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Projector Features and Considerations

Finding the right commercial projector is easier than you might imagine. There are hundreds of projectors currently on the market, but you can use our Feature Search to locate the best models for your presenting needs. All you need to do is answer four simple questions:

  • What Resolution do I need?
  • How Bright should it be?
  • Do Weight & Portability matter?
  • How much should I Budget?


Resolution

The amount of data that can be displayed on the screen at any given time is determined by a projector's resolution. Resolution is an indicator of the number of pixels the projector uses to create the image. The more pixels it uses, the higher the resolution.

Resolution is usually quoted in two numbers, such as "1024x768," where the first number refers to the pixels from side to side across the screen, and the second number refers to the pixels from top to bottom.

Resolution can be quoted in other ways, as well. For example, 1024x768 is also known as XGA, for eXtended Graphics Array. This terminology is primarily used for computer monitors, but extends to projectors as well. Since there is little rhyme or reason to this naming scheme, the only way to learn it is memorization. Common resolutions will be discussed later in this article.

When speaking of a projector's resolution, it is common to refer to "native" resolution. If a projector's native resolution is 1024x768, that means that the actual number of physical pixels on the display is 1,024 pixels per horizontal row by 768 pixels per vertical column.

How much resolution do I need?

High-resolution projectors are able to show more picture details than low resolution projectors. Since there are more pixels used to make the image, each individual pixel is smaller, so the pixels themselves become less visible on the screen. However, you will generally pay more for higher resolution.

Lower resolution projectors are much less expensive, and they can produce images that are just as bright and attractive as higher resolution machines. Unless you have a need to display fine detail, lower resolution products will be your best bet from a cost perspective.

Resolution options
Some basic choices for native resolution are the following:

SVGA (800x600) - SVGA projectors are great for those on a tight budget, since prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. While most computers still output in higher resolution, SVGA can be a good option for Powerpoint presentations or other applications that are not heavily dependent on detail.

XGA (1024x768) - XGA projectors have come down in price over the past few years, and have become the budget standard. Many laptop computers still output in native XGA, and matching an XGA projector to your native XGA laptop ensures you won't lose any detail.

WXGA (1280x800) - WXGA products are high resolution widescreen products, and usually a bit more expensive than XGA. These products are targeted for use with mid-range widescreen laptops, which often use 1280x800 natively. They are becoming increasingly common and are used as an inexpensive widescreen alternative to XGA.

SXGA+ (1400x1050) - SXGA+ projectors are becoming more popular, and there are several offerings available in both budget and high-end configurations. SXGA+ resolution is useful for detailed photography and data graphics, but overkill for text display or Powerpoint presentations.

UXGA (1600x1200) - UXGA is for very high resolution workstation applications that are detail or information intensive. These are expensive projectors that support a broad range of computer equipment. Relatively few products on the market have this native resolution.

Which resolution is right for you?

One of the key factors in choosing the right resolution is your typical application. Do you have a need for very accurate display of small visual details, or are you looking for a general presentation tool for text and small graphics?

If your primary use of the system is for Powerpoint presentations, charts, graphs, and general business display, you probably don't need to pay extra for very high resolution equipment. SVGA or XGA resolution projectors are perfect for this kind of work, and the best solution for the money. WXGA is a good widescreen option, if required.

If you are projecting engineering drawings, digital photography, complex Excel spreadsheets, or other images of a highly detailed or technical nature, you will probably need a projector of SXGA+ resolution or higher to produce an acceptable image for your purposes.

Matching your computer to your projector

Keep in mind that the best resolution for your projector is often the resolution of the computer you intend to use with it. Laptops in particular can have a maximum resolution identical to the native resolution of their built-in display. Desktop computers are more likely to have many options for output resolution, which can open up your choice of projectors.

If you typically use a notebook computer with XGA resolution, you will want a projector with the same native XGA resolution in order to get the sharpest and cleanest image. Similarly, if you normally use a laptop with higher than XGA output, such as SXGA+, you will get the best picture from a projector that has the same native resolution. If you use a desktop computer with a range of possible resolutions, choose the resolution most appropriate for the content you want to display.

Projectors on the market today are capable of projecting input signals other than their native resolutions. For example, you can almost always hook up an XGA laptop to an older SVGA projector. The projector will automatically convert the incoming 1024x768 signal to its native 800x600 output. However, there is always a loss of sharpness and detail in the process, so you will end up with a picture that is not as sharp or clear as it would be if the incoming signal had been in the projector's native resolution.

