What do I need to know about home theater projectors?
September 14, 2016 10:08 AM   Subscribe

In the market for a projector for the living room but don't really know much about them.

There would be about 10 or 11 feet of space between the projector and the screen.

The space has a lot of natural light from large windows which can be covered with blinds, but not sure how much of the light the blinds will eliminate.

The projector can be place above the couch which is also against the wall. It can also be placed on the side of the couch... (but I guess the lens might have to shift quite a bit to the left or right to get to the middle of the couch where the screen is). I've also seen images online of projectors hidden within coffee tables, but we don't know if we want a coffee table yet. THe projector would be primarily for watching movies.

What sort of things should I look for in a projector to fill my needs? What price range am I looking at to meet my goals? WHat the hell is "keystone" and why does it matter? Any other terms I need to know? Your Mefite knowledge is very much appreciated!
posted by manderin to Technology (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have a projector in my living room. I don't actually have a ton of advice because I didn't really plan the whole thing out properly, but I will say that blackout shades are a must, even at night. Blinds just didn't cut it. (Also, it is totally awesome and worth it!)
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:11 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh I should also mention, I've heard projectors can make noise with their fans or something. I want it to be as quiet as possible. We MIGHT be willing to pay up to 2k for one... but something much less pricey would be ideal. Is this reasonable?
posted by manderin at 10:11 AM on September 14, 2016

I'd recommend looked at the projector review page at The Wirecutter. Even if you don't go with their top pick, it's a great rundown of what to look for and avoid.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:14 AM on September 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Here is a link that's about how placement has to be.
After using our projector outside for movie nights, I realized the placement requirements were too fussy to use in my room, so we only use it outside.
posted by ReluctantViking at 10:32 AM on September 14, 2016

WHat the hell is "keystone" and why does it matter?

The projector puts out a rectangular image. If the projector is not physically directly in the center of your screen (or wall that you are projecting on), then the image becomes a trapezoid, narrower on one side than another. "Keystone" is how you adjust the image to get a rectangle even if the projector is off-center.

Also, seconding showbiz_liz - daylight, even dim daylight, is a real projector-killer.
posted by soundguy99 at 11:03 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Wirecutter recommends this projector as being cheap and good. Projector Central has a great calculator for determining throw distance/position for a projector. Note that with this projector to do a 10.5' throw the projector needs to be ** 7" ** above or below the screen (if it's above the screen, the projector will need to be upside down).

You'll need to figure out how high your screen is going to be, how high your ceilings are, and then you can calculate how far down from the ceiling/wall you need to be, and then buy a projector mount that will let you put the projector at the correct height. Any of the $20-50 universal projector mounts on Amazon should work fine. Keystoning will help you fix how the projected image looks if you can't get the projector in the ideal position vertically.

You're going to need to figure out how your cables will work. The projector needs power and a video source, so that's at least two cables, then you're going to want to have some kind of speaker setup in front of you either on the coffee table or under the screen.

You really need blackout curtains to block the light; blinds aren't going to cut it.

I've been doing this for years, it might all look complicated, but when you sit back and look at your 90" move it's totally worth it.
posted by gregr at 11:39 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

FWIW - we have a really good (for its price) 1080p Optoma projector. I think it was about $600. It was one of The Wirecutter's secondary picks at one point. We set it up on an end table at night to watch movies, against a portable screen on a tripod.

We don't use or need blackout blinds at night, in the two places we've lived where we've had this projector. One place had a bright light right outside our regular blinds. The projector is absolutely not bright enough to watch during the day. You would need something to block light at that time, and I think that's the case with any projector. We've set it up so we can pull the HDMI cable out of our TV and plug it right into the projector. We move our soundbar to sit in front of the screen (which we setup off to the side of our regular TV). This works fine, and is simple enough for us to setup and tear down in about 10 minutes, though it sometimes takes a little longer to get the screen centered correctly in our new place.

The projector fan does make noise, but not more than the traffic outside our door, or the refrigerator, or our ultra quiet dishwasher, and the HVAC air intake is definitely louder.
posted by cnc at 12:04 PM on September 14, 2016

I checked out projectors for about six months from our campus library. Some of them were very expensive. None of them felt as crispy as the 55", $430 (on sale) 4k TCL tv set we bought recently. Your mileage, as always, may vary. We did enjoy watching projected movies.
posted by mecran01 at 12:46 PM on September 14, 2016

We have a Viewsonic PJD5533w and we can definitely watch movies during the day with the blinds down. We have a big pull-down screen mounted to the ceiling opposite the projector, which sits on the windowsill / back of the couch about 12" away. We have a stand to lift it about 18" from the couch back so it's not shining on people's heads. The fan barely makes any noise, I certainly can't hear it above the media that's playing. We're planning to hang it from the ceiling soon to get it off the couch / windowsill.

My roommate has done something complicated and awesome with this projector, a Dell CPU, a Pioneer surround-sound speaker set, a Nintendo64, a Roku, a desktop Apple computer, a remote controlled switch box to go from one input to another, and possibly black magic. I don't know how any of it works, but it's pretty great.
posted by ananci at 4:21 PM on September 14, 2016

If you don't already have a screen, look for a screen with high screen gain (high reflectivity). This will help make sure you get as much of the projector output bouncing off the screen and into your eyes, and so will minimize the impact of ambient light.

Some projectors operate in a low power mode. In addition to using less energy, they tend to run cooler in this mode, and thus the fan runs slower and quieter. Low power mode also means a less bright image, but if you have a high-gain screen then you can get away with a quieter projector.

