Projectors have come a long way from the days when the most useful way to categorize them was by their weight class. Today, you can break them down by any number of more meaningful categories, including their intended use (business presentations and education, home theater, or gaming), their imaging technology (LCD, DLP, LCOS, and even laser raster), light source (lamp, LED, laser, or hybrid), and more. Here are the key considerations that will help you find a projector with the right features and performance for your needs.
There are two basic kinds of images you can show on a projector: data (meaning text and graphics) and photorealistic (photos, video, and film). Games generally have some aspects of both. Any projector can show any kind of image, of course, but a projector may handle one kind of image well without necessarily doing a good job with the other. You’ll want a projector that’s optimized for the kind of images you plan to show.
Data projectors are designed to show images such as business graphics, line drawings, presentations, spreadsheets, and PDF files. They’re optimized for conference rooms, throwing a bright enough image to stand up to ambient light on a large screen. Many can handle photorealistic images well enough to project short video clips in a presentation, but they aren’t good for full-length movies. They tend to favor brightness over contrast, which is an important factor for producing realistic-looking images, and in many models, colors can look obviously off, with few or no options for correcting them.
Home theater, home entertainment, and gaming projectors are all so similar to each other that one model might be marketed in two or three categories. These home use projectors focus on color accuracy and usually add controls to fine-tune color, reduce noise, sharpen images, and otherwise digitally enhance video and film.
Models listed as home theater projectors are usually optimized for traditional home theater viewing in a dark room. They tend to offer more-accurate color, better contrast, and lower brightness than home entertainment projectors, and most don’t include speakers. The assumption is that you’ll set up a better external audio system in your home theater than any projector can fit into its case.
Home entertainment models are usually optimized for viewing in a family room or other space with ambient light. Many can also be used outdoors. Compared with home theater models, they tend to sacrifice some color accuracy and contrast in favor of higher brightness. Many include built-in speakers, but you’ll usually want to use an external sound system for better audio quality.
Gaming projectors are basically home entertainment models with greatly reduced input lag for speedier reaction time in gaming. Most are small enough to carry easily, and they include better-than-typical onboard audio for a projector.
Consider how portable the projector needs to be. You can find portable projectors with sizes and weights ranging from small and light enough to fit in a shirt pocket to large and massive enough to be suitable only for a permanent, usually mounted, installation. If you want a data projector to carry to business meetings for presentations, or a home entertainment or gaming projector to take to a friend’s house or set up in your backyard for a movie night, be sure to pick an appropriate size and weight. If you’ll be away from power outlets, check that the projector’s battery life is long enough for your needs.
Projectors can scale images up or down, but that’s best avoided, since it can distort the image. For any projector resolution up to and including WUXGA (1,920 by 1,200 pixels), you should match the projector’s native resolution (originally defined as the number of physical pixels in the projector’s display) to the source you plan to attach it to most often, such as a computer, video equipment, or a game console.
For projectors with 4K ultra-high definition (3,840 by 2,160 pixels), the calculation is a little different.
Current projectors built around 3,840-by-2,160 imaging chips are still too expensive for most applications. The affordable alternative takes advantage of a technique called pixel shifting. It uses a native 1,920-by-1,080 chip, generates more than one set of pixels for each frame in the video stream, and shifts the position for each set. The result is more pixels per frame on screen than are on the chip. Two sets doubles the number of pixels. Four sets quadruples the number to a full 3,840 by 2,160. When done well, just doubling the number of pixels can deliver images that look impressively sharp and detailed.
Even 1080p projectors that can accept 4K UHD input handle it reasonably well. Thanks to the higher resolution having exactly four times as many pixels as 1080p, the only loss in quality from scaling the image down will be the equivalent of a slightly soft focus. If the projector also supports HDR10 (the high dynamic range, or HDR, version that’s on discs and some streaming services, including Netflix), it can give you some of the advantages of HDR for improving image quality, even with 1080p resolution.
If you plan to show data images, you should consider the level of detail in the images. For a typical PowerPoint presentation, SVGA (800 by 600 pixels) may be good enough, and an SVGA projector will be much less expensive than one with a higher native resolution. For very detailed images, however, you’ll want to go up to 4K UHD or even higher.
