Should I Get a Video Projector or TV for my Home Theater?

The difference between TVs and video projectors

A home theatre with a projection screen
Nan Palmero / Flickr / Creative Commons

TVs and Video Projectors are used in home theaters around the world, but depending on your specific needs and desires, one option may be preferable over the other. Let's check out some of the key things to consider that may aid in your decision.

Direct Viewing vs Reflected Viewing

The main difference between a TV and video projector is that TVs emit light directly from the screen and images are directly viewed, whereas light containing the images from a video projector is reflected off a screen before reaching the viewer. What this means is that a TV is self-contained but a projector requires two-pieces to work, the projector and a surface to project onto, such as a screen, wall, or sheet.

Screen Size

TVs range in size from 19 to 85-inches. However, the size of the TV you buy is the one you stuck with unless you buy another TV. On the other hand, video projector image size is adjustable and may range from 40 to 300 inches. This allows you to set the size of your projected image in relation to the projector-to-screen and seating-to-screen distance.

In conjunction with screen size, you also have to take into consideration what you will be watching on your TV or video projector. If your sources are DVD, over-the-air TV, streaming, cable, or satellite, a TV up to 65-inches is a great option. If you watch a lot of movies and other content from Blu-ray or Ultra HD discs, or 1080p/4K streaming sources, although images will look excellent on 65-inch and larger TVs, it will still look great on an even larger projection screen.

Room Size

Since TVs are self-contained, you can place them in any size room. Even a larger screen set can be placed in a small room if you don't mind sitting close to the screen.

Video projectors, on the other hand, typically require a room that provides enough distance to display images. The projector usually needs to be placed behind the viewer in order to the project an image of sufficient size to provide a large screen viewing experience.

However, there are a select number of Short Throw projectors that can be placed closer to the screen and project upward from the floor, short stand, or downward from the ceiling using a special lens assembly.

Room Light

Room lighting is a major factor for both TV and video projector viewing.

Although strides have been made in video projector light output that enables some projectors to provide viewable images in a room with some ambient light, most require a room that can be darkened.

Although TVs can be used in darkened rooms, they are designed to display good image quality under normal light conditions. LED/LCD TVs perform well under normal light, whereas OLED TVs perform better in a dimly lit room. However, both look fine in a standard lit room barring any screen reflections from light coming in from windows or awkwardly placed lamps.

Resolution

Most TVs available have a native display resolution of 4K. 4K Ultra HD TVs come in price ranges ranging from below $500 to over $4,000 and in screen sizes ranging from 40 to 85-inches.

However, implementing 4K resolution in a video projector is more expensive than on a TV (most home theater video projectors are 1080p), and although some 4K are priced as low as $1,500 (1080p projectors can be found as low as $600), take into consideration that you still need to purchase a screen. However, with the ability to project images much larger than currently available TVs can display, this is definitely an option. However, the dark secret of 4K video projectors is that not all them are true 4K.

To make things more confusing some inexpensive video projectors may be compatible with 1080p or 4K input signals, but the display resolution of the projector may be as low as 720p. What this means is that those 1080p and 4K resolution signals are downscaled to 720p for screen display. The takeaway here is "buyer beware" with video projectors priced $400 or less that promote 1080p or 4K "compatibility".

Brightness and HDR

TVs can output a lot more light than a video projector. As a result, TVs are brighter overall and HDR-enabled TVs can display HDR-encoded images a lot better than a video projector.

HDR expands the brightness and contrast range of specially-encoded content that results in the display of images that look more like you would see in the real world. However, since HDR-enabled video projectors cannot put out as much light as an HDR-enabled TV, the results are more subdued.

3D

If you are looking for the 3D viewing option, unfortunately, production of 3D TVs has been discontinued. As a result, there are only a few select models that may still be available either on clearance or used.

However, many video projectors are still being made with 3D capability included. If you are looking for a video projector and desire the 3D viewing option, make sure you confirm that the projector includes it. Be aware that in most cases, you will have to purchase the required 3D glasses separately. Also, to view 3D, you need compatible source devices and content.

