Big-Screen TVs vs. Projectors

Evan Powell, February 1, 2001

Rear-Projection TVs: the Good and the Bad

As noted above, the advantages of RPTVs are obvious. There is a wide array of products in different sizes and price ranges. There are numerous local showrooms. And they are simple to buy and install.

However, RPTVs have several limitations that front-projection systems do not. Among them are limited screen size, poor viewing angles, excessive reflections if you use screen savers, poor aspect ratio management, and poor use of floorspace.

Screen size. An obvious difference to be sure, but worth thinking about for a moment. A 100" diagonal front projection screen is four times the surface area of a 50" RPTV. If you want to put real "theater" in your home theater, the projector and movie screen approach delivers it. RPTVs are just big televisions.

Viewing angles. On your next trip to your local big screen retailer, take particular notice that many RPTVs have a rather small "sweet spot" from which they can be optimally viewed. To demonstrate this to yourself, assume a viewing position directly in front of and eye-level with the unit. Then move away from that spot and watch how color, contrast, and brightness degrade the farther you get from the sweet spot. Some products are worse than others in this regard. But if you are shopping for an RPTV, keep this in mind. On many products the viewing angle can limit the number of people who can watch the set enjoyably.

With a projector and screen system, the screen is both larger and much easier to view from a wider angle. When using a high quality theater-grade screen, color, contrast, and brightness do not shift much as you move around the room viewing the picture from different locations.

Reflections. The showroom floor of your big screen retailer is a great place to get a demonstration of the reflection problem. If there is any ambient light in the room, objects in the room (including you) will be reflected in the screen. If there is any direct light source at a complementary angle to your viewing angle, you will see that light source glaring in the screen also.

Reflections create a serious degradation of picture quality. Fortunately they are usually caused by screen-savers-clear protective material that covers the fragile screen itself. The screen-saver can be removed on most RPTVs. On some it is easy; but on others it is a major project requiring the removal of the front frame.

If you plan on buying an RPTV and you want to eliminate the reflection problem, check to see if the dealer will remove the screen-saver and if there is an extra charge for doing so on the model you want. Remember however that the unprotected screen is fragile and very expensive to replace if damaged.

Front-projection systems do not have reflection problems so you don't need to worry about this issue when buying a projector and screen.

Poor use of floorspace. An RPTV is a large box that will stand out from the wall about three feet. So it shrinks the viewing space by three feet. It is also difficult to disguise when not in use. It is an appliance which dominates the room it is in.

With a projector and screen, the screen is usually mounted on the wall or ceiling mounted near a wall. Therefore it lets you use the full room depth for viewing. A wall mounted screen can be covered with a curtain when not in use, and a ceiling mounted electric screen can be retracted. So the projector and screen combination gives you more flexibility in terms of "making it disappear" when not in use, and it uses no floorspace. If you are setting up a dedicated theater room, this is not a concern. But if you are installing your theater system in a multi-purpose room it may be an important consideration.