Casting a Light on the Best Projectors
Projectors have come a long way from the days when the most useful way to categorize them was by their weight class. Today, you can break them down into any number of more meaningful categories, including their intended use (business presentations, home theater, or gameplay), their base technology (LCD, DLP, or LCOS), and the throw distance (how close to the screen you can place the projector). Here are some questions to answer that will help you find a projector with the right features and performance for your needs.
What Kind of Images Do You Plan to Show?
There are four basic kinds of images you can show on a projector: data, video, photos, and games. Any projector can show any kind of image, of course, but it’s important to understand that a given projector might handle one kind of image well without necessarily doing a good job with the others. Naturally, you’ll want a projector that does a good job with the kind of images you plan to throw.
Most models are sold either as data or business projectors, or as home theater, home entertainment, or video projectors. In addition, a small but growing number are sold as models for gameplay.
Data projectors will most likely do well with data images, such as PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, and PDF files, while home theater projectors are best at handling full-motion video. Any projector that handles video well should also do a good job with photos, since photos have a lot in common with video, but without the added complication of movement, which opens the door to additional image artifacts.
Games require some of the capabilities you need for data images and some that you need for video images. If you want to use a projector with video games, and can’t find a review or see a demo that specifically relates to image quality for games, look for a model that handles both video and data images well.
Does Portability Matter to You?
Consider how portable the projector needs to be. You can find models with sizes and weights ranging from small and light enough to fit in a shirt pocket to large and massive enough to be suitable only for a permanent, perhaps mounted, installation. If you want a data projector to carry to business meetings for presentations, a model to take to a friend’s house for a serious LAN party, or a home-theater projector you can stow away when you’re not using it, then be sure to pick an appropriate size and weight. The more you plan to carry it or move it around, the smaller and lighter you’ll want the projector to be.
What Resolution Do You Need?
Ideally, you should match the projector’s native resolution (the number of physical pixels in the projector’s display) to the resolution you expect to use most often, whether you’re planning on connecting to a computer, video equipment, a game console, or some combination of the three. Projectors can scale images up or down to their native resolutions, but they lose image quality in the process.
If you plan to show data images, you should also consider how detailed the images will be. For a typical PowerPoint presentation, SVGA (800 by 600 pixels) may be good enough, and getting an SVGA projector will save money compared with getting one of a higher native resolution. The more detailed the images, however, the higher resolution you’ll want, and we are seeing a growing number of projectors with resolutions of 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) or even higher.
For video, 1080p is the best choice, assuming you have a Blu-ray player, an upscaling DVD player, or another 1080p-capable device as your media source. If there’s any chance you’ll be watching video at lower resolutions, check out how well the projector handles those resolutions, too. We are starting to see 4K projectors, with horizontal resolutions on the order of 4,000 pixels, but they’re still very expensive, and as yet little content is available that can take advantage of their ultra-high resolution.
Do You Need Widescreen Format?
For projecting video and games, you’ll almost certainly want a projector capable of throwing an image in widescreen format. For data projectors, native widescreen resolutions such as WXGA (1,280 by 800 pixels) and even 1080p have become common. If you create your presentations on a widescreen notebook or a monitor, they may look better if you project them in the same format.
How Bright Should the Projector Be?
There is no single best level for brightness, and brighter isn’t always better. For a home theater projector you plan to use in a dark room, for example, 1,000 to 1,200 lumens can easily give you a large, bright image, while 2,000 lumens may be so bright that it’s hard on the eyes. On the other hand, for a portable data projector you expect to use in a well-lit location, 2,000 to 3,000 lumens is the right range. And for large rooms, you may want something even brighter.
The best level of brightness depends on the amount of ambient light, the size of the image, and even the material in the screen you’re using. If you’re setting up a projector for permanent installation, whether at home or in your office, your best bet is to buy from a knowledgeable source that can help you match the brightness to the lighting conditions and screen in the room.
