Home projectors have come a long way over the past few years. Today's models can handle a wide variety of multimedia content—films, photos, documents, and games—with aplomb, and many can play music files as well. Although models with resolutions of 720p or less are still being introduced, higher resolutions (from WXGA to FHD) are commonplace, and we're even seeing a few 4K versions, with horizontal resolutions of nearly 4,000 pixels. Most home projectors offer a wide range of connection choices, and some are capable of displaying 3D content. With the way the state of the art is advancing, your next TV may well be a projector.
Just as no two homes are identical, projectors designed for home use vary widely in price, features, purpose, and capabilities. They range from tiny pico and palmtop projectors, to home theater models that can form the centerpiece of a home cinema room, to home entertainment projectors bright enough to withstand the ambient light in a family room. Some are geared toward gaming, and most handle video (and photos) reasonably well. Here's how to determine what sort of home projector is best for you.
There are four basic kinds of content you can view with a projector: data, video, photos, and games. Most projectors can handle all of them, but each type has its strengths. Business (or data) projectors tend to be best at displaying data presentations, like PowerPoint slides, PDFs, Excel files, and the like. Consumer or home models, such as home entertainment, home theater, and video projectors are more geared to video viewing. Projectors that do well with video also tend to be good with photos. Gaming projectors are a small, but growing, niche and feature lower input lag.
Many consumer projectors are versatile, able to do justice to a range of content. If, say, you have a home office and occasionally need to show data presentations but also want to use the projector for entertainment, you may want to get a consumer model that also does well at showing data.
A home projector needn't be a homebody. Many are portable enough to travel with, or at least to easily move from room to room. (The main exception is a home theater projector, which you'd most likely want to permanently install.) The gaming projectors we've seen are easy to bring along to a LAN party. Micro-projectors—pico projectors, most of which can fit into a shirt pocket; palmtop models, which can fit in an outstretched hand; and slightly larger models—are highly portable, and come in both consumer and business models (many are good for both personal and business use).
Most projectors are either LCD-based or they use a Texas Instruments DLP (Digital Light Projection) chip along with a laser, LED, or LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) light source. Single-chip DLP projectors are potentially subject to what is known as the rainbow effect. Little red-green-blue rainbow-like flashes may be visible, particularly in scenes with bright areas against a dark background. In some DLP projectors, the effect is minimal, but in projectors where the effect is average to severe, people who are sensitive to these artifacts will likely find them distracting, particularly with video. LCD projectors are immune to this effect, so they're a safer bet if you or someone in your family is sensitive to the rainbow effect. That said, there are plenty of DLP projectors with excellent image quality.
Ideally, your projector's native resolution—the number of pixels in its display—should match the resolution of the content you'll most frequently be displaying. For videos and games, you'll want a widescreen native aspect ratio such as 16:9 or 16:10. Both 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) and 720p (1,280 by 720) have 16:9 aspect ratios, while WXGA projectors (1,280 by 800) are 16:10. Both home theater and home entertainment projectors are best with 1080p resolutions, though many consumers are satisfied with less expensive 720p models. If you're a more demanding user, you should consider a 4K (also known as Ultra-High-Definition) projector with a resolution of 3,840 by 2,160, twice as many vertical and horizontal pixels as 1080p. But there's currently a limited amount of content available that can take advantage of 4K resolution.
Consumer-level projectors range in brightness from less than 100 lumens for pico projectors to several thousand for video and home entertainment models. How bright your projector should be depends largely on two things: lighting and image size. If you're okay with relatively small images and/or plan to project mostly in a darkened room, you can get by with lower brightness. A home entertainment projector for a family room should be brighter, around 2,000 lumens or more.
Keep in mind that perception of brightness is measured logarithmically; it takes a lot more than doubling the number of lumens for an image to appear twice as bright. Thus, modest differences in rated brightness (say, 2,200 and 2,500 lumens) are usually of little significance.
Home Theater or Home Entertainment?
