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How to Pick a Projector

Close-up multimedia projector with blurred people background.
Overdose Studio/Shutterstock.com

If you want to buy a projector but are confused by the terminology, price points, and accessories, it’s okay. We’re here to break it all down for you and provide the basic knowledge you need to ensure you choose a projector that’s perfect for you.

Projectors aren’t just boxes that throw light at a wall or screen. There’s a diverse range of projection products with many applications and price points. While this can lead to confusion, it also shows how specialized projectors have become and how it is possible to tailor your setup to your exact requirements. These requirements could include portability, price point, limited space available, lighting conditions, and the ability to play video games.

Projector Terminology 101

Part of the problem when buying a projector is the jargon involved. If you don’t know your lumens from your keystone, or your throw distance from your aspect ratio, you may feel that you’re buying blind. Luckily you don’t need expert-level knowledge to make an informed decision. Let’s look at some of the terms you may see when shopping for a projector and what they mean.

  • Resolution: Like your TV, projectors offer resolution options like 720p, 1080p, and 4k. The higher the number, the more pixels condensed into your viewing space and the sharper the image.
  • Lumens: Another critical factor is how bright the projection is. A brighter image is less likely to be washed out by other light sources like lamps or uncovered windows. Brightness is measured in lumens; the higher the number of lumens, the brighter and stronger your projection will be.
  • Contrast Ratio: Similarly, the contrast ratio illustrates how big a difference there is between the light and dark of your image and is usually measured in white to black parts (e.g., 20,000:1). A higher contrast ratio means whiter whites, blacker blacks, and a more impactful image. Contrast can be enhanced with a dynamic iris, which opens or closes depending on the amount of light an image requires.
  • Color gamut/coverage: Color gamut (or coverage) is the number of colors the projector can display. More colors mean more accurate, higher-quality pictures.
  • Autofocus: Some projectors come with built-in autofocus, which adjusts and sharpens your image. Others require you to focus the image manually.
  • Keystone Adjustment: As a projector is rarely dead-center with the surface it is projecting onto, you need to square the image off, so it isn’t thin at one end, broad at the other, and distorted all-round. This is where the keystone comes in, it allows you to square off the image and compensate for your projection angle. Some projectors have automatic keystones.
  • LED Bulb: The most common way to project an image is with an LED bulb, which does a perfectly fine job. You can get 4k, 4000 lumens LED projectors. However, the bulbs run hotter and emit more noise than the bulbs in laser projectors. They don’t last as long either and may need to be replaced if you have a projector for a few years.
  • Laser projectors tend to be more expensive, but the extra cost comes with some benefits. The bulbs last a lot longer and are unlikely to be the first part of the projector that fails. Laser projectors don’t get as hot as LED bulbs, so there should be less fan noise and a shorter cooling-off period. They can also provide brighter, sharper images with better colors than LEDs.
  • Throw Distance: To put it simply, the throw distance is how far back the projector needs to be from the surface it is projecting on. Long-throw distances can be over nine feet away from the screen or wall, short-throw projectors settle somewhere between three and eight feet, while ultra-short-throw projectors can be just inches from the surface they are projecting onto. This doesn’t mean a long-throw projector has to be 12 feet away or it won’t work, you can move it a few feet closer, but the image it is projecting will be smaller.
  • Input Lag: Input lag or latency is the time between a projector receiving a piece of video and actually displaying it. This isn’t an issue with most applications but can have a massive impact on video game performance and is a reason why projectors were, until relatively recently, a less than ideal choice for video games. Specialist gaming projectors have since hit the market, some of which claim to have latency on par with high-end TVs.


A mounted projector

If you want the best experience possible or want to get the most out of your lower to mid-range projector, you will need some accessories. The most basic of these is a screen, some way to mount the projector, and a sound system. There are also accessories available if you want to travel with your projector.

Screens and Speakers

Screens don’t have to be expensive. At a basic level, it’s just a flat white surface for you to project your image onto. However, like the projectors themselves, there are higher quality and specialist screens available at higher price points. Some of the more expensive screens may include ambient light rejection, which helps protect a projection from other light sources like lamps and sunlight, and screens with rear projection capability. Rear projection hides the projector behind the screen but usually requires an ultra-short-throw projector. This is more a limitation of space than anything, a short or long-throw projector is capable of rear projecting if you can place it behind your screen at the correct throw distance.