If you’re trying to choose between two models, keep in mind that a small percentage difference in lumens—2,000 versus 2,200, for example—isn’t terribly significant. The perception of brightness is nonlinear, which means you need far more than twice as many lumens for a projector to appear twice as bright. Also, a projector’s true brightness tends to be a little less than its rated brightness.
Contrast Ratio: Take It Seriously, or Not?
Contrast ratio is the ratio between the brightness of the brightest and darkest areas a projector can produce. All other things being equal, a higher contrast ratio indicates more vibrant, eye-catching colors and more detail showing in dark areas on the screen. Because other factors are also involved, however, knowing the contrast ratio doesn’t tell you much.
How Do You Plan to Connect?
Most projectors offer, at a minimum, a VGA (analog) connector for a computer and a composite video connector for video equipment. If your computer has a digital output, you may also want a digital connection on the projector, because it will eliminate any chance of problems, such as jittering pixels caused by poor signal synchronization.
For video sources, the preferred connection choice is HDMI (assuming your video equipment has HDMI connectors), with component video a close second. Some projectors are now adding HDMI ports that support Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), which let you project from Android devices, and in some cases, charge them, too. Many models offer Wi-Fi connectivity, usually through a (generally optional) wireless dongle that fits in a USB port that also supports projecting from a thumb drive.
Which Technology Do You Want?
Today’s projectors are based on one of four imaging technologies: digital light processing (DLP), liquid-crystal display (LCD), liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS), and laser raster. (Don’t confuse laser raster projectors, which actually draw the images using lasers, with models that simply use lasers as a light source for another imaging technology, like a DLP or LCOS chip.)
Most inexpensive DLP projectors and some LCOS-based pico (aka pocket-size) projectors—including both data and video models—project their primary colors sequentially rather than all at once. This can lead to a “rainbow effect,” with light areas on the screen breaking up into little red/green/blue flashes for some people when they shift their gaze or when something onscreen moves. Those who are sensitive to this effect can find it annoying, particularly for long viewing sessions.
LCD projectors are free from rainbow artifacts, but they tend to be bigger and heavier. The general consensus is that standard-size LCOS projectors offer the best-quality images, but they tend to be bigger and heavier than DLP or LCD projectors, as well as far more expensive. There aren’t many laser raster projectors, so it’s hard to make general statements about them. But the one clear advantage of using a laser is that the image doesn’t require focusing.
Do You Need Audio, or 3D Support?
Not all projectors have audio capability, and for those that do, the audio is sometimes all but useless—particularly with highly portable projectors. If you need sound for your presentations or for watching video, make sure that the built-in audio, if any, is both of high enough quality and loud enough to meet your needs. Alternatively, consider using a separate sound system, like powered external speakers.
Showing images in 3D for educational, business, home video, and game applications is one of the leading-edge features for projectors today, and more and more projectors are claiming to be 3D-capable.
Several 3D schemes are available, so just because a projector is 3D-ready doesn’t necessarily mean it will work with the 3D source you want to use. For example, a given projector may work with TI’s DLP-Link, which requires a computer with a quad-buffered, OpenGL, 3D-compatible graphics card, but not work with a 3D Blu-ray player. The good news is that a growing number of 3D-capable projectors can project 3D content from a Blu-ray player, TV set-top box, or similar image source. If you want a projector for 3D, make sure it will work with the specific 3D image source you plan to use it with.
See How We Test Projectors
Do You Need a Big Image in a Small Room?
Finally, consider whether you need a short throw—meaning the ability to cast a given-size image at a short distance from the screen. Short-throw projectors let you throw a large image in tight spaces, and also minimize the risk of people getting in front of the projector and blocking part of the image.
There are no universally accepted definitions for what counts as a short throw, but as an example, while most projectors can throw an approximately 6-foot-wide image from roughly 12 to 15 feet away, most short-throw projectors need 3 to 6 feet, and ultra-short-throw projectors generally need less than a foot.
Downsides of short-throw, and especially ultra-short-throw, projectors are that they are more expensive than traditional models with long-throw lenses, and they tend not to do as well in large conference rooms and small auditoriums. They also require a very flat and stable screen, or the image may suffer some distortion.
