Best small home projector - 2021 Edition
February 5, 2021 1:42 AM   Subscribe

I would like to upgrade my home TV watching experience and wonder if a small projector might be better than trying to find room for a big TV. However, looking at reviews makes my head spin so I was hoping the more tech-minded folks here could chime in. Difficulty: Australia.

My budget is about $500AUD, but there's some flex in that. The projector would be used in a small living room, generally at night, and it would be nice to be able to pack it away during the daytime. I would be looking to project onto some sort of screen - preferably one that can be rolled up like a blind - and I would prefer a clear, bright image over a large image. I'd prefer something as simple as possible that would stream directly from my laptop - either via wireless or HDMI cable.

What are my best bets? Is there anything I watch out for? Any particular models that are better than others? Have you used a particular model and love/loathe it? Am I doomed to fail for trying to find something at this pricepoint at all?
posted by ninazer0 to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: We have had a Nebula Capsule projector (bought for $300 US) for about 6 weeks and we love it. We also bought a very basic pull down screen for about $75 US. The projector can be hooked up via HDMI but it has its own OS and connects to WiFi so we just turn it on and use Netflix, Hulu, etc on the projector controlled by a phone app as a remote control. We get pretty awesome picture quality up to 8-9 feet wide. We only use it at night, and generally turn off most other lights nearby. The newer model is the Capsule 2, we have the 1. We usually charge it nightly, seems to last about 3 hours. Each day we marvel at this tiny device - it’s the size of a medium takeout coffee cup.
posted by chr1sb0y at 3:21 AM on February 5, 2021

You will not get anything near the image quality from any projector — even much more expensive ones — that you’ll get from the screen of even a cheap television, and $500AU is more than enough for a large screen on a budget TV. Just be sure you look at the image from a projector before you decide this is the way to go. Unless you can block all external light the projector won’t get close to an LED/LCD screen’s depth, color, or brightness. Certainly not from a low end home projector. You also need to buy a real projector screen (the good ones are not cheap) to get a sharp bright image from a projector. And at that point, what’s the size penalty of having a larger flat screen TV? Many people I know have tried the projector route and been disappointed. It just doesn’t look nearly as sharp without spending a lot more than $500.
posted by spitbull at 3:47 AM on February 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

We recently acquired a very nice Changhong 43" LCD TV for $100 from our local tip shop. It's amazing what people throw out.

Our plan is to wall mount it fairly high on a bracket that keeps it close to the wall, and make a kind of fitted sheet affair out of some nice fabric print to cover it when it's not in use so we get a picture on the wall instead of a big ugly looming black rectangle.
posted by flabdablet at 3:56 AM on February 5, 2021

I’m sure spitball is right about a TV being your best bet to maximize image quality per dollar and the cautions about using a projector in a room with lots of ambient light. That said, I’ve grown to much prefer the projector experience, at least at night. You aren’t going to get a TV that reaches the same size you can with a projector, and it’s just aesthetically more pleasing not to have a big television dominating a room. Depends what you’re maximizing for.

Mine is also a Nebula capsule, which is marketed as being small, cheap (ish), and convenient. It does everything you want it to do.
posted by exutima at 4:55 AM on February 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

I bought a US$109 projector and a $19 fabric screen this winter as a lark, because I always wanted one, and because we used to take the kids to a movie on Christmas Eve but could not this year.

The image was fine (WRT brightness) in the afternoon with good window shades drawn shut.

I tried to watch a long, high-res movie from the the built-in USB reader but the audio quickly fell out of sync; instead, I ran an HDMI cable in from my laptop and it was fine.

Getting a sharp picture depends a lot on focus and a smooth, flat screen. The fabric screen that I bought was certainly inexpensive, and has a lot of grommets for mounting, but I didn't take the time to fasten it well so there were folds near the edges that made the focus soft. I stacked up two kitchen chairs behind the couch to ensure that the projector was up high enough not to require too much keystone correction, and that avoided a possible problem.

No one asked that we sell the 46" TV and string up this six-foot screen in its place, but they will let me use it again another time for fun -- probably this summer. :7)

For myself, I love the extra large size, and I am looking forward to rigging up better hooks in the basement for watching movies by myself with good headphones, soft edges be damned.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:25 AM on February 5, 2021

tl;dr is that more money buys more brightness and native 1080p (not "1080 compatible," which will accept a signal in that resolution but downsample it to 780 before throwing it on the wall).

