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HD Projector vs TV – How to Set Up & Install a Home Theater System

By Jason Steele

home theater projectorWhether it’s during the Super Bowl, March Madness, or awards shows, a few times a year everyone faces the temptation to go find the largest flat-screen LED TV and get the best deal on a new television.

Currently, you can buy a nice, 46″ flat screen television for around $1,000. While that price is significantly less than what you would have found for similar televisions just a few years ago, is it really the best you can do for the money?

What would you say if I told you that you could pay even less for an amazing picture that’s more than twice as big?

Why Buy a Television At All?

In the search for a high-end TV, most people ignore the fact that televisions aren’t the only option out there. In fact, you may get the best value from a home theater projector. You can find units that display DVD-quality pictures for under $500, or you can get full-HD 1080p models for less than $1,000.

With a projector you can enjoy images at 100″ inches, sometimes even larger. By the time you’re finished setting up your home projector, you don’t just have a new television. You have a real home theater that will be a huge attraction for your family and friends every time you want to watch a movie or a big game.

Basics of Digital HD Projectors

You may remember the old days before flat-screen televisions, when a “big screen” meant some kind of strange projector setup. A clunky machine took up way too much space in your family room, and only provided a low-quality picture that was difficult to see from an angle or in a room with any kind of ambient light. Thankfully, that type of television is outdated and no longer with us.

The new generation of home theater digital projectors is sleek, professional, and high-quality, like the ones you’d see in a high-tech corporate office. Even better, they no longer require a big business budget. They often cost less than many popular televisions, and their high-quality image size is limited only by the size of your room!

In our house, watching a movie or a television show on a projector is a new and amazing experience. The light is softer and easier on the eyes, and the huge screen draws us into the program. Turning on our projector is more of an event than just watching TV.

Here are 3 factors to consider before you buy a home theater projector.

1. Resolution

Like a television, home theaters come in various resolutions. The only two resolutions that are commonly available are 720p and 1080p, both of which are considered high-definition. In its simplest sense, the number represents how many pixels fit the screen from top to bottom. To put this stat in perspective, DVD quality is a mere 480p, and most people are still pretty happy with their DVD output to their television.

There are several high-quality 720p projectors that cost between $600 and $900, and full-HD 1080p models start at around $900. Most people really can’t tell the difference between 720p and 1080p, so you can save by sticking with the slightly lower resolution. I’ve had a 720p model for over four years, and I am still very satisfied with it. I highly encourage you to try two models side by side before splurging on an expensive 1080p projector.

2. Brightness

The key to a projector is the bulb. The brighter the bulb, the larger the picture can be, and the more visible it will be despite any ambient light. Therefore, the brightness you need will be directly related to how much light is in the room where you will be mounting your projector. Ideally, you want to choose a location with little ambient light from windows or nearby rooms. If you don’t have to worry about ambient light, you’ll be able to select a less expensive model that may not have the brightness of a high-end unit. I have an entry-level model that I use in my basement on a 100″ screen, and it’s more than bright enough.

The worst case scenario is an enormous screen in a room with a lot of ambient light. If that’s your situation, then you’ll probably have to spend a bit more to get a projector that can produce an acceptable image. As a rule of thumb, a projector with a brightness rating lower than 2,000 lumens should only be used in a room with very low ambient light. If you have moderate ambient light, like sunlight that comes in even with your curtains drawn, you will have to pay extra for a projector in the 2,000 to 3,000 lumen range. Projectors beyond 3,000 lumen are very expensive, and you only need to consider them if you have to use the projector with the lights on. To compute the brightness you need, check out Projector Central’s projection calculator.

3. Zoom Range

Depending on where you plan to mount your projector and how large your screen is, you will need to make sure that your projector’s lens will throw a large enough picture onto your screen. If the projector is too close to the screen, you can’t zoom out far enough to create the picture size you are looking for. Before you purchase a projector, you need to decide where you are going to mount it and how big of a screen you want. Projector Central’s projection calculator can help you make a wise decision for your room.

Shown below, the ViewSonic PJD5122 SVGA DLP Projector -120Hz/3D Ready, 2500 Lumens, 3000:1 DCR.

viewsonic hd projector

Other Components You Need for a Home Theater System

Unlike a television, a projector really can’t do much by itself. Before you can sit down and watch a show or movie, you’ll need to buy a few more devices for your home theater.

