The Ultimate Projector Buying Guide

Say goodbye to the tube once and for all

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The humble TV is getting better every year, but there are still plenty of advantages to choosing a projector over a TV for your home theater needs. For starters, you might want a larger screen for those truly immersive experiences — or you might want something that you can easily move as you need to.

Simply deciding to buy a projector over a TV, however, is only step one. There are a ton of projectors to choose from, and they all offer slightly different features. Some of those features might be important to you — while others less important.

For starters, you’ll want to think about the general type of projector you’re interested in. There are a few types (DLP, LCoS, LCD, etc.), and the type can have a significant effect on quality and on price.

Then, you’ll want to consider the scope of various features available on projectors. For example, you’ll need to make sure the projector has the inputs you need or wireless support if you're looking to cut the cord. Things such as maximum screen size and pixel density are also important considerations, and they’ll directly affect your viewing experience, too.

Because there are so many things to consider when buying a new projector, we’ve put this guide together to help you out. So keep reading to get the full scoop when it comes to shopping for one and enjoy your Netflix binges even more.

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Types of Projectors: Which Is Right For You?

The first thing to consider is the type of projector that’s best for you. There are three main types, and they all display an image slightly differently. For many, this won’t matter — things like price and inputs might be more important. But for those that seriously want to buy the best projector for their needs, then making sure you get the right type is imperative.

DLP Projectors: How They Work

DLP, or Digital Light Processing projectors, basically project an image through a series of tiny mirrors that tilt either towards or away from the light source to create light or dark pixels on the screen. There are two main types of DLP projectors: single-chip DLP or three-chip DLP, though most people will probably go for a single-chip DLP considering their price.

Single-chip DLP projectors are the most common type of projector and offer the sharpest image you can find on consumer projectors. Single-chip DLP projectors use a color-wheel that quickly rotates between primary colors to produce an image. The trade-off of this is that you’ll sometimes see a rainbow effect where an image is broken up into red, green, and blue images, which can be annoying while you’re watching a movie.

Three-chip DLP projectors don’t have this color-wheel issue because they have a dedicated DLP chip for each color. The downside of that is that it’s much harder to properly align each panel, resulting in more complex designs and ultimately much more expensive projectors. For that reason, three-chip DLP projectors are usually only found in high-end situations such as movie theaters, though if you can shell out the cash for a three-chip DLP projector, you might find that it’s worth the money.

In general, DLP projectors offer sharp images with little lag. They’re not, however, the best at projecting deep blacks — you’ll sometimes see somewhat muddy blacks from DLP projectors, something that’s fixed in other types of projectors.

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LCoS Projectors: What You Need to Know

Liquid Crystal on Silicon projectors offer a completely different take on projection. These projectors essentially shine light through a panel to create an image. Light in an LCoS projector is reflected off of three individual panels, and the light from those panels is then combined to produce the image.

Because of the way LCoS projectors reflect light, they produce the deepest blacks with the highest contrast ratio. The trade-off, however, is that the image isn’t as bright as other projectors, making them best in dark environments and with screens up to 130 inches. Any larger and the projector will struggle to produce enough light to create an immersive image. LCoS projectors also generally have more issues with motion blur than other projectors, though that’s generally only noticeable in fast-motion scenes.

LCD Projectors: The Middle Ground Between DLP & LCoS

LCD, or Liquid Crystal Display projectors, are kind of a middle-ground between DLP and LCoS projectors in terms of advantages and disadvantages. They’re not quite as bright as DLP projectors, but they’re brighter than LCoS projectors. They’re better at producing fast motion than LCoS projectors but not as good as DLP projectors. And, they produce deeper blacks than DLP projectors, but the contrast ratio isn’t as high as LCoS projectors. LCD projectors are also more affordable than LCoS projectors.

Light Sources

While brightness refers to the amount of light being produced, that light can be produced by a number of different sources. A bulb, called a lamp, is the most common light source in consumer projectors, but there are a few other options out there, and they’re likely to become increasingly common as time goes on.

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Lamp Projectors Are The Most Affordable

As mentioned, the lamp is the most common light source for projectors, and there are a few reasons for that. For starters, the lamp is the most affordable option on the list. Projector lamps have been manufactured for some time now and are replaceable, so if and when the lamp eventually fails, it can be replaced. Generally, projector bulbs last between 3,000 and 4,000 hours, although the rated time should be listed on a projectors spec-sheet. Lamps are relatively bright, but not the brightest option. so if brightness is a concern you may want to look into laser projectors instead.

