If you're buying a projector, odds are you'll need a screen too. Here's the short course on how to find the best screen for you.

First, there are a number of screen manufacturers; however, for the purposes of this article we will reference four of them: Da-lite Screen Company, Draper, Inc., Stewart Filmscreen, and VUTEC, Inc. Clicking on their names will take you to each of their respective websites. But don't do that until you read the rest of this article!

Each of these companies offers a variety of screen fabrics and mounting options. One combination of screen and mount will be just right for your particular need. To identify the perfect screen solution, just follow these steps:

Step One: Select a mount type

By checking out each of the websites of the four manufacturers above, you can get a good idea of the options for mounts that they offer. There are several types. Fixed frame mounts will hold a screen rigid and in a particular position. The frame can be mounted on a wall, or placed on stands so that the entire assembly can be moved around. Fixed frame mounts can be a practical solution if you don't mind having the screen set up and deployed for use all the time.

In addition to fixed frame options, each of the vendors has retractable "roll up" screen mounts that can be bolted to a wall near the ceiling, to the ceiling itself, or even embedded in the ceiling. Motorized retractable screens ("electric screens") can be raised and lowered at the push of a button. Manual retractable screen mounts are typically spring tension driven. They are less expensive, and can be lowered and raised by hand.

The advantage of retractable screen mounts, of course, is that the screen can be made to disappear when not in use. If the room is a dedicated theater room, this may not be necessary. But if it is a multi-purpose room, having the ability to get rid of the screen when not in use is valuable.

If you want to get a bit more exotic, you can get screens with automatic masking systems that allow you to adjust the viewing area of the screen based on the video material you are projecting. You can watch regular television in 4:3 format, then close down the black masking elements to change your screen into a widescreen format for a movie.

After you finish reading this article, click over to each vendors' website, study the mounts they offer, and find a mounting system that makes the most sense for you.

Step Two: Select a fabric or screen type

Screen material pretty much all looks white from a distance. But different fabrics have different characteristics, and you should pick one that is best for your needs. To help sort them out, give some thought to each of the following issues:

Gain: An important performance factor for a screen fabric is what is called its "gain." This is a very simple concept. Some screen material will reflect light uniformly in all directions. When it does this, it is said to have "no gain." If a screen has no gain, the picture you see on the screen will look the same no matter what angle of view you have to the screen. So if several people are watching the picture at different angles to the screen, they will all see essentially the same picture at the same brightness level.

Screen materials that have high gain will reflect more light back toward the center of the viewing area, and less light toward people sitting on the sides of the room. When this happens, people sitting in the middle of the audience will see a bright picture, and those sitting toward the sides will see a dimmer picture. You can see this effect yourself; as you move from the center to the side of a field of view, you can notice that the picture gets dimmer.

Screens have different gain factors: some are very high gain, others are moderate, and still others are low gain. The gain rating is quoted in numbers such as 1.0 (or "unity gain"), 1.3, 1.5, 1.8, 2.0, 2.5, etc. As the gain number increases, the brightness of the picture intensifies when viewed head-on, and falls off more dramatically as you move from the center to the side.

What does all this mean to you? Well, if you have an audience seated in a long and narrow room, then using a high gain screen makes sense, as it intensifies the illumination in the area where your audience is sitting. However, if the audience is seated at wide angles to the screen, you want to use a low gain fabric so that those on the outside don't experience the dimming effect.

In the past, high gain screens were important because projector light output was relatively low. So any boost in image brightness was welcome. However, today's projectors are very bright indeed, and if you have a projector with sufficient light output, it is best to go with a no gain, or low gain screen since they give a more uniform picture over a wider angle of viewing.

Videophiles setting up the best possible home theater systems go for low gain screens. Some of the manufacturers have screen products that they designate as ideal for home theater. For example, the Da-lite Cinema Vision material is 1.3 gain, as is the Stewart Studio-Tek. Both of these have been popular for home theater use. However, Draper and VUTEC offer competitive fabrics as well.

Acoustical transparency. Another factor to consider is whether you need an acoustically transparent fabric. This is one that will allow sound to pass through it from a speaker mounted directly behind the screen. If you are setting up a surround sound audio system with a left, center, right, and two surround speakers, the center speaker can be placed directly behind the screen for its best effect. If you do not have an acoustically transparent screen, the center speaker must be placed above or below the screen to avoid distortion.

All four vendors make one or more fabrics that are acoustically transparent. The effect is created by perforating the fabric with thousands of extremely small holes. If you intend to mount a speaker directly behind your screen, make sure to mention to your dealer that you need an acoustically transparent material.

Maintanence and cleaning. Some screen fabrics can be cleaned with soap and water. Others must be protected from any kind of damage or marks, as any attempt to clean them will impart additional damage to the fabric. So if you are setting your screen up in a business presentation area, you should anticipate that presenters will inadvertently mark the screen surface when they use an uncapped pen as a pointer, or slap the screen with a ruler to make a point. In an environment like this, it is important to choose a screen fabric that can be cleaned easily. On the other hand, if you are using a retractable mount in a home theater setting, the screen will be less susceptible to careless damage, and this may not be as important.

