Projectors vs. TVs: Giant-screen pros and cons

Upsize that tiny TV; go projection!

Stewart Filmscreen

Editors' note: This post was updated March 12, 2013.

Despite reviewing TVs for a living, I don't actually own a TV. The last TV I bought was a 27-inch CRT, in the summer of 2000.

Instead, I do all my TV and movie watching on a 102-inch screen. It's epic. And a projector doesn't have to cost a lot of money, nor is it difficult to set up.

The pros and cons of projection (and why you really, really want it), after the jump.

Projector basics

Front projection is a two-piece system: a projector that creates the image, and a screen that reflects it. The thought of dealing with two pieces often gives people agita, but in reality projectors are exceedingly simple to set up.

There are three types of technology in front projection: DLP, LCD, and LCOS.

LCD is basically the same technology used in flat-panel TVs. Typically, LCD projectors are in the low to midranges of the price spectrum. Where they once were strictly in the budget realm, steady improvements have resulted in some models being the best in their class. Epson, for example, has put out several excellent projectors in the past few years.

DLP, or Digital Light Processing, uses small chips with millions of tiny mirrors. They range in price from ultra-low-end models to extremely expensive, three-chip flamethrowers for dedicated theaters. Digital projection in movie theaters is most often DLP. Their black levels and contrast ratios aren't as good as those of LCOS or many LCD models, but motion resolution is way better. As they're made in such a range of quality levels, it's impossible to say DLP is this or that, but typically picture quality is very good.

LCOS, or liquid crystal on silicon, can be thought of as a hybrid of DLP and LCD. It's a liquid crystal layer on top of a mirrored surface. Black levels and contrast ratios are both excellent. JVC projectors (using their version of LCOS, called D-ILA) have consistently had the best contrast ratios I've measured of any display type. Sony's version, called SXRD, is a close second. Prices range from midrange to upper midrange, though Sony's new 4K projector is way high-end in price.

Epson

Pros:

Size
This is the obvious one, and the reason to go projection. I have a 12-foot-wide screen for 2.35:1 movies. In 16x9 mode, actors on TV look larger than life. Wait, they are larger than life. Literally! At 50 inches tall, that means a close-up is a 4-foot-tall head.

Or think of it this way: watching a 2.35:1 movie, like "Lord of the Rings," on a screen that nearly fills your entire field of view is the very definition of absorbing. Speaking of absorbing, if you drink too much soda and you need to take a break, this movie theater is in your house! Pause, micturate, then movie!

Lately, I've been using my "TV" as a computer monitor . Planetside 2 on a 100-inch screen with full surround sound is the equal to or better than nearly all war movies.

On a small screen, even 50 inches or more, you can't see all the detail in a 1080p image. From the average sofa distance of 9 feet, your eye just can't resolve it. Blow that up four times to 100 inches, and now you've got yourself a party. Individual strands of hair, every pore and whisker, every blade of sand and grain of grass.

This is where the benefit of 4K comes into play. Though I think Ultra HD 4K TVs are dumb , the same resolution for projectors is great. The much larger image benefits greatly from the added resolution. Most people will likely see pixels on a 150-inch screen at 9 feet, but not with 4K. Unfortunately, right now, Ultra HD projectors are even rarer than Ultra HD TVs. Check out Chris Heinonen's awesome 4K Calculator to figure out your ideal screen size/view distance/resolution.

Of course, it means lesser-quality content (like DVD or standard-definition cable) is much harder to suffer through.

Lastly, your house becomes the default location for movie nights, TV watching, and sportballteam events.

Easier on the eyes
Everyone always asks if having a screen that big hurts the eyes. Actually, it's the opposite. Filling a larger percentage of your visual field, and with less overall brightness, a big screen actually quite relaxing to watch. More like an actual movie theater, which often produces no more than 5 footlamberts or so (on my screen, most projectors produce around 30 to 40; an LED LCD can be three times that or more). Check out this post on " Why do my eyes hurt while watching TV? " for more info.

Space (sort of)
If you mount the projector on the ceiling, the screen can just hang on the wall. More expensive installations feature retractable screens, where the screen disappears into the ceiling.

Some people like the idea of just painting the wall, but I don't like the rough texture this creates, as it tends to be visible.

Even though you can mount a TV on a wall, most people don't. They're surprisingly heavy. A screen is light, and if you drop it, there's little possibility of damage (unless you stick something through it).

Stewart Filmscreen

Cons:

Light
Well, that's the big problem. No matter how bright the projector, and no matter how clever the screen material, any ambient light in the room is going to wash out the image. Forget about watching TV with the shades up, or the lights on. You need absolute light control in your room, or you'll be forced to watch TV only at night. In my theater, there is some light during the day, but not enough to wash out the image (though this means I can only review projectors at night, leading to a rather bizarre sleeping schedule).

Lamps
Nearly all projectors create light with a UHP lamp, which lasts a few thousand hours and then costs a few hundred dollars to replace. Figure a new lamp every year or so, maybe every other year. The cost of doing the business of awesome, apparently. We're starting to see LEDs replace UHP lamps, but so far the price is still high. You're better off getting a better-performing UHP-based projector and paying for the lamps.