Laser Projectors Offer Great Brightness

Laser projectors are far brighter than lamp projectors, plus they don’t require bulb replacements, so despite their higher initial cost, if you plan on using your projector a lot they could ultimately save you money. Laser projectors also offer generally better contrast than lamp projectors, meaning that blacks are a little deeper and darker, and whites are a little brighter, ultimately making for a more realistic image. Last but not least is the fact that laser projectors are more energy efficient than lamp projectors. The trade-off? Cost. Laser projectors are much more expensive than lamp ones, so the advantages may not be worth it unless you really have the cash to spare.

LED Projectors Have Better Colors & A Longer Lifespan

Last but not least is the LED projector, which offers a few advantages over lamp projectors. For starters, the bulbs used in LED projectors have a much longer lifespan, often coming in at up to 20,000 hours of use.

Apart from having a longer lifespan, LED projectors also offer better colors and are quieter than lamp projectors because of the fact that they’re much more energy efficient and thus don’t require a fan for cooling. For these reasons, LED light sources are often found in miniature pico projectors. The main trade-off of LED projectors is that they have a limited brightness.

Other Features and Considerations

In the end, the type of projector you choose may not matter as much as some of the other features on offer. Why? Well, if you have a price range in mind, you may not have much of a choice in the type of projector you choose. You likely will, however, be able to choose a projector based on things like the number of inputs it has or how bright the projector is. Here’s a rundown of those features and what they mean for you.

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Brightness: What's The Right Number of Lumens?

When it comes to projectors and brightness, the brighter a projector is, the better it will be at projecting in environments with more ambient light or from longer distances. If you plan on projecting close to the screen or wall and in dark environments, then brightness may not matter as much, but for those who want an even moderately versatile projector, brightness will be important.

Brightness in a projector is measured in lumens. The higher the number of lumens, the brighter the projector is. So what does that mean? Well, for a home projector that will be used in dark environments, you might be able to get away with as little as 1,000 lumens. Brighter projectors, however, will be much more suited to environments with some ambient light. With a larger room or one with more ambient light, you’ll want something closer to the 2,000-lumen range, while really large or bright rooms might need even more than that. For basic use, we recommend something close to the 1,500-lumen range.

Contrast Ratio Measures The Brightness Between White and Black

The contrast ratio is essentially a measurement of the brightness between black and white. The higher the contrast ratio, the deeper the darks and the brighter the whites. That’s good when it comes to TVs and projectors; it means that there’s more detail in a picture, creating a more immersive viewing experience.

The contrast ratio is especially important for home projectors. In darkened rooms, the contrast will be more noticeable than it would be in rooms with a lot of light, which often mutes contrast.

It’s important to note that contrast ratio isn’t the be-all and end-all of image quality. A projector with a 5000:1 contrast ratio isn’t necessarily twice as good as one with a 2500:1 contrast ratio. After all contrast ratio only accounts for extremes — it doesn’t say much about the colors and grays in between the brightest whites and blackest blacks.

There are also different types of contrast ratio to consider. There’s regular old “contrast ratio,” and there’s “ANSI Contrast,” which refers to a special way of measuring contrast in which contrast is determined through a black and white checkerboard pattern. ANSI Contrast is a better indicator of the actual contrast ratio you’ll see while viewing movies, so while projectors with a regular contrast ratio measurement might have a higher value, that doesn’t mean they’re better.

So what’s a good contrast ratio? We recommend a contrast ratio of at least 1,000:1, though many projectors will boast a higher figure. That higher figure normally comes with a higher price.

Resolution: The More Pixels, The Better

Just like TVs, smartphones, and computer monitors, projectors also display images in pixels — and more pixels is pretty much always better. These days many projectors have an HD resolution, which equates to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, although you’ll see many with a lower resolution, and a bunch with 4K (4,096 x 2,160 pixels) resolutions. In an era of common 4K content, a projector with a 4K resolution is ideal — but often comes with a hefty price. Because of that, we recommend finding one with the highest resolution possible in your price range.

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Lens Zoom Can Adjust the Size of The Image

Projectors thankfully aren’t made to sit a set distance from the screen you’re projecting onto — instead, they can zoom in and out a little to accommodate a range of distances. The lens zoom essentially allows you to adjust the size of the image (within reason), meaning that a great projector can be useful for smaller TV-sized projections, or much larger projections when needed. The bigger the lens zoom, the bigger you can make an image.

Keystone Correction and Lens Shift: Get The Best Picture Possible

Wondering what's the difference between keystone correction and lens shift? For starters, it's rare that you’ll be able to place a projector perpendicular to the projection surface, which is where keystone comes in. Keystone correction basically allows you to manually distort an image so that it appears square on a surface despite being projected on an angle. Images can be shifted up, down, and sideways — so even if you’re projecting on a slight angle, you should still be able to achieve a good image.

Lens shift addresses the same issue, but it does so a little better. It basically adjusts the angle of the lens instead of digitally altering the image, as keystone correction does. The advantage to this is that lens shift retains the full resolution of the image, resulting in a better image than keystone correction. Unfortunately, lens shift is really only found on high-end projectors — so you may just have to deal with keystone correction unless you have a large budget.