The screen being smooth/flat really makes a difference.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:27 AM on February 5, 2021

If you want to do research I suggest it is the gold standard for specs on projectors new and old. Here's the page on the nebula.

I have not used those capsule projectors - at 100 Lumens output that is not very bright. It probably works great in very dark smaller room and doesn't overpower the eyes at night.

Also because projectors are pushing pixels through lenses manufacturers play fast and loose about actual resolution - often times downsampling. For example the Nebula can only display 854x480 pixels. Anything else, like a 1080p high-def image at 1920x1080 pixels gets processed and downsampled and detail will be lost. If you plan on hooking up a computer to read text or numbers, you will probably be disappointed. I mention this because you used the word "upgrade" and it may not feel like an upgrade from a 1080p or 4k TV display.

The projectors I use at work for medium sized rooms are 2,500 lumens, 25x the brightness of the little Nebula. For big rooms 4,000 or even 7,000 lumens. Video pros for large events (like a big meeting or concert) will often use massive 12,000 lumen projectors, and then stack two on top of each other, focused exactly on the same screen, to get enough brightness. As the brightness goes up things get big, heavy and hot. The lamps used give off a lot of heat - and need cooling fans, and that creates noise. On a TV the bigger things get the more spaced out they get and heat stays pretty consistent. But a projector that's 25x brighter and hotter still squeezes a lot of energy through a very small aperture so cooling becomes important. Also lamps burn out or wear out after 2,000-3,000 hours and can be expensive to replace, or you can get LED illuminated projectors that last 20,000 hours but are much more expensive.

Projectors need brightness to create the contrast between the darkest part of the image (wall or screen) and the brightest part of the image (beam at full brightness). TV's have an advantage as they are normally black or dark gray and light up to create the image. Projectors need a white or silver screen to reflect their beam, meaning the image starts as white and gets, well, brighter white. If the room is pitch black the white wall is black. But if there is a little ambient light the projector needs to be many times brighter than ambient to show a good image.

So if you are looking for daytime viewing - investing $200 in blackout curtains might save you hundreds of dollars on the projector itself!

eBay is crammed full of office-type projectors right now as nobody is in the live meeting business. I've seen 3,000 lumens projectors for $200-$300. I'd also ask around to see if you can borrow an office projector for a weekend to try it out.

One thing about that route is you now have a Project - the projector is separate from all other components, and what will you do about sound, input switching , powering on, etc? What about the fan noise? If you put it away after each viewing, are you setting yourself up for ten minutes of fiddling with focus or keystoning?

One good thing about larger office or home theatre projectors is their lenses often have a bigger range of distances that will work - so you may be able to put it up on a shelf further away out of sight and set it and forget it so it does not have to be adjusted every time. Again, first step before any projector install I go to and use their lens throw calculator.

A bad thing about a dedicated projector is going to be audio and input switching - that will have to be handled separately.
posted by sol at 6:29 AM on February 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know if this will be too US-centric, but The Wirecutter website has several articles about projectors.

I got an Anker Nebula Mars II Pro on their recommendation for backyard movies last summer and I LOVE IT. It was excellent for that purpose, with movies projected onto a screen on the side of the garage. Now that it's winter I use it indoors day and night, projected on my dining room wall, as I work out using the Zwift virtual cycling program. With the accompanying tripod it's dead simple to set up and position anywhere. It's got built-in keystone adjustment and focus, so no fiddling required. Love, love, love it.
posted by Sublimity at 9:39 AM on February 5, 2021

You'd have to bump your budget a bit to get a decent picture over a TV of the same size. Part of the benefit of a projetor is that you can produce a fairly large size picture; ours sits at like a 50 or 60" tv equivalent, and its picture is great. Many small houses and lots of early-life moving got us on the projector train. They're pretty fantastic, and while the picture is a little different, I enjoy it much more than a regular tv. We have a Benq HT2050 (after owning an earlier model benq and optoma over the years). It is quite nice; the built in speakers are kind of awful (as are most projectors0; like, way worse than a shitty newer TV). So you would want to pipe it into a stereo at least. We don't use blackout curtains or anything, the picture is just fine during the day. The bulbs are replaceable, and we do have to do that every other year or so? They fade over time, so it is best to replace them before they completely burn out.

They're nice, but at that price point I would stick with a regular TV over a projector. Even if you bump your price point up a bit, you'll start seeing more/better options if you want to go the route of the projector.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:56 PM on February 5, 2021

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