ultra short throw interactive projector and the same company’s ultra short throw – non-interactive projector, other than the interactive features.  That is, an interactive projector is rarely a whole lot more than a UST with the added abilities such as annotating and control  with pens or finger tip.

That’s always been true of the Epson UST’s and Interactive projectors.  This Epson UST projector looks and cooks like the 696UI above, but, it lacks the pens and finger touch, but does have MHL for mobile devices on one of its HDMI inputs, doing basic interactivity using a tablet, phone, etc.  It also lacks other interactive advanced features such as collaboration, built in electronic white boarding (but can be done with mobile apps).

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The 3500 lumen (white and color) Powerlite 680 is by far the least expensive of the four projectors in this “class”, thanks only in part to being XGA. One of Epson’s two WXGA versions, the Powerlite 675, is only $30 more, (although it has only 3200 lumens.) Their 685 costs $180 more and is WGA and the same 3500 lumens as the 680. The two  other UST projectors considered here, the Casio and the Optoma (below) have solid state light engines which make them dramatically more expensive, although, in fairness, the Optoma is WUXGA resolution.

Epson’s official UMAP (selling) price for the Powerlite 680 is $1160 US, but only $910 through Epson’s Brighter Futures program. (the Powerlite 685 is $1190 and $940 respectively).   The 5000 hour lamp (rated at full power), claims up to 10,000 hours in Eco mode!  With the replacement lamp costing schools only $49, that wipes out most of the cost of operation savings advantage of the solid state competition – in this case the other two USTs in this section.  The filter is designed to last about 5000 hours as well, keeping maintenance to a minimum.

Powerlite 680 UST projector
The well endowed Epson PowerLite 680 is equipped with all the inputs and connectors necessary for business and education applications, including a microphone input!

The Powerlite 680 is loaded with inputs and connectors. There are even three HDMI inputs (HDMI3 supports MHL for mobile).  Tons of audio inputs (and out), analog computer and component support, USB ports LAN, with Crestron RoomView support, etc. for advanced networking features, and a feature I think more projectors should offer, a microphone input.  BTW you can use the mic input/amplifier and the Epson’s speaker system, for audio only, without powering up the light engine (a nice touch!) Finally, Epson has their usual suite of software and apps allowing one projector to work with over 30 computers and devices across a network – displaying any of them.  Great for projecting from students computers, and other devices.

The picture quality is, as is typical from Epson 3LCD projectors – well balanced – sure there’s the usual overly green Dynamic mode (the brightest mode) but the others are all good to great.  And there’s DICOM Sim for the medical and scientific community.  Epson and other 3LCD manufacturers claim the same number of color as white lumens (we confirmed that long ago in a video, and Ron, again confirmed in a review earlier this year.  That means better color and overall picture quality, without sacrificing near as many lumens as single chip DLP projectors do, to achieve the best possible picture.

Sharpness – for an XGA projector is excellent, any limitations are really the projector’s inherent resolution, rather than it’s ability to process and project.  The image sharp, almost edge to edge – impressive for a UST projector.  Sound quality from the single 16 watt speaker is good, less tinny than many, but, no surprise, there’s almost no real bass, true of just about any projector with speakers.

3D, as is typical, is not to be found on most 3LCD projectors (except home theater types). The Powerlite 680 is no exception.  If you need 3D, look elsewhere, including the Optoma ZW300UST below.

Although not quite as power efficient as the two solid state projectors discussed, it’s reasonably close, as 3LCD projectors of a given brightness need less powerful light sources than DLP projectors (which the other two are).

Epson of course offers a wall mount.  Wireless is an optional $99 module that plugs right in, near the filter system.

I suspect the Powerlite 675 and 685, the two WXGA models, will easily outsell this XGA (generally, widescreen make more sense with UST projectors).  BTW, Epson shows a total of 11 different UST and Interactive projectors on their Education pricing page!  The Powerlite 680, however, is one of the least expensive, yet extremely capable.

Optoma ZW300UST

Optoma’s DLP powered ZW300UST projector is a UST projector with WXGA resolution (1280×800).  It claims 3200 lumens.  This Optoma relies on a laser light engine, which for those of you who previously read about Sony’s “first affordable” laser projectors, well, Sony, Optoma here offers a laser engine projector with the same resolution as the WXGA Sony, but of course, this is a UST projector so they really aren’t competition.  Further this Optoma is 3200 lumens and DLP  vs. the Sony’s 5000 lumens and 3LCD.  Still, we didn’t want you to think only Sony makes “affordable” lasers.  Seems Optoma got there first.

Optoma has done a great job with the ZW300UST which has a street price of $1799.  As mentioned earlier of you would like finger touch interactivity, Optoma offers the ZW300USTi version.  That one sells for about $200 more in the US.  Optoma optionally offers their own wireless HDMI system as well.

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When reviewing the Optoma, Nikki had three other projectors there for comparison, including the Casio on the previous page.  She was especially impressed with the color, and the sharpness.  Two of the other projectors were WXGA, and she preferred the image sharpness of the ZW300UST.

Sound was also impressive with the two 10 watt speakers being better balanced and less tinny than most.  Of course, there’s very little real bass, which is typical of projectors.

Nikki also felt that the Optoma was brighter, and cut through ambient light more easily than the Casio which claims to be 300 lumens brighter.  That may be the laser light engine helping out, as laser phosphor light engines provide a wider color gamut, and can therefore do richer colors.

The ZW300UST is pretty well endowed.  Two HDMIs, one with MHL for mobile devices for streaming, etc.  Two USBs. There’s a computer input and output, and a separate component video, and plenty of audio, including an audio out.  I like very much that it has a mic input.

It is surprisingly light for a bright laser projector – weighing in at only 12.3 pounds! And, it has a footprint significantly smaller than most of the competition.  Warranty is excellent.  3 years parts and labor with rapid replacement program, plus 5 years or 20,000 hour (which ever comes first) on the laser light engine.  Yup, excellent!

One important feature that Optoma did very well is the built in media player.  It allows for PC free presenting, and it does it right.  I don’t think I’ve seen another projector (unless an Optoma) that supports as many video, photo, and audio formats.  That’s great.  Better still, unlike many competitors with media players, the ZW300UST’s is Microsoft Office compliant, which means you can project directly from Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc. files.  Just load your images, video, audio, or Office files onto a USB and plug it in.

This Optoma is likely going to cost  $500-$700  more than the Epson 680 above, for schools.  But then this is laser vs. lamp projector, in terms of long term costs and other trade-offs.

PS  The EH320USTi, from a previous series of Optoma interactive UST projectors was reviewed, and covered in last year’s report.