Auto screens, which roll up and down at the push of a button, are also available. These are useful if you want to use a wall for other things when the projector is not in use.

Although some projectors come with good built-in speakers, an independent speaker system is something to consider. This can range from a soundbar to a full-fledged surround sound system, offering better sound than even the best built-in speakers. Some cheaper projectors don’t have audio out jacks, but if you’re using a laptop and HDMI cable in your setup, you can just Bluetooth or wire the speaker directly to that.

120'' Projector Screen Projection Screen Manual Pull Down

120" manual pull down screen saves space on your wall without the expense of an auto screen.

Stands and Mounts

Then there are stands and mounts. You may be able to place your projector on a coffee table, but an adjustable stand or mount is something to consider. Stands are usually collapsable tripods your projector will either screw into or just sit on. These are great if you like packing your projector away when it isn’t in use, as they are also compact and easy to store. They are also handy if you want to travel with your projector.

Projector mounts are a more permanent solution, universal, and more difficult to install. They bolt into a wall or ceiling, and then your projector is screwed onto them. They are adjustable to some degree, but you will need to make sure your projector is in the position you want it to be in before you start drilling. You may also need to install a plug to power your projector near the mount, though installing one near an existing power source and planning a route for the wire is possible.

Using a permanent mount for your projector has some benefits. Once it is set up, it is unlikely to require much adjustment as your projector will always be the same distance and at the same angle from the surface it is projecting onto. Your mount could also save you space as being high up on a wall or screwed to the ceiling usually means something is out of the way. People walking by will also be less likely to throw a shadow across your screen if the projector is mounted high.

Elitech Universal Extendable Ceiling Projector Mount

Adjustable ceiling mount that gives more installation options and makes mistakes easier to fix.

Gaming Projectors

The BenQ TH671ST gaming projector.

While playing your favorite games on a wall-sized 4K screen might be tempting, gamers need to be extra careful when choosing a projector. While most mid-range or better projectors will be fine for most gamers, there is a danger of inconsistent picture quality, input lag, and refresh rate. If you want to play games with the lights on and don’t want to shell out for an ambient light-resistant screen, you’ll need to make sure your projector is powerful enough to produce a clear image with other light sources around.

The easiest way to ensure a projector will meet your gaming needs is to buy one specifically built for gaming. A gaming projector will ensure all boxes are ticked regarding latency, picture quality, brightness, and refresh rate while including a few gaming-related bonuses. The extras can range from specific gaming modes that tweak various settings to support for features like AMD FreeSync or NVIDIA G-Sync.

BenQ X1300i

Specialist gaming projector with three unique gaming modes.

Long-Throw Projectors

A projector on a stand far away from the screen

A long throw projector requires nine or more feet of space to project to its full potential. They are often, but not always, cheaper than a short-throw or ultra-short-throw projector—and when they’re a similar price or more expensive than their shorter throw counterparts, you tend to get a lot more for your money. As a result, it’s better to think of a shorter throw distance as a pricy feature rather than a separate device.

Long-throw projectors can be quieter than shorter-throw models, mainly because projecting an image over a longer distance requires less processing power and generates less heat. Long-throw projectors can offer true 4K resolution– unlike ultra-short-throw models that have to upscale to 4K. The main downside of a long-throw projector is the space it requires. If you want a large screen, one of a projector’s main benefits, you’ll need a lot of distance between your projector and the projection surface. That position also means people walking across the room are more likely to cast a shadow on your image.

BenQ HT2050A 1080P Home Theater Projector

1080p projector capable of daytime projection and gaming.

Short-Throw Projectors

A usp projector

If you live in a cramped apartment, you may think you don’t have room for a projector. If you rent, you may not even have the option of screwing one into the ceiling in an attempt to get some distance. The good news is, with the right projector, distance is less of an issue. Short throw projectors can operate from as little as three feet from the surface you are projecting onto, with some going back eight feet for a larger image. This is ideal if you have a coffee table a few feet away from a large empty wall.

