With the ability to replace the chalkboard, pull down map and textbook all rolled into one, today's school projectors have become the centerpiece of digital education. But, with an astounding variety of products available, all school projectors are not created equal, and we've put together a primer to help you pick the right projector for the right location at your school.

From traditional classroom projectors and the large venue devices for auditoriums and lecture halls, to tiny ultraportables that can turn unused rooms into teaching zones, and interactive short throw models that allow marking up of digital images, there's a projector for each purpose at school. After going through each category with an eye towards your school's needs, we'll look into the questions of brightness, resolution, image adjustments, connections, interactivity, networking, software and more.

Of course, it's all a meaningless exercise in making wish lists if your school can't afford the devices it needs, so we'll dig deeper than price alone to explore how much it costs to use a given projector. Our Total Cost of Operations approach accounts for annual electricity and potential lamp replacement costs to help you assess a projector's total cost over time. After all, an inexpensive projector that requires lots of lamp changes over its life can still break the budget.

If the right projectors are still out of reach, we'll show you a proven technique for squeezing a little extra out of your budget that many schools use to get the projectors they need. All that remains is to take a deep dive into the world of educational projectors.

TRADITIONAL CLASSROOM PROJECTORS

The bulk of school projectors are conventional long-throw devices that are almost always ceiling-mounted. With the ability to fill a six- or seven-foot (diagonal) screen, they're used for everything from showing a map of the Louisiana Purchase to a virtual field trip to the Louvre.

02 standard throw classroom projector

With the object of providing a good view of the lesson for every student, the latest projectors push brightness to more than 3,500 ANSI lumens. This might be overkill for some classrooms, but it translates into a bright image with the room's lights on and the shades up.

Most classroom projectors provide a good assortment of adjustments to tweak the image, including several color modes best suited for different material. While traditional projectors functioning for classroom use generally lack integrated curriculum software, many do have wireless phone and tablet apps for teachers and students to share material on-screen.

03 NEC MC382W classroom projector
NEC MC382W classroom projector

With this class of projector, you can't change the projector's lens, move the image on-screen or remotely focus it. You do get vertical keystone correction for squaring the image from a projector that's angled up (from a table or cart) or down (from the ceiling). The projector's optical zoom lens can enlarge or reduce the image by between 10- and 35-percent, but the price for this flexibility is that some lens designs can eat up 15 percent or more of the projector's light output when zoomed-in.

Today's classroom projectors will have at least one HDMI port, and probably VGA-in and -out as well as audio connections. While including a wired Ethernet jack is a nice bonus, don't expect it, and note that Wi-Fi all-too-often requires a $100 optional USB dongle.

The rule of thumb is that primary and secondary schools usually try to spend less than $500 on classroom projectors while colleges often spend more. This entry price point generally still precludes getting a laser-driven device that doesn't need replacement lamps over its life. Nonetheless, even on a tight budget, it's shortsighted to dismiss laser without doing the math because the cross-over point where a solid-state projector becomes less expensive often occurs somewhere around its fourth year of classroom use. After that, electricity is generally the major expense. You can read more about the differences between lamp and solid-state light engines in Lamp, Laser, or LED Projection: Which Light is Right?

ViewSonic LS820
1080P Home Theater Projector

This emphasis on low price at K-12 schools also often limits resolution to XGA (1024x768) and WXGA (1280x800). These projectors lack the detail of full HD (1920x1080) or WUXGA (1920x1200) designs, but as HD price premiums drop to $100 or less, more schools will start considering them.

Below are some selected models to give you some idea of the range of available classroom projectors. Consult ProjectorCentral's reviews for specific recommendations.

CLASSROOM PROJECTOR HIGHLIGHTS

ULTRAPORTABLE PROJECTORS

Ultraportable projectors start with a traditional classroom design and shrink every aspect of it. These are a small step up in size from pico projectors that might fit in the palm of your hand, but still allow a teacher to set up a projector in about a minute, quickly turning a nook under a stairwell or a repurposed storage room into a mini classroom.

04 Vivitek QUMI Q38
Vivitek QUMI Q38 ultraportable projector

Like their bigger classroom cousins, the ultraportables generally use WXGA resolution, but some deliver full HD. A zoom lens may be available to frame the screen, and vertical keystone correction is standard to create a rectangular image, but this genre lacks image shifting.

The image adjustments available for this class of projector are as minimalist as the port selection; some only have room for a single HDMI connection. The bonus is that some ultraportables include Bluetooth for driving wireless speakers. Forget about any curriculum software being included. Because their power requirements are so low, ultraportable projectors not only run cool but some can be battery powered for places that lack an AC outlet. Keep in mind that battery drive is generally limited to about an hour of use at reduced light output.

