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BenQ Knowledge Center

2020 Home Theater Projector Buyer's Guide: What You Need to Know Before Buying a Projector

BenQ
2020/01/30

You want to get a projector for your home to watch movies and TV content on an extra-large screen. But, you have questions and feel unsure about what to look for. We’re here to help gently chaperone you towards a projector that’ll make you happy for years to come.

We’ll cover everything from the basics to pro tips, with plenty of details and info to assuage any concerns you may have before venturing into projector land. We’ll explain many of the tech terms, advise on setup, and make sure you become more familiar with the intricacies of different projector designs. We’ll make a projectionist of you yet. Welcome to the bright lights! 

Projector or TV?

That’s the most obvious question people ask themselves when the craving for a projector first manifests. Considering the average household has a 55” to 75” TV, with an increasing number running 4K, it’s easy to tell ourselves we have viewing entertainment covered. But reality would like to object, because if you want a bona fide cinematic experience on a majestically massive screen projectors are your only option. It’s as simple as that. Want a screen bigger than 80”? Only projectors deliver that. Easily go to 200” and infinity if you want, projectors don’t mind and the cost difference between various screen sizes is marginal. Conversely, a 75” 4K TV regularly costs twice the asking price for a 55” model with the same specs.

If you want cinematic and you want big, then projectors are literally the only technology right now to deliver that for home entertainment. That’s because for the price of the largest 4K TV available you can get a fully loaded, top of the line 4K HDR projector with a 200” motorized screen, sound system, furniture, and probably lifetime subscriptions to all your favorite streaming services. Add to the practical size and cost considerations the very obvious benefit of having a cinema in your living room and you can already smell the popcorn. 

Increased Portability

Beyond that, advancing technology means today’s projectors by their nature offer good portability. Even the most spec-laden and largest models present no hassle if you choose to relocate them to another room. They’re much easier to move than a large TV, because projectors today are quite compact and light. You could also go with what’s known as a pico projector, or a mini projector. These often fit in one hand but naturally have to make concessions, so you’re not going to get anywhere near the image and sound quality of a full-blown home cinema projector. If setting up a movie room, we’d definitely advise against pico projectors but insist on reminding you that there’s no need to fret. Your glorious 4K HDR projector will gladly move to another room or home if needed and won’t make the process complex.

We have lots more details about home theater portability

How to Choose a Projector?

One of the easiest ways to measure the cost effectiveness of a home viewing solution boils down to money per inch. With projectors now offering essentially the same image quality as TVs, once the decision has been made to go big screen there’s just no contest. TVs remain locked into set screen sizes and cap out at about 80”. Sure, you could get a bigger set but for that kind of money you might be able to buy your own cinema. And we don’t mean the home variety. No, projectors offer an unbeatable value for money for displays beyond the range of television panels. While TVs have a strong diminishing returns effect at play, for instance while an 85” costs exponentially more than a 65” but delivers marginal differences for most people, projectors upend that phenomenon. Going from an 80” to a 200” screen costs very little, and while the projected image remains consistent on all sizes, the impact of a bigger screen is all yours to enjoy.

Until technology emerges that allows flat panel TVs to change sizes on demand, projectors are your only choice for that flexibility.

While projectors offer portability these days, there’s something very comforting about having a dedicated movie room or corner. So you probably have a location in mind already. What are the primary considerations to take into account when putting it together? 

Light Conditions

Projectors work best in dark rooms or locations that allow the highest level of detail in every content type to be shown. However, naturally that often proves tough to achieve in the real world. Modern projectors have custom modes and technologies designed to maintain good image quality in diverse light conditions, but we recommend a room or area where you have a greater degree of control over illumination. Pick a location that has few or small windows or windows that you could easily cover whenever needed. A living room with massive floor to ceiling windows that face east or west would not make for good viewing ambience, but a large study with one window with dark-colored blinds will work great, as will a basement if you have one. 

Throw Distance – Short or Long?

To simplify matters, throw distance describes the range a projector needs to create an accurate image on a 100” screen. Short throw projectors come in handy for big screens in small rooms, as they don’t require long distances to project a big picture. Long throw projectors give you much improved flexibility. They work great with big screens from any distance, so you have more options for installation.

Whether placed at seat level or ceiling mounted, projectors ideally should be aimed at the center of the screen. But if you can’t manage that due to room conditions such as furniture, two technologies provide help. Keystone adjusts images projected off-center so that you don’t lose any of the picture due to “falling off” the screen. However, keystone correction may diminish image quality. That’s why good projectors also support lens shift. Combined, keystone correction and lens shift offer you the ability to place your projector in more locations without suffering image quality degradation.

