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9 tips to set up your projector perfectly

How to prepare your projector for the big movie, TV show or video game. And we do mean big.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

For the biggest screen possible in your home, the best projectors can create truly massive images. In many cases they cost less than the biggest TVs. From movies to TV, PlayStation 5 to Xbox Series X, there's just something more compelling and engrossing about big-screen entertainment. 

The catch is that projectors require more setup and hassle than TVs. You'll need to find the right space, of course. Then there's figuring out the right settings, dialing in the focus and more. The payoff at the end, as you convert the room into a home theater, is well worth it. You might never want to go back to a tiny TV ever again.

Here's how to get started.

Read more: Best home theater projector for 2021

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Three possible placement options for projectors from left to right: ceiling, table and short-throw.

BenQ

1. Find the right location

The first step is figuring out where you're going to put the thing. You'll need enough space for the projection itself -- either a screen (recommended) or a patch of blank wall (as close to white as possible). The bigger that space, the better. Projectors can deliver images as small as 40 or 50 inches and as large as 300, measured diagonally. Keep in mind that larger images will be dimmer and, depending on the projector, may start to expose the individual pixels (aka "screen door effect"), especially if you sit close to the screen.

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Brett Pearce/CNET

Bigger images also require you to move the projector further back. And unless you mount the projector on the ceiling, you won't be able to sit in the path of the beam, so consider the seating arrangement. 

Most projector companies offer screen size calculators on their websites, letting you figure out how far back you can place the specific model you're considering for the size screen you want.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

2. Set up the screen (optional)

If you have a screen, the next step is getting that set up. And we highly recommend a screen. It provides a uniform blank surface (no light switches or other wall "features"), and screens can reflect or even amplify your projector's light better than a wall, delivering a brighter image.

Before you permanently mount anything, do a trial run with the projector and the screen to make sure you've got your sizes and distances correct.

3. Get the right height

For this how-to, we're assuming you're using the most common projection orientation: a table mount from the front. The concept is similar for ceiling mounts, however. If you don't get the height correct, the image will be trapezoid-shaped. That might not be a huge deal for you, but if you're trying to perfectly match the edges of a screen, it can be frustrating or impossible.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Most projectors have an "upwards throw." What this means is the image is projected above the center of the lens. How much higher varies depending on the model. This is good for placement on a coffee table, or mounting on a ceiling, as the image will be close to the center of the wall or screen, even though the projector itself is closer to the floor or ceiling. 

However, this means that placing a projector on a stand behind you is a challenge, since the image will now be projected on the upper part of the wall and probably the ceiling. If this is the placement you want, check out projectors with either lens shift, or no upwards throw. 

4. Plug everything in and turn it on

Now it's time to make connections. Note you still haven't permanently mounted anything. You definitely want to make sure everything works before you secure it all in. 

So now's the time to run that extra-long HDMI cable. This is the ideal, over wireless or connecting multiple sources to the projector itself, as it gives you the most flexibility and the highest frame rates and resolutions. It does, however, mean you'll need a receiver or soundbar to connect and switch your sources. A good idea anyway, as you should never rely on the speakers in a projector for sound.

Once it's all connected, check some different content. If you have a 4K projector, make sure you watch some 4K content to make sure your system can handle that resolution. Just because it can handle 1080p doesn't mean it can do 4K.

Read more: Best 4K projectors for 2021

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A geometry test pattern can be a big help.

David Katzmaier

5. Project an alignment image

An alignment image, like what's shown above, can help you make sure you've got everything lined up. Spears and Munsell has a good pattern available on its site if you want. It also has a good setup disc, which will help with several of the steps here. Alternatively, you could turn off the lights and just see where the edges of the image are. Make sure you use actual video content, though.

If the image isn't rectangular, it's likely because it's not exactly perpendicular to the screen. Measuring the exact distances for everything will likely make aligning the projector easier. Don't, unless you absolutely have to, use any kind of keystone adjustments on the projector. These electronically manipulate the image so it's rectangular. It does this at the expense of resolution and image quality -- best avoided. Lens shift, on the other hand, mechanically angles or moves the lens, and are fine to use with minimal, if any, effect on the image.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Adjust focus until details are sharp (walk closer to the screen if you can't tell). If the center is in focus but the corners aren't, it could be an indication that the projector and screen aren't quite perpendicular.

If the projector is on a table, usually one or more of the feet are adjustable to level it out. 

6. Batten down the hatches

Once you're sure everything works, the image orientation is perfect (or as perfect as you can get it) it's time to permanently mount the screen and projector. It's also a good time to tuck away any HDMI cables so no one walks or trips over them. 

If you're running the HDMI cable through a wall, make sure it's rated for that and you follow any local building codes.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

7. Select the right picture mode

Now that everything's running, it's time to make sure the projector looks the best it can. Like TVs, projectors have preset picture modes, so you'll want to choose the right one. The best one for overall picture quality in a dark room is typically "Movie" or "Cinema." If you're dealing with ambient light, you might want to choose a brighter mode like Vivid or Dynamic, but be aware that they often skew blue, green or both. Check out our tutorial on finding the right settings. It's for TVs, but projectors use all the same settings.

Read more: How to adjust your TV picture settings, no professional, disc or Apple TV 4K required

There are only two major settings different with projectors versus TVs. The first is the lamp mode. This, as you'd probably guess, is how bright the image is. For the most part, brighter is better, but the projector will be louder (from fan noise) and the lamp won't last as long. Usually there's some setting called "Dynamic," not to be confused with the picture mode with the same name. This will vary the lamp power depending on what's on screen. Again, typically this is a good thing, but with some projectors it does mean you'll hear the fan ramping up and down with the brightness. 

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Related is the iris setting. Not all projectors have an iris, but those that do will usually give you the option to turn this on or off. The iris will darken dark images, and open back up to make sure bright images stay bright. It doesn't improve the native contrast ratio, but it might help make high, gray-like black levels less noticeable with darker content. You might see it in action, with a pulsing of the brightness of the image, and if you do, feel free to turn it off.

Lastly, most projectors have a game mode, which will reduce the input lag. This is better for gaming, but if you're not a gamer, don't worry about it.

8. Consider better sound (optional)

As mentioned above, it's best not to rely on a projector's internal speakers for sound. At best they're a few watts. They're always small and worse, they're nowhere near the screen where the sound is supposed to be coming from. If your room doesn't have a space for a full-on sound system, we recommend at least connecting a decent Bluetooth speaker. You'll need one with an auxiliary input, a projector with built-in Bluetooth, or an external Bluetooth transmitter. Alternatively, you can connect just about any powered speakers. Most projectors will have an analog audio output for just that purpose.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

9. Turn off the lights and enjoy!

Projected images are best enjoyed in the dark, where the pictures look their best. Just add popcorn.

First published in 2017. Updated with more info in 2021.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff 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 Instagram and YouTube, and on his travel blog, BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel