If you're buying a projector, you'll want a screen. Note that we didn't say you'll need a screen. If you just bought a small, portable projector to haul around for watching YouTube videos or Netflix wherever you happen to be, then you'll likely just be looking for the nearest white or off-white wall to throw an image to. But walls may be uneven and noticeably textured, and they will affect color in unpredictable ways. A portable screen will always be the better choice, and for a permanent home theater or business installation, you will most certainly want a dedicated screen to get the most from your projector purchase.
Fortunately, there is a wide choice of screen options today that range in price, function, and performance, allowing you to find a screen that best matches your environment, viewing habits and budget. ProjectorCentral's resource page for screen suppliers and resellers lists the better known brands like Da-Lite, Draper, Elite Screens, Grandview, Screen Innovations, Seymour Screen Excellence, Severtson, Stewart Filmscreen, Vutec, and others. Most of these companies now offer both traditional and ALR (ambient-light reflecting) materials that allow projection in lit environments like family and conference rooms.
Below is the short course on how to find the best screen for your situation. If you're brand new to projection, you'll learn everything you need to know about buying a home theater projector and screen in our two-part Home Theater Buyer's Guide.
Step 1: Select a Mount/Frame Type
You can get a good idea of screen types and mounting options by visiting screen manufacturer websites. Most popular are fixed-frame mounts that hold a screen rigid. They 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, as in a dedicated home theater space. Traditional fixed screens have a 2- to 3-inch wide frame around the screen material that is wrapped in light-absorbing black felt, but some brands now offer modern designs with a thin bezel that mimics today's panel TVs and gives the effect of an image floating in space.
In addition to fixed-frame options, most vendors have 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. The advantage of retractable screen mounts, of course, is that the screen can be made to disappear when not in use, which is a great option for a mixed-use family room or a business conference room. Motorized screens can be raised and lowered at the push of a button, and typically come with a handheld remote control and trigger terminals that can be wired for automatic deployment or storage when you turn the projector on and off. Manual retractable screen mounts are typically spring-tension driven. They are less expensive, and can be lowered and raised by hand.
A third type of screen you'll see out there is the retractable portable, typically housed in a spring loaded canister that either sits on the ground and gets pulled up and hooked to a connected pole structure, or which sits on a supplied tripod stand. These types of screens can be stored in a closet along with a projector for an impromptu movie night, or transported wherever you need them.
Step 2: Choose an Aspect Ratio
The aspect ratio defines the relationship of the screen's width to height. Most installations use a 16:9 aspect ratio, or 16 units of width to 9 units of height. This matches HDTV broadcast and game content and the native aspect ratio of the imaging devices found in most home theater projectors, but results in widescreen movies appearing with black letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the screen.
Some movie buffs, on the other hand, opt for a 2.4:1 aspect ratio (or perhaps 2.35:1), which closely matches widescreen theatrical movies but typically results in black pillars appearing to the left and right with 16:9 HDTV content. There is a lot to consider before planning a 2.4:1 screen installation that will affect the projector you select and how you use it. Our article "When Widescreens Work: How to Pick the Right Aspect Ratio" will give you some additional background and explain the concept of maintaining Constant Image Height, in which 16:9 images are zoomed as needed to provide an image at the full screen height on a 2.4:1 screen. This maximizes size with both content types, but usually requires a projector with a motorized lens controls and memory functions, or expensive add-on equipment in the form of an anamorphic lens and motorized lens slide. These installations can even be outfitted with an automatic masking system that covers the pillar bars for 16:9 content to give the screen a more finished look.
In the final analysis, the cinematic virtues of a widescreen installation can't be denied. However, selecting a 16:9 screen will most certainly simplify your installation and greatly widen your projector options.
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Step 3: Select Screen Material
You'll want to select your screen material (as well as your projector) based on your viewing habits and how much ambient light you expect to encounter. In making this choice, it's important to understand that all projectors look their best in total darkness because it is in these conditions that they can deliver their deepest blacks and best contrast. This should be obvious once you realize that a projector doesn't actually "project" black; rather, it attempts to create black on the screen with the absence of light. The projector simply turns off the light (to its best ability) for the pixels that it would like to display as black. So if you have any ambient light in the room hitting a conventional screen, it raises the base black level and makes it more gray. This can cause the image to look washed out and flat. Solid blacks, on the other hand, lead to good contrast and more dimensional and realistic images.
If you expect to watch in a dark room, your best option will be a traditional matte white screen material that best preserves color accuracy and brightness from a moderately bright projector known to deliver good contrast/black level performance. But if you'll be watching in a family or meeting room in moderate to bright light, your best choice will be a higher brightness projector mated with an ALR screen that will artificially boost black level with a gray contrast-enhancing surface (usually at the expense of white brightness) or one that uses optical elements to actively reflect ambient light while directing light from the projector back to the viewers. You can read about ALR screens in our article "Screen Magic: How UST Screens Let You See the Light."
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 is a viable option, as it intensifies the illumination in the area where your audience is sitting. This might help you get along with a less-bright projector for your desired screen size. However, if the audience is seated at wide angles to the screen, you will want to use a lower gain material so that those on the outside don't experience the dimming effect.
Keep in mind that gain, as well as image size, will come into the calculation for how bright a projector you will need to achieve the desired brightness you want for your given image size and viewing conditions. We'll say more about that below.
In the past, high gain screens were important because projector light output was relatively low and 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 typically go for low gain screens in the 1.0 to 1.3 range. Our article "What is Screen Gain" will tell you more.
Acoustic Transparency. Another factor to consider is whether you need an acoustically transparent material that will allow sound to pass through it from a speaker mounted directly behind the screen. This might come into play in a dedicated home theater installation where design dictates that the speakers be invisible or in a multi-purpose family room where a drop-down screen obstructs a center-channel or other front speakers when it's deployed.
Acoustic transparency is achieved in these screens with micro-perforations or a material weave that lets the sound pass through, but individual screens do vary in their ability to do this job without causing visible artifacts or a muffling of detail in the sound. The best acoustically transparent screens minimize both to a point where any deleterious effects are negligible, but if image and audio performance are absolutely paramount you can try to avoid these materials and go with a regular screen. If you do opt for an acoustically transparent screen, be prepared to spend more to get one that performs well.
Step 4: Screen Size Considerations
We go into detail about screen size in "How to Buy a Projector, Part 2: Step by Step to Your New Home Theater". Using the resources in that article to finalize your screen size will let you add that information to your expected screen gain and projection throw distance to allow you to calculate the brightness (lumen) requirements for your projector.
There are various conflicting formulas that suggest how large a screen should be for a given seating distance. The likelihood is that you'll end up with one of the popular offered sizes in the 100- to 150-inch diagonal range. But the most important thing we can communicate here is that it should ultimately be your available wall space and aesthetics, and your personal taste (as far as where you like to sit in the movie theater), that determine how big a screen you go with. Be mindful, however, that even if you have a giant wall and like to sit near the front row at the local cinema, sitting right on top of a large screen will force you to move your eyes to follow the action, which can cause fatigue.
Also keep in mind that any given projector only has a fixed amount of light. So if you spread that light over a larger image, 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. Hopefully you can avoid this by selecting an appropriately bright projector for whatever screen size you choose.
Step 5: Purchase Your Screen
Once you know what you want in a screen, you can scout the manufacturer websites or browse one of the affiliated online screen resellers on our screen resource page to gauge availability and prices. We also encourage you to call their in-house experts, who can further educate you and walk you through options that meet your needs. Buying the right screen for the job takes a little research, but it comes back to you by insuring you get the absolute best performance from your projector in whatever environment you watch in.