JVC

Odd living habits
There are aspects of your life that change, oddly:

You minimize walking in front of the screen (down in front!).

Because of this, you can't get a Kinect or a Wii. You'd be standing in front of the screen, blocking the image, while you tried to get the controller to work.

You leave the shades drawn a lot. Or maybe that's just me.

Suddenly, all your friends' TVs seem impossibly small.

Perhaps my favorite oddity is pointing to something onscreen. After so many years of having a projector, I just raise my hand and use the shadow of my finger to mark what I want. I also do this at friend's houses...and they don't have projectors. So for a moment, I'm just some guy with his hand randomly in the air. Cracks me up every time.

Other cons(iderations)

Audio
It goes without saying (or maybe it doesn't) that you'll need a receiver and speakers. A projector isn't a TV, per se. There's no tuner, and most don't have speakers. So you'll need a source and audio. For cable/satellite users, the source part is easy: you probably already have the box. You can always buy an external HDTV tuner for over-the-air HD broadcasts.

The receiver and speakers, if you don't have them already...wait a second, why don't you have a receiver and speakers? You're not using the speakers in your TV, are you? For shame. There is no better upgrade you can make than upgrading your TV's audio. I recently did an article on this over at HDGuru.

A screen
Then there's the screen. Screens range in price from a few hundred to many thousands. As I mentioned above, I don't recommend just using a wall. The image you see is the light from the projector reflected back to your eyes. If there is any sort of texture in the reflecting surface (the wall, in this case), you're going to see that as well. It's worth investing in a screen. Some have better light characteristics, some do fancy things like make the black level better, or make a brighter image, or minimize the effect of ambient light, and others retract, mask at different aspect ratios, and more. The Screen Innovations Black Diamond Zero Edge screen is rigid, so it looks just like a big flat-panel TV when the projector's off, plus it rejects a lot of ambient light when the projector's on, a cool trick. I've been a big fan of Stewart and Da-Lite for years. They're great, and offer a lot of really cool options, but are generally on the more expensive side.

Cables
Then there are the cables. You're going to need to run HDMI from your receiver all the way to the projector. Check out my posts on why all HDMI cables are the same and still more reasons why all HDMI cable are the same , though make sure you note the part where I say that in this exact circumstance it is worth it to get a decent cable. Check out cables with RedMere. I use two long Monoprice HDMI cables with RedMere in my lab, and haven't had any issues so far. There's also wireless, though I found in a recent test that the current crop of wireless HDMI transmitters leave a lot to be desired.

Noise
Because UHP (and LEDs, actually) generates a fair amount of heat, projectors have fans. The amount of noise created varies greatly. Inexpensive and small projectors can be quite loud. Larger, more expensive projectors have designs that minimize their noise and can be very quiet. If the projector is going right above your head, better choose a quiet model. If it's going on a shelf far behind you, this is less of a concern. I have yet to review a projector that was loud enough to offset the awesomeness of its massive image, and I'm an audiophile.

Cost
Lastly, there's cost. Though there are some sub-$1,000 projectors on the market that are quite decent , to get really good picture quality, you have to pay a bit more. I recently reviewed and loved the JVC X35, Sony HW50, and Epson 5020. CNET editor Ty Pendlebury, too, reviewed the Sony HW50 and David Katzmaier reviewed the X35, and both of them like both of them a lot. These projectors are in the $3,000-$4,000 range, the range of a high-end large flat-panel TV, and offer some amazing performance and much bigger image size.

There is not a linear increase in performance with price. The Epson is one of the brightest displays of any type or technology I've ever measured, capable of immense images (it could easily handle a 150-inch screen). The JVC has one of the best contrast ratios I've ever measured of any display type or technology. The Sony has fantastically accurate color. Sony has a 4K projector, and some high-end three-chip DLP projectors can offer highly accurate color and incredible light output (the Epson can do one or the other), but often the increase in picture quality with expensive projectors isn't the leap it used to be.

What about getting a gigantic LCD TV instead? Well, good question. I wrote " Don't buy a jumbo LCD TV, buy a projector " to cover that. I hope I didn't give too much away with the title.

Bottom line

As much as I'm a proponent of projection, I begrudgingly admit it's not for everyone. I do believe, however, that it's for more people than currently have it. There are practical considerations with any display, and the truly massive screen and immersive experience go a long way (in my mind) to offset a projection setup's negatives.

Or let me put it another way. With my current setup, I use my 102-inch screen to watch TV and movies part of the time. The rest of the time I use it for gaming and use a tiny little 50-inch plasma to watch TV at the same time. It's a tough life.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like HDMI cables , LED LCD vs. plasma , Active vs Passive 3D , and more. Still have a question? Send him an e-mail! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.

About the author

Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer/photographer for CNET, Forbes, and TheWirecutter. He also writes for Sound&Vision magazine, HDGuru.com, and several others. He was Editor in Chief of Home Entertainment magazine and before that, Technical Editor of Home Theater magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling first novel, Undersea, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere.

 

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