Projector buying guide
Bring the cinema home with a home theatre projector. Here's what to look for.
The big picture
Home theatre projectors are getting more affordable, and can deliver a picture that dwarfs even the biggest TVs. All the projectors in our home theatre HD projector reviews deliver a screen diagonal of at least 2.5 metres, with some able to show a screen of 10 metres or more. That's some serious real estate to watch the morning news on, so it's pretty clear that these devices are more for special events with family and friends, not just for casually switching on to check the weather.
If you've decided a projector is just the thing to transform your TV room into a home theatre, you may be wondering what to look for and how to get the most out of it.
- What content can you project?
- Projector technology – LCD or DLP?
- Where will you put the projector?
- Do you need a projection screen?
- What you need to know about projector lamps
- Other things to look for when buying a home projector
Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test projectors.
What content can you project?
Most projectors have multiple HDMI connections to display your content from a Blu-ray player, PVR or media streaming device – so you can watch Netflix, Stan or other pay TV content. These days projectors also offer wireless networking support and better connectivity with smartphones, so you can watch your favourite video on the big screen straight from your mobile.
Projector technology – LCD or DLP?
Liquid crystal display (LCD) projectors generally use three transparent LCD panels – one each for red, green, and blue – which let individual pixels be turned on or off as the light passes through to make up the projected picture. Some LCD projectors have been known to produce a 'screen door effect', with fine lines in the projected image that are visible to some people. This can make the picture appear as if you're looking at it though a very fine mesh screen and can be particularly noticeable in large flat areas of light colour.
Digital light processing (DLP) technology uses minuscule mirrors set out in a matrix on a semiconductor chip, known as a digital micromirror device (DMD). Generally, the more mirrors used, the greater the resolution of the projected image. Light is filtered onto the mirrors through a colour wheel to produce alternating red, green and blue screens thousands of times a second, producing the final projected colour image.
DLP projectors using a single chip have been known to produce a 'rainbow effect', a potentially distracting trail of red, green and blue after-images that's particularly visible on high-contrast scenes. However, not everyone will notice this effect – only one panel member in our viewing test noticed this effect and only on a couple of occasions, and they didn't find it distracting. The best way to find out if this will be a problem for you is to look at a DLP projector in action; pick a high-contrast scene and quickly look from one end of the screen to the other.
Where to put your projector
If you mount your projector on the ceiling it will be in a fixed position and distance from your screen or wall. Some mounting brackets even let you recess the projector into the ceiling when not in use but this may require professional installation. The best part of a ceiling mounted solution is you won't have to deal with people walking in front of the projector, which can be irritating. If you decide on a ceiling mounted model, look out for the trigger port feature in the table as this allows you to integrate a motorised tray that lowers the projector when you turn it on.
If you put your projector on a table or shelf, it can be packed away when not being used but you'll have to make basic set-up adjustments each time it's brought out. This process took a few minutes with all the projectors we tested and you should expect the same ease of installation with the model you buy. If you are sure to use your projector this way, you might want to look out for a short throw projector that can be placed close to the screen.
Compared to a good projector screen, a plain painted wall – no matter how clean and consistent – will deliver reduced picture quality in terms of sharpness, highlights, colour balance, contrast and saturation. Projection screens have special optical coatings that enhance their reflective quality. Also, don't forget the benefit of framing your image properly. A good screen will include a non-reflective black border to enhance contrast and provide a clean look to the edges of the picture.
If you don't want a screen, you could consider using special projector screen paint such as Screen Goo or ask at your local paint supplier for advice.
Measured in in 'ANSI lumens', lamp brightness is important for good contrast and picture quality, but crucial if you'll be using your projector in a room with ambient light (rather than in a darkened home cinema).
Projector lamp life has generally improved over the past couple of years. The models we tested claim 2500 to 7500 hours from their lamps depending on how you use your projector. However the big news for the latest generation of projectors is the cost of the lamp replacement, its now much more affordable although you do need to factor in the cost if you're watching a lot of TV or playing video games. Lamps for the latest models typically cost about $100–350 to replace. The LG projectors' lamps deliver an astounding 30,000 hours of life but they're not replaceable, so once you reach that figure (20 years of use for four hours a day) it's time to get another projector.
If you plan to use your projector as a TV replacement rather than for special movie nights only, you may want to factor in both the lamp life claims and the lamp replacement costs.
The projector lamp needs time to heat up before it can display a picture. For better lamp life, it's a good idea to let your projector heat up and cool down according to manufacturer instructions.
Just as people whispering can ruin a night at the movies, so too can a noisy projector fan. The sound produced by the projector will vary depending on whether it's in high brightness or economical mode.
Some models provide USB connectivity only for firmware updates while others can display photos but not video. However, if you have a streaming device such as a Google Chromecast stick you can plug it straight into the projector's HDMI port and power the stick through the USB port – giving you an instant wireless projector to stream your content from your smartphone or tablet.
Infrared (IR) position front/rear
Getting access to the IR sensor can be an issue if you want to operate your projector during a movie. For example, if the projector is placed in front of you and the IR port is at the front you'll have to move in front to use your projector remote. If the projector is ceiling-mounted at the back of the room and the IR port is at the rear of the projector you have a similar problem. Some models have ports at the front and rear.
The physical size of the projector doesn't necessarily have any impact on the resolution it can display. The native resolution is the resolution at which the projector can display images without having to scale the picture up or down. The ideal situation is when the video signal matches the native resolution, but in reality you'll be watching video from different sources at different resolutions.
Keystone / lens shift correction
The 'keystone' effect usually occurs when the image is projected to the screen at an angle. If projected upwards, it results in a picture that's wider at the top and looks like a wedge or 'keystone'.
This feature is necessary for when the projector is positioned off-centre of the screen. Without this feature you'll have to move the whole projector to make a correction.
The distance of the projector from the screen will determine the size of the projected image and affect brightness. This is called the throw ratio, or projection distance. Careful attention needs be paid to the throw ratio to ensure that a projector will fill a screen from its intended position.
The setting can be locked against unauthorised or accidental change.