As far as actual projector to screen distance goes, for small to medium rooms we recommend 1.5 to 2.5 meters (4.9-8.2ft.). Large rooms should aim for 2.5 to 4 meters (8.2-13.1ft.). All distances based on using a 100” screen. 

Screen Type

Arguably just as important as the size of the screen you use for projection are the materials said screen is made of. Most plain white/light grey screens can do just fine, but so many variants and deployment technologies exist, things may get confusing. Reflectivity serves as the most important factor, as screens need to “reject” light so that it goes back to you and becomes visible. Thus dark screens would not make for very enlightening experiences. Newer screens use special light bounce or light rejection technologies to maximize projection efficiency and minimize detail loss.

Screens can be fixed installations or highly portable. You could have them roll up or drop down into special alcoves if they’re motorized, and that brings up the question of whether you want a remote control or localized switch to manage screen movement. More affordable screens are held in place by standard frames but may develop wrinkles and warping over time, affecting image consistency. Tab tensioned designs employ force to keep the screen evenly flat to counter these problems, but of course cost more.

Nominally, for the most cinematic experiences we’d recommend a motorized roll up, tab tensioned, light rejecting screen. Those three attributes ensure the finest and longest lasting image quality plus a very luxurious, comforting experience. But they come at the expense of portability and affordability.

There’s a lot more to choosing the right screen, so take your time and learn as much as you can – this guide serves as a starting point, but the journey is more fun and intricate than we could hope to cover here. 

Projector Technology and Features

We have an assortment of articles dedicated to the many technologies that drive modern projectors, but for the sake of this guide we’ll also quickly touch upon several of the basics. First up we have the type of projection design or technology. Currently, DLP (Digital Light Processing) and LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) serve as the two main approaches to projection. Our recommendation (which we stand by throughout our entire projector lineup) goes to DLP as the better option. 

DLP Provides Better Image Resolution and Quality

In DLP, light shines on a digital micromirror device, also known as a DMD or DLP chip. Up to several million mirrors fit on one DMD, the size and intricacy of which determines the projector’s resolution. BenQ home projectors use Texas Instruments DMDs with support for 8.3 million pixels, providing true 4K. In any case, from the DMD the light passes through a color wheel. Here too differences emerge. Basic projectors have tri-colored wheels, with red, green, and blue segments. Advanced models such as those made by BenQ use “RGBRGB” hex-color wheels. That means each of the three primary colors gets two segments and the wheel spins much faster, ensuring exponentially more accurate color reproduction compared to basic RGB designs.

DLP technology uses a dedicated micromirror for each pixel on the screen, so a 1080p projector has over two million mirrors, while a 4K projector uses 8.3 million. LCD projectors use an array with only a few mirrors to project light from a source onto an LCD panel, not unlike the one found in your smartphone, regardless of resolution. DLP requires high precision manufacturing of the DMD/DLP chip with its millions of mirrors, whereas LCD projectors use common off the shelf components. LCD image quality tends to appear very saturated in projection applications. Because of their relatively simplistic design and use of small LCD panels, projectors based on this technology deliver images that look much “jaggier” and more pixelated compared to DLP.

Thinking of the long term, a major advantage of DLP comes from longevity. The DLP chip lasts virtually a lifetime. We have more about award-winning BenQ DLP technology if you’re interested. 

Understanding Resolution: Full HD, True 4K, and Enhanced 4K

As of the writing of this guide, the balance of power in the realm of resolution has shifted in favor of 4K, or 3840 x 2160, most commonly. Another 4K format has 4096 x 2160 pixels, but remains mostly used in cinemas. Effectively when 4K ultra HD (UHD) is discussed, 3840 x 2160 is the resolution in mind, totaling 8.3 million pixels (megapixels) per frame/image.

Between 2005 and 2017 the pre-eminent resolution was full HD or 1920 x 1080, which equals 2.1 megapixels. So it’s easy to see 4K has about four times the pixel count of full HD, creating noticeably more detailed images.

When we say “true”, we mean you could pause playback and then actually count 8.3 million distinct pixels on the screen. DLP/DMD designs with 8.3 million mirrors remain very rare and costly, so most true 4K projectors employ pixel shifting to generate duplicates of any given frame. The duplication happens so fast you can’t perceive it and there’s no flickering or other undesired side effects. The net result are 8.3 million beautiful pixels per frame.

While BenQ 4K projectors offer true 4K with 8.3 million distinct pixels per frame, many projectors on the market provide what is known as 4K enhancement. Due to technical limitations, those projectors only double a 1920 x 1080 image to display 4.1 million actual pixels, or less than half the resolution of true 4K. At the moment, only DLP/DMD technology as used by BenQ offers true 4K on home projectors. We have a more detailed explanation of what is true 4K.