Let’s Get Granular With Projector Picks…
At PC Labs, we review a variety of business and consumer projectors every year, evaluating their features and putting them through rigorous performance testing. The models highlighted below span a wide range in purpose, features, portability, and brightness.
Pros: Highly compact and lightweight. 1080p native resolution. Built-in battery. Good data-image quality. Plays music and displays photos or video from memory cards or USB sticks.
Cons: Only so-so video quality.
Bottom Line: The AAXA P7 Mini HD Projector is a tiny 1080p model good for business presentations on the road, and it does a decent job at showing video and photos, as well as playing music.
Pros: Good data-image quality. Great video for a data projector. Reasonably loud audio. USB Type-A port. Compact and easily portable.
Cons: No 3D capabilities. Lacks optical zoom.
Bottom Line: The highly portable Epson EX3260 delivers solid data-image quality and very good video quality in a projector that’s a fine fit for offices and schools.
Pros: Solid data image quality, with bright colors and sharp text. Very good video quality for a data projector. Bright. WXGA resolution.
Cons: Cannot project 3D content.
Bottom Line: The NEC Display Solutions NP-ME401W is a highly capable LCD-based data projector, with high brightness, very good data and video image quality, and a solid set of connection choices.
Pros: Compact. Portable. Modestly priced. Built-in touchpad. Good range of connection ports. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Built-in rechargeable battery. Runs Android 5.1.
Cons: Oversaturated colors in video limits its use to shorter clips. Somewhat fuzzy text. Weak audio. Minuscule focus wheel.
Bottom Line: The AAXA P2-A Smart Pico Projector, despite a few flaws, is a triumph of miniaturization and a good value, its tiny frame bristling with ports and with a touchpad on top.
Pros: Runs the Android TV operating system. Can display video, games, and photos, as well as play music. Good, loud audio. Can serve as a stand-alone Bluetooth speaker.
Cons: Modest brightness output means best for use in darkened rooms.
Bottom Line: The Nebula Capsule II by Anker is an unusual entertainment projector: It runs the Android TV operating system, and can double as a Bluetooth speaker.
Pros: Good data image quality. Ultra-short throw. Long-lasting, mercury-free light source. Includes Wi-Fi adapter.
Cons: Does not include wall mount. Some rainbow artifacts in video.
Bottom Line: The Casio XJ-UT311WN is a hybrid laser/LED data projector with an ultra-short throw distance, good data image quality, and very long lamp life.
Pros: Slim and ultra-light. 1080p resolution. Good data and very good video image quality. Wi-Fi connectivity. Long lamp life for an LCD projector.
Cons: Very soft sound system, and no audio-out to connect to speakers. Can’t project 3D content.
Bottom Line: What’s thin, light, and bright, with 1080p resolution? Epson’s PowerLite 1795F Wireless Full HD 1080p 3LCD Projector, a highly portable model good with data-heavy media and excellent with video, but packing soft audio.
Pros: Lightweight and compact. 1080p resolution. Projects sharp text. Good port selection. 4GB of internal memory.
Cons: Notably feeble audio. Rainbow effect in video.
Bottom Line: The InFocus IN1118HD is a very portable, versatile 1080p data projector that delivers sharp text and can be used for short video clips.
Pros: Affordable. Stylish design. Minimal rainbow effect in video. Can project from multiple sources. Rechargable internal battery.
Cons: Low brightness and modest resolution. No tripod.
Bottom Line: The Kodak Luma 150 is a tiny, highly portable projector that can show content from a range of sources, both wired and wireless, but its brightness is low enough to crimp image size.
Pros: Good overall image quality. Sleek housing. Comes with leather case. USB Type-C port for charging. HDMI/MHL connectivity. Long-lasting bulb.
Cons: Pricey for what it delivers. Relatively low brightness. Limited connection choices. Wireless dongle not included.
Bottom Line: The Sony MP-CD1 Mobile Projector is a stylish, phone-size mini-projector with a built-in battery. It delivers good overall image quality at a somewhat steep price.