This loss of sharpness also happens if you plug an XGA computer into a higher-resolution SXGA+ projector. You will usually get a decent image, but the conversion from 1024x768 input to a 1400x1050 output will produce some softness that you may not appreciate after having spent the money for an SXGA+ projector. The loss in quality incurred by making a large resolution smaller is generally less severe than that incurred by making a small resolution larger.

The projector's process of converting a different input format to its native output format is called scaling. Making a small resolution larger is known as upconversion, while making a large resolution smaller is known as compression. Some projectors are very good at scaling, so the resulting image softness is relatively minor and quality degradation is almost negligible. The quality of scaling varies widely among projectors and, like all technology, it is constantly being improved. Scaling is an important consideration, so whenever possible, try to see the projector demonstrated as you would use it.

Once you have determined which resolution most suits your needs, you can go to Feature Search to find all projectors in that resolution class. The list will likely be very lengthy, but don't fret. We will be narrowing down this list shortly to better suit your needs.

Projectors come in a wide range of light outputs, which are measured in ANSI lumens or just "lumens" for short. The brighter the projector, the higher the ANSI lumen rating, and (all else being equal) the more it costs. Contrary to popular belief, brighter is not always better, and there is no hard-and-fast rule regarding optimum lumen output. However, there are certain factors to consider to make sure your projector is neither too bright nor too dim for your intended use.

Things to Consider When Choosing Brightness
Answering the following questions will help you determine the optimal brightness of your future projector.

How many people will typically be in the room? This determines the size of the projected image that is required for easy viewing by everyone present. As the number of people in the room increases, the image size must increase. This diminishes the perceived brightness of a given projector as the light is spread over a larger area.

How much light is in the room? A dark room will provide the best image regardless of projector brightness. However, most meetings require some lighting for note-taking and eye contact. A room where the lights cannot be turned off or dimmed or where windows cannot be blocked will require a bright projector. The same projector placed in a perfectly dark room will likely be so bright that it will give your audience a headache, so this is a critical factor.

What kind of screen is available? This can have a profound effect on the image brightness and quality. Most projection screens today provide significant light reflection, making even a relatively low-brightness projector look good in the proper setting. If the room lacks a projection screen, you will be better served by a high brightness projector since walls are usually poor reflectors of light.

What is your application? Applications such as training and workgroups will demand more brightness, because these applications also require more room light for note-taking and communication. Applications that use presentation graphics, photographs, or video are more likely to be shown in a darkened room, and therefore do not require as much light output. If the projector will serve multiple locations (either within a building or because of traveling), consider your most demanding setting.

In today's market, projectors can be grouped by ANSI lumen output as follows:

Less than 2000 lumens. Typically small and highly portable, these are the lowest light output projectors available today, and they are typically the least expensive. For display of training videos or still photography in a darkened room, projectors in this category may be perfect for your needs. Keep in mind that the low light output means that you will want to make your presentations in a dark or dimly lit room so that the image on the screen is not washed out by ambient room light.

2000 to 3000 lumens. This lumen range is a step up in performance and price. These machines are suitable for normal business conference room and classroom use. Presentations should be done with the room lighting reduced somewhat for best screen viewing. A completely dark room is usually not necessary.

3000 to 4500 lumens. This represents the high-performance range of the portable and semi-portable projectors. Products in this class are suitable for large conference rooms and classrooms. They offer more flexibility in terms of ambient room light, since the image is bright enough that a reasonable amount of room light can be tolerated without washing out the image. They also offer more flexibility in terms of audience size, since they produce enough lumens to properly light a larger screen.

4500 lumens and up. These ultra-bright projectors are in several performance classes unto themselves, ranging from 4500 lumens up to 12000 lumens or more. Prices of these products also cover a wide range depending on other performance characteristics. They are used in a variety of large venue applications, including board rooms, conference rooms, training rooms, auditoriums, churches, concerts, nightclubs, and so forth.

Weight

Another consideration in selecting the ideal projector is its weight. If you are on the road a lot, you probably want the lightest, most portable machine available that still fits your resolution and brightness needs. Check out the wide assortment of portable projectors under five pounds by using the Feature Search and selecting "not greater than 5 pounds" in the weight category.

f you travel occasionally, but want a bit more performance and are willing to carry a heavier unit to get it, take a close look at the projectors in the 7 to 10 pound weight range. As a class, these very portable projectors are brighter and more fully featured than the sub-five-pounders.

If you don't intend to travel with the projector, but still want the ability to move it around the office, from classroom to classroom, or to take it home on weekends, there are many excellent products in the 10 to 15 pound range that should be considered.

Finally, if you are going to use the projector in a specific place and have no need to move it around, weight is not an issue. So you should ignore it and make your selection on other cost and performance factors. In this case, when using the Feature Search, leave the weight selector in its default position of "Any Weight."

