BenQ PE8700 DLP video projector

The PE8700 DLP projector from BenQ has to qualify as the surprise product of early 2004. The first surprise is that it's made by a company I'd barely heard of before late last year. But with a claimed 13,000 employees worldwide, BenQ isn't exactly small. Its main corporate headquarters are in Taiwan, where the PE8700 is built.

The second surprise is the PE8700's current price, but there's a reason for that. At the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show, BenQ announced its replacement. The new model, called the PE8700+, will include Texas Instruments' HD2+ chip and should be available by the time you read this. But it will sell for $7995, and at an appealing closeout price of $6000 (originally, $7999—and we've seen it online for as little as $4300), the PE8700 is a projector you need to know about.

A Look Inside
There's nothing unusual in the PE8700's layout or features: manual zoom and focus, no lens shift, a good illuminated remote, and the usual lineup of video controls and housekeeping functions via onscreen displays. The lens throw is short (at its widest, about a foot for each 8 inches of screen width). The noise from the two-speed fan can be a little annoying, though I rarely noticed it when the sound was on. A software fix reportedly solves this problem, but we didn't receive the change in time to check it out.

Two sets of inputs on the PE8700 accept component sources. The standard component input (with RCA jacks) will accept only 480i. A second set of jacks (BNCs) provides the so-called RGB/HDTV input, which will accept a wide variety of input resolutions. The standard component and DVI inputs will display below black when you advance the Brightness control, but the RGB/HDTV input, as delivered, will not, except with a 480i source. Decreasing the Sub-Brightness control (in the service menu) for the HD input by 10 steps brought below black to a useful level. Below black aids in calibrating the picture, though it should not be visible once the projector is properly set up.

At least a half dozen times during my testing, the PE8700's lamp went out, the red LED on the top of the case started flashing, and the projector refused to respond to any controls—either on the remote or on the projector. On several occasions, it also lost its lock on the signal source. The only consistent fix for both of these problems was to shut down the projector then turn it back on. For the last 75 hours of use as I write this, however, neither of these problems has recurred. A second sample of the projector responded sluggishly to the controls, but otherwise worked fine.

Online discussion groups have reported a few similar issues, but they also report that BenQ apprears to respond quickly to owners experiencing problems, sometimes even replacing faulty units with new ones.

The BenQ also locked into the anamorphic stretch mode with either 480p or DVI inputs. It will not fill the width of the screen (non-enhanced) with widescreen programing without distortion unless you feed it a 480i source, or have one of the few DVD players that can pre-squeeze the image.

On my 80-inch-wide, 16:9 Stewart FireHawk screen, the BenQ, like most of the HD2 and HD2+ DLP projectors I've seen, did a more than respectable job of keeping dark scenes dark and retaining the sense of depth in brighter scenes. Program material with a lot of dim scenes—Taken, Signs, any of the Lord of the Rings films, etc.—didn't look as good as it can from more expensive projectors (HD2+ DLPs or, in particular, CRTs). But only rarely did it look murky (example: the below-deck scenes in the first few minutes of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) or washed-out.

More well-lit films sparkled on the PE8700. Its colors were natural and believable before calibration, and even better afterward. Shakespeare in Love popped from the screen, and Seabiscuit was a pleasure to watch (apart from greens that looked a bit too vivid and electric). I also found that a DVI link to the projector from V, Inc.'s modest Bravo D1 DVD player slightly outperformed the component connection from much more expensive players. And those ever-annoying rainbows? I did see them on this projector, but they were tolerable.

High-definition also looked excellent on the BenQ. Whether the programming was CSI, Miami, the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, or a good film on D-VHS, I never felt shortchanged.

That is, until I hooked up a better projector. For example, Sharp's new XV-Z12000, with HD2+, has more setup adjustments, more flexible operation (two lamp settings, a three-position iris, lens shift, a longer throw), still better blacks, slightly better color, and a sharper picture. But it also comes with a price tag twice that of the BenQ—or more. And the BenQ did have the slightly greater peak light output when both projectors were set up to produce their best images. (The Sharp won the candlepower race in its High Brightness mode, but at a loss of contrast.)

With performance and price given equal weight, the BenQ PE8700 was the most impressive video projector of any type I've yet had in my home theater—a number that now stands at 25 and counting. How one weighs the variables in the BenQ equation—which includes the quality-control issues mentioned above, praiseworthy customer support, genuinely eye-pleasing performance, and a bargain price—is an exercise that must be left to the individual buyer. But a single figure might sum up what I thought of the PE8700 overall: the more than 200 hours I spent watching it.