05 LG PH550 Ultraportable
LG PH550 ultraportable projector

Priced around $500, ultraportables are the exception to the rule about inexpensive projectors not having solid-state illumination engines—these use LEDs. You'll never need to change a lamp, but their brightness levels are generally under 1,000 lumens, so a darkened room is required. Just avoid the ridiculously cheap no-name brands on Amazon that might not last long in daily use, and you'll be able to count on these small wonders to turn any room into a digital classroom on a moment's notice.

ULTRAPORTABLE PROJECTOR HIGHLIGHTS

LARGE VENUE PROJECTORS

If you upsize a traditional projector and add features that make it easier to optimize an image, you get the large-venue class that are used in school auditoriums and lecture halls. They pump out the light with the ability to put between 5,000 and 20,000 lumens onto a screen that might measure 20 or 30 feet.

06 LectureHall

These behemoths are often housed in a projection booth and can require a dedicated 220-volt electrical circuit, though some newer models go up to 15,000 lumens on a standard 110-volt outlet. The best offer the choice of five or six different lenses including an ultra-short throw option. Some older models use two (or even four) lamps for to achieve peak brightness and provide backup in case one burns out, but this design leads to very high operating costs. It's no surprise that laser projectors are rapidly taking over this projector class due to both lower expenses over the life of the projector and shrinking prices for the projector's themselves.

Look for schools to get full HD (1920x1080) or WUXGA (1920x1200) resolution here because it makes the images look sharper and more vibrant, even on a huge screen. The image can usually be tweaked with remotely powered zoom, focus and image shifting. There's horizontal and vertical keystone correction for creating perfectly rectangular images.

The connection panels of these projecting behemoths are extensive with several HDMI, VGA, component video and often HDBaseT, which provides a single connection for streaming networked uncompressed video as well as control signals. There's usually a variety of audio- in and -out options for a sound system. Most have wired networking via an Ethernet port and, often, Wi-Fi is built-in. Few include integrated curriculum software—these are generally wide-application installation projectors rather than dedicated education models. But you'll frequently find the ability to wirelessly connect the computer of a teacher, student or guest presenter via a proprietary app, or sometimes with a separately sold presentation system.

07 Panasonic PT MZ16K
Panasonic PT MZ16K projector

Pricing for these higher-output projectors start at around $1,000 for lamp-based models at 5,000 lumens and about $1,500 for laser models of similar brightness, but many of the latter will run upwards of $2,000. Prices go up from there along with brightness, rising rapidly until you reach tens of thousands of dollars in the 15,000 to 20,000-lumen and brighter categories. These days, a 5,000-lumen projector will likely come with a permanently attached zoom lens, but much brighter than that will put you into projectors that require a separately purchased lens; this could add thousands more to the purchase order. Still, these large venue projectors can turn an auditorium into the equivalent of a movie theater for anything from an anti-smoking assembly to a student video competition.

LARGE VENUE PROJECTOR HIGHLIGHTS

  • NEC's PX2000UL laser projector delivers 20,000 lumens for large auditorium and lecture hall applications, at a cost of $30,699 without lens.
  • Christie's DHD 1075-GS series laser projector, at 10,000 lumens, and Panasonic's PT-MZ16K laser projector, with 16,000 lumens, each offer a wide variety of lens options.
  • BenQ's LH930 provides 5,000 lumens with an attached 1.6x zoom lens for about $2,300.
Panasonic PT-LRZ35U
WUXGA Conference Room Projector
Panasonic PT-LRZ35U
WUXGA Conference Room Projector

INTERACTIVE PROJECTORS

While traditional, large-venue and ultraportables stick to the long-throw format with lots of space between the projector and screen, ultra-short-throw interactive projectors can create an 8- or 9-foot image while positioned only inches from the screen. An update of the classroom's blackboard for digital times, these projectors not only allow the teacher to stand in front of the projector without casting a shadow but to write directly on the projected image. This interactivity serves well for anything from modeling a sentence's structure to solving a calculus problem.

08 Interactive Projector

Brightness for interactive UST projectors today varies from about 2,000 lumens to more than 5,000 lumens of light. Although WXGA resolution is still the most popular format, some offer full HD imaging. The included ports range from HDMI, VGA and audio to USB and wired networking. Some of the newer models include Wi-Fi networking.

