The last time I was walking by the wall of TVs at the back of the local Best Buy, I noticed something interesting about the prices. There seems to be a break between the low and the high points, big break. 42”, even 55” panels that used to go for the better part of a thousand dollars can now be had for peanuts.
But then what happens? You go up to 65”. 75”. And something changes. An entry level 55” panel selling for $350 gives way to 75” panels that start around $1300. Almost a thousand dollars more!
And then it dawned on me: there is something in the wide open space of price-points. With entry level projectors at the same price of 55” and 65” panels, it seems like there’s an opportunity for something better here.
So, I started looking into it, and what I found was a whole host of questions that I didn’t even know to ask at first. Questions about price and ease of use, yes, but also questions about resolution and contrast ratios, brightness, and if the thing would eventually burn my eyes out!
Is a Projector or TV right for you?
A projector is good for optimizing the price of your screen, building an immersive experience, and having the appeal of jaw-dropping size. A TV is brighter, and has a simple input/output situation, and also doesn’t have any bulbs to burn out.
But you’ll need to understand several other things, about resolutions, the physical requirements of using a projector (spacing), and what the ease of use looks like for projectors before you can make a call.
Projector vs TV: Screen Size in Relation to Price
First and foremost: are home theater projectors worth it? To do a quick pass at this, I’ll pull the best selling TVs at 3 diagonal-size price points, and two representative projectors from the high and low end of the market, all from Amazon, and see how the price-per-diagonal-inch shakes out:
Okay, so, there’s definitely some interesting things going on here. First, observe that huge jump in the 55, to 65, to 75 inch Television panels. There’s the price-point island I was talking about: from 55” to 65” the price increases more than 130%. And what are you getting for that? A big panel, sure, but note that both projectors are capable of 120”. Literally more than double 55”.
Projectors, like TVs, have high and low price points. Because of that, you’ll be able to find a TV or Projector to fit your budget no matter how large it is. But think about the high end projector for a moment. It’s obvious that, at 120” diagonal, it costs much less per diagonal inch than the 75” Television panel. But what about if we restricted the high end projector to projecting a 75” screen–hold it to the same standard as the 75” panel–and ran the numbers that way? You can see in the table that, even the higher end projector setup to project a 75” screen is more cost effective than the 75” Television
What about the low end projector? If the high end projector is cost-effective, even when projecting 75”, we know the low end projector will be. But what about if we compare the low end projector maximum projection size to the high end Televisions? If you look at the price per diagonal inch, when comparing the low end projector to either the 65” or the 75” panel, we can say the following: when compared to budget projectors, best-selling Televisions tend to cost double for half as much screen.
Screen Size in Relation: Winner = Projectors
Projector vs TV: Resolution
But what if size isn’t your only factor? Most Televisions and Projectors fall into the category of “good enough” for almost all purposes when it comes to resolution. Sure, we’ve all seen 4k rise in popularity over the last 3-5 years, but the jump from 720p/1080p resolution to 4k, while big on paper, is not as striking to the average consumer as the jump from SD to HD was. Some argue that the increase in resolution is getting to a point where our eyes can’t tell the difference, but, I’m sure if you’ve walked around the TV section of a big electronics store you know that statement is complicated. Some TVs suck you in, the image tends to jump right off the screen, and it’s sure that the resolution is driving that, but so is other whiz-bang tech like quantum-dot and OLED displays.
How do we compare this in the Projector arena? A quick product search will show you that 4k projectors exist within the price ranges discussed above, around $1k and up, with the sky being the limit. 8k projectors exist, technically, but with 8k and 10k being relatively exotic resolutions (at this point) the price is driven up to a point that’s not really worth discussing. However, that is true for Televisions with 8k and 10k resolutions as well. So, at the top end of the resolution side, you can see there’s not much to limit one option over the other, with projectors having the advantage.
On the bottom end, however, there’s something interesting that happens. While the Television industry tends to move up in resolution then adopt that change across the whole market, the projector field allows itself to stay fragmented. When you run a quick search, it’s hard to find a 55” panel that is 720p or 1080p. They’re cheap, but there’s not much choice. If you want a projector that does 720p or 1080p, though, there are plenty. No only are they cheaper, but there are tons of options.
