Epson EF-100 review: Lasers, compact size and built-in Netflix – CNET

The Epson EF-100 is a different kind of projector. It’s not exactly at home in a traditional theater setup, mounted to the ceiling and projecting on a permanent screen — although you can if you want. Instead, Epson sees this projector as something you fit wherever there’s a power outlet, whenever you want big-screen entertainment. A backyard, for instance, or shining on the ceiling when you’re in bed. It’s small and designed to work in any position, including on its side or back. But that’s just the beginning.

Like

  • Laser light engine means no bulbs to replace.
  • Bright image in a compact size.
  • Included Android TV streaming stick.

Don’t Like

  • Poor contrast and black level.
  • Only 720p resolution (technically 1,280×800).
  • No zoom.

My favorite part: lasers! Instead of a traditional projector lamp the EF-100 uses a laser light source, one of the only available at this price. The main benefit, aside from sweet, sweet bragging rights, is never having to replace the projector lamp. Another cool feature is the included Android TV-powered streaming stick, sort of like a Roku or Fire TV Stick ($40 at Amazon), which lets you wirelessly stream any content you want and tucks away invisibly inside a cozy little compartment.

In my comparisons with more traditional projectors like the BenQ HT2050A and Epson’s own Home Cinema 2150, the EF-100 turned in picture quality that’s a bit of a mixed bag. It was bright but lacked the punchy contrast or high resolution home theater aficionados crave. The price is a bit steep but not outrageously so at $900 (about £725 or AU$1,700). The end result isn’t the best picture for the money, but instead a beautifully designed little projector with some unique qualities you can’t find anywhere else.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Basic specs

  • Native resolution: 720p (1,280×800)
  • HDR-compatible: No
  • 4K-compatible: No
  • 3D-compatible: No
  • Lumens spec: 2,000
  • Zoom: No
  • Lens shift: No
  • Light source life (Normal mode): 12,000 hours

The EF-100 comes in your choice of white, which I reviewed, or black with gold accents, and the design is a notch or three above other projectors with a pleasing, compact shape and textured finish. It measures 8.3 by 9.1 by 3.6 inches (WxDxH) and weighs just six pounds. It’s easy to tote around, but sadly, Epson doesn’t offer a battery-powered option.

Many of the EF-100’s hardware specs fall short of other projectors in its price range. Forget about HDR or 4K, it’s not even 1080p. Resolution is just slightly higher than 720p at 1,280×800. With larger image sizes, or close seating distances, you’re far more likely to see pixels than with a 1080p projector. 

Not only is there no lens shift, there’s no zoom either. Epson doesn’t expect you’ll permanently mount the EF-100, so if you want a bigger or smaller image, you can just move it farther or closer (respectively) to the screen, wall or ceiling. 

Epson claims 2,000 lumens of brightness. I measured approximately 1,482. It’s normal for a projector to measure less than its claimed specs. This is close to the light output of other projectors in its price range. The Epson Home Cinema 2150 ($699 at Amazon) put out around 1,620 lumens when I measured it, for instance.

Unlike nearly all projectors in this price range, the EF-100 does not have a UHP (ultra high pressure) lamp. Instead, it has what Epson calls a MicroLaser Array Projection Technology. It’s a scaled-down version of the laser light engine the company uses in the high-end Pro L1100U and L1060U projectors today, and which originally appeared in the LS10000 in 2015. In the YouTube video above, shot by CNET’s David Katzmaier during an Epson press event, a company rep shows off the tech using a special demo EF-100 with a transparent case.

Far brighter than the LEDs used by many cheap projectors these days, the laser engine has one of the key benefits of LED: long life. In Normal mode, Epson claims a light source life of 12,000 hours. In Extended mode, that balloons up to 20,000 hours. If you watch this projector for 4 hours a day, that means the light source should last for nearly 14 years. By comparison Epson claims 4,500 to 7,500 hours for the HC2150 and replacement lamps for that projector cost around $60.

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Connectivity and convenience

  • HDMI inputs: 1
  • PC input: No
  • USB port: 1 (2 A power)
  • Audio input and output: 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Digital audio output: No
  • LAN port: No
  • 12v trigger: No
  • RS-232 remote port: No
  • MHL: No
  • Remote: Not backlit

There’s only one HDMI input on the EF-100, and it’s typically occupied by the included media streamer stick. You can remove the stick to connect other devices, but a second HDMI would have been nice. The input (and the streaming stick) can be covered by a rear panel for a slick, finished look.

The projector’s primary USB port supplies enough power for the included streaming stick or for a Roku or Amazon Fire Stick if you want to use one of those instead. The other USB port is for service only. 

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Oddly, the projector comes with two remotes, a fact I didn’t realize at first. My confusion led to a not entirely unembarrassing video call with Epson about why I couldn’t get the remote to work. Turns out that one remote controls the streaming stick only, while the main remote controls the stick and the projector. They look very similar and have similar buttons. You won’t need the stick-only remote at all unless you want to use the streaming stick with a different TV or projector.

During setup you’re asked to pair the main remote, which is partially Bluetooth and partially IR (infrared). If the remote in your hand doesn’t exactly match the image shown on the on-screen setup, you’ve got the wrong one. Double-check the Russian doll boxes-within-boxes that package the projector and accessories. The remote I needed, the main one that actually controls the projector, was hidden inside a box that held something else.

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Picture quality comparisons

I compared the EF-100 to another Epson, the Home Cinema 2150, and the DLP-based BenQ HT2050A. Each of these projectors is slightly cheaper than the EF-100, quite a bit larger and designed more for a traditional home theater setup. I connected everything via a Monoprice 1×4 distribution amplifier and compared the three on a 102-inch, 1.0-gain screen.  