Audio

Although the speaker systems built-into TVs aren't that great, you don't have to purchase a separate audio system if you feel the sound the TV provides is adequate for your needs. Also, almost all TVs also provide the ability to connect to an external audio system. Soundbars are a popular option.

However, although there are a select number of video projectors have built-in speakers (which, like TVs, don't sound that great), the vast majority require an external audio system to listen to the sound. Also, if you are using HDMI to connect your source to the projector unless the projector has an audio output, you will need to make a separate connection from your source device to an external audio system.

Streaming/Smart Features

One big advantage of TVs over video projectors is that most TVs these days come with smart features built-in. This means that they connect directly to the internet and can access a varying selection of internet streaming services, such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Video, etc...

On the other hand, although there a smaller number of video projectors available from companies such as LG and Hisense that have smart TV-type features, the vast majority of models just provide inputs for connection of external devices.

Although media streaming sticks and boxes can be connected to any projector that has an HDMI input, unless the projector has built-in audio or has an audio output that connects to an external audio system, you will not be able to hear your content. This means that you will have to route your media streamer through a home theater receiver before it gets to the projector to access both picture and sound.

TV Reception

With very few exceptions, TVs have RF inputs and built-in tuners for reception of over-the-air TV signals via an antenna.

Video projectors, on the other hand, typically do not have RF or antenna connections, as a TV has.

The only exception is some of the projectors available from LG and the Hisense. However, if you have an external tuner that you can connect an antenna to or cable/satellite box that has one or more of the following connection options: composite, S-Video, component, and/or DVI, or HDMI you would be able to hook them up to a video projector. However, when shopping for a video projector make sure it has the connections you need as a growing number of projectors are eliminating analog video connections and may only have DVI and HDMI connection options.

Lamps

To display images, TVs either use a backlight light system (LED/LCD TVs) or the pixels emit their own light (OLED TVs). These systems are designed to last the life of the TV with little dimming over time.

Video projectors also employ a light source (Lamps, Laser, LED) to project images, but there are things to take into consideration.

Video projectors that use lamps as their light source have a limited bulb life. This means that if you are watching TV on your video projector about four or more hours every day, you might need to replace the light source bulb about every 2 years or so at about 200-400 dollars (or more) a pop. If you desire longer bulb life, limit your viewing to about 12 hours a week and your projection bulb might last several years.

On the other hand, LED and Laser-based light sources, which have much longer lifespans, are being incorporated into more projectors. As these "lampless" projectors become more affordable, the lifespan problems associated with light bulbs will be less of a factor.

Setup

A TV is easier to set up than a video projector. With a TV you put it on a stand or mount on the wall, plug in your sources, turn it on, and perform some prompted steps whether the TV is a standard or smart model.

Setting up a video projector takes a little more forethought, such as:

  • Deciding between ceiling mounting or stand placement. However, if you opt for a portable projector, the ceiling option is not for you.
  • Placing it at the right distance to the screen.
  • Making sure the projector is close enough to your sources or, if needed, implementing any long-distance connection options.
  • Focusing the image on the screen.
  • Making sure the image conforms to the screen dimensions.
  • Adjusting room lighting.
  • Going into the projector setup menu and make any additional picture adjustments.

The Bottom Line

The decision to buy a TV or video projector is up to you. However, here are some final things to consider.

  • Video projectors are best suited for viewing movies, big-budget TV shows (Game of Thrones), big events (Super Bowl, World Series, Olympics) and can also be a great experience for large screen PC and video game play.
  • Unless your projector uses a long-life Laser or LED light source instead of a lamp, it is a waste to watch news programming, soap operas, sitcoms, game and reality TV shows on it. For daily TV watching, a large screen LED/LCD or OLED TV, for now, is the better option, rather than a video projector.
  • When you take cost into consideration, there are many video projector/screen combinations that cost a lot less than an 85-inch TV.
  • If you have the budget, the best option would be to have both — a TV for watching your daily programming, and a video projector with screen for watching movies and major events.