Modern workspaces are driven today by video presentation and communications technology. That's even more true in recent times as workers practice remotely, either at home or in small office clusters, and meeting environments lean increasingly toward the virtual. Despite the growing size of flatpanel monitors in recent years, attaining images larger than 75- or 85-inches diagonal in a conference room or even a home work environment with a one-piece display remains prohibitively expensive. And in these days of Zoom meetings with a half-dozen or more attendees on screen at once, even those panels can suddenly look awfully small.
Enter the business projector and screen, which remains the most cost effective way to achieve images of 100 inches or larger—often much larger. The good news here is that the commercial projector has undergone a revolution of its own in recent years, enjoying a rapid and now nearly complete shift from lamps to laser technology. That has meant both an elimination of pricey lamp replacements and reduction of maintenance costs over the life of the projector. More critically, today's laser projectors can generate much higher light output in a smaller, lighter form factor to create truly engaging images in brightly lit rooms.
This projector buying guide will help you understand your projector and screen options and find the right projector for your business and commercial use. Armed with some projector basics, you'll be able to tap ProjectorCentral's Projector Database and Projection Throw Calculator to find the ideal projector for your conference room or virtual meeting space.
A projector's resolution is the number of pixels the projector uses to create the image. The more pixels it uses, the higher the resolution and the better the rendering of detail for any given image size.
Resolution is quoted in two numbers, such as "1920x1200," where the first number refers to the pixels horizontally across the screen, and the second number refers to the pixels vertically from top to bottom. This particular 1920x1200 resolution is also referred to as WUXGA. Each of the most common resolution formats has a name like this to shortcut the need to quote the numbers. The names don't make much common sense but there are only a few of them in popular usage and a web search or sites like ProjectorCentral are a resource to remind you what pixel counts go with each designation .
How Much Resolution Do I Need?
High-resolution projectors are able to show more complex picture detail than low resolution projectors. In addition to giving you more acute image detail, since there are more pixels used to make the image, each individual pixel is smaller for a given image size, so the pixels themselves become less visible on the screen when viewed from close distance. Lower resolution projectors remain available at less cost, but these days, HDTV resolution projectors have gotten so affordable that unless you're buying a large quantity of projectors and need to save money, or purchasing a mobile projector where you expect to view smaller images, there may be little need to opt for a low resolution model.
4K (4096x2160)/UHD (3840x2160). The highest resolution offered today among business projectors is 4K or UHD (Ultra High Definition). Technically, 4K is a digital cinema term that refers to the 4096x2160 pixel count used in commercial movie theaters, but the 4K label is also used to describe the nearly equal UHD resolution of 3840x2160 found today in consumer televisions and the most desirable home theater projectors.
4K projectors deliver at least four times the total pixel count of Full HD 1080p projectors. They provide an extremely high level of detail and virtually undetectable pixels at large image sizes, which is especially beneficial for viewers sitting closer to the screen, but they still carry a significant premium over the WUXGA and 1080p models that represent the next step down. This additional detail may be important if your projections will include critical scientific or engineering images, or perhaps screenings of entertainment content. But for most conventional applications such as business slide presentations or virtual meetings, 4K resolution will be overkill.
WUXGA (1920x1200). WUXGA is nearly equivalent to the 1080p Full HD (1920x1080) format used for digital broadcasts, except that the image is a little taller to coincide with a 16:10 aspect ratio as opposed to the 16:9 aspect ratio for Full HD. This format became popular in business with the advent of high resolution computer monitors and laptops. WUXGA projectors have the advantage of being able to display 1080p HD signals as well as 1920x1200. The cost advangtage for WUXGA projectors over 4K puts them in a sweet spot for business projectors today along with 1080p models, as these offer the best value proposition in terms of both high brightness and flexible resolution suitable for either business presentations or photographic and video content.
Full HD 1080p (1920x1080). As noted, this 16:9 aspect ratio format became popular among consumer home theater projectors with the introduction of digital broadcasting, which has resulted in a wide availability of 1080p models designed specifically with business and commercial use in mind. For most applications, they may be viewed interchangeably with WUXGA projectors.
WXGA (1280x800). WXGA projectors have the same widescreen 16:10 aspect ratio as WUXGA projectors, but they are lower resolution and are therefore less expensive, all other things being equal. New projector introductions in WXGA and lower resolutions like XGA are becoming more rare, but these projectors are still widely available and worth considering when budgets are a key factor—for example, as with school districts outfitting a large number K-12 classrooms. They can also be an option for large scale digital signage applications where spending more on higher brightness is the better choice and the subject matter being displayed does not demand high resolution presentation.
XGA (1024x768). XGA resolution has been around since the 1990's, and uses the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio common to old CRT tube televisions that predated the widescreen HDTV standard. They survive today primarily for those budget-sensitive situations mentioned above, or for specific signage and other applications where the widescreen format is not desirable or appropriate and higher resolution is not necessary. You'll also find lower resolutions like WXGA, XGA, and even SVGA in small portable pico and briefcase projectors, where lower brightness dictates smaller image sizes and less need for higher resolution—although 1080p is appearing more often now in the premium portables.
