Just as no two homes are identical, smart projectors designed for home use vary widely in price, features, purpose, and capabilities. They range from tiny pico and palmtop projectors, to home theater models that can form the centerpiece of a home cinema room, to home entertainment projectors bright enough to withstand the ambient light in a family room. Some are geared toward gaming, and most handle video (and photos) reasonably well. In addition, some data projectors can capably display video, and may be a good choice for someone whose home doubles as an office. Here's how to determine what sort of home projector is best for you.
Content: What Will You smart Project?
There are four basic kinds of content you can view with a projector: data, video, photos, and games. Most projectors can handle all of them, but each type has its strengths. Business (or data) projectors tend to be best at displaying data presentations, like PowerPoint slides, PDFs, Excel files, and the like. Consumer models, such as home entertainment, home theater, and video projectors, are more geared toward video viewing. Projectors that do well with video also tend to be good with photos. Gaming projectors are a small, but growing, niche and feature lower input lag.
Many consumer smart projectors are versatile, able to do justice to a range of content. If, say, you have a home office and occasionally need to show data presentations but also want to use the projector for entertainment, you may want to get a consumer model that also does well at showing data. Conversely, you could get a data projector that handles video content well.
Portability and Projection Tech
A home smart projector needn't be a homebody. Many are portable enough to travel with, or at least to easily move from room to room. (The main exception is a home theater projector, which you'd most likely want to permanently install.) The gaming projectors we've seen are easy to bring along to a LAN party. Micro-projectors—pico projectors, most of which can fit into a shirt pocket; palmtop models, which can fit in an outstretched hand; and slightly larger models—are highly portable, and come in both consumer and business models. (Many are good for both personal and business use.)
Most projectors are either LCD-based or use a Texas Instruments DLP (Digital Light Projection) chip along with a laser, LED, or LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) light source.
Single-chip DLP projectors are potentially subject to what is known as the "rainbow effect." Little red-green-blue rainbow-like flashes may be visible, particularly in scenes with bright areas against a dark background. In some DLP projectors, the effect is minimal, but in projectors where the effect is average to severe, people who are sensitive to these artifacts will likely find them distracting, particularly with video. LCD projectors are immune to this effect, so they're a safer bet if you or someone in your family is sensitive to the rainbow effect. That said, there are plenty of DLP projectors with excellent image quality.
Understanding Resolution and Brightness
Ideally, your projector's native resolution—the number of pixels in its display—should match the resolution of the content you'll most frequently be displaying. For videos and games, you'll want a widescreen native aspect ratio such as 16:9 or 16:10. Both 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) and 720p (1,280 by 720) have 16:9 aspect ratios, while WXGA projectors (1,280 by 800) are 16:10.
Both home theater and home entertainment projectors are best with 1080p resolutions, though many consumers are satisfied with less expensive 720p models. If you're a more demanding user, you should consider a 4K projector with a resolution of 3,840 by 2,160, twice as many vertical and horizontal pixels as 1080p. But there's currently a limited amount of content available that can take advantage of 4K resolution.
Consumer-level projectors range in brightness from less than 100 lumens for pico projectors to several thousand for video and home entertainment models. How bright your projector should be depends largely on two things: lighting and image size. If you're okay with relatively small images and/or plan to project mostly in a darkened room, you can get by with lower brightness. A home entertainment projector for a family room should be brighter, around 2,000 lumens or more.
Keep in mind that perception of brightness is measured logarithmically; it takes a lot more than doubling the number of lumens for an image to appear twice as bright. Thus, modest differences in rated brightness (say, 2,200 and 2,500 lumens) are usually of little significance.
Home Theater or Home Entertainment?
Home theater projectors are designed to be used under theater-dark conditions in a movie room. This can be anything from an elaborate, professionally designed home theater to a mixed-use room that can be set up for viewing movies. Such projectors usually eschew built-in speakers, as their owners prefer to yoke them to high-fidelity audio systems. Image quality, features, and resolution are important—most are 1080p, and many include 3D capabilities. Because you'll be viewing the content in a dark room free of ambient light, a home theater projector needn't be especially bright; you won't want to go much above 2,000 lumens.
Home entertainment projectors, on the other hand, are more versatile than home theater models, and are generally used in places such as family rooms, where there may be considerable ambient light. They've become viable substitutes for TVs, and can project fairly large images without degradation. Thus, they tend to be brighter than home theater models. They also have built-in sound systems. As home entertainment projectors are geared to casual viewing, their image quality—though generally good—is seldom a match for that of home theater models.
Connection Methods: HDMI and More
Most home projectors offer multiple connection methods. Nearly all new models provide HDMI connectivity, which is good because it supports video resolutions of 1080p. Larger projectors have standard HDMI ports, while palmtop, pico, and other small projectors often have mini or micro HDMI ports, which require different cables (usually included with the projector). Many home entertainment and home theater models have ports compatible with HDMI 1.4a, enabling projection from a Blu-ray player or set-top box, as well as a computer. Some come with HDMI ports that support MHL, providing a wired connection to compatible phones and tablets. Further, some models connect via Wi-Fi, as well as supporting media streaming via Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) and/or Miracast.
Composite video, component video, and S-Video are also common, and we're seeing more projectors offering direct connections to a computer via a USB cable. Many projectors have VGA ports, although HDMI is preferable for showing video from a computer. Many models now offer Wi-Fi adapters for wireless streaming of content as a standard or optional feature, and some even have built-in Wi-Fi.
Ready for Our Recommendations?
Below are our current top picks in home projectors. They vary widely in size, brightness, and features. All these projectors have one thing in common, though: high marks in our reviews. Be sure to also check out our overall top picks, as well as our favorite portable projectors.