Cost

The prices listed in the Projector Central Database are current Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices (or MSRP). When selecting your budget constraints in the Feature Search, keep in mind that street prices are often much lower than the MSRP. Check the Current Dealer Prices page to get a feel for current street prices. Keep in mind that the posted price is often not the best price that dealer can offer, so be sure to click through to their website to check for any special deals they may be offering.

Take the street price discount into consideration when you search for products. For example, you may have a budget of $1,500. However, it is not uncommon to find projectors with a $2,000 MSRP selling for $1,500. So use Find Projectors for products with an MSRP up to $2,000. If you find a product that meets your needs, but the MSRP is outside your budget range, you can use Current Dealer Prices to see if it is available for less than its listed MSRP. This page is also reachable by clicking on the "Prices" link on each projector's specification page in our database.

In summary, there are several ways to find dealers and solutions that will work within your budget:

Go to the Current Prices section for current street price quotations. Here you will find dealers quoting prices on a variety of products. If your product is listed in this section, click through to a dealer's website to see if they offer a lower price (this is usually denoted by "Call" or "Visit" in the price window).

Go to the Dealer Locator, and find dealers near you that handle the product you are looking for. Call them directly and discuss prices and the services that they offer. Local dealers can demonstrate the projectors and provide local installation and training support if you need it.

Buyer Beware: Before selecting a dealer, whether local or online, check the dealer's policies regarding returns, refunds, upgrades, warranty and non-warranty maintenance service, loaners during service, and so forth. Dealers vary widely in their ability to deliver top-quality customer support. Projector Central does not offer recommendations on which dealers to do business with, but we do allow and encourage other users of the site to leave their recommendations. These Dealer ratings are available from the Current Dealer Prices page, and can be a valuable tool to aid in choosing a dealer.

Key Features

Once you have your short list of projectors, you can narrow it further by checking the manufacturer's specifications and thinking about the following items:

Zoom lens: A zoom lens gives you the ability to adjust the projected image size without physically moving the projector. Many portable projectors have zoom lenses with limited range, and many short-throw projectors have no zoom capability at all. A unit with a zoom factor of 1.2:1 will only let you adjust picture size by 20%. You can often move the projector a foot or two either way and accomplish the same adjustment. If you have a fixed screen size you are trying to fill, even a limited-range zoom will make it easier to fine tune the image size to the screen. If you plan on projecting in many different environments, you may wish to invest in a projector with a more versatile zoom range, which will allow for more placement flexibility. Zoom lenses range from 1.1:1 up to 2.0:1 or more. The higher the number, the greater the zoom range.

Keystone Correction: In addition to the zoom lens feature, mobile users should consider the benefits of keystone correction. When you project an image from any angle other than straight onto the projection surface, the result is an image that is not completely square, instead appearing trapezoidal. Most projectors include a feature called vertical keystone correction, which correct the trapezoidal effect which results from tilting the projector downward or upward. Others go a step further and provide additional correction for horizontal keystone, which occurs when you are projecting from either side of the screen. Keep in mind that applying keystone correction results in a loss of detail and sharpness, but it can be invaluable when your projector cannot be set up perfectly square with the screen.

Contrast: Contrast is the ratio between the brightest and darkest areas of the image. A projector's contrast rating represents a theoretical maximum, obtained under ideal conditions, and may not reflect what you actually see on the screen. This is doubly true when projecting in a room with any amount of ambient light--with moderate room lighting, a projector with 400:1 contrast and one with 1500:1 contrast will look almost identical, all other factors being equal. If you are using your projector in a room with a good deal of ambient light, lumen output is far more important than contrast. However, in a darkened room, contrast will become more important for accurate display of graphics and video.

Video Signal Standards: Most business projectors accept composite video, S-video, and computer/RGB signals as three types of signal transmission. Most projectors also recognize YPbPr/YCbCr component video as well. However, there are two all-digital standards known as DVI and HDMI. Many computers feature DVI or HDMI output, which allow the user to keep the signal in the digital domain and eliminate analog to digital conversions. If you are interested in optimizing video performance and you have a video source that offers DVI or HDMI output, check to see which of the projectors on your list possess a digital input. The spec sheet may say HDMI, DVI-I, or DVI-D.

Multiple VGA Ports: If you want to connect multiple computers or video sources to the projector simultaneously, you will need multiple input jacks to accommodate this. For example, you may want to connect a notebook computer and a desktop computer to support two consecutive presentations, or two different presenters. If your projector only has one computer input, you'll have to unplug the notebook and plug in the desktop between presentations. Check to make sure the projector has enough connections to support your typical use.

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