Interactive projectors have keystone correction but do without image shifting or an optical zoom lens; the image is aligned with the initial placement of the projector, which is typically done once for permanent installations. Plus, rather than a focus ring, they frequently have a focus bar to adjust the image sharpness.

09 Epson BrightLink 1485Fi
Epson BrightLink 1485Fi projector

The digital pens that accompany interactive projectors account for a lot of their functionality and allow a teacher or student to write directly on the screen with the choice of color and line weight. Many models add a highlighter, an eraser and the ability to save the entire lesson—annotations and all.

Many interactive projectors not only come with apps for connecting teacher and student computers, but also include some curriculum software. This makes an interactive short throw projector the closest thing to a complete digital classroom in a box.

With this class of projector almost always mounted on the wall in front of a whiteboard, schools and districts should shop for packages that include a bracket and a cable cover.

INTERACTIVE PROJECTOR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Epson's BrightLink 1485Fi interactive laser projector delivers 5,000 lumens and allows the simultaneous use of two digital pens.
  • Maxell's MP-TW3011 is a 3,500 lumen laser model that comes with Starboard interactive software and has an optional touch module.
  • Viewsonic's PS750HD is a 3,000-lumen, 1080p lamp projector that includes wall mounting hardware.

COST OF OPERATION

When you're assessing the total cost of any projector, especially for school environments that pile up daily hours of use, it's important to account for both the annual expense for electricity as well as the cost of lamp replacements that will be required to keep a projector operating at useful brightness. This can be a helpful exercise as you're trying to decide whether to pay the premium for a laser projector or stick with a lower-cost lamp projector that will require a number of lamp replacements over its lifetime.

Annual Power Cost. You can create a spreadsheet to calculate annual power costs, but the calculations are easy. You'll usually find what you need right on the product spec sheet and with a quick web search of local power costs.

Power Use: The power consumption in watts as taken from the specs. Sometimes lower figures are provided for the Eco power modes; it's usually safest to assume full power consumption.

Idle Power Use: Also referred to as Standby Power in watts as taken from the spec sheet. It's not always provided, but often it is.

Hours of Operation: Estimate your annual hours of operation by taking the weekly hours of operation (assume 40 hrs/wk for most classroom projectors) and multiplying by the number of weeks of operation for your school year, accounting for long holiday and summer breaks where applicable.

Hours of Idle: Subtract the calculated Hours of Operation from the number of full hours in a year to estimate the annual standby idle time. If you're working off a full year in which power will always be fed to the projector even when it's turned off, subtract your Hours of Operation from 8,760 to arrive at the annual Hours of Idle.

Cost per kWh: If you don't know your typical local cost of electricity per kilowatt hour, you can easily find your state average online. The federal U.S. Energy Information Administration maintains this information by state and nationally at this link.

Once you have these numbers, plug them into the formula below:

(Power Use watts x Hours of Operation) + (Idle Power Use x Hours of Idle) = Total Power Use in Watt-hours

Total Power Use Watt-hours/1000=Total Power Use in kWh

Total Power Use kWh x average cost per kWh = Annual Power Cost

Annual Lamp Cost. To calculate your estimated lamp costs:

Rated Lamp Life: Find the rated lamp life in full power mode from the projector's spec sheet. If the data's not there, you can go online and check out the company's replacement lamps for the estimated lifetime.

Lamp Replacement Cost: Research the cost of a replacement lamp either from the manufacturer or an authorized reseller. Projector Central's Projector Lamp Suppliers page is a good resource.

With these numbers in hand, use the following formula:

Lamp Replacement Cost/Rated Lamp Life x Annual Hours of Operation (see above) = Annual Lamp Cost

Armed with the Annual Power Cost and the Annual Lamp Cost, you'll be in a better position to understand the value that any particular projector brings to the table. You should also at least consider the impact of less tangible maintenance costs, such as the time and effort required for personnel to reach mounted projectors to make lamp or filter swaps.

FINAL STEPS

10 Short throw classroom projector

As expensive as school projectors can be, it's often just the start. To get the most out of the gear, you need support equipment that ranges from ceiling- or wall-brackets, spare lamps and external speakers to document cameras, remote monitoring software and, of course, a screen. Look into what you'll need and account for it in your budget.

Finally, as you're shopping around and identifying the best projectors for your school, don't forget to look into educational discount programs offered by several manufacturers, such as Epson's Brighter Futures and Sony's Alumni programs. These are not discounts on close-outs or reconditioned projectors, but rather the company's current line of gear offered at up to 30 percent off. It could make the difference between compromising or getting the latest features to create the modern educational space you really want.

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