What I’m getting at here is that, while 4k projector pricing is not prohibitive (in fact it competes with Televisions as described in the Price section), there is more room in the projector category to save money if you’re willing to use a lower resolution. For some people, it’s more about the 100” screen, and less about the higher resolution, and for those people there is an opportunity to save some serious cash here, with 100+inch 1080p projectors available at the same price point as a 55” 4k panel.
Resolution: Winner = TVs
Projector vs TV: Contrast Ratio
So far, it’s clear that projectors win on pricing, and don’t suffer much in the resolution category when compared to Televisions. However, we’re now getting into some categories where projectors show their limitations.
Contrast ratio is basically the difference between how dark and how light an image can be on the screen. That actual ratio is typically written as the brightness of a “white” spot to a “black” spot, with the comparison written out as [white spot brightness]:[black spot brightness].
TV Contrast Ratio
Take our budget 55” panel discussed above, it comes in at a ratio of 4000:1. The whites are four-thousand times brighter than the blacks. It’s an LED panel, and that’s typical fare for that category of hardware. OLED panels, by comparison, regularly boast contrast ratios of 1,000,000:1. That is, whites one million times brighter than blacks.
How is that possible? It all has to do with where light is coming from: and LED is backlit, so there’s always some light across the whole screen. An OLED panel, however, is able to “display” the color black without any light at all–that pixel, or area of the screen, is actually off. (This, incidentally, is why a phone with an OLED screen and a black background will have a better battery life than if it has a white background.)
Projector Contrast Ratio
And projectors? Take the budget model listed above. It claims a “dynamic contrast up to 15,000:1”. Wow, 15,000:1. That blows LED panels out of the water, doesn’t it?
Not quite. You’ll notice they carefully advertise “up to” that contrast ratio. This description is side-stepping one of the larger issues with projectors: where an LED and an OLED panel–all Televisions really–control the light coming from the screen, a projector simply can’t. The screen is designed to bounce light from the projector back to your eyes, but, guess what, it bounces all the light in the room back to your eyes as well.
A projector can project dark images onto a screen, but when the screen is already white, and when there’s some ambient light in the room, it’s going to make the image look more and more washed out. If you’re home theater room is full of windows, then on a sunny day your contrast ratio would be laughably low.
This is something to take into account when building your home theater. If you’re in a dark, windowless room, you probably can get the contrast ratio “up to” the advertised numbers, but if you want to set up in a well-lit room with lots of ambient light, things can get complicated.
In fact, projectors really only have one way to try and combat this ambient-light issue, and that’s by controlling the other end of the ratio: by trying to pump more and more light out to make the whites even brighter, bringing us to the next specification category worth discussing.
Contrast Ratio: Winner = TVs
Projector vs TV: Brightness
Brightness is measured in lumens, and we can skip the comparison to Televisions because they typically don’t even advertize the brightness formerly. Since they don’t have wash-out issues, TVs don’t list brightness because it’s almost always ‘bright enough’ to not really matter.
For projectors, though, the brightness is going to set the kind of contrast ratio you can expect, as described above. The placement you want–in a dark room vs in a well-lit room–that will set the brightness you need.
If you compare our two projector models above, you’ll see that the low end comes in at 2,500 lumens, while the higher end one reports 3,000. A quick survey of the mid-range projector market, though, reveals that the 2500-3000 lumen range is typical. You’ll want to go into specific projector reviews to see if anyone has discussed where they put them, and what results they’ve had.
Brightness: Winner = TVs
Projector vs TV: Duration of Life
One major difference in Televisions and Projectors is that, since projectors often use a bulb as the light source, that bulb can burn out eventually. That’s something worth factoring in because the bulbs are expensive–often more than half the cost of the projector–so depending on how much you want to use yours it could affect your decision.
Where a TV will almost never “go-out” save for some unexpected hardware failure, projectors often advertise a bulb-life in hours, with many hovering around 2,000.
