If your thirst for visual entertainment has outgrown the size of – sensibly priced – monitors and TVs, the chances are good you need to start looking at a projector. Whether you need one for business meetings, gaming, or for watching the latest 3D or Full HD movies on Blu-ray or DVD, there are plenty of options on the market – but it’s important to figure out what your requirements are before you reach for you wallet. IT Reviews helps you make sense of the specs.
In theory, projectors are a great idea: small, compact units, they beam an image on to any flat surface in sizes up to many feet wide. When you start getting to diagonal display size of 60in or more, they’re pretty much the only option that doesn’t require you to re-mortgage your house.
First things first
A projector requires a specific type of room, however, and before you even think about the bells and whistles you’d like your device to have you need to make sure that you’re ready for your purchase.
While it’s true that a projector will beam a picture on to any flat surface, not all surfaces are created equal. A wall makes a good makeshift display surface for impromptu meetings, but the near-invisible texture will drive you mad when you start using it to watch films. Likewise, any tint in the paint – even if it’s ‘eggshell’ white instead of ‘alpine’ white – will result in the final image looking ever-so-slightly off-colour.
Some people build their own projection surface: a smooth wall or piece of plasterboard painted in a specific off-white shade of light grey will make a marvellous, contrast-rich surface – but it can be difficult to get right. Commercial solutions aren’t always cheap, but a ceiling-mounted, pull-down screen – or even a motorised unit, which automatically descends when the projector is turned on – is a sound investment. But again, it all adds to the already considerable cost of the enterprise.
Once the screen is sorted, you’ll need to think about where the projector lives. Unlike a normal TV, the projector sends beams of light to the display surface from its front-mounted lens – meaning if there’s anything between the projector and the display, you’ll get a shadow where there should be a picture.
To solve this, most people opt to ceiling-mount their projectors. If you can’t do that – because of a low-hanging light fitting, or lack of solid beam to anchor the projector to – you’ll need some form of shelving or plinth on which the projector will stand. Because most projectors have quite a loud fan in them, you’ll also want to position this so it’s not right next to your ear when you’re sitting down to watch a film.
While many projectors have in-built speakers, the quality is far from impressive. For home use, you’ll want to upgrade your sound system to match your new projector – so if you’re upgrading from a TV with in-built speakers, be sure to leave room in the budget for an AV receiver and a set of speakers.
When you’ve got your room just so, it’s time to go shopping for the projector itself.
If you’re buying for business use, there’s some good news: you don’t need to spend a fortune. While home users will want a high-definition projector that can handle fast-moving video seamlessly, your average PowerPoint presentation looks just fine at resolutions as low as 800×600 – or, with a clever choice of font, even 640×480. And because they’re generally static, the demands on the projector’s processing power will be considerably lower too.
As a result, you can pick up a good-quality business projector for as little as £200. Key features to look for are short throw length – the distance between the projector and the display surface, with a shorter length preventing the image becoming too small when you’re using the projector in a cramped environment – input types, and brightness.
Because projectors do their trick on a white – or just-off-white – surface, they struggle to produce images in a well-lit room. The brighter the projector (measured in ANSI lumens) the better the picture will look. If you typically carry out meetings in pitch darkness, by all means opt for a cheap low-brightness projector – but if you don’t want people squinting, think about splashing out on one of the brighter models.
One thing to keep an eye on, however, is lamp life: typically, bright projectors mean a shorter lifespan for the lamp. With a replacement lamp often costing a large chunk of the original purchase price of a cheaper projector, the costs can add up. Make sure that you’ve budgeted for the running costs before buying a new projector.
The input types that the projector accepts should match whatever devices you’ll be using most frequently to hook up to the projector. For most business users, this would be a D-SUB VGA connector, while Apple users might need to look at models with DisplayPort connectivity. While some projectors offer multiple inputs, most of the time you’ll only need the one.
If you’re often on the road, perhaps having to make presentations in clients’ offices, you might want to think about a ‘pico-projector’. While relatively new in the market, these pocket-sized marvels are causing a stir: using LED lighting and clever lenses, they allow a laptop to project a – small and relatively dim, admittedly – image using battery power. They’re inexpensive, but often have low resolutions of around 640×480 and little brightness, so don’t rely on one as your sole projector.
If you’re a home user, the chances are good that you’ll be playing games and watching films on your projector. If so, we’ve got some bad news for you: to get the most out of your setup, you’re going to have to dig deep.
While most business projectors run at a resolution of 800×600 or 1024×768 at a 4:3 aspect ratio, the films and games you’re playing will be produced in high-definition widescreen. Depending on your setup, that’s either 1280×720 (720p or ‘HD Ready’) or 1920×1080 (1080p or ‘Full HD’), both with an aspect ratio of 16:9.
When buying a projector for home use, pay close attention to the resolution: many projectors claim a 16:9 aspect ratio, but run at a 4:3 resolution like 1024×768. These emulate a widescreen ratio by blanking off the top and the bottom of the image, resulting in a lowered vertical resolution when watching widescreen content.
For best results, look for a true 720p or 1080p projector – but be aware that you’re going to have to pay for the privilege. A true HD projector should include at least one HDMI input, and boast compatibility with the High Definition Content Protection – or HDCP – restriction management technology, without which Blu-rays won’t play at their true resolution. If you’re dead-set on watching 3D movies at home, you’ll also need to budget for a projector that will handle that feature, too.
If your budget doesn’t stretch to a high-definition projector, don’t panic: for many users, a standard-definition projector delivers visuals almost as impressive. While the detail won’t be the same, the overall effect of having a film playing in your living room on a screen several feet wide is still there – and should help distract you from any quality difference there will be.
If you’re connecting an audio system up to your projector, figure out how it’s going to be wired: while some projectors include passthrough audio, you might be better off sending the HDMI signal to the AV receiver first and then passing the video through to the projector.
Should you find a cheap projector that lacks HDMI, don’t panic: if the projector supports HDCP over a DVI input, you can buy a cheap adapter cable that will convert from one to the other. Avoid projectors that only have analogue inputs, however: while current Blu-rays will play without HDCP, future releases will require the technology to be in place for the full-resolution content to be played.
As with business users, keep in mind the running cost of your projector: replacement lamps are expensive, and you’ll want to make sure that you switch the projector off when you’re not using it. Don’t go overboard, however: projectors take time to cool, and if you switch it off to go to the toilet don’t be surprised if it won’t turn back on again for a few minutes.