Despite DLP technology heralding a new era of super-compact, ultra-light projectors, HP's Instant Cinema ep9012 is a beast. It looks like a giant turtle with an Apple-esque makeover and weighs so much you wouldn't risk putting it on the ceiling even if you could. Justification comes with the fact that this is no ordinary projector.
Beneath the five acres of white plastic shell the iTurtle houses a 800 x 600 pixel DLP engine, a built-in DVD player, a Dolby Digital amplifier with virtual sound processing and a couple of loudspeakers.
The concept of all-in-one projector systems isn't new. Relisys and Optoma have already beaten HP to it, and three or four new models have also been announced by other manufacturers at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year. There is obviously a market to be had.
In the case of the ep9012, the whole ensemble sits on an attached base incorporating an active subwoofer and is controlled by a smaller but similarly funky shaped remote control. The ep9012 aims to be the ultimate in plug-and-play big screen home cinema fun - just stick it on a table, add a DVD of your choice and press play... Well, almost.
For starters you're going to need a booster cushion on the sofa just to see over the top of it, and its sheer mass generates a gravitational field that attracts stray popcorn kernels.
The remote control, despite its neat style, is a complete pain to hang on to, and more often than not ends up careering across the room like a frisbee when you go for the play button. It's so small it's bound to be lost down the back of the sofa within days, and its pearly white finish will probably confuse the dog into thinking it's a nice crunchy bone. Mmm.
Compared to Optoma's all-in-one home cinema projector, the MovieTime DV10, the bulk and ugly styling of the HP is all the more disappointing. Although inevitably large, the MovieTime is slicker, more stylish, and doesn't look like a fruit blender. Unfortunately the MovieTime isn't sold in the UK.
At least connectivity is rather good, with a full suite including a DVI input and co-axial digital output, but the ep9012's overall versatility is severely hamstrung by its own design. The DVD mechanism is a drawer rather than a slot-loader so it can't be turned over and put on the ceiling, nor is there the software to flip the picture even if you don't want to use the DVD player.
The focus and zoom rings are stiff and awkward to use with grown-up fingers, it's staunchly Region 2 and there is no horizontal keystone adjustment that would have allowed the beast to be placed to the side of the room rather than slap bang in the middle blocking the view. There is a 'hide' button on the control panel and remote, but sadly neither of them makes this behemoth slip gracefully from view. Powered up, the big and bold theme continues unabashed.
The image is immediately bright, colourful and vivid, the on-screen menus are clear and intuitive and the sound is by far and away the most potent of any projector on the market. The latter is just as well because the fan noise is very intrusive compared to recent models from the likes of Optoma.
The ep9012 just loves high contrast high colour films like Taxi and the image has excellent depth of field thanks to good black levels and very bright peak whites. The DLP colour wheel has no clear segment so colour saturation and intensity are very high - almost to a fault.
On anything but the 'cool' picture mode flesh tones have a rather flushed complexion. The potent 210-Watt lamp does a fine job of keeping the brightness levels high enough to use in moderately lit rooms. It also keeps the cabinet rather warm so you have something to huddle around on cold winter evenings too.
On the downside, the native 4:3 DLP chipset is cropped heavily top and bottom when viewing widescreen material - losing some 30 per cent of the horizontal resolution. The effect is markedly reduced detail, exacerbated by the HP's otherwise decent lens and sharp picture which simply highlight the deficiency.
Picture noise is generally good (low) but there is odd instability on moving images quite unlike what we have witnessed on any DLP video device before. It creates a slight screen mask over turning heads and moving portions of the image that rob the overall picture of the naturalness of the very best projectors.
Using the internal DVD player the sound is surprisingly good with airy spatial effects spread around the room and, for a projector at least, superb bass. The virtual surround processing doesn't exactly lock the dialogue to screen but it's clear and crisp with plenty of character.
Likewise, the sub won't rattle your fillings during action scenes but it does add a good sense of scale and presence to any movie - way better than most flat panel TVs you can get on the high street, for example. The effect is particularly good if you hook up a games console to the AV inputs - turning even the most mundane of games into loud, proud big screen mayhem. Superb fun.
The Instant Cinema concept is good and there surely exists a niche market of people looking for a one-box solution to pull out for a quick fix of big screen movies or games - a role in which the ep9012 excels. But as a home cinema projector per se it's simply too big and too inflexible for greatness, and as a surround sound system it creates nothing but a pastiche of a real 5.1 set up. A tricky product to rate. The final word went to the ep9012 itself:
After just two hours of use the heat from the lamp got the better of the noisy fan and the whole machine overheated, tripped out and refused to come back on until the following morning. We hadn't even finished watching the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. Not a happy turtle at all.