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Video projectors 101

If you're thinking about buying a video projector for your home theater, chances are that you have already looked at a few of your options. It's also pretty likely that you become confused quickly. After all, there are an awful lot of projectors out there on the market, each with its own set of features and capabilities. Those specifics aren't always understandable to the average person. What do you do if you'd like to buy a video projector, but aren't an AV expert? Here's what you need to know to make the purchase without becoming a tech specialist.

Every home theater is unique, so be sure to talk to a projector expert about your specific space if you still have questions after reading this guide. Small elements of your home theater room may affect your purchase decision. However, you can learn enough to sort things out in a very short period of time. Let's look at some of the questions you should ask.

How Bright?

Projectors come in different brightnesses, ranging from 700 to 2000 lumens for most home projectors. Dedicated home theaters, with no ambient light and carefully controlled artificial lighting, won't need a really bright projector. If you're planning to use the projector in a room with windows or one that's open to the rest of the house, however, you may need a much higher brightness. Dedicated home theaters usually use around a thousand lumens, while rooms with just a little ambient light use around 1200 lumens. If your room has a lot of ambient light entering, go for the brightest projector you can afford. Be aware that most projectors are rated for brightness according to data output, rather than video output. Video output is often a little dimmer than data.

What Image Quality?

There are three big factors to think about when you're trying to choose based on image quality. These are the native resolution of the projector, the quality of the source material, and the uniformity of brightness. The most common current resolutions are WVGA, or 960x540 pixels, and WXGA-H, or 1280x720. The larger the number of pixels available, the sharper your image can be, and the more compatible with high definition video your projector will be. If you mostly use a DVD player, however, you may not benefit from a high resolution projector, since you cannot get a better picture than your video source provides.

In fact, what you're watching makes a huge difference in picture quality. If your projector is processing a low quality signal, it's going to come out looking low quality. This can be pretty noticeable on a large screen, so try to use the highest quality source you can. Match the native resolution of the source material, if at all possible.

Think about brightness uniformity, as well. This refers to how much brightness is carried from one corner or edge to the other in the image. Some projectors end up having bright middles and dark edges - not the best situation. Higher uniformity ratings mean that your image will be more consistent looking. Want a good projector? Look for at least an eighty-five percent uniformity rating. It will be worth it.

Connections and Clarity

You will also need to think about your connectors. Compatibility and connectivity issues can have a lot to do with getting a clear, sharp image. Fortunately, projectors made for home theater use usually have more than one video input options. Look for projectors that include an HDMI or DVI connection, plus at least one input that is component video. Most projectors will also have an older composite connector and an S-video connection. If you can, use the S-video cable over the composite. It will provide better quality. Only use composite video when it's the only connector your equipment will take.

What About Lamp Life?

There are a number of different types of projector lamps, but the main types are LCD and DLP. These usually have a two thousand to four thousand hour lamp half-life. That's when the lamp is only half as bright as it was when you bought it. The longer the lamp life, the less expensive your projector maintenance ends up being. If you're planning to use the projector to replace your television, assume that you're going to need to buy a new lamp at some point. If you will only use your projector occasionally, it might be much longer before you need to replace the lamp. Replacement costs usually run in the two to four hundred dollar range.

If you decide to buy a spare lamp with your projector, run it in your projector for a few hours before you put it in storage. That's because faulty lamps usually fail in the first four to ten hours, and the warranty starts when you buy the lamp, not when you use it. If you need to take advantage of that warranty, it is best to do it right away. Store lamps in cool, dark locations to keep them in the best condition.

Ease of Use

You'll also want to look for features that'll make your projector easier to use. These should include intuitive menus for color adjustment, broadcast type, and video source switching. It's also a good idea to get a full function remote control to keep you from having to get up a lot. Consider looking for lamps that have lens shift and a relatively wide zoom range, as well. These are much easier to install.

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