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Projector and Screen Buying Guide

You want big and you’ve asked Google about the price of 100 inch TVs. Rather than taking out of mortgage for one, you’ve hit upon the idea of a projector but it’s a little more complex than just a bigger panel on the wall - so what do you need to know?

This guide covers home cinema projectors and screens, if you are looking for other information, have a look at our other buying guides or contact us for advice.

How Big?

At the time of writing, it’s worth going to a projector for images above about 80 inches, below that a TV may make more sense financially. In terms of maximum size, it’s really as big as you want, but in practical terms you’ll hit one of the following limits:

  • Your wall width and ceiling height - limiting the physical size of the screen and image
  • Maximum projector throw distance - the further away the bigger the image, but at the cost of brightness and resolution - each pixel gets bigger.
  • Available positioning - Your projector may well be able to throw from well outside the dimensions of your room, but it can’t operate through walls.

Remember the closer you are, the bigger the image, so consider where you’re actually going to be seated.

What type of screen?

You have a few options here, manual and electric drop down screens allow you to hide them away when not in use, or have a small TV behind for everyday use. Weighted bars at the bottom of the screen provide the tension to flatten out the surface when it drops. Tab tensioned screens pull the fabric from the sides too, for a flatter surface still.

Fixed frame screens provide a permanent fixture on the wall. The fabric is held taught to a rigid frame for the best possible surface. These are the no compromise option and are usually cheaper too.

Unless you need to hide the screen, we’d always suggest you go for fixed frame.

You’ll see various options including colours, gain rating and acoustic transparency. Really quickly here’s what to look for:

  • White screens are fine for most rooms, though some people prefer light grey options.
  • Gain reflects the apparent brightness of the screen (1.0 being reference.) You’ll only need a high gain for rooms with high ambient light. Otherwise keep it lower for improved viewing angle.
  • Acoustic transparent screens allow sound to pass through more easily, so speakers can be installed behind them.
  • Black edges to a screen will increase perceived contrast, so avoid “no-bezel” or “no-border” options unless you really need them.

What about my room?

As dark as possible for best results, light, especially daylight, is the enemy of projected images. You can get screens and projectors which can compensate for this to a degree, but think about a cinema, turn the lights off and install some blackout blinds. This is a limitation of projectors - a TV will have an advantage in brighter rooms.

Do I really need a screen?

No, you can project directly onto a white wall, but it’s a bit of a waste. Allocate at last some of your budget to a screen for best results. Again, think about a commercial cinema, if they could get away with projecting onto a painted surface, they’d all be doing so.

Which projector?

If you have a fairly standard layout with the projector mounted centrally (horizontal plane) on the ceiling and are flexible on the distance from the screen, you can look at pretty much any home cinema projector.

If you need to offset the projector left or right for any reason, look for lens shift. If you want to position it close to the screen, look at short or ultra short throw models. Cheaper models usually come with less available adjustment, typically manually adjusted from the unit. More premium models have easier remote controlled adjustments and sometimes screen memory features too.

In any case, do your maths, or take the easier option and use an online throw distance calculator for the projector in question before buying either a projector or screen. If in doubt, ask us.

Like TVs, projectors vary significantly in both features and image quality. Some aspects like available adjustment or brightness, you can glean by reading the specifications, but image quality is subjective, so you’ll need to make up your own mind. Key things to look for are motion handling, blacks and contrast.

You’ll see projectors either with traditional bulbs or more recent laser systems. Bulbs need replacing after a few thousand hours (say 1000 films), so factor in the cost of new bulbs and be aware suspiciously cheap replacements usually don’t perform as well, or last as long, as the original manufacturer bulbs.

Laser projectors are more expensive but will keep going for tens of thousands of hours. They are typically rated higher for brightness and perform better in terms of colour reproduction.

Other Considerations

Projectors usually come with built in speakers, these are possibly the only speakers worse than the ones that come in a new TV. You’ll need a sound system of some variety.

If you can’t have a projector perfectly square to your screen, you’ll need to look for something called ‘Keystone Correction’, which compensates for a not quite rectangular image.

Screen aspect ratios - You’ll see various options, the most common being 16:9 and 2.35:1 (sometimes 2.4:1 or 21:9) screens. 16:9 is the standard for TV, 2.35:1 is the cinema widescreen standard. Content with the matching aspect ratio will fill the screen and most people opt for 16:9. With a 16:9 screen you’ll see black horizontal bars with 2.35:1 content. If you projector a 16:9 image onto 2.35:1 screen however, you’ll get the opposite effect - vertical black bars.

Mounting a projector on the ceiling or high shelf is the usual way to install it. You’ll need to get power and HDMI cables up there. We recommend you keep the HDMI cable as short as possible. There are also some wireless options available if you want to get rid of the HDMI cable altogether.

Watch out for more expensive models being both bigger and heavier than you expect. Carefully consider your mounting options. Also think about ventilation if you intend to box in a projector, they need air.

Trigger cables and other control options allow other devices to control the power on your projector and drop/retract an electric screen, along with other equipment. So you can turn on one device (say an AV Receiver) and have everything else power on too.

Video processing can introduce delays into a projected image. HDMI has a system of correction which will automatically communicate with a sound system to compensate for this, but gaming users may suffer from a perceptible input lag. Turning off processing in the options can reduce this, or consider a specific gaming projector if you are likely to do a lot of gaming on your system.

Finally, projectors have an array of image adjustment available - a properly calibrated device will reward you with a more natural image. Don’t expect it to be perfect out of the box.