For video, 4K UHD is generally the best choice, assuming you have a 4K UHD Blu-ray player, a 4K-capable streaming device, or another 4K UHD media source. But odds are you’ll be watching a lot of 1080p material for the foreseeable future—particularly if you own a library of 1080p discs—and may occasionally be watching at even lower resolutions. So check how well the projector handles scaling up lower-resolution input.
Most projectors today offer native resolutions that qualify as widescreen formats. You’ll generally want to match the aspect ratio (ratio of image width to image height) of the projector’s resolution to the images you’ll be watching most often. You can always show narrower or wider formats; just make sure your projector is able to add letterbox bars (black bars to the sides for narrower formats or black bars above and below for wider formats).
For example, you might want to use a native WUXGA projector, with its 16:10 aspect ratio, to watch movies or TV with a 16:9 aspect ratio. If so, keep in mind that if you set up the projector to fill your 16:9 screen with the picture, you’ll need a sufficiently wide black border at the edges to keep the letterbox bars from showing as brighter areas surrounding the screen.
There is no single best level for projector brightness, and brighter isn’t always better. For a home theater projector you plan to use in a dark room, for example, 1,000 lumens or even less can easily give you a large, bright image, while 2,000 lumens may be so bright that it’s hard on the eyes. On the other hand, for a portable data projector you expect to use in well-lit locations, 2,000 to 3,000 lumens is the right range in most cases. For large rooms, you’ll want something even brighter.
For any situation, the ideal projector brightness depends on the ambient light level, the size of the image, and the material in the screen you’re using. If you’re setting up a projector for permanent installation, whether at home or in your office, your best bet is to buy from a knowledgeable seller who can help you pick a projector and screen material that will give you the right image brightness for the lighting conditions in the room at the screen size you want.
If you’re trying to choose between two models, keep in mind that a small percentage difference in lumens—2,000 versus 2,200, for example—isn’t terribly significant. The perception of brightness is nonlinear, which means a 10% difference is hardly noticeable, and you need far more than twice as many lumens for a projector to appear twice as bright. Also, keep in mind that a projector’s true brightness is often a little less than its rated brightness, and image quality is generally best at brightness levels in the middle of the projector’s range.
Contrast ratio—the ratio between the brightness of the brightest white a projector can produce and the brightness of the darkest black—always matters, but the rating for the projector usually won’t. All other things being equal, a higher contrast ratio produces more vibrant, eye-catching color, more shadow detail in dark areas on the screen (most important for video and film), and a more dramatic sense of three-dimensionality in two-dimensional photorealistic images.
However, contrast ratings are based on measurements in a dark room, so they don’t tell you much about viewing in ambient light. A projector that delivers a high contrast ratio in a dark room because of unusually dark blacks will deliver much lower contrast in ambient light, and a brighter projector with a higher white level will do poorly in a home theater but well in a living room or office.
Comparing specs is somewhere between challenging and pointless. Different manufacturers use different approaches to measuring contrast, and some even measure it differently for different models. And there are other factors—such as video processing or auto-irises that change image brightness based on the content of the image—that increase your subjective sense of how good the contrast is but don’t affect objective measurements. The best way to find out how good the contrast is for any given projector—short of seeing it yourself—is to look for reviews that discuss contrast in different settings.
With any connection, the key is to match the projector’s inputs with the source’s outputs. A digital connection is preferable to an analog connection if you have the choice.
Almost all current projectors include at least one HDMI port, which is the preferred choice for video sources and many computers, unless you plan to connect over a wired or wireless network. Many projectors still offer a VGA (analog) connector for computers and component video, but few new computers have VGA output ports, and few new video sources offer component video.
Keep in mind that the HDMI version matters. Later versions support higher resolutions and more features than earlier versions. Make sure the HDMI version on the projector will let you take full advantage of the image sources you want to use, either by confirming it has the same HDMI version number as the image sources or that the manufacturer says it supports those specific features. You should also check the High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) level. Virtually all 4K UHD HDR movies, for example, require HDCP 2.2 on both the player and projector.
Note that some projectors’ HDMI ports support Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), which lets you project from Android devices. Many models also have Wi-Fi connectivity built-in or can provide it through an included or separately purchased wireless dongle that plugs into a USB or HDMI port. And many support projecting directly from USB memory or memory cards.