Inputs and Outputs: Which Ones Do You Really Need?

Regardless of the type of projector you get, you’ll need a way to connect your computer, phone, speakers, and other devices to it — and that’s where inputs and outputs come in. There are a few types of inputs and outputs commonly used on projectors. Here’s a quick rundown of them.

HDMI ports are the most common input for projectors and TVs these days, which are a super high-quality standard that combines both video and multi-channel audio into one. HDMI ports can also be found on computers, and there are plenty of adapters for connecting a phone to an HDMI port, making it easy to easily connect your devices for playback.

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DVI is another common, though slightly less common, port that exists in a few different versions. There’s the digital DVI-D port, the analog DVI-A, and the hybrid DVI-I port that transfers both digital and analog signals. DVI is used on many computers, though not often on laptops.

Composite is a little less common these days, but can still be found on many projectors. Composite splits up a signal into one video connector, which is yellow, and two audio connectors for left and right channels.

VGA is another common analog connector that has become slightly less common in recent years. VGA connectors are a little large and unwieldy, but if you’re using a computer that has a VGA connection, another VGA connection on the projector can come in handy.

3.5mm is a connector that’s only used for audio — so if you have a set of speakers or a sound system that you want to use with your projector, a 3.5mm connector could come in handy.

Wi-Fi is very popular when it comes to stream content to projectors rather than having to use physical cables. Wi-Fi connections are usually used in conjunction with an app, or sometimes smart projectors simply stream content from the Web.

Smart Projectors: Say Goodbye to Tangled Cords

Smart projectors do exactly what you think they would do — connect to the Internet and stream content directly. Many of them run Android, essentially allowing you to download apps for services such as Netflix and Hulu, and apps to connect to other devices.

There are a few advantages to this. First of all, it means you don’t have to deal with cables, which can be annoying and expensive. Secondly, it means you don’t have to carry around a computer or other device to use with your projector — simply connect it to a wireless network, and you’re good to go. The main disadvantage is that a smart projector might be more expensive, or it might put wireless connectivity over image quality — so make sure you check on image quality before you buy.

Of course, even if you opt for a smart projector, we still recommend making sure the projector has at least one HDMI port, just for those situations in which the Wi-Fi is down or too slow to work properly.

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Size: How Much Does Portability Matter to You?

Projectors come in a range of different sizes, which is another thing to consider if you’re in the market for one.

Smaller projectors are easy to carry and fit nicely inside a small bag, but the trade-off is that they often sacrifice quality and brightness for their size. That may be a trade-off that you’re willing to make — but even if you are, it’s still worth being aware of the fact that you might be limited in the situations that you can use your projector.

On the other end of the spectrum are super large projectors, which might have all the latest and greatest projecting tech, but probably need to be permanently mounted considering their size. These projectors sacrifice portability — so if portability is important to you, you’ll need to check on the size.

Thankfully, you don’t have to choose between tiny or gigantic projectors. There are plenty that fall in the middle of the spectrum and offer decent quality and some portability. Most manufacturers will list of dimensions of a projector, so you can check on size before you buy.

3D Projectors Aren't Just for The Movie Theaters Anymore

These days, just like you can enjoy 3D content in the movies, you can also get it in your home theater. There are a number of projectors that support 3D content, though as you might expect they’re quite a bit more expensive than their non-3D counterparts. Some projectors can even convert 2D content to 3D, so if you’re truly into watching 3D content, it might be worth buying one of those. Otherwise, you’ll be limited to specific 3D content.

Like watching 3D content at the cinema, 3D content on a projector does require you to use special glasses — so that’s something you’ll have to keep in mind if you’re interested in buying a projector with support for 3D content.

Conclusion: Here's the Lowdown

As you can see, there are many varieties and things to consider when you’re buying a projector. While you may not care all that much about the technology under the hood, you’ll still want to make sure that the projector you buy is bright enough, and has the right ports for your usage. Resolution and contrast ratio can also be important, as they specifically relate to image quality.

For most users, we recommend a DLP projector with at least one HDMI input and a brightness of at least 1,500 lumens. That should make for a projector that’s relatively versatile and can be used in a range of different situations. Of course, you’ll want something that’s brighter and a little more high-tech if you’re truly building a pricey home theater — but for the average person who simply wants to watch movies every now and then, these specs should be more than fine.

As with anything, a cheap projector might not always meet your needs. If you can afford to spend a little extra cash, it’s always worth buying a projector that’s slightly better than what you think you’ll need — after all, there’s nothing worse than squinting your way through a movie because your projector isn’t bright enough to beat out that annoying ambient light.

Some of Our Favorite Projectors