Projector tech explainer: All your front projection questions answered

Front projection is great, but before you jump into the ultimate big-screen experience, here are a few things you should know.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
4 min read

Screen Innovations

For the biggest TV, movie, and gaming experience, you need a projector. On top of all the "normal" TV jargon, projectors have their own buzz words and marketing fluff that must be navigated. Then there's the additional complexity of wiring and screens. None of these things are difficult, especially if you're armed with a handy helpful guide.

Hey, this is a helpful handy guide! Behold, all your projector tech questions answered.

Picture quality

By far, the most important aspect of picture quality is contrast ratio. This is the difference between the darkest object a projector can create, and the brightest. Unfortunately, no manufacturer is honest about their contrast ratio: "Contrast ratio (or how every TV/projector manufacturer lies to you)."

Projectors are a two-piece system: the projector, and the screen. Picking the right screen is crucial to the overall picture quality. Check out "Projection screen basics" for all the info.

The color temperature is important, as it's the "color" of white. You don't want it to be too blue or too red. Getting it right can make the image more realistic. So what is color temperature?

There are three technologies used in all front projectors, and they each have their pros and cons:DLP, LCD, and LCoS.

Many higher-end LCD and LCoS projectors have refresh rates higher than the "normal" 60Hz. So what is refresh rate?

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Even though "How big a TV should I buy?" was written with TVs in mind, there's a lot of good info to help you decide how big a screen you should get for your room.

Unsure if a 80- or 90-inch LCD TVs are a better deal than projection? Check this out: "Don't buy a jumbo LCD TV, buy a projector."

Or "Projectors vs. TVs: Giant-screen pros and cons."

Most mid- and all high-end projectors are 1080p. Your cable box sends out 1080i. Guess what? 1080i and 1080p are the same resolution.

Just as with TVs, simply because you have an HD projector doesn't mean everything you watch on it is "HD." Find out when HD isn't HD.

Every projector needs to convert whatever signal you send it to it's "native" resolution (1080p, WXGA, etc). This processing is called "upconverting." So what is upconverting?

"4K" and "Ultra HD" are big buzz words this year. Sadly, the only 4K projector right now runs $25,000. Because while 4K TVs are stupid, 4K projectors are a great idea. I explain why in "Why Ultra HD 4K TVs are still stupid."

Most projectors are capable of doing 3D. Pretty much all are active 3D. Here's the difference between active 3D and passive 3D (like many theaters have).

Here's how the 3D itself works on Blu-ray and from your 3D cable/satellite provider.

Setup and inputs
The best way to get an HD signal to your projector is with HDMI cables. You'll need a long runs from your sources (like your cable box) to your projector, but don't get suckered by ultrahigh prices. Here's the secret: all HDMI cables are the same.

OK, technically it's not that simple. I go into even more (excruciating) detail in "Why all HDMI cables are the same, Part 2" and "Still more reasons why all HDMI cable are the same."

Your projector's settings play a huge part in how the image looks. Once the projector is installed, check out "How to set up a TV" and "How to set a TV up by eye." (They're good for projectors, too!) 

You also might want to consider getting your projector professionally calibrated. The pros and cons here: "What is HDTV calibration?"

I use my projector as a huge computer monitor for games and more. Here's how.

Most projectors don't have built-in speakers, so you'll need a receiver with speakers, or soundbar.

Also check out all the myths, marketing, and misdirection in home audio.

Here's how to pick the right subwoofer.

Bottom line
I'm a huge fan of projectors (obviously). I've had one as my "TV" for over a decade. With a little research, you can have a movie theater in your home, too. Check out our picks for the Best home theater projectors.

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 projector to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter: @TechWriterGeoff.