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TV vs. projector: Which big screen tech should you choose?

Projectors still deliver the biggest images around, but prices on enormous TVs are cheaper than ever. Let's compare and, uh, contrast.

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- 05:17
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A swanky room that is definitely not mine featuring a really expensive Sony short-throw projector.

Sony

I love projectors. I've had a projector as my main and only "TV" for over 15 years. Once you've experienced a wall-size image it's hard to go back to a postage-stamp-size 65-inch TV. For years I've advocated getting a projector over a big TV, not only because of the price but also for the much larger image possible compared to the biggest TV screens.

The last few years, however, have seen significant shifts in both prices and technology. If you're thinking about upgrading to a really big screen, is a projector still the way to go in 2021? Let's break it down.

Read more: Best TV for 2021  

Compare: Price vs. performance

When I originally wrote the words "Don't buy a jumbo LCD TV, buy a projector" nine years ago, the TV and PJ landscape was far different. Ultralarge TVs were extraordinarily expensive. For about what you'd pay for a 50-inch TV, you could get a projector and a screen that had four times as much screen real estate. A 100-inch TV makes watching anything an event. The better projectors also had far better contrast ratios, and therefore better image quality, than most TVs of the time.

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Short-throw projectors can help fit a projector into just about any room but they can still look washed out in brighter lighting. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Life moves pretty fast. Technology even more so. These days you can get CNET Editors' Choice-winning 75-inch TVs for less than $1,400 or a 77-inch OLED (OLED!) for around $3,000. These still aren't 100 inches, but they're really big, bright and, unlike many similarly projectors, able to do HDR and wide color gamut very well. Ultra HD resolution is fantastic in larger screen sizes, but many 4K projectors have their own issues

To put it simply, the price of big TVs has fallen sharply and their performance has increased significantly, both at rates far faster than projectors. Yes, you can get inexpensive and bright projectors, but their overall picture quality pales in comparison to most TVs.

Read more: Best 75-inch TVs of 2021

Contrast: TVs win for HDR

HDR, or high dynamic range is a problem for projectors. While many projectors can accept HDR video, almost all have issues displaying HDR video. The problem is two-fold. The first is that even the best home projectors aren't that bright, at least compared to the average television. The second is that the more affordable PJs also don't have the contrast ratio needed to show HDR at its best. Many models aren't able to display wide color gamut at all.

Read more: Why you shouldn't expect great HDR from a projector

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Two projectors, side by side, running the same content. This is an example of good and bad HDR processing. Notice how there are three individual lights in the left image, but a single blob of light on the right. 

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Now, higher-end projectors can do WCG and do an OK job with HDR, but at a far greater price than a large TV. Even the best and brightest projectors are still only a fraction of the brightness of a midrange television. Brightness isn't everything (though arguably, contrast ratio is), but when it comes to HDR light output is a much bigger deal.

Can a projector look good without HDR? Yes, but this is another piece missing in the PJ puzzle.

A little thing called light

Forget 4K and HDR, the biggest image quality issue with projectors is much more practical: ambient light. A projector throws light at a screen, but any other light in the room is also getting thrown at the screen. The brightest parts of the image aren't hugely affected, but the darker parts are. Which is to say, if you're watching sports or something that's bright overall, you're fine. If you're watching a dark movie or playing a dark video game, it's going to be hard to see.

Yes, there are ambient light-rejecting screens, but they're expensive. And physics is physics. No matter how good a fancy screen is at reducing the impact of ambient light, it's still going to look worse than the same screen in a dark room. If you want to watch your projector during the day in a room with lots of windows (like the one at the top of this article) and enjoy the best image quality, you'll need lots of curtains.

A TV is going to create a much brighter image than any projector, one that holds up better in bright rooms. This obviously hasn't persuaded me to switch to a TV, but full disclosure: I use black-out curtains in my TV room. Most people probably aren't willing to make that sacrifice. 

Sorry, projectors, but TVs are winning

It pains me to say it, but for most people TVs are now a better option than projectors. This was somewhat true when I said the opposite a few years ago, but it's definitely true now. Unless you're willing to make sacrifices to your living situation, the slightly smaller screen of a TV is going to be easier to live with. And in the case of OLED and many of the best-performing LCD and QLED TVs, the image quality will be significantly better too, especially with HDR. 

These days projector ownership means sacrificing a variety of things, like image quality, livability, possibly price, all in the name of the largest possible image. Don't get me wrong, a huge image is awesome, but it's a lot harder to justify now, given how much better and cheaper truly huge TVs have gotten.

This isn't to stay projectors have stagnated. They continue to get brighter, and their contrast and color capabilities keep improving. Models using lasers and LEDs, while still often behind in performance compared to their UHP-lamp siblings, keep getting better and dropping in price. 

Projectors aren't going away any time soon. It's just that their value compared to TVs has shifted. For those of us who still aren't satisfied with 75-, 85- or even 98-inch screens, projectors are the only way to go. At least until MicroLED drops in price.

Now playing: Watch this: CES 2021: The best TVs from the show
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This article was published earlier and recently updated with new info.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff Morrison does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on InstagramYouTube and on his travel blog, BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel