If you have deep pockets, you can buy some huge TVs nowadays, but for a truly big screen experience you're going to need a projector. The technology has improved a great deal over the last few years, and projectors are more affordable than ever, but there are lots of things to consider if you want to make sure you get the right projector.
Entertainment or Business?
The first thing to think about is the kind of content you want to show on the projector. Most business projectors are going to be used for a series of still images. If you're thinking about PowerPoint presentations and bar charts, then look in the business category. The home projector category is going to handle full motion video a lot better. If you want to play movies or games, make sure that your chosen projector can handle them.
Indoor vs. Outdoor
For the most part, if you want to use a projector outdoors, you need better quality all-round. You want the highest brightness, because you have less control over the ambient light, you want a high resolution and contrast ratio to boost your chances of a great picture, and you'll need a good screen or surface, and a decent sound system. One thing that might be more of a concern with an indoor projector is the noise it makes when operating, because that's going to be more noticeable in a small room, but beyond that a good outdoor projector will work well indoors too.
You should check out the reviews for your prospective projectors carefully and make sure that you get a reliable model. You'll often see a lamp life rating, estimating the maximum hours you'll get before needing to replace the bulb. Obviously the higher that is, the better your chances of it lasting a longer time. You should also check out the cost of replacement bulbs and other parts, and get an idea of how easy it will be to maintain and repair, should you need to.
If you're planning to install your projector in a fixed position, for something like a home theater, then you don't really have to worry about portability at all. If you plan on traveling around, using it for business presentations, then you'll want something that's as small as possible.
You could pick up a good quality, portable business projector for presentations, for as little as $300, but you should expect to pay a bit more if you want a decent range of features and quality. For home entertainment you should be ready to spend between $800 and $3,000 for a good projector. You can spend a lot more than that if you want the best. A good 4K projector could set you back $10,000 easily. Bear in mind that you'll want some money left for your screen and audio setup.
Zoom Range and Lens Shift
You should also consider the zoom range and lens shift capabilities carefully if you think you'll be using your projector in a variety of different environments, because these features will allow you to change the throw distance and alter the size and position of what you're projecting. Short throw projectors can be used in tight spaces and small rooms, whereas you'll need a long-throw lens if you want to use a projector in a theater or a very large space.
The aspect ratio is the shape of the video image you are projecting and it's really all about the source material. A standard TV has an aspect ratio of 4:3, while HDTV, widescreen DVD, and Blu-Ray content is 16:9 or closer to it. Most modern projectors are 16:9.
If you're using it for presentations then you can save money by going with a relatively low resolution, for example, SVGA is 800 x 600 pixels and will serve adequately. It really depends on the input material, so if you want to show HD movies and play games, you'll want a resolution of at least 1920 x 1080 pixels. If you're going to mix and match content, don't assume that a higher resolution projector will handle lower resolution content well, you really have to check. You can get 4K projectors, but you'll have to pay a premium, and there's a lack of 4K content right now.
The brightness you need depends on the environment where you'll be using the projector. The darker the environment is, the lower the brightness you can get away with, but, as a general rule, the brighter your projector is, the better. You'll find that brightness is measured in lumens. A rating of 1,000 lumens or less might be perfectly adequate for a business projector, to be used in small, darkened rooms. For a movie projector in an environment with some ambient light you might want a rating of 5,000 lumens or more.
This tells you the difference between the darkest and the brightest parts of the picture. The higher the contrast ratio, the better the picture will look. But lots of other factors, such as ambient light and screen quality will come into play here, so you can't rely on this spec alone.
The Right Technology
The vast majority of projectors on the market are going to be DLP (Digital Light Processing) or LCD (Liquid Crystal Display). DLP projectors have more moving parts and can suffer from the rainbow effect, because they use a spinning color wheel. LCD projectors are more reliable, but they tend to be a bit heavier. If you can afford to spend a bit more then another technology, called LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicone) will deliver the best quality images, but LCOS projectors tend to be comparatively heavy and expensive.
Projectors generally always have VGA ports, and you might find a range of other options, but if you're using it for games and movies then you'll want an HDMI port. A useful option for some people, especially in the business world, is a USB port that can handle a flash drive, because it's a handy way to carry a presentation.
Wi-Fi support can be very useful for streaming from all sorts of modern devices, so you don't have to plug in directly. For fixed projectors, an Ethernet port can be a really good idea, because it allows you to operate the projector online and it will be more reliable than Wi-Fi.
The quality of the picture is also dependent on the screen or surface that you are projecting onto. If you'll be using your projector in a lot of different places then you might not be able to control this. For that reason it could be worth considering buying a roll-out screen on a tripod that you can take with you and set up anywhere. If you plan on a fixed set-up, then consider using special projector screen paint on the wall you'll be projecting on, or buy a special screen.
You're going to struggle to find a projector with good built-in speakers. Sound might not be a factor for business presentations, but for home entertainment you need to consider some kind of speaker setup, ideally a surround sound system. It will work best if the source plugs directly into your sound system and the projector separately.
Readers, have any of you bought a projector recently? What features were the most important to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!