Dear Lifehacker, We're about to replace our old HDTV. We're considering a projector for our home theatre system. What do we need to consider, and what kind of issues will we run into setting up a projector in our home? Is it worth it? Sincerely, Longing for Large Screen
Setting up a projection system for your home theatre is not something that's for everyone. Projection systems require a lot of room, controlled lighting, and typically involve purchasing more essential accessories than a traditional flat panel. That being said, it can also be a very worthwhile investment, so let's take a look at some challenges you'll face:
Flat panel televisions, whether LCD or plasma, emit their own light while a projection-based system uses reflected light to display its picture. Unfortunately, so does everything else you can see. Projectors have to compete with the other lights in a room to be seen and even a small amount of ambient light can wash out a projected image.
Some projectors are better at competing with the ambient light in your room than others, but none are perfect. When you're buying a projector be sure to check the output brightness rating, measured in ANSI lumens (or just lumens). A projector with a rating of at least 1700 ANSI lumens should at least be able to compete with a small amount of ambient light. A projector with a 3000 lumens rating would be able to handle some stronger ambient light. No amount of brightness output, however, will make it unnecessary to block out ambient light. Projectors will always be more washed out with the lights on than the lights off.
Projectors require large rooms. One reason is that the screen size for a projector can get quite large. Viewing a 100" screen from five feet away can be a literal pain in the neck. Additionally, the larger the screen, the greater the volume of your living room you won't be able to walk through without blocking part of the screen.
Most projectors have the ability to display in a normal or upside-down mode which gives you some flexibility in determining where to mount your projector. Ceiling mounts typically work best as they allow more floor space to be used for seating. The longer the room, the better. Wherever possible, attempt to put as much of your seating behind the projector itself to minimise blocking of the screen.
You'll also need to do some calculations to determine just how big of a screen you can get out of your space. This handy online calculator can help you determine how much space you'll need for your model of projector at various sizes. The bigger your room is, the bigger the screen you can fit.
Buying A Screen
A projector is only as good as the surface it's reflecting off. When purchasing a screen for your projector, you have a few options to consider.
Pull-down screens: These are the types you see most commonly in classrooms. These can cost in the area of $100-200 and have the advantage of being hidden away easily when not in use.
Matte vinyl fabric: Depending on just how much you want to invest in your home theatre set up, you may consider building your own screen frame. You can purchase a wide variety of screen material to be set in your frame. Be sure to check the gain ratings (the lower the better) and the viewing angle on the material you'll buy. This can become a pricey option if you're buying the materials yourselves. If you're trying to built on the cheap, consider a pre-built screen unit.
Projector-friendly paint: If you don't mind committing a section of your wall to your entertainment plans, you can paint a section of a wall with reflective matte paint. The biggest advantage to this method is that there is no fabric to worry about getting ripped or frayed.
The types of screens that can be purchased or built for a projection system are so varied that entire articles can be written on this subject alone so be sure to do your research and find out the best solutions for your home.
Replacement Lamps and Other Extra Costs
Projectors can seem like a fantastic deal and, in most respects, they are. For the same price of a decent 50" LED-backlit HDTV, you can get a 1080p projector that can display a 100" screen size. A comparably-sized LED or plasma screen could run you hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, projectors come with hidden costs that most HDTVs don't have, such as the following:
Replacement lamps: Projectors require extremely high-powered lamps to project their images, and these bulbs do not last as long as most HDTVs. Improvements are being made in this area, but right now most projectors you buy will last a year or two under heavy use before they need replacing. And the bulbs can get very pricey, as well. Often to the tune of a couple hundred dollars. You'll need to determine if the recurring cost is worth it for the added screen size.
Audio system: If you're considering a projector for a home theatre, chances are you're not planning on skimping in other areas. Nevertheless, it's worth pointing out, few projectors come with any built-in audio, unlike most traditional HDTVs. The ones that do won't have an audio system you'll want to use anyway. You will need to purchase a separate audio system to complement your projector, which is yet another multi-hundred dollar expense.
Screens: It was covered before, but it bears repeating: buying a projector won't mean you don't have to buy a screen. The quality of a projector is wasted if you point your new projector at a plain white, semi-glossy wall or a hanging bed sheet. It's up to you what type of screen you buy, but this will add to the cost of your home theatre set up if you want to get the most out of your new device.
A projector can be a fantastic (and impressive!) choice for a home theatre set up. Traditional HDTVs are very limited in screen size and can be heavy, bulky, and difficult to move. Projectors will give you some necessary difficulties setting up and the extra costs associated with a projection-based set up can pile up. However, if you have the space, the money, and the patience to invest in a projector, you can end up with a home theatre that will be the envy of your social circle.
Hope that helps!