Nearly 20 years ago, I borrowed a new home theatre projector from Panasonic for the weekend.
We had a Lord of the Rings marathon movie session, the projector offering a stunning picture blown up large against the living room wall of my Auckland flat. The following Monday, I took the projector into work, planning on returning it to Panasonic at lunchtime.
It vanished from the office – a cleaner pinched it and later posted an advert for it on Trade Me to try to flog it off to an unsuspecting buyer. It was with great embarrassment that I had to break the bad news to Panasonic that their $5000 projector wasn’t coming home.
“Is that all?” The marketing manager said with a sigh of relief. “We thought you were going to say you hated the projector.”
I loved that projector but at that price, I was never going to own one. It used to be that a movie projector was the exclusive domain of home theatre snobs, who would invest in a special screen for best effect and mount it on the ceiling of their lavishly decked-out media room.
But the last decade has seen projector technology progress in leaps and bounds. They are now smaller, quieter and, in many cases, a lamp bulb has been replaced with laser beams to produce the image.
The short throw
You can still pay big bucks for a high-end projector – my current favourite is The Premiere 4K Smart Projector, a short-throw 4K laser projector from Samsung ($7998).
Short throw means that it can be placed a couple of feet from the wall for maximum effect - you don’t need to rearrange the room to find a space for it further back from the wall. It’s a beautiful device, with excellent video quality, all the built-in apps you need and a stylish compact form factor. But who has $8000 to drop on a projector?
Thankfully, there are now some good options for movie projectors for under $1500. You obviously won’t get the finesse and image quality of The Premiere. But here’s the thing - if you are obsessing over image quality, you’ll always get better results from an OLED (organic light emitting diode) or QLED (quantum light emitting diode) display anyway. A projector comes into its own for the occasional movie night or when you have friends around to watch a Rugby World Cup.
It will likely get infrequent use, given that you need a clear wall to throw it against and a blacked-out room for the best effect. So, it makes little sense to have an expensive gadget in your TV cabinet that you will only roll out for weekend viewing. A lower-end projector will still have the desired effect of giving you a big viewing area. The picture won’t necessarily wow you but it won’t break the bank either.
If you are in the market for a projector, here are six things to keep in mind:
Your viewing requirements: Consider where and how you plan to use the projector. Will it be for home theatre, outdoor movie nights, presentations or gaming? Your intended use will influence the features and specifications you need. If you plan to take it away on holiday, you might want to opt for a more compact projector and one that’s battery-powered for outdoor use.
Resolution and image quality: The projector’s resolution determines the quality of the image it can produce. For home theatre and high-quality viewing, consider 1080p (full HD) or 4K projectors for crisp and clear images. Lower resolutions may suffice for casual use but don’t settle for less than 720p.
Brightness and contrast ratio: Projectors are rated in lumens for brightness. Choose a brightness level suitable for your environment. A higher lumen rating is ideal for rooms with more ambient light. A high contrast ratio helps produce deep blacks and vivid colours, enhancing image quality. Here’s a useful guide for how bright you can expect a projector to be at various screen sizes and lamp ratings (measured in lumens).
Lamp vs laser: A projector with a bulb will take a while to warm up and the bulb will need replacing after 20,000-30,000 hours of use – which is a long time! Laser projectors use LED lights to display the image. They are generally brighter, offer a sharper picture and don’t need to heat up. Laser projectors can be more expensive and the laser module won’t last forever but the estimated lifespan is usually a bit longer than a decent projector bulb.
Throw distance and screen size: Measure the distance between the projector and the screen (throw distance) and determine the screen size you desire. Make sure the projector you choose can accommodate the required throw distance for your setup. Some projectors offer zoom and lens shift features for flexibility.
Connectivity and compatibility: Ensure the projector has the right inputs for your devices, whether it’s HDMI, VGA, USB, or other ports. Check if it’s compatible with your gaming consoles, streaming devices and media players. Wireless connectivity options, such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, can be convenient for some setups. Ideally, opt for a projector that has apps built into it so you can log into Netflix or Amazon Prime directly to stream content from the projector.
Shop around: It’s important to do your research and read reviews of projectors to understand how they perform in the real world. Common complaints about projectors include annoying fan noise, image distortion, short bulb life, lack of connectivity options and poor audio quality from built-in speakers. Epson, BenQ, LG, ViewSonic and Sony are well-respected projector brands but you will typically pay over $2000 for a projector designed for movie watching.
Three affordable LED projector options
ViewSonic M1 Mini Plus, $468
This is a good one for the kids, giving you an extra viewing option when the adults are hogging the TV. Very compact and lightweight, with built-in battery and speaker for easy portability. Wireless casting from smart devices, built-in content streaming and Bluetooth and Wi-fi connectivity cover all of the content options. The LED light source throws a fairly weak 120-lumen image, capable of projecting a 40-inch screen size at a distance of 1.1m away. Okay for casual TV viewing, but not for movies.
Anker Nebula Apollo, $899
A compact lamp-powered projector with built-in apps, a handy touch screen offering easy navigation of the menu and a built-in battery offering up to four hours of video playback between charges. The LED light is rated for a decent 30,000 hours of use, but at 200 ANSI lumen, this isn’t a particularly bright projector. It’s best suited to a very dark room, and not for particularly large viewing spaces. Bluetooth connectivity lets you connect to a wireless speaker for better audio quality. A resolution of 854x480 is adequate for casual viewing.
Samsung The Freestyle, $1,699
A great form factor allows for easy positioning and portability with The Freestyle, which has a respectable 550 LED lumen rating and offers 1080p quality at a size of up to 100 inches. Auto-levelling and auto-focus make setting it up hassle-free. All your favourite apps are built in and a 5W speaker offers reasonable sound, though you may want to Bluetooth to a speaker system for punchier bass notes. The Freestyle can go portable, but the base battery, which will give you three hours of playback, costs an extra $299. Lamp life rated for 20,000 hours.