This projector buying guide will help you find the right projector for your business and commercial use. There are over 2000 projectors currently on the market so buying a projector can be a daunting task. This guide will show you how to simplify the buying process by using ProjectorCentral's Projector Database to find the ideal projectors for your presenting needs.

This Projector Buying Guide reviews the following topics:

  • What Native Resolution do I need?
  • For a discussion of Resolution and your various options, click the Native Resolution link in the Contents box above.
  • How Bright should it be?
  • Projector brightness is rated in ANSI Lumens. Picture brightness is measured in foot-Lamberts (fL). To see how many lumens and foot-Lamberts you need, click Brightness in the Contents box.
  • What Throw Distance do I need?
  • Most projectors are only able to throw a limited range of image sizes from any given throw distance. To make sure the projector you choose will fill your screen from the throw distance you have available, click the Throw Distance link above.

Once you sort out these basics, buying a projector is a lot easier. Use the Projector Database as guide to your options, then check the Projection Calculator to make sure your chosen projector will fit in your space.

Native Resolution

A projector's Native Resolution is the number of pixels the projector uses to create the image. The more pixels it uses, the higher the resolution.

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 numeric native resolution format 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 so they are easy to remember once you've gotten used to them.

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, so the pixels themselves become less visible on the screen. However, you will generally pay more for higher resolution.

Lower resolution projectors are much less expensive, but they can produce images that are just as bright and attractive as higher resolution machines. Unless you have a specific need to display complex images with a lot of fine detail, buying a lower resolution projector will be your best bet from a cost perspective.

Native Resolution Options

The current standard HDTV resolution format is Full HD 1080p, which is 1920x1080, a 16:9 format. This of course is the most popular resolution for home theater projectors, but it is no longer just a consumer/home theater format. Many people are buying HD 1080p projectors for business as well. There are many dozens of native HD 1080p projectors putting out over 5000 lumens for commercial and business use Here is a list of them:

However, in addition to HD 1080p, there are several other very popular native resolutions for business and commercial applications. They include the following:

WUXGA (1920x1200) - WUXGA is a widescreen, 16:10 aspect ratio format that is highly popular in commercial and business use today. WUXGA projectors have the advantage of being able to natively display 1080p HD signals as well as 1920x1200 content. The price of WUXGA projectors has dropped dramatically, making it a go-to resolution for both business presentation and video applications. Here is a list of them:

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. They are certainly good options when budgets are a key factor as in K-12 classrooms. However, the very bright 1280x800 models can be ideal in large scale digital signage applications where brightness is king, and the subject matter being displayed does not demand high resolution presentation.

XGA (1024x768) - XGA resolution has been around since the 1990's, but it is still a highly popular format that a lot of folks are buying. Why? Unlike WUXGA and WXGA just mentioned, XGA is a 4:3 aspect ratio, so it has the format of the older CRT-type TV picture rather than the modern widescreen formats. XGA resolution is inexpensive which contributes to its continuing popularity. Many models are well under $500. However, there are also many large venue XGA projectors on the market that are ideal for signage and other applications where widescreen format is not desirable or appropriate and higher resolution is not necessary. Think about the display of lyrics to guide the singing of hymns in a house of worship for example--the text is very large so high resolution is irrelevant. And many prefer buying into the 4:3 aspect ratio for this type of material rather than widescreen.

SVGA (800x600) - SVGA projectors are very low resolution, and like XGA they are 4:3 aspect ratio. Their major attraction is extremely low price, with many available for just a few hundred dollars. SVGA can be a good option for Powerpoint presentations or signage applications where there is no need to resolve much fine image detail.

4K (3840x2160+) - The latest ultra high resolution products are in the 4K family, which is at least four times the resolution of HD 1080p. For those who can afford them they are highly desirable in home theater. But they also have excellent application in the display of very high resolution graphics. If you've got the money and the need for super high definition images, buying into the new 4K projectors may be your ideal solution.

Which resolution is right for you?

The big issue here is how complex your subject matter is. If you are routinely presenting large financial spreadsheets or complex architectural schematics, you need at least HD 1080p, probably WUXGA, or if your budget can tolerate it, possibly even 4K. If you have a lot of video content you will also want HD 1080p or WUXGA to match the source material available in HD format.

On the other hand, if you're planning to use your projector for Powerpoint pic charts, bar graphs and general business presentation, you don't need to pay extra to buy into high resolution equipment. WXGA or XGA resolution projectors are perfectly adequate for this kind of work, and the best solution for the money.

If you plan to use your business projector in a dual purpose role for video at home, you'll want to go with HD 1080p or WUXGA business models that have particularly good video performance attributes.

Once you have determined which resolution most suits your needs, you can go to the Projector Database to find all projectors in that resolution class. The list might be lengthy at first, but this buying guide will help you narrow down the list to find the projectors most ideally suited to your situation.


Projector Brightness

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.)

Screen Gain

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.

Picture Brightness

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 fL. So as the ANSI lumen measurement tells you how much projector light energy is hitting the screen, the fL measurement tells you how much light is being reflected back.

How many foot-Lamberts 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 fL. 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 fL. Keep in mind that all video display systems (projectors as well as flat panels) will lose brightness as their light sources age. If a projector has a high pressure lamp you can periodically install a fresh lamp and bring the unit back to full power. With laser or LED systems, the degradation is slower but permanent. Either way 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 fL, but it depends on the amount of ambient light and the reflectivity of the room itself. In a conference room with normal lighting, 60 fL would be the ideal target.

Calculating Foot-Lamberts

In order to determine how many foot-Lamberts a given projector and screen combination will create, you can use ProjectorCentral's Projection Calculator. The variables you can adjust are these:

  • Screen size: For any given projector, the smaller the screen size the greater the fL, since you are concentrating all of the projector's light energy into a smaller space. As you enlarge the screen, the fL 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 fL to account for this effect.
  • Application use: Commercial projectors have ANSI lumen ratings based on maximum light output. When the light source is driven to maximum it usually results in a picture that has a green tint or bias. This may or may not be objectionable for data presentations, but it is usually problematic for video. Once a projector is color calibrated for best video its lumen rating drops significantly. So you can select which application uses you are concerned with and in most cases the Calculator will factor the fL number down if you select Video, to account for reduced lumen output after color calibration.

Throw Distance

Finding Projectors with the right Throw Distance

Once you've settled on the Resolution you want and you've got an ideal of how many lumens you need, the next question is a very practical one: which projectors will fit into your space and fill the screen you've got? 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. And you know your basic preferences for 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" diagonal 16:10 screen already installed. You've decided you want a WUXGA projector that puts out about 5000 lumens. Which projectors that have these performance criteria will fit your screen and throw distance?

To find out, go to the 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 30 feet as your throw distance and 170" 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" 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" screen from somewhere between 24 and 36 feet throw distance.