Video Projector Buying Guide


Have you ever wondered how the movies literally make it to the big screen? Learn how a movie projector works in this video.
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If you're new to the video projector market, the wide range of products and features could be confusing. We've created this buying guide to help you navigate the sea of video projector technologies. We'll start by familiarizing ourselves with the terminology and specifications used in the market. Then, we'll take a closer look at certain types of video projectors, their purchase and maintenance costs, and why you might want to buy them.

The following are key specifications you'll find listed on every projector:

  • Aspect ratio is the geometry of the projected image.
  • Resolution is the number of pixels used to create an image.
  • Brightness is the amount of light your eyes perceive from the projected image.
  • Contrast is the difference between the brighter and darker portions of the projected image.

The first specification, aspect ratio, is something you may be familiar with. Common aspect ratios include 4:3 and 16:9. For video projectors, you'll occasionally see the aspect ratio listed as one number, which is the rounded decimal formed when dividing the numerator by the denominator in the fraction notation of the aspect ratio. For 4:3, the fraction is 4/3, which converts to the rounded decimal number 1.33 [source: Projector Central].

When you select an aspect ratio, consider the type of video you'll want to project. Though you can project video with a larger aspect ratio on a projector with a smaller aspect ratio, you will lose viewing quality as the smaller projector either shrinks or cuts off part of the image. The following are some common aspect ratios for computer screens and recorded video:

  • 4:3 or 1.33 -- standard size for many current and most past TV shows
  • 16:9 or 1.78 -- widescreen, including widescreen computer monitors, some current TV shows and streaming videos, and many older movies
  • 2.40 -- current movies coming out on DVD and Blu-ray

Next, we'll see how the second key specification, resolution, also requires careful consideration about what kind of video you plan to project.

Choosing a Video Projector Resolution

The second key specification for video projectors is resolution. As for computer screens, this resolution is expressed using the number of horizontal and vertical pixels that make the image, as in 1280 by 720. Thus, when shopping for a video projector for use with a computer, you can use resolution as a guide the same way you would for any other computer display.

When you're adding a video projector to a home theater, you'll need to choose the resolution with greater care. Broadcast TV and streaming video identify their resolutions using only the horizontal number of pixels followed by a letter indicating how the screen draws each frame, as in 720p and 1080i. For recorded content, note that DVDs have a resolution of 720p and Blu-ray discs have a resolution of 1080p.

Once you know the resolutions in your video content, consider how that impacts your video projector selection. For the best quality projection results, you'll want to ensure that the projector's horizontal number is at least as high as that of the videos you want to view. For example, a projector that's Wide XGA (WXGA, 1280 by 768) is excellent for videos streaming in 720p, and a projector that's high definition (HD, 1920 by 1080) is great for Blu-ray discs and 1080i HDTV [source: Projector People].

While this is the ideal situation, you still have the option to view higher resolution video on lower resolution projectors. If you do so, expect that the picture quality is only as good as the projector. You can also view lower resolution content on higher resolution projectors. In this case, expect the image projected to be smaller or to have lower quality when it stretches to fit the larger resolution screen.

Next, let's look at the other key specifications, brightness and contrast, and how their values may not always be what they seem.

Brightness and Contrast in Video Projectors

If you're going to use your projector in unpredictable situations like public speaking events, the unit's brightness is important.
If you're going to use your projector in unpredictable situations like public speaking events, the unit's brightness is important.
Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

When you're shopping for a video projector, you'll notice product specifications of brightness and contrast. Brightness is typically measured in lumens, an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard unit for measuring the brightness of projected light. The larger the number of lumens, the brighter the projection. Contrast is measured in a ratio of brightest white to darkest black. The bigger the difference between numbers in the ratio, the better your viewing experience [source: Projector Central, Projector People].

Manufacturers provide brightness and contrast values to assist you in your purchase. However, these values can be misleading when comparing two projectors side by side. That's because of other factors that aren't taken into account when establishing brightness and contrast measurements. These other factors include the projector's picture-enhancing features and where and how you set up the projector [source: Projector Central].

Because brightness and contrast numbers alone can be deceptive, be sure to compare video projectors based on the environment in which they're used. The Web site Projector Central has a Projection Calculator to aid you in comparing projector models based on where and how you plan to set them up. The calculator lets you drag to adjust either the projected image size or the throw distance, which is the distance the light travels between the projector and the screen. Then, it shows you the recommended seating distance from the projected image and the maximum lighting you can have in the room for best results.

Aspect ratio and resolution should be factors in your purchase no matter where you plan to set up your new video projector. Brightness and contrast, though, vary in importance based on where and how you're setting up the projector. Brightness is more important for larger settings, like conference rooms or lecture halls. Contrast is more important in smaller home-theater settings.

