How to Buy a Projector and 6 Ways to Use It

muppettheater
Watching The Muppets in our backyard theater. Photo by Ruth Suehle.

There was a time before I had a projector when I thought they were for the office and movie theaters. And now there is the time after, when I know how awesome it is to have one available. Now that you have a stack of new DVDs you got for gifts, and there are after-Christmas sales going all over town, let me suggest a way to a) escape from the family at about four in the afternoon when the mimosas are running low and b) spend the Christmas check from Grandma.

First let’s talk about how to pick one. It’s not a cheap purchase, so let’s be sure you get what you want, but not more than you really need. Let’s assume off the top that since you’re reading this post for advice, what you need is the basics. If you’re into debating the finer details of xxxxxxxx, check out sites like Projector Central, which can help you more than a single blog post. What follows is Projector 101—for those who know they’d like to see a bigger picture but don’t yet have… well, the “bigger picture” about what they need.

Aspect Ratio

You probably figured this out some time after you got an HDTV as TV shows transitioned from 4:3 “square” pictures to 16:9 “widescreen” pictures. If you’re still not sure what it means, check out the Tovid Wikia page on aspect ratio. As to the projector you need, it depends on what you like to watch. Are you going to spend most of your time watching old black-and-white movies and your Doogie Howser DVDs? (I’m certainly not going to judge you there.) Then a native 4:3 projector, or at least one that supports it, will be suited to your needs. If, on the other hand, it’s going to be mostly Blu-ray movies of whatever your kids want to see on a weekly basis, 16:9 it is. Most projectors sold today are natively 16:9.

The Picture

Let’s do this girly magazine quiz-style.

You’re at a party. A guy starts talking about how his old speakers just aren’t good enough because something something sound something something woofer tweeter hoozit something something don’t even get me started on headphones.

a) Oh, man. The audio guys. You nod politely and drift towards the bar.
b) You sympathize on some level because you remember having crappy speakers in college before you could afford something that didn’t sound like it was at the bottom of a well.
c) It’s not some guy; it’s you giving that speech, and you’re completely offended by my substitution of “something something.”

If you chose c), you are not going to be happy with a blog post’s worth of content about projector picture quality. Please go forth and Google. If you chose a) or b), you probably just want it to not be too dark to see when Stephen Amell’s doing the salmon ladder scenes in Arrow and not be blinded when there’s a bright white flash to signify dream sequences and/or time travel in… oh, just about anything.

For you I will not delve into the details of lumen ratings. Suffice to say, you don’t need to worry about a few numbers here and there. A quality projector (of which all mentioned below are) will almost certainly meet your needs. The surface you’re projecting on is going to have something to do with this as well.

You should, however, take a look at the contrast ratios of the projectors you’re comparing. A higher contrast will show a wider difference between the blacks and whites in a picture. Again, think about where you’ll be using the projector the most. In a living room at night with blackout curtains while projecting on a good screen? Or for backyard movies that start at dusk while projecting on the side of your house?

Other Considerations

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Think about where you’re going to be using the projector and how large an image you’ll be able to project. There’s no point in debating a max projection of 300″ or 400″ if your space doesn’t allow for more than 200″. (By the way, I addressed a couple of options for projection screens in my review of the PowerLite 2000.)

But for many, the first consideration is none of these, but cost. I’m of two minds on this issue. One, you want the best you can afford. But two, if you’ve decided to make the purchase, don’t be deterred by a budget that doesn’t allow for the biggest and best. I’ve been more than pleased with projectors at both ends of the price spectrum in a variety of uses.

Here are specs for two of the Epson projectors I’ve tried (see the PowerLite 2000 review from Halloween). They’re both fantastic, but as you can see, there are subtle differences in their abilities and quality:

Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 2000
Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 500
Resolution options Native 1080p (1920 x 1080) Resize: 16:10, 4:3 800 x 600 (SVGA)
640 x 480 (VGA)
1024 x 768 (XGA)
1152 x 864 (SXGA)
1280 x 800 (WXGA)
1400 x 1050 (SXGA+)
Aspect ratio 16:9 native 4:3 native,
supports 16:9
Image size 34″ – 328″ 30″ – 350″ (0.88 – 10.44m) (zoom: wide)
23″ – 260″ (0.88 – 10.44m) (zoom: tele)
 Pixel count 2,073,600 dots (1920 x 1080) x 3 480,000 dots (800 x 600) x 3
Brightness 1800 lumens 2600 lumens
Contrast ratio Up to 13,000:1 Up to 3000:1
Display Composite: NTSC / NTSC4.43 / PAL / M-PAL / N-PAL / PAL60 / SECAM
Component: 480i / 576i / 480p / 576p / 720p / 1080i / 1080p
HDMI: TMDS
NTSC: 480 lines
PAL: 560 line
Available ports 2 HDMI, RCA (composite video and 2 audio), VGA, USB  HDMI, S-video, RCA (composite video and audio in), component, 2 USB (Type A and B)
Speakers 2 W mono  2 W mono
Projection method Front, rear, or ceiling mount Front, rear, or ceiling mount
Other features 3D option (glasses not included)
Lamp life Eco mode: Up to 6000 hours
Normal mode: Up to 5000 hours
Eco mode: Up to 5000 hours
Normal mode: Up to 4000 hours
MSRP  $899 $379

The first Epson projector I tried was the Megaplex MG-50, priced in between the PowerLites, but with the additional feature of having a dock for your iPad or iPhone so that you can project media directly from those devices. If you’re interested in that capability, it was a great projector, and the closest available model now is the Epson MegaPlex MG-850HD.

6 Best Uses for a Projector

Now that you’ve decided to make the purchase, what are you going to do with it? Besides watching a movie, of course.

1. Video games. The next most obvious, perhaps, right behind re-watching The Day of the Doctor and those Doogie DVDs, of course. Remember when your little brother would sit smack in front of you, even if it was his turn at Super Mario, in which you always made him be Luigi? (That’s the part he remembers.) Your children shall not suffer thusly. There’s more than enough screen space now, even for split screen multiplayer.

2. Outdoor decorations. For Halloween, AtmosFearFX has a line of spooky DVDs for both indoor and outdoor use. At Christmas, we’ve seen houses projecting an assortment of holiday classics on the sides of their houses all season long or slide shows of Christmas-themed images. For this, you can also try AtmosCheerFX.

3. Skype GIANT GRANDMA. Calling Grandma on Christmas morning is sooo 2003. Won’t calls be more fun larger than life? Just pep talk the kids beforehand about how it’s rude to mention that her chin hair is the size of a dinner plate.

4. Make a mural. Who needs art skills when you have a projector? It’s like paint-by-number for your walls. Load up an image, project, trace, and paint. Your friends will think you’ve been holding out on them all these years.

5. The backyard drive-in. This is my favorite. It’s even how we introduced our kids to Star Wars. We entertained a neighborhood of kids with a projector and Monsters University.

6. A house-sized fire that won’t burn the house down. You know that Netflix fireplace? It won’t keep you warm, but that is one gigantic yule log.

GeekMom received Epson projectors for review.

By day, Ruth works to make open source software communities better. The rest of the time, she makes things, which means her husband and kids know to watch out for stray sewing pins and to ask before eating anything made of fondant.