It's not often that we are left speechless. But the silence was truly deafening as we unpacked Viewsonic's PJ400. The reason? Oh, just the small matter of it having the smallest price tag - by a country mile - of any projector we've seen. We've come across the odd model that sneaks under the £1,000 mark. Yet the LCD-based PJ400 costs almost HALF that. Blimey.
Hip to be square?
The PJ400 does look a bit cheap. Its rectangular styling and grey colour scheme are straight out of the 'no-frills' handbook. At least its petite size gives it an element of cuteness.
Connections are in rather short supply. The least surprising disappointment is the absence of digital inputs. Sky high-definition and digital feeds from DVI/HDMIequipped DVD players are therefore not on the menu. More surprising is the lack of component inputs. But thankfully, you can get analogue high-def and progressive scan pictures in via the 15-pin D-Sub PC jack - with a component-to-VGA adaptor. Or you can stick with standard resolutions via S-video and composite video options.
Setting the PJ400 up is an absolute doddle - even a novice should have a focussed picture in a couple of minutes. However, during setup we found a couple of disappointments. First, the projector's LCD panels are 4:3 ratio, meaning that widescreen only uses a portion of the full available pixel spread.
Second, the only zoom available is a digital one, meaning that shrinking the picture to fit your screen costs you some of the full panel resolution. This is upsetting, since there isn't much resolution available in the first place! Just 800 x 600 pixels. And that's not the only alarming stat, as the quoted contrast ratio for the PJ400 is just 300:1. Let's hope this figure is down to an overly honest Viewsonic measuring system!
Features at your disposal in the helpfully organised on-screen menus include a Cinema preset (proving that Viewsonic definitely sees the PJ400 as having movie as well as PC potential), a whisper mode to reduce brightness and fan noise, gamma presets, progressive scan modes and a lengthy list of fine tuning widgets available via a PC.
Unfortunately, however, you could spend days messing around with all the PJ400's tweaks and still not end up with a perfect picture. To start with, contrast doesn't fare much better than the quoted figure suggests. During a run-through of Minority Report, the scenes set in the Precogs' room, with its darkened walls and minimal lighting, are all but obscured by the dreaded grey mist effect that poor-contrast projectors leave in place of black level. And sadly, reducing the bulb brightness doesn't really improve matters.
Another problem is the PJ400's inability to handle subtle colour blends correctly. Instead of smooth progressions, subtle colour transitions appear as noisy, glowing bands that fail to integrate into the rest of the picture.
Of course, the contrast and colour problems don't exactly do any favours for the PJ400's general colour handling. On the rare occasions that bright colours appear in Minority Report, such as during Cruise's flashbacks to the day his son was abducted, they look disappointingly drab and muted. Furthermore, more subtle colours, especially skin tones, usually take on an unnatural hue that makes all the movie's stars look like they've gone down with Montezuma's revenge.
There are some positives from the PJ400 experience, however. Its detail levels are reasonable. And there's much less evidence of LCD's chicken-wire effect (visible LCD panel structure) than we would have expected.
At the end of the day, £599 is an absolute steal for big-screen thrills - even in the year when projector prices hit rock bottom! However, there are problems with this model, so you should consider carefully if it's worth the saving.