There are some downsides to short-throw projectors. They cost more than a long-throw projector, and the extra processing power tends to make them run hot. As a result, the built-in fans that cool your short throw projector might overpower the audio from whatever you’re watching — or at least be noticeable enough to cause annoyance.

A slight knock on a short-throw projector can also throw the image way off. If someone bumps into that convenient coffee table you’ve placed it on, then prepare to spend some time readjusting your image — even if your short throw projector only moved slightly. Top-end models do come with features like automatic focus and keystone adjustment, but as you’re paying a premium with a short-throw projector, you can expect a model with those features to be very expensive.

Optoma GT1080HDR Gaming Projector

This premium projector features a gaming mode, 4K UHD support, and 3,800 lumens of brightness for daytime use.

Ultra-Short-Throw Projectors

People watching a film with the Samsung Premiere projector.

As the name suggests, ultra-short-throw (UST) projectors can project a large image from just inches away. A UST can allow you to enjoy a 100+ inch projected screen with very little space requirements. You’re good to go as long as you have a surface big enough to project on, which could even be a screen you’ve set up. You can also use some ultra-short-throw projectors to rig up a “rear-throw” setup where you place the projector behind a rear-projection screen.

As with short-throw projectors, the space-saving applications of a UST come at a heavy premium. A good UST projector will set you back thousands of dollars. Unless your wall is perfectly smooth, a UST will require a screen too. The angle they project from means anything but a smooth, flat surface is likely to show every minor imperfection. If you can put up with it, it will do in a pinch. But a screen will make for a better experience.

And speaking of screens, UST projectors are best when you buy an Ambient Light Rejecting (ALR) screen. They take advantage of the extreme angle that a UST projector throws to block out light from your windows or lamps in favor of just the projected image, to give you a clear and crisp image even in a bright room. But they are more expensive than standard projector screens.

UST and short throw projectors are great when space is at a premium, but if you have room or the ability to mount a long-throw projector, that is likely your best option.

LG Electronics HU715QW Ultra Short Throw 4K UHD

4K Ultra-Short-Throw projector capable of operating from as little as four inches away.

Portable Projectors

Outdoor movie with travel projector

Using a projector in your living room might not appeal to you. But if the idea of playing a movie outside during an evening garden party or taking a projector to a friend’s place for a movie/gaming night sounds cool—you should consider a portable projector. Portable projectors are compact and capable of powering themselves for a few hours.

Although the idea of throwing a can-sized projector in your bag and heading on your way sounds nice, portable projectors do pair best with accessories. Pairing one with a screen is advisable, though plenty of people have used the side of a house or a white garage door. Some form of backup battery and charging cable is nice if you’re planning on playing multiple movies. If you want to play something from Netflix or Hulu, you will need the internet, so add a phone capable of creating a personal hotspot to the list.

The speakers attached to the projector may be okay, but okay may not be enough outside — especially if the wind turns up. So better speakers are a good idea. And then there’s a tarp of some kind to help shade the projection surface from the sun if you’re playing movies during daylight hours. These things are nice, and you should consider them, but you can still have a good time in the backyard with just your tiny projector once the sun goes down.

Anker Nebula Capsule Max

A small portable projector with a four-hour battery life.

Ultra-Cheap Projectors

A budget projector

You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars. If you want to try a projector out, you can get an entry-level HD projector for significantly less than $100. Some of them even come with accessories like screens, so you don’t even need a white wall to aim it at. Of course, you aren’t going to get anything mind-blowing in the budget section. You will need at least 10 feet of room between your projector and the wall; the projection won’t be in sharp focus, the included speakers will be awful, the slightest bit of outside light will make the projection unviewable, and input will be limited to an HDMI cable and a USB port.

However, you can still have a good experience with a cheap projector and, for the curious, it’s well worth the low entry fee. Couple it with a reasonable screen and a good soundbar, plug your laptop in, close the curtains, and have a cinema night with family or friends. My first projector was of the bargain basement variety; it still came out during every sporting event, party, and gathering. You’re still getting a 100+ inch HD projection, and the darkroom adds to the cinema atmosphere. Buy it, try it out, get obsessed, then buy a more expensive one.

7500Lumens Mini Projector

$76 with an "extra 30% off" on top. This is probably as cheap as it gets, but will give you a great entry-level experience.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »