While it’s fair to say that most people investing in a high definition display will still buy a high definition TV, it’s an increasingly cost-effective option to consider a home cinema projector.
There are several categories, or classes, of projector, and this guide aims to help those with a reasonably modest budget know what features to look for, and what pitfalls to avoid.
Projectors to avoid
Firstly, avoid what I like to call “office” projectors if you are truly after high definition movie playback or gaming.
They’ll typically have a lower resolution, or won’t be optimised for movie playback. Fine if you’re giving a PowerPoint presentation or playing back a standard DVD, and cheaper because of it, but not great for the HD era.
Secondly, unless you have a serious amount of cash burning a hole in your pocket, avoid really high end projectors.
Though there are some really amazing projectors available, they are prohibitively expensive for most consumers, and wouldn’t look out of place in a digital cinema. In fact, even if they were affordable, they may even be overkill for the average front room.
What to look for
Thankfully, the price of high definition home cinema projectors is coming down quite considerably, and compared to a similarly sized TV, are incredible value.
Two projection technologies
Just as there are a number of different types of HDTV (LCD and plasma, for example), there are two main types of projector: LCD and DLP.
LCD projectors (the latest standard is called 3LCD) are based on an older technology, with the technology found in entry-level projectors.
3LCD uses three colour panels, offering good brightness, colour saturation and accuracy, and light efficiency. Like the TVs, though, it can be possible to see the individual dots making up the image, particularly on a large image “throw”.
DLP projectors are newer technology from Texas Instruments. Generally more expensive, and also more popular, they offer good contrast, and the images are less pixellated. However, some less expensive models can get the unpleasant “rainbow effect”.
Just as with a TV, a projector has an output resolution, and in order that it can display some form of high definition content without scaling, it needs to have at least 1,280×720 resolution.
To display 1080i or 1080p content without downsizing the picture, it needs at least 1,920×1,080 resolution.
Brightness and Contrast
Obviously brightness, measured in lumens, determines how bright the projected image looks.
If installing in a room where natural light can be shut out, and if the projector will only be used in lower light conditions, then a less bright projector can be bought, say 800 to 1,000.
However, if the projector is to be used in brighter conditions, such as the typical living room, and it’s going to replace the main TV for everyday viewing, a higher lumens spec is recommended, at least 1,200 lumens.
Contrast ratio describes the ratio between the projection of white and black. Given that in both LCD and DLP projectors, as with most TVs, some light “leaks” through even where black should be displayed, a higher contrast ratio is desirable to achieve better differentiation of black and white.
Much like TVs, projectors come with a range of ports for connecting other equipment.
HDMI and DVI are generally the most useful for connecting high definition sources such as HD DVD and Blu-ray players, and high definition games consoles.
A projector with two or more HDMI inputs is definitely recommended, particularly if the projector is to be installed out of easy reach.
It’s important to factor in the cost of replacement bulbs into purchasing a projector, particularly if it’s going to be used a lot.
Lamps can typically last between 2,000 and 4,000 hours before the lamp is half as bright as when it was first installed.
Cleaning the projector’s filters and observing proper power-down can help to lengthen the life, but at some point you’ll need to replace the bulb.
Though it’s possible to project onto a white wall, a dedicated projector screen will give a much better result.
Generally, a screen with 16:9 dimensions and larger than the image being thrown will suffice.
Some projectors can be fitted with alternative lenses. Serious movie buffs may well fit an anamorphic lens, which is able to throw a genuinely widescreen image.
However, this pushes the price up, as they tend to be an option only on high-end projectors. Also, other equipment in the chain, such as the DVD player and the DVD itself, need to support such features for it to be of any benefit.
Mid-range projectors can often simulate these wider screen aspect ratios.
Many projectors can simply be placed on a table in the room, and project an image onto wall or screen.
A number of new projectors are capable of throwing a large image from just a relatively short distance away – great for smaller rooms.
Some with larger, more dedicated projection rooms, will choose to ceiling or wall mount the projector. It keeps everything out of the way, and reduces the risk of people tripping over wires or walking in front of the projector, but can be more costly and complex to install.
It’s fair to say that high definition projectors are still more of a niche consumer purchase than HDTVs. A walk into any high street electrical retailer should prove that.
However, for really large displays, they can now be really cost effective, and if well installed, are a serious match for the TV.
Next week we’ll look at high definition discs: Blu-ray, HD DVD, HD VMD. Should you buy yet? What’s wrong with standard DVDs? What about dual format players?