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Big TV vs. projector: Pros and cons of huge home theater screens

Massive TVs are cheaper than ever, but projectors can get even bigger. How should you decide?

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A bright room is the enemy of projector picture quality.
Sony

For nearly 20 years I've used a projector as my main "TV." Watching some of the best shows in history on a 100-inch screen has been a joy. Movies on a 10-foot-wide screen are the ultimate in immersion. All TVs are postage stamps compared to that. For years I've advocated getting a projector over a big TV, as the images they created were significantly bigger, and yet so much less money, than huge TVs. 

However, in the last few years there have been some major shifts that change the equation quite a bit. So 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 landscape of TVs and PJs (that's projectors, not pajamas) was very 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
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Brett Pearce/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 under $3,000. These still aren't 100 inches, but they're really big, bright and, unlike many 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.

Now playing: Watch this: How to buy the best home theater projector
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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 say 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.


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 castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.