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How to set up a projector

A projector isn't quite as plug-and-play as a TV. Here's how to get yours set up for the big movie, TV show or video game. And we do mean big.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Home theater projectors can put truly massive images in your home for cheaper than any big-screen TV. But getting them set up takes a bit more work.

Once you've bought a projector, you'll have to find the space, get the image in focus and fiddle with a few other settings. Ideally you'll also be using a screen, and you might have to run some extra cables from your gear to your projector.

Best projectors you can actually afford

If all of that sounds daunting, relax. The payoff is a picture so big and impressive you'll never want to watch a puny TV again.

Here's how to get started.

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 projection, the better. Projectors can typically 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.

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.

2. Set up the screen (optional)

If you have a screen, the next step is getting it 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.

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Optoma

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 and rear-projection configurations, however.

Most projectors are designed to line up roughly with the middle of the lens a bit above the bottom edge of the screen, so you'll want a small table or other support that's the right height. The closer you can get to to this ideal height, the more squared-off your image will be. If you get a unit with vertical lens shift, you'll have a bit more range to play with.

4. Plug everything in and turn it on

Now it's time to make connections. That means power for the projector and whatever gear (cable box, streamer, game console, Blu-ray player, or what have you) you're connecting, and most likely running HDMI cables between the source and the projector. If you have your gear stashed somewhere, you may need to get a long HDMI cable to run between it and the projector. Once everything's plugged in, fire up the projector.

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A geometry test pattern can be a big help.

David Katzmaier

5. Project an alignment image

To get the projected image looking its best, you'll want to have a reference still pattern. Some projectors have built-in test patterns for this purpose, but if yours doesn't, you could use a setup disc or download an image online. One of our favorite setup disc makers, Spears and Munsell, has a good pattern available on its site for example. In a pinch you could use paused video from TV, but it's not ideal.

6. Adjust the projected image

Line up the center of the lens with the center of the screen. Make sure the projector is as level and perpendicular as possible relative to the screen. The far edges of the projected image should be the same size, and ideally the entire screen should be filled. You can use the zoom control (if available) to size the image properly.

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Sarah Tew/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.

To fine-tune you can use the adjustable legs and supports on the projector, or even slip coins under the feet. If you create too much of an angle you can use the keystone control to correct it, but try to avoid doing so since it impairs resolution.

In the end the image probably still won't be perfect, but hopefully it's close enough for you to move on.

7. Select the right picture mode

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, but be aware that they often skew green. Many projectors have a game mode, but in our testing they don't often improve input lag beyond what you get in Movie mode.

8. Consider better sound (optional)

Most projectors have built-in speakers, but they're terrible. A big picture calls for bigger sound than that. If your room doesn't have a full-on sound system, we recommend at least connecting a decent Bluetooth speaker (you'll probably need one with an auxiliary input) or other powered speakers.

9. Turn off the lights and enjoy!

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

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