The Big HDR Factor

High dynamic range, or HDR, stands together with 4K resolution as the most important development in home video during the past few years. Contrasted with SDR (standard dynamic range), HDR began appearing in photography and movie theaters during the early 2000s. By the mid 2010s a variety of HDR standards made their way onto flat panel TVs and from there to projectors.

At the core of HDR reside higher peak brightness, greater image contrast, and deeper color spaces or a wider color gamut. With HDR you get deeper darks, brighter whites, stronger contrast, more realistic colors, and greater overall image detail. You experience content as created in its native form without missing out on crucial details. Several HDR standards exist, most notably HDR10 by the UHD Alliance, Dolby’s Dolby Vision, and HLG, supported by broadcasters like the BBC. HDR10/HDR10+ are by far the most common.

All good projectors have onboard computing elements just like smart TVs that handle what is known as metadata, or the added information that’s required to transform a raw image into refined output, in this case with HDR.

Selected BenQ home projectors have contrast ratios of up to 100,000:1, or one hundred thousand units of white per unit of dark. With those specs processing HDR content becomes very attainable and accurate to the source material. Currently all major streaming platforms (Netflix, Prime Video, Apple TV+, and Hulu) have 4K HDR content, and gaming is likewise increasingly dominated by 4K HDR graphics you don’t want to miss out on. 

Color Gamut and All-Glass Lenses

Projectors can only perform as well as their optics allow just as TVs depend on their panel quality. That’s why you should research the optical design of any projector you’re thinking of buying. What you’re looking for are multi-lens arrays that use coated, heat resistant, all-glass components. The importance of glass affects more than just image quality. Mixed material or plastic lenses result in blur and lost details, plus lens warping in short order due to lamp heat exposure. Tough glass lenses that pass strenuous testing guarantee long-lasting image fidelity. Lenses are essentially the most important part of a projector, determining the quality and accuracy of what you see. A projector may have excellent image processing but if its lenses aren’t up to the task you’re not going to benefit from any of its advertised features, including 4K and HDR. That’s why you need top notch optics, to support and enable everything else. 

A direct result of quality lenses is the enablement of deeper color spaces like Rec.709 and DCI-P3. Good home projectors support an assortment of industry-standard definitions, most prominently Rec. 709, DCI-P3, and Rec. 2020. All three were developed and sanctioned by the SMPTE, or Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and are intimately linked to HDR and 4K. DCI-P3 was developed for digital cinema and has a much wider color gamut than Rec. 709, which was created for regular HD content. You should strive to get a projector with 95% DCI-P3 coverage or higher to really enjoy content as intended by its cinematographers and directors.  

Bottom line for this part: seek out projectors with powerful lamps, premium lenses, and advanced processing. 

How Do I Stream on 4K Projectors?

Caution in this area, as lots of seemingly affordable 4K projectors cut corners in aspects related to connectivity. Pay close attention to the ports and connectors on your projector of choice, and not just to how many there are, but what type of each is offered. One HDMI port won’t be enough, since you’ll likely want to hook up several devices to your projector: Blu-ray drive, game console, PC, set top box…the list goes on. So go for a projector with at least two HDMI ports and several USB connectors. Then look at the specs more carefully – you want HDMI 2.0 and up, because previous HDMI generations can’t handle 4K 60Hz, which by now has become the bare minimum for real 4K enjoyment.

For USB, we strongly suggest at least one port offer USB 3.0 or faster, as USB 2.0 may be too slow for playing multimedia content off external storage devices. With regards to internet connectivity, try to get a smart projector with a LAN/RJ-45 port so you can add it to your home network. A projector with Wi-Fi would be spectacular, but admittedly those remain quite rare as of the time of writing this guide. On the sound front, your projector at the very least should have one S/PDIF out, or optical audio out. Analog (3.5mm) connectors can be a nice extra, although most audio setups these days use optical so that should suffice.

In a related note, definitely go with a projector that has a remote control. Those ship by default with BenQ home 4K models, and we’ve also redesigned all device-side keys and buttons to offer a more ergonomic and intuitive user experience. Don’t take anything for granted, before buying check whether the projector includes a remote and try to notice the key layout if visible, as you’ll need to be comfortable with any key pads and button clusters to make the most of your new purchase. 

Projector Terminology

Now that you've read the guide and learned much about projectors, you may have more specific questions about some of the terms used. We've compiled a lexicon of the most frequently used projector jargon with quick and clear descriptions. So if you want to zoom in on a particular word, check out the glossary and terms you should know about projectors. We tried to cover as many bases as possible so it's quite a comprehensive list. Knowledge means enlightenment, as they say in the projector business. 

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