It’s probably better to pick a projector based on the info above first, and then look up the expected life to help make your final decision. This bulb-life reality should push you away from buying used projectors.
Duration of Life: Winner = TVs
Projector vs TV: Ease of Use
One important thing to consider is how you’re actually going to use your projector. If you’re going to watch movies, or live TV, or maybe your main use will be to play video games–all those options are pretty streamlined on a TV, but they can get more complicated on a projector.
The issue here is that the input/output (I/O) options on a projector are located at the projector. So you’ll want to plan ahead what hardware you want to have connected ahead of time. Game consoles, cable boxes, etc. will need to be located near the projector, or have wires that run to it, but, you often want those pieces of equipment accessible as well–it wouldn’t due to mount them on the ceiling next to a ceiling-mounted projector (more on how to do that in our tutorial). Likewise, hardware with controllers that send IR signals usually need line-of-site to the box. This is getting rarer, but some cable boxes still need it, so you’ll need to plan that part out as well.
You may even incur some added cost in figuring this out, whether through advanced cable management, or expensive wireless-transmitting hardware. So, it’s best to plan what you want to use the projector for via our guide on the differences between projectors, that way you have an idea of the hardware needs beforehand.. Once you get your cable box (for instance) hooked up to the projector, though, it’s as easy to use as a Television.
Ease of Use: Winner = TVs
Projector vs TV: Position and Setup
Another limitation of projectors is physical placement. A projector can be ceiling mounted, set on a stand, or maybe even just on the coffee table. But keep in mind the location will need power, and the other hardware associated with what you want to watch will need to hook up with it as well.
This can get pretty complicated, and many people have solved the problem different ways. Ceiling mounted projectors usually have I/O extenders that go to cabinets in the room, and floor-mounted units may require custom cabinets or extension cables.
The solution here is going to rely a lot on the setup of your space, what furniture it has, what opportunities it may already have to hide a projector and the ancillary devices, etc.
Position and Setup: Winner = TVs
Projector vs TV: Cost
We already have an understanding of the fact that projectors are cheaper than Televisions on a cost-per-screen-area basis, but by now you’ve probably noticed there are some other things weighing in on the costs side. Projector life typically isn’t as long as Televisions’, and physical placement and hardware/cable management can be significant hurdles. Custom solutions here would definitely run the cost up a bit.
There’s also one big element we haven’t discussed: the screen. A typical projector screen is going to cost about $100. You can get them cheaper, or more expensive, but that’s a good value to have in mind for planning. Then, you’ll need to figure out if you’re going to mount it on a stand, or attach it to the ceiling somewhere.
So, there are clearly more things weighing into the cost question than just price-per-screen-area. Unfortunately, though, there’s not a uniform lump sum we can throw in here. It’s going to be unique to you.
Cost: Winner = DRAW
Projector vs TV: Which is Better?
Maybe we’re at a point to answer the core question now: are home theater projectors worth it?
Well, you get a lot more bang for your buck when it comes to screen size, and unless you’re committed to the most cutting edge resolutions and exotic panel technology, the image quality isn’t an issue unless you use things like the digital zoom as we explained in our guide.
Based on the location you’d like to put your projector, and what you want to have hooked up to it, the ambient light levels and cable/hardware/screen management can either be easy or expensively hard, and so those edges of the problem become unique questions to ask yourself when planning.
In the end, it’s hard for a TV to compete with a screen the size of a wall (a topic that we have also covered). It will blow people away, and even someone with the most expensive, curved, 75” Samsung behemoth will feel small when he steps into you’re living room and looks up at a screen that dwarfs his. For some, that’s worth every penny. But most people still love the ease of use when it comes to setting up their entertainment systems. Currently, you can’t beat a television when it comes to price, quality, and convenience.
Check out our article on projector specs to learn what specifications you should look for when purchasing a projector.
Overall: Winner = TVs
If you are having trouble deciding on which projector you should get, then check out our recommended projectors page. These are some of the most highly rated affordable projectors out there!