Light output is quite similar, despite the EF-100’s much smaller size. The BenQ and Epson 2150 both measured around 1,600 lumens, while the EF-100 measured just under 1,500. That’s not a difference I could really see on-screen. 

The biggest difference I could see was black level (how dark “black” is) and by extension, the contrast ratio. The BenQ had the lowest black level, and therefore the highest contrast ratio, by far. It’s about 40% better than the 2150. The EF-100’s black level is way worse than either one, creating a measured contrast ratio of around 315:1. Video quality nerds: that’s not a typo. The black level is very high, so the contrast ratio is that low. 

In practice that means the EF-100’s image doesn’t have nearly as much apparent depth as even the 2150, and much less than the BenQ. The blacks and shadows are grayish, never really “black.” 

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A good example was the Battle of Scarif at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Neither Epson has a “good” black level. The black bars on the screen, as well as the background of space during the battle scenes above the planet, are far more dark gray than black. However, there’s an edge towards the 2150, which doesn’t seem quite so flat. Both are shown up by the BenQ, which has noticeably darker blacks.  

Is this really a big issue? Well, normally I’d say yes. However, given how Epson expects you to use the EF-100 on ad hoc screens like walls, ceilings, etc, I think that its brightness will be the main benefit here. The high black level, while noticeable on a traditional screen, will be less noticeable on a wall. 

Then there’s the color. Looking at the EF-100’s image, by itself on a screen, it looks quite colorful. It doesn’t look very natural, but it doesn’t look bad. It never looks cartoony or artificial either. Compared to the BenQ and 2150, however, every color is less accurate on the EF-100. Using the same scene from Rogue One, blue colors like the water and sky on Scarif look a little more purple on the EF-100, while the palm trees and other greenery look a bit more yellow.  

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Fan noise from the EF-100 is comparable to other projectors. Though it uses a different light creation system (lasers!), those still generate a lot of heat, and that heat is expelled from the case via small fans, just like other small projectors. If you turn down the light output, the fan noise drops. So if you’re watching in a dark, quiet room, you can make the projector a little quieter.

I found the included media streamer a little slower than, say, a Roku Streaming Stick Plus, but it generally works fine. However, one thing it did that I’ve never seen a Roku do is restart while I was watching something, just to install an Android update. (Who made this thing, Microsoft?) At least it has access to HBO Max, unlike Roku and Amazon.

The low resolution may or may not be an issue for you. As the image gets larger, the pixels get larger, and depending on how far away from the screen you’re sitting, and how good your eyesight is, you may or may not see the faint grid of individual pixels. Side-by-side on my 102-inch screen, sitting about 10 feet away, I could see the pixels on the EF-100, whereas on the HC2150, which has real 1080p resolution, I could not.

If you can’t see the space between the pixels, either you’re far enough away or the image is small enough relative to how closely you’re sitting. The image does look more detailed than you’d expect based on the numbers alone. That said, it’s disappointing that it isn’t higher resolution. 

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Conclusion: Who is this thing really for?

I’m a bit torn when it comes to the EF-100. I love the design, the image it creates is bright and colorful, and I’m a sucker for lasers of any kind. But I can’t help but feel it’s a bit expensive for what it is. Both the HC2150 and the HT2050A offer better performance and similar functionality. You can’t as easily place either of them in weird random places and angles to get an image, so that’s one thing in the EF-100’s favor. I just can’t help but feel that in 2020, a $900 720p projector (OK, 800p) seems a bit of a step back, despite its many other technical advancements. 

So who is this really for? Well, if you’re looking for a projector to occasionally show some streaming content, perhaps to less-picky mini-humans who just want endless Paw Patrol and Spongebob on their ceiling, or for an ultrasimple movie night in the backyard, the EF-100 will work great, which in the end, seems like what it was designed for in the first place.

Geek box

TestResultScore
Black luminance (0%)0.521Poor
Peak white luminance (100%)164.6Average
Derived lumens1482Average
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)5.005Average
Dark gray error (20%)3.099Average
Bright gray error (70%)6.249Average
Avg. color error6.438Average
Red error8.734Poor
Green error9.447Poor
Blue error8.587Poor
Cyan error5.772Average
Magenta error0.849Good
Yellow error5.241Average
Avg. saturations error1.84Good
Avg. color checker error2.5Good
Input lag (Game mode)39.8Good

Measurement notes

Before calibration, the EF-100’s most accurate picture setting was Cinema and it was decent, with a grayscale somewhat cooler than D65 with darker images, and much cooler with bright images. Gamma was around 2.1. You can adjust the color temperature to be fairly close to D65, but the darkest, near-black images lack red. Generally speaking, the color accuracy isn’t very accurate, though colors aren’t so far off they look cartoonish. I was unable to adjust them to be more accurate, despite an extensive CMS. You can change the colors, but not improve them very much. 

There is no iris on the EF-100. The laser light source is adjustable from 50% brightness to 100%. This is actually a fairly accurate description of the actual light output, with 50% being roughly 52% dimmer than 100%. The average contrast ratio is a very low 315:1, the average in this price range being well over 1,000:1, and the best at least twice that. A Dynamic Contrast mode, which tracks the average picture level, keeps the brightest light output of the 100% mode and pairs it with the darkest blacks possible in the 50% mode depending on how bright the image is supposed to be in what you’re watching. However, this merely doubles the contrast ratio to around 690:1, and again, only does that across different scenes. A single image still only has a contrast ratio of around 315:1. 

Picture mode: Cinema

Expert settings:

  • Brightness: 49
  • Contrast: 52
  • Sharpness: 5
  • Gamma: 0
  • Epson Super White: Off
  • Color saturation: 52
  • Tint (G/R): 50
  • Color temp.: 4
  • Noise reduction: 4
  • MPEG noise reduction: Low

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