Home theater projectors are designed to be used under theater-dark conditions in a movie room. This can be anything from an elaborate, professionally designed home theater to a mixed-use room that can be set up for viewing movies. Such projectors usually eschew built-in speakers, as their owners prefer to yoke them to high-fidelity audio systems. Image quality, features, and resolution are important—most are 1080p, and many include 3D capabilities. Because you'll be viewing in a dark room free of ambient light, a home theater projector needn't be especially bright; you won't want to go much above 2,000 lumens.
Home entertainment projectors, on the other hand, are more versatile than home theater models, and are generally used in places such as family rooms, where there may be considerable ambient light. They've become viable substitutes for HDTVs, and can project fairly large images without degradation. Thus, they tend to be brighter than home theater models. They also have built-in sound systems. As home entertainment projectors are geared to casual viewing, their image quality—though generally good—is seldom a match for that of home theater models.
Most home projectors offer multiple connection methods. Nearly all new models provide HDMI connectivity, which is good because it supports video resolutions of 1080p. Larger projectors have standard HDMI ports, while palmtop, pico, and other small projectors often have mini or micro HDMI ports, which require different cables (usually included with the projector). Many home entertainment and home theater models have ports compatible with HDMI 1.4a, enabling projection from a Blu-ray player or set-top box, as well as a computer. Some come with HDMI ports that support MHL, providing a wired connection to compatible phones and tablets. Some projectors connect via Wi-Fi, and may support media streaming via Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) and/or Miracast.
Composite video, component video, and S-Video are also common, and we're seeing more projectors offering direct connect to a computer via a USB cable. Most projectors have VGA ports, although HDMI is preferable for showing video from a computer. Many models now offer Wi-Fi adapters for wireless streaming of content as a standard or optional feature.
Do You Need 3D?
Because 3D has grown in popularity for video and game content, many new projectors claim to be 3D compatible. Most utilize TI's DLP-Link technology, which requires a computer with a compatible graphic card and active-shutter 3D glasses for each user. They're not necessarily compatible with all 3D content, though, so check our reviews as well as what the manufacturer has to say about compatibility if 3D content is important to you. Be sure to factor in the cost of 3D glasses when buying such a projector.
Below are our current top picks in home projectors. They vary widely in size, brightness, and features. All these projectors have one thing in common, though: high marks in our reviews. Be sure to also check out our overall top picks, as well as our favorite portable projectors.
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Celluon PicoPro projector is easy to use, an excellent companion for a cell phone, and fits in a shirt pocket. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Epson Home Cinema 2040 3D 1080p 3LCD Projector delivers high-quality 2D and 3D, a short lag time for gaming, and a bright enough image to stand up to ambient light in a family room. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The LG Minibeam Ultra Short Throw Projector with Smart TV (PF1000U) is both a projector and a smart TV, but its key feature is an ultra-short throw, which eliminates the need to run cables any farther than you would with a regular TV. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Optoma GT1080 projector offers a short lag time, a bright image, 3D support for HDMI connections, and 1080p resolution to match the resolution of the newest crop of game systems. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The BenQ HT1085ST home entertainment projector delivers near-excellent video quality, 3D, and a short-throw lens that lets you show a big image even in a small room. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Epson Home Cinema 1440 1080p 3LCD Projector delivers excellent output quality and a bright enough image to stand up to daylight in a family room with lots of windows. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Basically a portable HDTV that uses a projector for its display, the LG Compact Pebble Design Smart Minibeam Projector PW800 offers the usual HDMI and VGA ports, plus easy wireless connectivity to mobile devices. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The Optoma HD37 home entertainment projector shows occasional rainbow artifacts, but makes up for it with excellent color and some features you wouldn't expect for the price. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Hardly larger than a Tic Tac case, and rated at 100 lumens, the 3-ounce Philips Pocket Projector PPX4010 is an excellent laptop companion for deskside presentations. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Despite occasional rainbow artifacts, the Vivitek H1186-WT works well as a home entertainment projector, with high-quality 1080p 2D and 3D and a short lag time that's suitable for game play. Read the full review