When you shop for projectors, go to the manufacturer's web site. They usually have a screen-to-projector lens calculator specific to the model you are interested in. You input the expected distance between the projector lens and the screen, and it tells you the bounds of the dimensions of the image that can be displayed.

These bounds are useful when shopping for a screen, because you want to be able to fit the projected image inside the area of the projector screen you get.

If they don't have a calculator, search the web site for the owner's manual for that specific model, and look for the display dimensions in the manual. This will give you the same data, but you may need to do a little more work to generate the numbers you need.

Depending on the projector's zoom level, 10 to 11 feet will probably get you to a 100-120" screen, roughly, with most projectors. It is fine to get a screen a little larger than the displayed image, but you definitely don't want a situation where the image area is larger than the screen area.

Double-check this calculation, because you otherwise may be stuck with a projector or screen that doesn't meet your needs, or you'll need to spend (a lot) more money on an external lens that will resize the image appropriately, even if you are fortunate to have bought a projector that can accept an external lens. Sometimes, such a lens can cost more than the projector, so it pays to get this right before you buy anything.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 5:21 PM on September 14, 2016

Projectors are great for getting the "theater at home" vibe: dark room, amazing picture quality, big screen - focusing your attention on the show. For a few years, projectors were the only cost-effective way to do this. But you really need to treat it like a movie theater - watching it in a dark room. In a room with lots of ambient light, they just don't work.

Things have changed - you can get very high quality flat screen monitors/TVs for about the same price (or less) as a good projector, and they work just fine in a bright sunlit room.

I have a projector and basically can not watch it during the day, because my room is not dark.

To me this is a feature - I want my glowing rectangle time to be limited and special.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:35 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

We have a (now) many years old Sony projector, and it's been rock solid. Back in the day it was $1000, but the equivalent model is now about $2000. We have a multi-level shelf thing next to our couch to accommodate dvd player, xbox, and laptop computers (i.e., various video sources) as well as the projector and stereo. We bought black out curtains, but I had to put velcro around the edges near the projected image to eliminate light spill. We project onto a yellowish wall, but really you can't see the yellow at all when the projector is on. Kind of amazing how the eye adjusts. There is also a paint-on-screen if you need more reflectivity, but again, the eye adjusts to where you can't tell the difference.
posted by jabah at 6:39 PM on September 14, 2016

You'll find two factors that affect the price:

1. Resolution. Pay attention to the native resolution, not the max supported resolution. You want a native resolution of 1920x1080 (1080p) or 1920 x 1200 (supports 1080p). Lower resolutions will give you the "screen door" effect and less sharp images.

2. Brightness. There are a lot of affordable projectors in the 1500-2500 lumens range. They're generally not bright enough to produce good image quality with ambient lighting.

Many affordable projectors have either high resolution or high brightness. Like 5000 lumens, but only 1024x768 resolution, or 1080P HD native resolution, but only 1500 lumens. Try to find a good combination.

If you're buying a used projector on eBay or craigslist, be sure to google the model number and verify the native resolution. It's really common for people to list the supported resolution (e.g. 1080P) when it really gets down-sampled to a much lower native resolution.
posted by reeddavid at 8:51 PM on September 14, 2016

I've owned a whole bunch of projectors. I have one right now as my main setup, in fact.

Firstly, i gave up on buying xenon bulb projectors because i was tired of replacing bulbs... and bought a laser/LED hybrid one(a casio). I looked at the LG, and few other options on the market and decided they were either too weak, too hard to find, or had other downsides. There IS a 3000~ lumen 1080p LED viewsonic out there, but info was hard to find and it was $$$.

Second, i bought a 2500 lumen model for a ~100in screen in a dark room and it's really not quite enough. On "full power" mode it still isn't and is loud, and on "eco" mode(which is like 2000 lumens) it's decent. It's entirely unusable during the day, and even with the blinds/curtains drawn the light leaking in makes it really washed out. This was the story with every projector i've owned before. My friend has one of the super $$$ giant sony 4k projectors and a super nice screen and it's the same story even though it's pushing out mucho power. Next time around i'm either buying a million-billionty lumen one, or setting everything up in a lightless basement. And it seems like the lumen battle never really wins.

I have the cheapest screen from amazon that was this size. It had meh reviews, but made a HUGE difference. I've seen and used nicer screens, and it's barely different. The screen mattered more than the projector.

I like it, and i like the wow factor... but i really do miss how well my super duper bright LED tv(it was a 3d model, so it had a super strong backlight to still be vibrant in that mode) could handle daylight. The sun could be shining on the damn thing.

My one sentence advice would be to buy a decent screen, and the cheapest projector that met your needs and wait for LED stuff to evolve for another year or two. A 3-4000 lumen version of like this would be perfect... but it doesn't exist.

WHat the hell is "keystone" and why does it matter?

Buy a mount that allows you to hang the projector low enough to fire straight on without using keystone. You throw away a TON of sharpness using that feature, not to mention some brightness even. It's been explained what it is, but i was shocked when i got a long-ass bracket and was able to set 0 keystone.
posted by emptythought at 9:40 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another nifty option if you can't/don't want to deal with cable management and the projector being so close to your viewing position is an ultra short throw projector. LG makes some good ones that do 80" or so at 18" from the screen.

The main downside is that you can't use a high gain screen since the light is coming from such a large angle.
posted by wierdo at 10:53 PM on September 14, 2016

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