SVGA (800x600). SVGA projectors are very low resolution, and like XGA they are 4:3 aspect ratio. These are disappearing from the market, but their major attraction is high brightness at an extremely low price. At this writing, lamp-based models rated at 4,000 lumens can be had for less than $350. They may be an option for signage or other applications where large text or basic graphics are being displayed and there is no need to resolve much image detail.
The amount of light a projector can put out is measured in ANSI lumens or just "lumens" for short. The brighter the projector, the higher the ANSI lumen rating, and (all else being equal) the more it costs. (By the way, some manufacturers are now quoting "Center Lumens" instead of ANSI lumens because the number is larger--measuring just the brightness at the center of the screen rather than the average brightness overall, as the ANSI method does. Don't compare one vendor's ANSI rating to another's Center rating as they are apples and oranges.) You can read more about how lumens are measured here.
Screen Gain and Materials
Two things determine the brightness of the picture on the screen. One is the amount of light coming from the projector. The other is the reflectivity of the screen, which is typically quantified in "gain." A screen with a gain of 1.0 will reflect back to the center viewing position the same amount of light that strikes it. A screen with gain greater than 1.0 will focus more of the light energy back toward the center viewing position and less toward the sides, making the picture look brighter when viewed from the center position. If a screen has a gain of 1.3, it will looks 30% brighter at the center viewing position than it would with a 1.0 gain screen. If the screen has a gain of 2.0, it is twice as bright, etc.
The big downside to high gain screens is that, since they focus more of the light energy back toward the center viewing position they reflect less light toward the sides. That means the picture gets dim in a hurry when you move toward the side and off the center viewing axis. So if you have people seated at various angles to the screen it is best to have a low gain screen so that everyone can see a reasonably bright image. On the other hand, if your seats are all very close to the center viewing axis, a high gain screen can give your viewers a brighter image without you having to buy a brighter projector.
Another factor to consider with screens is the color and formulation of the material. Classic matte white screens are a good choice for viewing in a darkened room, but there are many ambient light-rejecting (ALR) materials today that either use a gray contrast-boosting surface or layers with optical elements to preserve contrast and black level in bright business or home environments. You can learn more in our article How to Buy a Projection Screen and find information about ALR screens and how they work in our Screen Buyer's Guide.
The projector's light output and the screen's gain together determine how bright the overall picture looks. This is ultimately the important thing, and it is typically measured in foot-Lamberts, or simply ft-L. So as the ANSI lumen measurement tells you how much projector light energy is hitting the screen, the ft-L measurement tells you how much light is being reflected back.
So, how many ft-L do you need? The ideal brightness of your picture depends on the application and how much ambient light there is in the room. In a classic dark home theater, the official SMPTE recommendations are for 16 ft-L. However, most people actually prefer a picture that is a bit brighter than that, so we would typically recommend spec'ing it in at 20 ft-L to 25 ft-L. Keep in mind that a lamp projector will lose noticeable brightness as its lamp ages until such time as you replace it to restore the projector to its original full brightness. It makes sense to factor this into your overall brightness solution.
In modest to moderate ambient light, you need a much brighter image to produce sufficient contrast. A rule of thumb would be 40 ft-L, but it depends on the amount of ambient light and the reflectivity of the room itself. In a conference room with normal lighting, 60 ft-L would be the ideal target.
There is a simple formula for calculating how many foot-Lamberts a given projector and screen combination will yield that takes into account the lumen rating of the projector and the screen image area and gain. You'll find it in our article A Simple Guide to Calculating Lumens, along with a helpful chart that converts diagonal screen size into image area.
However, you can also use ProjectorCentral's Projection Calculator to get an estimate of the Ft-L. The variables you can adjust are these:
- Screen size: For any given projector, the smaller the screen size the greater the ft-L, since you are concentrating all of the projector's light energy into a smaller space. As you enlarge the screen, the ft-L number drops.
- Screen gain: As you will see, once you load any projector into the Calculator, it defaults to an assumed Screen Gain of 1.0. If you need more foot-Lamberts and have not yet purchased a screen you can adjust the screen gain rating to indicate what effect it will have on total image brightness.
- Zoom lens position: In general the wide angle end of a zoom lens will allow the projector to maximize its lumen output. As you move the projector back from the screen and use the zoom lens to throw a narrower cone of light, the light is curtailed. The Calculator makes some adjustments to anticipated ft-L to account for this effect.
Note that the Ft-L figures in our calculator can be based on either the projector's full maximum ANSI lumen specification or a ProjectorCentral estimate; you'll see these options beyind the "Show Advanced" button next to the Estimated Image Brightness. Calculating from the full maximum ANSI lumens assumes you'll be using the projector's brightest mode, which is often noticeably green-shifted in many projectors. This makes that mode potentially suitable for spreadsheets or other non-photographic material, but not for more color-critical content.