Screen size. Some people say that the ideal viewing distance for home theater screens is 1.5 times the width of the screen. So if you plan to view the screen from a distance of twelve feet, the screen should be eight feet wide. This formula is wrong. Actually, all formulas are wrong. Screen size relative to viewing distance is purely a matter of personal taste, just as some people like to sit in the first row of a movie theater, and others like to sit as far back as possible. Keep in mind, however, that if you are viewing a large screen from a close distance, your eyes will not be able to resolve the entire image at once, and they will be moving around to capture the action. This can be uncomfortable over the two-hour duration of a movie.

Keep in mind that any given projector only has a fixed amount of light. So if you spread that light over a larger area, the picture will look less bright than it will if you focus all of that light on a smaller area. A common mistake that is made is going for the biggest possible screen, and overstretching the ability of the projector to produce an ideal picture. Yet even this is a matter of taste. Some people prefer a bigger image that is a little less bright and lower in contrast. Others will prefer to limit the image size in order to maximize brightness and contrast.

Aspect ratios. All vendors offer screens in a variety of sizes, both in 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. (Aspect ratio is the ratio of the width to the height of the screen. Standard television is 4:3. The new widescreen high definition television format (HDTV) is 16:9. Most movies made today are wider than 16:9) Actually, you can get many fabrics cut to whatever size and custom aspect ratio you want. The question is-which is right for your set up?

This aspect ratio issue warrants some attention. First, let's focus on this fact: almost all LCD and DLP projectors have a native 4:3 aspect ratio (that is, 4:3 is the aspect ratio of the LCD panels or the DLP chips that are inside the projector itself). The current exceptions are (a) the unique Sony VPL-VW10HT, which has native 16:9 LCD panels, and (b) most SXGA resolution projectors, which are native 5:4 (1280 x 1024).

Now if you have a projector that has a native 4:3 display, in order to get the maximum light output and maximum resolution of your projector onto the screen, the image being projected must be 4:3. This is entirely contrary to the logic that the HDTV 16:9 widescreen format will produce the best image quality. But the fact is that when you display a 16:9 image using a native 4:3 projector, you are not using the total pixel array and light output of the projector. Part of the display is masked to achieve the 16:9 format. This produces the horizontal black bars on a 4:3 screen that we are all familiar with. But the width of the image is usually the same in both formats. (For exceptions to this rule, see note below.)

If you intend to view 4:3 material, whether it be regular television programming, pan-and-scan tapes and DVDs, or computer generated data and graphics, you will get the maximum performance out of a native 4:3 projector by using and filling a 4:3 screen.

You have the option, of course, to install a 16:9 screen and set up the projector to fill it when it is displaying 16:9 material. However, when you switch to a 4:3 source, the projected image will typically overshoot the screen at the top and bottom. If set up within the range of the zoom lens, the zoom can be extended to shrink the 4:3 image down to where it fits within the top and bottom of the screen. You will then have black bars on the sides, and a full 4:3 image in the middle.

The problem here is that 4:3 is the highest resolution format that a 4:3 projector can produce. So you might as well set it up to get the biggest image in this format. When switching to 16:9 source material, since the projector masks part of the LCD or DLP display itself, it is most efficient to allow the image to be created with black bars at the top and bottom of the image on your 4:3 screen.

NOTE: There are a few projectors on the market that claim to have both 4:3 and 16:9 native formats. Unlike the standard 4:3 projectors that project the same image width in both 4:3 and 16:9, these will throw a wider 16:9 image. In order to achieve this effect, they artificially reduce the pixel array and resolution of the 4:3 image, thus making the 16:9 image look wider by comparison. Though the image is slightly wider, it is an inefficient use of the light engine in the projector.

For projectors that behave like this, the foregoing screen discussion does not apply, since the resolution of the 4:3 format has already been compromised internally in the projector. Therefore, for these projectors, matching them up with a 16:9 screen makes more sense.

Summary

After surfing around a bit on the websites of Da-lite, Draper, Stewart, and VUTEC, you can get a good idea of the mounting systems available, and the best one for your purposes. You can also get a good idea of whether your screen needs to be (a) low gain or high gain, (b) acoustically transparent, and (c) easy to clean. Also, decide on your desired screen width and aspect ratio.

Once you know what you want, you can shop without wasting any time. One quick way to do this is to contact the dealers that advertise on this site, ask them which screen manufacturers they carry, and request quotes from them by phone. Or you may contact the manufacturers through their websites and ask them for a dealer in your area.

Buying the right screen and mount for the job takes a little research, but it is well worth the effort. We hope this guide will save you time, and help you find the best product solution!