Now that you recognize the key specifications found in video projectors, let's take a look at the general maintenance costs you should expect.

Video Projector Setup and Maintenance Costs

Setup costs for a video projector depend on how you plan to use it. For most projectors, you'll need a place to rest or mount the projector. You could place the projector on a table, but that might not be ideal if it gets in the way. You can find a variety of wall and ceiling mounts as an alternative, which could add between $50 and $100 to your projector setup cost.

Another setup cost is a screen. You could use paint or wallpaper a wall for this purpose. However, for best results, you should purchase a dedicated screen. This will run you between $100 and $200 for retractable screens with a manual pull-down mechanism. Automatic screens, which descend at the touch of a button or switch, can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on their size and features. Be sure the screen you choose is compatible with your projector. Besides being large enough for the projected image, the screen should have a texture and color that works with the projector. Compatibility is typically not an issue, though, since many projectors have display presets or adjustable color settings to accommodate different environments.

The biggest maintenance cost for video projectors is lamp replacement. LCD and DLP projectors will have a lamp life between 2,000 and 4,000 hours. That doesn't necessarily mean the lamp will go out entirely. Instead, it means the lamp will dim to about half of its original brightness, causing picture quality to suffer. Replacement lamps cost $200 to $400.

There are ways to keep lamp replacement costs down. Cleaning the dust from the projector regularly and using it as instructed in its documentation will help to maximize lamp life. That leads us to the second cost you'll have with a video projector: filters. Many projectors have filters that capture dust and debris pulled in by the cooling fan. You'll need to replace these filters regularly, adding to your overall maintenance costs.

When shopping, consider Texas Instrument's new lamp-free and filter-free DLP technology. Lamp-free DLP is designed to lower power consumption and significantly reduce maintenance costs. If you expect heavy use from your video projector, the up-front cost of a lamp-free DLP could potentially save you thousands of dollars over the life of the projector [source: Texas Instruments].

If your video projector has a battery-powered remote control, the batteries will be yet another maintenance cost for the projector. Besides these regular replacement parts, the only maintenance costs common to projectors is repair costs. Be aware of the replacement and repair warrantees available for the projectors you're interested in. Then, if you know you'll push a warrantee to its limits, consider researching the average repair costs associated with the projector you're interested in.

Next, let's start exploring some classifications of video projectors and the unique benefits and costs associated with each.

HD Video Projectors

If you decide to buy a HD video projector, you'll need an HDMI cable long enough to reach from your output source to the projector.
If you decide to buy a HD video projector, you'll need an HDMI cable long enough to reach from your output source to the projector.
©iStockphoto.com/luismmolina

A high definition (HD) video projector has an aspect ratio of 16:9 (1.78) or higher and projects at a resolution of 1920 by 1080 or higher. Many video projectors will support HD video, but only those with a resolution of at least 1920 by 1080 will project with HD quality. You'll also need to budget for a sufficiently long HDMI cable to connect the video source and the projector. Even if the projector supports VGA, DVI or other video cables, you'll need HDMI to ensure the data going to the projector remains at the 1080p or 1080i level.

While projectors for large venues often reach HD quality, most of the video projectors researched in late 2011 for this article were for home theater use. These HD video projectors have a wide price range, from around $200 on the very low end all the way up to $7,500, though most fall between $600 and $3,000. The most noticeable contributor to the price is the contrast ratio. At the extremes, the most inexpensive model found in our research had a contrast ratio of 600:1 while the $7,500 model was 50,000:1. Generally speaking, the difference in price is roughly proportional to the difference in contrast ratios.

Features that address throw distance challenges or improve the projected image also contribute to the quality and price differences in projectors. For example, one higher-end projector researched for this article had a 2x motorized zoom lens, allowing for a wider variance in throw distance than many other models. Also, some projectors include the latest projection technologies of Digital Light Processing (DLP) or Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) rather than the cheaper, more common Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology.

Setup and maintenance costs for an HD video projector will be similar to those without HD capability. For setup, this includes buying a screen and mounting mechanism. For maintenance, this includes lamp and filter replacements and replacing batteries in remote controls. The one exception is the additional cost of an HDMI cable if you don't already have one. HDMI cables typically cost more than VGA, component and other video cable types.

Now that you know HD, how about the newer 3-D technology? Let's check out 3-D video projectors next.

3-D Video Projectors

If you're in the market for 3-D video projectors, you have a lot to choose from. What makes 3-D devices different is that they can project what looks like two images overlaid with a slight offset. You'll need to wear the 3-D glasses that come with the projector to perceive the two images as one three-dimensional picture. We've covered this technology in more detail in our article How 3-D TV Works.