1. Screen
Every theater needs a screen. You might be able to use your bare walls, if they’re smooth and your paint is off-white. Some people choose to spend hundreds on a high-quality screen made of a delicate and highly reflective vinyl or other fabric. I took the middle ground and constructed a 100″ screen for under $100 using a standard roll of photographic background paper and a wooden frame.

2. Projector Mount
Once you have your screen, you will need to mount your projector. You can find decent mounts for around $100. I preferred to mount mine upside down on the ceiling. Other friends with projectors chose to mount them on a coffee table or another small piece of furniture that’s low to the ground. I like the ceiling option better because it seems more out-of-the-way and isn’t in danger of getting bumped. All I had to do was flip the projection image, which all projectors can do easily.

3. Video Source
If you are watching television from a cable or satellite provider like DIRECTTV, you will need to install their box. If you want to watch DVD movie formats (e.g. Blu-ray), you will need a player. If you are getting your content from free, over the air digital signals, you will need a digital television tuner connected to an antenna. Finally, those of you who have gone all the way and set up a home media network will need to add another media extender to access content from your media server.

4. Sound System
Unlike television sets, projectors generally don’t come with speakers. All you really need is an old receiver and a couple of speakers to place alongside your screen. The audio outputs from your source connect directly to your receiver, which amplifies the signal before relaying it to your speakers.

If you want to get the true home theater experience, you can go with a full surround-sound system. These systems generally use the 5.1 standard, which means that you get five speakers and a sub-woofer. You’ll put two speakers in front of your seating area, two behind it, and one in the center.

More modern systems use a 7.1 setup, which adds two additional speakers on the sides. I find 7.1 to be overkill and an unnecessary expense, especially since it’s only supported by some Blu-Ray content.

Everyone who has experienced my 5.1 system leaves pretty impressed. There are many 5.1 speaker packages that sell for as little as $250 including the receiver. Just remember that bigger isn’t always better – large speakers can overwhelm a small space.

5. Wiring
Once you have all of your components, you will need to wire them. You will need a video cord, ideally an HDMI cable, to connect the projector to your source. You will also need an audio cable to connect your source to your receiver. Finally, you will need speaker cables to connect your receiver to your speakers.

One of the downsides of a projector is that all of these wires can be expensive, and you will need longer cables to reach your projector than you would with a conventional television. While all of these cables are marked up tremendously at retail stores, you can find cheaper generic cables on eBay, Amazon, or at your local hardware store.

When it comes to speaker wire, you can find 12-gauge lamp cords at any home improvement store. These cords are fantastic low-cost alternatives to speaker wires, since the copper in them is the same as in expensive brand name speaker wire.

Final Word

A projector is not the ideal solution for everyone. You need a space in your house that has low ambient light and room for a big screen. But if you find the right room, you can have a truly large screen for less cash than you’d spend on a television that’s half the size.

After owning a projector for five years, I realized that the best part is that it can give you an entirely different entertainment experience than you could have with a television. We now look forward to going to the basement and basking in the soft glow of our projector, rather than the harsh light of our television.

Have you improved your entertainment experience while lowering your budget by getting a projector? What does your setup look like, and how much did you save?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Jason Steele
Jason has been writing about personal finance, travel, and other topics on blogs across the Internet. When he is not writing, he has a career in information technology and is also a commercially rated pilot. Jason lives in Colorado with his wife and young daughter where he enjoys parenting, cycling, and other extreme sports.

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Comments

  • http://keepbabbling.blogspot.com Jessica

    I won an HD projector in a sweepstakes, and we got rid of our TV and never looked back. We live in a tiny apartment and have our projector next to our big main window, but with the blinds shut it’s not too much of a problem, plus it’s usually only in the evenings that we’re home and using it anyway. We project onto a big, blank wall, which is a vast improvement over our previous setup, when we were attempting to project onto a hanging sheet in the corner. It’s a fantastic quality picture and so big I don’t think I could go back to watching a regular TV now!

  • http://greatcreditscore.org rossj

    My parents had a giant 3D LCD tv with 7.1 surround sound installed. Before i saw it I wasn’t really sold on the whole 3d thing, but it is amazing. It came with a shrek movie that i’ve seen twice, but i was so sucked in by the 3D and the surround sound, that i watched the entire thing. It’s very immersive.

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