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Projector vs. Big Screen TV: Which Should You Buy?

Friends and family watching sports projected onto a white wall
Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com

You don’t have to have a dedicated home theater room to justify using a projector. Flat-screen televisions have been getting bigger and cheaper every year, but projectors can still produce a much larger image for a lot less money! Given the similarities between the two, that raises the question: Should you buy a projector or a TV?

Image Size: Big, Bigger, Biggest

Variable Screen Sizes

Let’s be honest: Size does matter! Bigger is usually better if you have the wall space when it comes to image size. Whether you are watching movies, bingeing TV shows, or playing your favorite video game, it’s easier (less strain) on the eyes when the picture is huge. This single feature of projectors can outweigh any detractors for most people.

Almost as important is that the image size on a projector is variable! Every projector has an image size range that it supports. Moving the projector farther from the projection surface makes the image larger. Moving closer makes it smaller.

The supported image size range is determined by the optical focus ring. If you are in a small apartment, just move the projector closer to the wall. But the same projector can display a massive image on the side of a building.

The same can’t be said for a big-screen TV, which has a fixed image size relative to the size of the screen.

Winner: Projector

Image Quality: All Things Are Not Equal

A projector broadcasting red, green, and blue

The challenge with projectors has always been with picture quality—contrast and color accuracy. The contrast between light and dark can be significantly degraded with ambient light or a poor projection surface. But direct light can cause a reflective glare problem for many TVs, which can be even more annoying.

An image demonstrating the "screen door" effect with purple and blue hues
The “screen door” effect. Avector/Shutterstock.com

Color accuracy for large projection displays is also a challenge. LCD projectors typically do a better job of presenting accurate color, but the LCD pixels are also amplified by the large display surface causing a screen-door effect. DLP projectors use a spinning color wheel to manufacture color, often at the cost of some color accuracy.

LCD and LED big screen televisions also have individual pixels, but the pixel size is designed so that they are small enough to maintain a sharp image given the size of the display. Because the image size does not change, the tiny space between pixels is not amplified into the screen door effect unless you are viewing from an extremely close position.

Winner: Big Screen TV

Flexible Position and Portability: One Is Very Portable, One Is Not

Friends gathering in campsite around bonfire and watching movie with projector on van side in dark evening

Most projectors support both front projection and rear projection. Rear projection is a nice option because the projector can be hidden if you have space to mount it behind the screen. While many projectors need to be many feet away from the projection surface, short-throw projectors, such as the Vava, can be placed on a credenza or other narrow surface just inches away from the wall.

All projectors can be moved much more easily than flat-panel televisions. The same projector that is your daily driver for movies and gaming inside the home is by its very nature a portable projector, and can easily be taken outside and placed on a table, projecting on a simple white sheet for a neighborhood movie night. You can’t do that with a big-screen TV!

Winner: Projector

Image Resolution vs. Size vs. Cost: Pick Any Two

Resolutions compared, HD through 8k
Ron Dale/Shutterstock.com

These days, the industry-standard is 4K resolution. Producing a 4K image from a projector is not an easy task. Native 4K projectors exist, but their cost is at the high end of the spectrum. Most value-oriented projectors are not native 4K. Instead, they are native 1080p images that are pixel shifted.

By moving the 1080p image around in four positions so fast that the human eye can’t tell the difference, a 4K image is perceived. Unless you look at a pixel-shifted 4K image and a native 4K image side-by-side, most people won’t notice a difference. But a native 4K image is superior in direct comparison, especially at a larger screen size.

Today, native 4K televisions are relatively inexpensive up to about 65 inches, with the largest of the “affordable” bunch going up to 85 inches and cost quickly going up from there. There is a niche segment of extremely large flat-panel TVs that can go up to 120 inches or more. But then the issue becomes deciding to spend your money on one of these massive flat panels or that luxury sports car you always wanted. It’s the same amount of money.

Flat-panels have another advantage in that they are always on the cutting edge of display technology. While projectors are having a hard time bringing native 4K to the value segment, flat panels are already starting to display 8K resolution!

Winner: Big-Screen TV

Refresh Rate and Gaming: Projectors Can’t Hang

A woman playing Mario Kart on a projected screen

The minimum refresh rate found on displays today is 30Hz. It’s not awesome. A 60Hz refresh rate is pretty good for watching television and movies, but gaming is a different story entirely. Ideally, we want screen refresh rate to be higher—120Hz or 144Hz or more!

Most projectors can’t do that, particularly in the value segment. It’s already hard enough for them to hit 60Hz while shifting the pixels to produce the 4K image. Meanwhile, there are flat-screen TVs on the market that already boast compliance with the HDMI 2.1 standard supporting 8K at 60Hz or 4K at 120Hz. Combine that with an Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, or Playstation 5 that will all support a 4K signal at 120Hz while also rendering 120fps, and you have gaming nirvana!

From a gaming perspective, the higher the framerate and the higher the refresh frequency, the smoother the image will render on the screen. Odds are, you don’t know what you are missing. But the first time you see 120fps and 120Hz refresh, you will never want to go back to “just” 60fps or 60Hz!

Screen Tearing
Screen Tearing Russ Houberg / Review Geek

Another important feature of HDMI 2.1 is Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), which those same next-generation game consoles and several new flat-screen displays will support. VRR allows the console and the display device to work together to harmonize the screen refresh rate with the game rendering frame rate to eliminate screen tearing.

Screen tearing happens when the rendered image frame is being refreshed by the monitor at the same time it’s being redrawn by the 3D-rendering engine. This happens when the refresh rate and the rendered frame rate (fps) are not the same. The result is that for an instant, the screen is showing parts of an image from multiple frames at the same time. While brief, it is an unpleasant artifact. VRR eliminates this artifact by synchronizing the screen refresh with the rendering rate (fps) of the game console or graphics card.

So if there is a lot going on in a particular “scene” and the console is only able to achieve 80fps, the display device can match the appropriate refresh rate to ensure that every frame of the motion video is still cohesive. Once again, flat screens are definitely ahead of projectors by supporting HDMI 2.1 and VRR features, and hardcore gamers might not be willing to give that up.

Winner: Big-Screen TV

Bottom Line: There’s No Wrong Answer

It’s easy to think that flat panels boast a superior feature set than projectors, and in some ways they do. But the performance differences are generally small. Modern projectors are VERY capable devices. Projectors go a long way to present an amazing viewing experience at the expense of a few features that they can’t yet support at a reasonable cost.

If you are a hardcore gamer and thinking about buying a display device that will enhance your next-generation gaming experience, then you should be looking for a flat-screen TV that supports HDMI 2.1, VRR, and at least a 120Hz refresh rate.

But for everyone else who spends more time watching movies and television shows with only occasional gaming, you simply can’t beat the pleasure of a massive projected image! Home theater projectors may lag behind a bit in technology compared to flat screens, but the important features eventually make their way in. I’m sure we’ll see 4K and 8K resolutions with 120Hz refresh rates in mainstream projectors soon enough. The next-gen gaming consoles will likely encourage that to happen sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, my wife and I spend our evenings gazing upon 100-inches of beautiful 4K screen space projected by our BenQ TK850, which cost us less than $1,500. We love every minute of it!

Russ Houberg Russ Houberg
Russ is a 20+ year veteran of the Information Technology industry and has been that "techie" for a multitude of people and organizations over the years. He holds several professional certifications including Microsoft Certified SharePoint Master and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert. As a published author, he enjoys freelance writing when he has the opportunity.   Read Full Bio »