The ProjectorCentral estimate assumes you'll be using a picture mode that delivers more accurate color but less than the projector's full brightness, and is based on either a percentage reduction in the max lumen spec or on our actual measurements in the best-looking mode if we've reviewed that projector model.
Assuming you've made decisions about how much resolution you need, how much brightness you require for your environment, and your screen size, you'll want to know which projectors will fit into your space and fill the screen you've got in mind. You may already have a screen installed and know its exact dimensions. If not, you probably have a pretty good idea of the screen size you want based on your viewing environment. And you probably have a sense of where you'd like to place the projector.
With that data it is easy to narrow down the list of projectors that will fit your space and screen size. Let's take an example. Say you've got a large conference room and you have a 170-inch diagonal 16:10 screen already installed. You've decided you want a WUXGA projector that puts out about 5,000 lumens. Which projectors that have these performance criteria will fit your screen and throw distance?
To find out, go to the ProjectorCentral Projector Database. Select WUXGA in the Resolution list. Then enter a lumen range, say 4500 to 6000 lumens if you are looking for models that put out around 5000. Finally, enter your anticipated throw distance (the distance from the lens to the screen) and 170 inches as your diagonal image size. Then click the "Find Projectors" button, and the search will show you all models that meet your stated requirements. The Database search results are initially presented in order of the projectors' popularity, but you can re-sort the list by price, by first ship date, or whatever other criterion you want.
Sorting by Throw Ratio
A more powerful way to use the Database is to sort by the Throw Ratio you want rather than Throw Distance and Screen size. Let's say you would be just as happy to place the projector anywhere from 24 to 36 feet from the screen, and you want to know which projectors will fill your screen from somewhere within that throw range.
This is easy. The Throw Ratio is simply the Distance divided by the Screen Width. Your 170-inch 16:10 screen is exactly 12 feet wide. So your Minimum Throw Ratio requirement is 24 feet divided by 12 feet = 2.0, and your Maximum Throw Ratio is 35 feet divided by 12 feet = 3.0. You just enter 2.0 and 3.0 into the Min and Max Throw Ratio boxes, and the Database will tell you every projector, and projector + lens combination, that will fill your 170-inch screen from somewhere between 24 and 36 feet throw distance.
Lamp vs. Laser
At some point in your selection process, presumably after you've established your resolution, brightness, and image size/throw requirements, you'll want to make a fundamental decision about going with a traditional lamp-based light engine or a laser model. Although prices of the most basic laser projectors (those with a single laser vs. multiple lasers) have been dropping rapidly year to year, these still do carry a noticeable premium over an equivalently bright lamp model of the same resolution.
Of course, there are several upsides to having a laser projector. These light engines are rated to last the life of the projector, typically 20,000 hours or more, which translates to a minimum of about 10 years of operation in a business that keeps the projector running at its full brightness for 8 hours a day, five days a week. Although there are some projectors that offer pretty long lamp life when the projector is run at low brightness, most projectors will go through at least four lamp replacements to acheive the same hours of use at max brightness, at a cost that will likely exceed $100 per lamp and possibly several hundred dollars. And unlike a laser engine, which maintains relatively stable brightness throughout its lifetime, lamps will exhibit noticeable dimming as they age and require periodic adjustment of the projector to compensate if you expect to maintain image brightness at the initial level.
Laser projectors not only reduce this periodic maintenance and eliminate the labor associated with lamp replacement s, but they also tend to require little other maintenance—such as filter cleanings or replacements. Some models use fully-sealed designs that have no filters at all or don't require cleanings. These units are particularly ideal for situations where a projector is permanently mounted in a location that is not easily reached for maintenance.
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Another key benefit of laser is that it a more efficient technology than classic metal halide projection lamps, which means that high brightness specifications of 5,000 lumens or more can be achieved in a much smaller and cooler-running form factor than a similarly spec'd lamp model. Furthermore, most laser projectors can be mounted in any orientation without fear of them overheating, which can be important in some signage or other applications.
Ultimately, once you determine your resolution and brightness needs, you will need to calculate the extra cost associated with stepping up to a laser projector and determine if the benefits of laser and the cost savings over time make it worthwhile to spend more up front. Buyers today are increasingly opting for laser, which represents the vast majority of new models each year, and leading to dropping prices for a given resolution and brightness class.
To learn more about the advantages of lasers, lamps, or LED light engines (which are often used in portable projectors), you can read our article Lamp, Laser, or LED Projection: Which Light is Right?.
DLP or LCD?
A final consideration you'll make before purchasing your business projector will be the type of imaging technology. The two primary options here will be Texas Instrument's DLP technology, which uses light bounced off a grid of microscopic pivoting mirrors, and LCD, which passes light through a trio of liquid crystal panels before sending it to the screen. A third option, LCoS (liquid crystal on silicone) is used much less frequently in some higher-end commercial projectors.
DLP and LCD each has its own advantages, but the reality is that the differences won't come much into play in most typical non-critical business environments where the projector is being used for presentations and virtual meetings. You can read more about all three imaging technologies in LCD, LCoS, or DLP: Choosing a Projector Imaging Technology.
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