A growing number of projectors include internet streaming features, either built-in or through an included streaming HDMI dongle. You can also buy third-party dongles to add streaming to most projectors with an HDMI port. And we are seeing more models with USB-C ports, which can (but don’t always) support DisplayPort and HDMI protocols. Here also, check before buying to make sure you know what video support—if any—the USB-C connector offers.
Today’s projectors are based on one of four imaging technologies: digital light processing (DLP), liquid-crystal display (LCD), liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS), and laser raster. (Don’t confuse laser raster projectors, which actually draw the images using lasers, with models that simply use lasers as a light source for another imaging technology, like DLP or LCD chips.)
Most DLP projectors and some LCOS-based pico (aka pocket-size) projectors—including both data and video models—project their primary colors sequentially rather than all at once. This can lead to rainbow artifacts, in which bright areas on the screen break up into little red-green-blue flashes for some people when they shift their gaze or when something moves onscreen. Those who are sensitive to this effect can find it annoying, particularly for long viewing sessions.
LCD projectors are free from rainbow artifacts, but they tend to be bigger and heavier. Standard-size LCOS projectors offer the best-quality images, but they tend to be bigger and heavier than either DLP or LCD projectors, as well as far more expensive. There aren’t many laser raster projectors, so it’s hard to make general statements about them. But the one clear advantage of using a laser is that the image doesn’t require focusing.
There’s a growing trend in projectors of moving from using lamps as light sources to using LEDs and lasers. For the moment, at least, there are advantages for each choice.
LEDs and lasers maintain a higher percentage of their initial brightness for longer. All light sources lose brightness over time, but lamps generally lose a large percentage in the first 500 hours of use, and decline slowly after that. LEDs and lasers tend to lose brightness more evenly over their entire lifetimes.
The initial price for a lamp-based projector will be lower, but the total cost can be higher if you keep it long enough to need a replacement for the lamp. If you plan to replace your projector with every new jump in resolution or other image technology, buying a series of lamp-based projectors will be more cost-effective. But if you plan to keep your projector as long as it works, the better buy will be an LED, laser, or hybrid model that won’t need an expensive lamp replacement.
If you need to cast a large image at a short distance from the screen, you’ll want a short-throw projector. There are no universally accepted definitions for what counts as “short,” but most short-throw projectors can cast an image about 6.5 feet wide from 3 to 6 feet away, and ultra-short-throw projectors generally need less than a foot. By comparison, most projectors with standard throws need to be roughly 9 to 13 feet away from the screen, and long-throw projectors should be set even further back. Short-throw projectors also minimize the risk of people getting in front of the projector and blocking part of the image.
The downsides of short-throw (and especially ultra-short-throw) projectors are that they are more expensive than traditional models with standard-throw lenses, and they are more likely to have noticeable variations in brightness or focus across the image. Ultra-short-throw models also require a particularly flat and stable screen. Even slight variations in the surface can distort the image and affect focus.
Not all projectors have audio capability, and for those that do, the audio is sometimes all but useless—particularly with highly portable models. If you need sound for your presentations or for watching video, make sure that the projector has built-in audio that’s clear enough and loud enough to meet your needs. If not, consider using a separate sound system—always a good idea for home theater or home entertainment—or powered external speakers. If you already have Bluetooth speakers, check whether the projector supports Bluetooth.
Showing images in 3D for educational, business, and home applications seems well past the boomlet it enjoyed a few years ago. But if you’re a fan of 3D movies or have an application that requires 3D, it’s still easy to find projectors that support it.
Several 3D technologies are available, so make sure any 3D projector you consider will work with the 3D source you want to use. A “3D-ready” designation usually means it will work only with 3D generated by a computer. If you have a collection of 3D Blu-ray discs, the designation to look for is usually Full HD 3D. Also confirm which kind of 3D glasses it works with. DLP-Link glasses are the most common, but there are several types, including some proprietary versions.
Below are our choices for some of the best projectors on the market for the most common situations and use cases. For full projector reviews and our latest coverage of the category, check out our projector summary page, as well as our favorite portable projectors and our top models for home use.Source