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Best projectors you can actually afford

We reviewed seven of the most popular home-theater projectors from $150 up to $800. All can spit out massive images for minimal dough. So which is the best?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nothing beats a home theater projector at putting up a jaw-dropping image for as little money as possible.

Sure it's not quite as plug-and-play as a TV. You'll need the space and a dark room, and it really helps to have a screen and a separate audio system (or at least a decent powered speaker). A projector takes a minute or so to warm up, and unless you mount it on the ceiling, you'll get a case of the shadow puppets when you walk in front.

For all of these reasons and more, TVs are much more popular than projectors. You can get a 65-inch TV for $900 or less, complete with 4K resolution and HDR. That's big enough for most people, but compared to a projector it's positively tiny. A 100-inch projection screen is more than 7 feet wide, with almost 2.5 times the screen area of a 65-inch TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I just finished comparing seven of the most popular home-theater projectors, ranging in price from $150 to $800. Not surprisingly, their quality also ranged from terrible to excellent. None deliver 4K resolution or HDR, but you'll trade that for sheer size that, in my book, is more impressive than any image quality extras.

So which one is the best?

Best overall pick: Optoma HD142X ($550)

Sarah Tew/CNET

In terms of bang for the buck, the best of the bunch was the Optoma HD142X. It's one of the least expensive projectors available with full HD (1080p) resolution, and its image quality is very good overall. It was outclassed in a couple of areas by more-expensive units, and if you have the money you should consider one of them, but I don't think the extra money is worth paying for most buyers.

Best picture I tested: BenQ HT2050 ($800)

Sarah Tew/CNET

News flash: more expensive projectors often have better pictures. The BenQ is the best performer I tested, besting the contrast of most of the others and offering solid color as well as hitting most of the other performance criteria I care about. If your budget gets this high and you want an even better image than the Optoma, consider this projector.

Cheapest decent picture: Epson Home Cinema 640 ($350)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unless you really don't care about picture quality, I can't recommend a cheaper projector than this. The 640's biggest issue is lack of full-HD resolution, but beyond that, the picture is pretty dang good for the price. I can't say the same for the ultracheap iRulu BL20 ($150), which produced some of the worst images I've ever seen.

The other alternatives I reviewed

Viewsonic PJD7828HDL ($590): Second-best to the Optoma for around the same price. Short-throw lens is great for smaller rooms.

Epson Home Cinema 2045 ($700): The best at its price for people bothered by the "rainbow effect" of DLP projectors like the Optoma.

Viewsonic PRO7827HD ($770): Very good picture but falls short of the BenQ, especially for film buffs and gamers.

There are plenty of other home-theater projectors I didn't review, including models more -- and less --expensive. I chose the models above because they're popular among Amazon buyers and represent some of the least-expensive models from the major players in projection technology at the moment. Of course I don't have the time or resources to review them all, so there could be better ones out there for the money, and there are certainly better ones that cost more.

But if you're in the market for a home-theater projector and don't want to spend a fortune to get an amazing (and amazingly big) image, I'm confident you'll be happy with one of these picks.

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