Smart Home Big Screen Entertainment!
July 10, 2022
With all the incredible digital content out there to download or stream it’s no wonder people are looking to bring the cinematic experience home. Unless you have a spare $572,217 laying around for Samsung’s 146" The Wall Lux UHD Bundle, you may be looking for alternatives. One great cost effective, high-definition option is projection.
I can speak from experience, personally and professionally, about the quality of projection. We have a small, portable projector at home that we’ve thrown everything up on a big wall from movies to sports to gaming. From a professional perspective, I’ve installed large format projection in an NBA arena to enhance fan engagement and drive revenue for the club. There are a lot of great benefits to projection but also a lot of boxes to check in the planning of your big screen home theater.
If you’re looking to buy a projector but are confused by the terminology, price points and accessories, don’t feel bad. I’ll break it all down here and provide the basic knowledge you need to ensure you choose a projector that’s perfect for your entertainment needs.
Projectors aren’t just boxes that throw light at a wall or screen. There’s a diverse range of projection products with many applications and price points. While this can lead to confusion, it also shows how specialized projectors have become and how it is possible to tailor your setup to your exact requirements. These requirements could include portability, price point, limited space available, lighting conditions and the ability to play video games.
Part of the problem when buying a projector is all of the jargon. If you don’t know your lumens from your keystone, or your throw distance from your aspect ratio, you may feel that you’re buying blind. Luckily you don’t need expert-level knowledge to make an informed decision. Let’s look at some of the terms you may see when shopping for a projector and what they mean.
- Resolution — Like your TV, projectors offer resolution options like 720p, 1080p and 4k. The higher the number, the more pixels condensed into your viewing space and the sharper the image.
- Lumens — Another critical factor is how bright the projection is. A brighter image is less likely to be washed out by other light sources like lamps or uncovered windows. Brightness is measured in lumens; the higher the number of lumens, the brighter and stronger your projection will be.
- Contrast Ratio — Similarly, the contrast ratio illustrates how big a difference there is between the light and dark of your image and is usually measured in white to black parts (e.g., 20,000:1). A higher contrast ratio means whiter whites, blacker blacks, and a more impactful image. Contrast can be enhanced with a dynamic iris, which opens or closes depending on the amount of light an image requires.
- Color Gamut/Coverage — Color gamut (or coverage) is the number of colors the projector can display. More colors mean more accurate, higher-quality pictures.
- Autofocus — Some projectors come with built-in autofocus, which adjusts and sharpens your image. Others require you to focus the image manually.
- Keystone Adjustment — As a projector is rarely dead-center with the surface it is projecting onto, you need to square the image off, so it isn’t thin at one end, broad at the other, and distorted all-round. This is where the keystone comes in, it allows you to square off the image and compensate for your projection angle. Some projectors have automatic keystones.
- LED Bulb — The most common way to project an image is with an LED bulb, which does a perfectly fine job. You can get 4k, 4000 lumens LED projectors. However, the bulbs run hotter and emit more noise than the bulbs in laser projectors. They don’t last as long either and may need to be replaced if you have a projector for a few years.
- Laser Projectors tend to be more expensive, but the extra cost comes with some benefits. The bulbs last a lot longer and are unlikely to be the first part of the projector that fails. Laser projectors don’t get as hot as LED bulbs, so there should be less fan noise and a shorter cooling-off period. They can also provide brighter, sharper images with better colors than LEDs.
- Throw Distance — To put it simply, the throw distance is how far back the projector needs to be from the surface it is projecting on. Long-throw distances can be over nine feet away from the screen or wall, short-throw projectors settle somewhere between three and eight feet, while ultra-short-throw projectors can be just inches from the surface they are projecting onto. This doesn’t mean a long-throw projector has to be 12 feet away or it won’t work, you can move it a few feet closer, but the image it is projecting will be smaller.
- Input Lag — Input lag or latency is the time between a projector receiving a piece of video and actually displaying it. This isn’t an issue with most applications but can have a massive impact on video game performance and is a reason why projectors were, until relatively recently, a less than ideal choice for video games. Specialist gaming projectors have since hit the market, some of which claim to have latency on par with high-end TVs.
If you want the best experience possible or want to get the most out of your lower to mid-range projector, you will need some accessories. The most basic of these is a screen, some way to mount the projector, and a sound system. There are also accessories available if you want to travel with your projector.
Screens don’t have to be expensive. At a basic level, it’s just a flat white surface for you to project your image onto. However, like the projectors themselves, there are higher quality and specialized screens available at higher price points. Some of the more expensive screens include ambient light rejection, which helps protect a projection from other light sources.
Unlike standard white screens, which are shockingly affordable, ambient light rejection or ALR screens can cost over four times their price but promise to improve image quality in unfavorable theater environments — particularly in rooms with lots of unwanted light like lamps and sunlight. But are they worth the extra cost?
Unlike a regular projector screen, which reflects light in all directions, ALR screens selectively reflect light toward an audience. They reduce or eliminate the negative effects of ambient light, giving you a bright and crisp picture without glare or washout. Basically, ALR screens contain a bunch of tiny microstructures and layered optical filters, which help direct light in desirable directions.
When you’re in a room with dark walls and zero ambient light, the benefits of an ALR screen are negligible or non-existent. Dark projection surfaces, including affordable paint-on screens, can improve image quality and kill off a decent amount of ambient light. If you’re already in a dim room but struggle with light leakage, consider a dark or paint-on screen as a cheap alternative to an ALR screen. Keep in mind though, that dark screens reflect less light, so they require a brighter projector.
Rear projection hides the projector behind the screen but usually requires an ultra-short-throw projector. This limits needed space more than anything else but a short or long-throw projector is capable of rear projecting if you can place it behind your screen at the correct throw distance.
Auto screens, which roll up and down at the push of a button, are also available. These are useful if you want to use a wall for other things when the projector is not in use.
Although some projectors come with good built-in speakers, an independent speaker system is something to consider. This can range from a soundbar to a full-fledged surround sound system, offering better sound than even the best built-in speakers. Some cheaper projectors don’t have audio out jacks, but if you’re using a laptop and HDMI cable in your setup, you can just Bluetooth or wire the speaker directly to that.
Then there are stands and mounts. You may be able to place your projector on a coffee table, but an adjustable stand or mount is something to consider. Stands are usually collapsable tripods your projector will either screw into or just sit on. These are great if you like packing your projector away when it isn’t in use, as they are also compact and easy to store. They are also handy if you want to travel with your projector.
Projector mounts are a more permanent solution, universal, and more difficult to install. They bolt into a wall or ceiling, and then your projector is screwed onto them. They are adjustable to some degree, but you will need to make sure your projector is in the position you want it to be in before you start drilling. You may also need to install a plug to power your projector near the mount, though installing one near an existing power source and planning a route for the wire is possible.
Using a permanent mount for your projector has some benefits. Once it is set up, it is unlikely to require much adjustment as your projector will always be the same distance and at the same angle from the surface it is projecting onto. Your mount could also save you space as being high up on a wall or screwed to the ceiling usually means something is out of the way. People walking by will also be less likely to throw a shadow across your screen if the projector is mounted high.
While playing your favorite games on a wall-sized 4K screen might be tempting, gamers need to be extra careful when choosing a projector. While most mid-range or better projectors will be fine for most gamers, there is a danger of inconsistent picture quality, input lag and refresh rate. If you want to play games with the lights on without an ambient light-resistant screen, you’ll need to make sure your projector is powerful enough to produce a clear image with other light sources around.
The easiest way to ensure a projector will meet your gaming needs is to buy one specifically built for gaming. A gaming projector will ensure all boxes are ticked regarding latency, picture quality, brightness, and refresh rate while including a few gaming-related bonuses. The extras can range from specific gaming modes that tweak various settings to support features like AMD FreeSync or NVIDIA G-Sync.
A long throw projector requires nine or more feet of space to project to its full potential. They are often less expensive than a short-throw or ultra-short-throw projector. But when they’re similarly priced or more expensive than their shorter throw projectors, you tend to get a lot more for your money. As a result, it’s better to think of a shorter throw distance as a pricy feature.
Long-throw projectors can be quieter than shorter-throw models, mainly because projecting an image over a longer distance requires less processing power and generates less heat. Long-throw projectors can offer true 4K resolution– unlike ultra-short-throw models that have to upscale to 4K. The main downside of a long-throw projector is the space it requires. If you want a large screen, one of a projector’s main benefits, you’ll need a lot of distance between your projector and the projection surface. That position also means people walking across the room are more likely to cast a shadow on your image.
If you are limited on space, you may think you don’t have room for a projector. If you’re renting, you may not even have the option of mounting a projector on the ceiling in an attempt to get some distance. The good news is, with the right projector, distance is less of an issue. Short throw projectors can operate from as little as three feet from the surface you are projecting onto — some need eight feet for a larger image. This is ideal if you have a coffee table a few feet away from a large empty wall.
There are some downsides to short-throw projectors. They cost more than a long-throw projector, and the extra processing power tends to make them run hot. As a result, the built-in fans that cool your short throw projector might overpower the audio from whatever you’re watching or at least be noticeable enough to be annoying.
As the name suggests, ultra-short-throw (UST) projectors can project a large image from just inches away. A UST can allow you to enjoy a 100+ inch projected image as long as you have a surface big enough to project on. You can also use some ultra-short-throw projectors to rig up a “rear-throw” setup where you place the projector behind a rear-projection screen.
As with short-throw projectors, the space-saving applications of a UST come at a heavy premium. A good UST projector will set you back thousands of dollars. Unless your wall is perfectly smooth, a UST will require a screen too. The angle they project from means anything but a smooth, flat surface is likely to show every minor imperfection.
UST projectors are best when used with an Ambient Light Rejecting (ALR) screen. They take advantage of the extreme angle that a UST projector throws to block out light from your windows or lamps in favor of just the projected image, to give you a clear and crisp image even in a bright room. But they are more expensive than standard projector screens. UST and short throw projectors are great when space is at a premium, but if you have room or the ability to mount a long-throw projector, that is likely your best option.
Debbie and I are not building out a dedicated theater space in our new home though we have had them in the past. They were all retro fits of existing home rooms. The downside to that was that they were never ideal for home theater in a lot of ways. Living rooms can tend to be a long rectangular shape, with fireplaces and windows which can introduce problems.
To beam an image on the wall or finding room for a large TV can be problematic — the seating can be awkward and glare from the windows can be a huge issue. If the light isn’t completely sealed off a TV can be almost unwatchable during daytime hours. All you see is glare and none of the action.
You’d think that a projector system would be worse off as light is the enemy of projectors. But UST projectors are incredibly bright and very close to the screen. Even in a bright room, you can get a reasonable image. And best of all, that setup can eliminate glare, making it possible to watch during the daytime. Especially with a proper screen.
If you plan to project straight onto a wall, best case is white to get accurate colors. Other colors won’t usually significantly affect the color of content but that also depends on the color and your projector. Another issue to keep in mind if you’re projecting on a wall is imperfections. You probably wouldn’t notice them otherwise but instead of a perfect 16:9 rectangle when watching a movie, you may get a wavy almost rectangle. Not a deal-breaker but still a noticeable annoyance. An Ambient Light Rejecting (ALR) screen solves all those problems. The combination of an ALR screen and UST projector can deliver a theater-like experience at home.
If you’re a hardcore gamer, you may not want to rely on a projector however. They generally don’t support 120 FPS, and there’s a tiny bit of latency. That latency could make a difference in a really competitive game. Most serious gamers will keep their latest Xboxes and PlayStations on a gaming TV just to get the most out of every NextGen feature. But for older gaming consoles, big-screen gaming can be a lot of fun — even if you’re terrible at them like me.
So, if you don’t have a home theater or using a projector in your living room doesn’t appeal to you, maybe the idea of playing a movie outside during an evening pool party or taking a projector to a friend’s place for a movie sounds cool — you should consider a portable projector. Portable projectors are compact and some are capable of powering themselves for a few hours. We have a portable projector that we’ve used to watch sports, movies and for gaming.
Just like permanent home projector installations, portable projectors pair best with accessories. Pairing one with a screen is best case but we’ve used a wall very successfully. Plenty of people have used the side of a house or hung a sheet in their backyard though. You’ll obviously need power unless your projector has a battery. And if you want to play something from Netflix or Hulu, you will need the internet — you can accomplish this with a phone capable of creating a personal hotspot or if there’s WiFi available. The speakers attached to portable projectors may be okay for indoors, but probably won’t get the job done outside. So better speakers are also a good idea.
If you’re still not sure about projection in your smart home, you don’t need to spend thousands (or hundreds) of dollars. We still have (and use) the inexpensive portable projector we purchased years ago. If you want to try a projector out, you can get an entry-level HD projector for less than $100. Of course, you aren’t going to get anything mind-blowing for that amount. The HD projection won’t be the sharpest and the included speakers won’t be the best. And the slightest bit of outside light can make the projection tough to view. Inputs will also be limited to an HDMI cable and a USB port. But it’ll teach you a lot about projection and whether it’s a technology you really want to invest in further.
You can still have a good experience with a cheap projector however. Couple it with a reasonable screen and a decent soundbar, plug your laptop in, close the curtains, and have a movie night with family or friends.
Obviously a lot to think about here. But nothing you can’t figure out in your spare time using a little creativity. The great part is you can start small and build your smart projection home theater over time with whatever space you have. That may be the best part of smart home technology in general — so many options around so many solutions. It’s only limited by your imagination.
I’m curious how many of you already have projectors and how you’re using them. Are you going portable or have you permanently installed a projector? Using a screen or just throwing it up on the wall? If you’re using an ALR I’d really like to hear about the projection quality in daylight. Have you integrated speakers with your projector? What kind of content do you watch — movies, sports, gaming? If you’re gaming with a projector have you experienced any latency issues? What are your future plans with projection?
Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails as we really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’ Until next week …
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