A front screen projector can create a theater-like atmosphere in your home with screens just about any size you want. Even the least expensive projectors can give you the equivalent of a 50-, 60- or even a 70-inch screen, with high-definition units starting at just over $1,000. After trying out three projectors, I'm convinced that this is a viable option for some people, though not for everyone.
A projector is not a good choice as your only TV. If you plan to spend a half hour or so watching a sitcom or the news, you may be better off with a regular TV.
Projectors have to warm up and cool down. When you first push the power button a fan starts whirring to direct cool air over the lamp. The lamp itself doesn't come on for at least a minute or two. When you're done, the process reverses itself. The lamp goes dim but the fan stays on until it has cooled down. Failure to allow for a cool down results in the lamp burning out before it's time.
How much screen can you get for the cash you've got to spend?
Click here for Larry Magid's podcast interview of Jennifer Andrews of ProjectorPeople.com, who has tips on large screen options.
Speaking of lamps, there is a usage cost on projectors. Lamps are generally rated for between about 2,000 and 5,000 hours and cost anywhere from $200 to $500 to replace, so if you plan to watch several hours of TV a day, you're going to spend a lot of money on replacement lamps.
Ideally, a projector should be in a dimly lit room. Although some can handle a certain amount of ambient room light, you are not going to get as clear a picture in a lit room as you will with a TV whose light source is shining through the screen.
Even Jennifer Andrews who works for ProjectorPeople.com – a website that sells nothing but projectors – admits that they're not for everyone: "The folks who should not consider front projection are people who want to use it as their primary TV all the time." Of course, she thinks they're great for watching movies or sporting events.
Unlike most High-Def TV sets, projectors don't come with tuners so you will need a source for your programs. That's not a problem if you have a satellite dish or a cable service since they provide the necessary hardware to get your signal but it means you can't just plug an antenna into a projector and watch TV.
Projector TVs also have either no audio or weak audio, so you'll need an audio system as well. On the positive side, projectors are a lot more portable than TV sets. They're pretty easy to move around, although it may take some time to position correctly (or hang from the ceiling) for optimal viewing.
I tested three units: the $2,999 Dell 5100MP, the Panasonic PT-AE900U (about $1,650 after rebate and the $1,299 Optoma DV10 MovieTime. I connected each to a high-definition Dish Network adapter and hooked up a DVD player to both the Dell and Panasonic. The Optoma has its own built-in DVD player.
Like digital cameras, PCs and just about all other technology products, there are specifications which, while important, do not tell the entire story. The main rating system for projectors is the number of "lumens" which is how much light they can emit. That's especially important in a room with ambient light because the more lumens the better the image in less-than-idea lighting conditions.
Presenters who use projectors in well-lit conference rooms care a lot about lumens because a high-lumen projector allows them to avoid having to dim the lights. If you watch TV with the lights on or during the day in a room that you can't darken, you may need some extra lumens.