When selecting a 3-D video projector, you'll first choose between these different types:

  • Full HD 3-D projectors can project two separate images on the screen at once in the offset needed to produce a 3-D effect, and they're compatible with the 1080p 3-D signal from Blu-ray players and other HDMI 1.4 standard devices.
  • PC 3-D-ready projectors can accept 120 Hz video refresh rates from a computer's 3-D video card, such as those featuring NVIDIA's 3-D Vision technology.

As of this writing, HD 3-D projectors range in price from $850 to $6500. The PC 3-D-ready projectors fell in the same range, but included some cheaper models around $300. No matter which type you choose, the projector's up-front cost and maintenance is higher when you decide to go 3-D. Here are some of the costs you should expect besides the projector itself:

  • A screen and mounting mechanisms -- These additions apply here as with other types of video projectors.
  • Additional and replacement 3-D glasses -- Most 3-D projectors we found included two pair of glasses. Extras could run you between $80 and $150 for each pair. The type of glasses you need depends on the requirements of your particular projector.
  • A 3-D video card -- If you're using a 3-D-ready projector with a computer, the computer will need 3-D video capability. NVIDIA GeForce cards with 3-D Vision cost between $75 and $750 -- the higher-end cards are recommended for gaming.
  • Cables -- If you don't have an HDMI cable that's capable of carrying HDMI 1.4 digital signals, you'll need to purchase one. Be sure it's long enough for a direct connection between the video source and projector.
  • Batteries -- Besides batteries for a remote control, each pair of glasses might require batteries, too. This is because many 3-D video projectors rely on technology in the glasses to actively work with the projector to form the image that your eyes should perceive. Most of these glasses have rechargeable batteries, though, which minimizes battery cost over time.

Sometimes you need portability in a projector. On the next page, we'll check out what makes video projectors portable, and how you should shop differently when you have portability in mind.

Portable Video Projectors

Don't forget: If you opt for a portable video projector, you'll also need a sturdy carrying case for it.
Don't forget: If you opt for a portable video projector, you'll also need a sturdy carrying case for it.
©iStockphoto.com/Pablo Eder

Many video projectors on the market today are small and light enough to easily move from place to place, even if they're not labeled as portable. If portability is a major factor in your purchase, though, that may not be enough. If you travel with the projector, you're probably looking for something that meets these criteria:

  • Lightweight
  • Fits into a reasonably sized carrying case
  • Sturdy enough to handle minor bumps during transport
  • Bright enough to work in a variety of unpredictable lighting conditions
  • A good warrantee

To ensure a video projector has these features, look for those specifically designed for portability. Today, portable video projectors range in size and weight, so start by looking for one you're comfortable carrying around. From there, look for high brightness levels. Brighter is better if you expect to use the projector in rooms with a lot of ambient light, like windowed conference rooms or dimly-lit lecture halls.

While purchasing a portable projector means you might not be buying a screen or mounting mechanisms, it likely will involve purchasing a case. Look for cases designed to protect delicate electronic equipment like video projectors. Estimate $100 to $200 for a well-constructed tote or carrying case.

By going portable, you don't have to give up HD or 3-D technology. For example, the InFocus IN1112 Projector is PC 3-D ready. While its native resolution is 1280 by 800, the IN1112 supports a maximum resolution of 1920 by 1200 and HDMI connections for 1080i and 1080p content. The IN1112 weighs only 2.7 pounds (1.2 kilograms) and retails for $1022 [source: InFocus].

No matter which video projector you use, don't let higher specifications or higher prices lead you to assume you're getting a better product. Read both positive and negative product reviews for each projector you're considering. When you read a review, consider whether the user's setup environment is similar to your own to determine if you could have the same experience. You may be surprised to discover that some inexpensive and lesser-known brands of video projectors work quite well for situations like yours.

Even if you don't buy your video projector in a store, another thing you might consider is visiting a store that specializes in designing and installing home theater systems. Just talking to a representative can help you match the right technology to your environment. If you're not comfortable setting up the equipment after you buy it, these experts might offer installation services, too.

Through this article, we've looked at the key specifications and features of video projectors and what to consider when selecting and purchasing one. For lots more information on buying video projectors, slide on over to the next page.

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Sources

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  • Hoffman, Tony. "Top 10 Best Projectors." PCMag.com. Ziff Davis, Inc. Aug. 25, 2011. (Nov. 14, 2011) http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2374594,00.asp
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  • Katzmaier, David. "'One million' to one: Why contrast ratio is the Dr. Evil of HDTV specs." CNET. CBS Interactive. Jan. 22, 2009. (Nov. 14, 2011) http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6029_7-6301087-1.html
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