This projector buying guide covers all you need to know
Projector brightness is rated in ANSI lumens, and most projectors range from 700 to 5,000 lumens, with a higher lumen count meaning a brighter picture. Brightness affects how well you can see the projected image in your environment. The more ambient light a room has, the brighter your projector needs to be to compensate. Otherwise, the image will look washed out and barely visible. The ideal room setting for a projector is perfectly dark, where even a low brightness projector can produce a brilliant image.
If you don’t know how bright of a projector you need, the general rule of thumb is to purchase the brightest one in your budget and reduce the brightness as needed. Since a projector’s brightness is tied to its price, one trick to lowering costs on the projector is to reduce the amount of ambient light in the room.
Contrast ratio is the difference between the brightest and darkest light levels of a projector. If you care about high quality shadows and rich black levels, you need a high contrast ratio. But anything lower than optimal viewing conditions will reduce contrast ratio, potentially causing the image to look washed out no matter how high the listed contrast ratio. Make sure you can get optimal viewing conditions before buying a projector with a very high contrast ratio.
Projectors range in resolution from as low as 800 × 600 for business models, to 4K for theater use. Most home theater projectors tend to support full HD 1080p natively. For displaying PowerPoint presentations, multimedia, and web pages, a 720p-capable projector will do fine. Only consider a 1080p model if you plan to display HD movies.
When a projector isn’t mounted properly—too low to the ground or too close to the ceiling— the projected image will appear as an odd trapezoid (keystone) rather than a perfect square or rectangle. Most projectors can correct for this effect to a point, using what’s called keystone correction.
Keystone correction is done on the software level, like digital zoom on a DSLR camera. And like digital zoom, image quality deteriorates as more correction is applied. If you cannot adjust the positioning of your screen and projector, you’ll want to get a model with good keystone correction or lens shift—more on that below.
The lens shift feature on a projector allows you to physically move the projection lens to correct for sub-optimal mounting. Think of it as keystone correction but with no loss of image quality due to software calculations. Not all projectors have the same level of lens shift. Some can only shift either vertical or horizontal, higher-end models can do both. Some may not even have lens shift capability.
Throw Ratio and Throw Distance
Want to know where to place your projector? Or maybe you have a mount already installed and need to find a projector that works for the placement? In both cases, you should check throw ratio and throw distance.
Throw distance – How far the projector lens is from the screen.
Screen width – The width of the projected image.
Throw ratio – Ratio between the throw distance and screen width.
Throw ratio boils down to how wide a projected image will be at a specific distance between the projector and screen. On a projector with a throw ratio of 2:1, the projector needs to be twice as far from a screen as it is wide. So in order to display 10 foot wide image, this hypothetical 2:1 projector needs to be 20 feet away.
Knowing the throw ratio and throw distance lets you know if a projector will be a good fit for your room and where you need to place it for optimal viewing conditions.
Another consideration is the type of imaging you want in your projector. Most projectors are LCD, LCoS, or DLP.
Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) – LCD projectors tend to last longer as there are no moving parts, but you may notice a “screen door” effect when projecting large images. This is best explained as black lines between pixels, thus creating the illusion of viewing the image through a screen door.
Digital Light Processing (DLP) – Less of the screen door effect but the trade-off is reliability. DLP projectors utilize spinning color wheels that will eventually fail and require replacement.
Liquid Crystal on Silicone (LCoS) – A hybrid of LCD and DLP, the screen door effect is minimal and contrast ratios are very good. You’ll find LCoS mainly on high-end projectors.
Most projectors have HDMI, VGA, and component connectors, which should fit the needs of anyone connecting their projectors to a computer or other video device. Additional connectivity options include DisplayPort, S-Video, and composite.
When purchasing a projector, ensure that it supports the connectivity options that you need. Some models also come equipped with USB ports for connection to a computer or flash drive. In the latter case, you can use the projector for PC-free presentations.
Aside from whether a projector uses LCD or DLP for imaging, you should also consider the light source it uses. It can be either a lamp, LED, or laser.
Lamp – The traditional metal halide projector lamp has been a standard for years and in many affordable projectors. Lamps have bright light output but unfortunately have limited lifespans. Expect to replace the lamp after 3000 – 4000 hours.
LED – LEDs last several times longer than metal halide lamps and offer better color as well. Due to their small size, you’ll see LEDs used often in pico projectors. Another advantage is that LED projectors power up very quickly and often do not have fans.
Laser – Uncommon, but laser projectors offer excellent brightness levels with very low energy consumption. In addition, laser projectors have better contrast ratios and wider color gamut.
The type of projector you choose should match your intended use. You may not find a complete system defining projector types, there are some generally accepted classifications. How a projector is classified will impact what its best uses are and whether it fits your needs.
A Pico is a small portable type of projector that you can hold in one hand, also known as a Pocket Projector. A good addition for mobile presentations and requires little space to accommodate. Many are battery powered and can produce images with sufficient quality for PowerPoint presentations.
Home theater projectors generally don’t have brightness levels as high as business projectors because they’re supposed to be used in environments with nearly no ambient light. They are generally 1080p, with HDMI for video connectivity.
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