So you’ve decided to upgrade your living room or basement to a real home theater, complete with a projector. Excellent decision. Modern projectors are bright, easy to use, and offer an image many times the size of a lowly , no matter whether you chose an affordable model or a top of the line .
The downside is that projectors require a dark room to look their best, and need more setup and adjustment than your average TV. From blackout shades to placement options to settings, little changes can make a big difference in the image quality.
As someone who has used a projector as his main “TV” for over 15 years, not to mention reviewing them professionally even longer, I’ve setup countless projectors. Seriously, I tried counting. I stopped at “a lot.”
From start to sofa, here’s what you need to know about setting up your new projector.
1. Unbox everything
On several occasions I’ve got a projector up and running, only to have hidden Wi-Fi adapter , and more. It’s also worth taking the time to make sure you’ve removed all the protective film. It’s significantly easier to do anything physical with the projector now compared to when it’s placed or mounted., a
If you’re going to sit the projector on a stand or table, it’s also worth checking which of its feet are adjustable. With most projectors only some of the feet screw in and out, which might make getting the image adjusted correctly a bit of a challenge.
If your projector has multiple HDMI inputs, figure out which ones accept the video you want to send. If the rest of your system is 4K compatible, for instance, double check which input can handle that. With many projectors, only one is and ready for all kinds of 4K, for example.
2. Perfect your placement
The vast majority of inexpensive projectors lack a feature known as lens shift. This means they need to have very specific placement relative to the screen, often in line with the top or bottom of the screen. Sometimes the throw angle is even greater, meaning it needs to be below, or above, the edge of the screen.
This is counter-intuitive, as you might assume you need to place the projector in line with the center of the screen. This is almost never the case with inexpensive DLP projectors, and usually not the case with inexpensive LCD projectors either. Higher-end LCOS projectors, like those from Sony and JVC, typically have lens shift that allows for a greater range of vertical placement options.
Next is the distance from the screen. Most projectors, other than the short-throw variety, can usually fit a 100-inch screen from a distance of about 10-feet. This can vary, though, and it’s important to verify before you start drilling holes in your ceiling. The zoom range with most projectors is also fairly limited, meaning you’ll only have a few feet of “sweet spot” to fill a specific-sized screen. This info is almost always on the manufacturer’s website for your projector, or in the owner’s manual.
If you’re planning on mounting your PJ, make sure you. The last thing you want is to have the projector drop to the floor in the middle of a movie, ripping out half the ceiling with it.
Related, if you’re planning on running the HDMI cable through the ceiling/walls, check local building codes. Many municipalities require either specific in-wall-rated cables, conduit, or both.
If you’re going the wireless route, make sure there’s easy line-of-sight between the transmitter and the receiver. Most wireless HDMI options don’t require line-of-sight, but every layer you place between a transmitter and receiver, the possibility of signal loss goes up. I’ve also tested some wireless options that lost signal when I walked between the transmitter and receiver. If your transmitter is in the back of a cabinet somewhere, beware.
One last piece of placement advice: If you can avoid it, don’t use the built-in keystone adjustment. This is a feature designed to correct a particular placement issue. When your projector isn’t in the center (horizontally) of the screen, or is too high or too low, the image it projects won’t be perfectly rectangular, it will be a trapezoid. A little bit of imperfection is fine, since it will probably be unnoticeable from a normal seating distance. Too much, however, and you’ll have image bleed and a weird shape that could be distracting.
The keystone adjustment built makes the image rectangular electronically. Don’t do it. Not only does keystone adjustment lower the resolution of the image, since you’re no longer using the entire image-creating chip or chips, but also adds a new layer of video processing that can add quality-reducing artifacts on its own. Or to put it another way, using keystone adjustments on any projector will reduce the image quality of the projector, full stop.
Take the time to find the horizontal center of the screen, and match that up with the center of the lens of the projector (not necessarily the center of the projector itself). Adjust the height using a stand or mount, not by tilting the projector. That way you’ll get it as flat and level as possible without having to use keystone.
3. Mind your heat management
A crucial consideration that ties in with placement is adequate airflow. Projectors are basically space heaters. They throw out a seemingly equal amount of heat and light. If the airflow isn’t adequate, the projector could overheat and shut down, you could significantly reduce the life of the lamp, and theoretically start a fire. The latter isn’t too likely, but this isn’t something to take for granted.
Professional installers build fan-vented cabinets for projectors. If you’re not sure how to do this yourself, perhaps don’t risk it and leave the projector in the open.
The other side of this is if you’re planning on putting the projector behind your sofa, chances are there’s going to be at least one “hot seat,” with the main fan belching hot air at someone’s head. In the winter this could be quite cozy. In the summer, not so much. Different projectors have different fan designs, so it’s hard to say the best way to handle this. Most of the projectors I’ve reviewed for CNET recently have fans on the front and sides. Most of these you can see in the pictures.
4. Lessen ambient light
Any light in a room that’s not created by the projector is going to reduce image quality. Even if you have a fancy light-rejecting screen, ambient light is bad and you’re going to want to do everything you can to reduce it.
The biggest culprit is the sun. If you’re planning on watching TV during the day, you’re going to need to cut down the light in the room. Even if your projector does OK during the day when you buy it, the lamp is only going to get dimmer over time. In a few years, you’re going to need to buy curtains to see anything, so you might as well get them now. If your spouse doesn’t like the look of blackout curtains, any heavy curtains or shades will help. If you’re watching a lot of content during the day, a projector might not be the best primary option anyway. So for those occasional mid-day movie marathons, sporting events, etc, anything that cuts down the glare should work.
Even expensive projectors leak light somewhere other than where you want it. With inexpensive projectors, this is often a squarish halo of light spilled around the screen. There’s not much you can easily do about it, and it’s quite common. It’s why most theaters have the area around the screen painted black.
5. Dial in focus
Most projectors have manual focus adjustments, either using a wheel attached to the lens, or motorized. Once in a while you’ll find one. There are pros and cons to each of the main types, and how best to achieve the sharpest focus possible.
With both options, I find it best to use a bright image, or the bright part of an image. Barring that, you can bring up the user menu, and use that. These will typically have bright lettering on a dark background, which should help.
With a motorized focus, stand up at the screen and slowly adjust until you can see the individual pixels. It’s possible they’ll be too small to see, depending on the size of your screen, the resolution of the projector, and your eyesight. You should be able to make out the darker outlines however. Adjust the best you can, but ideally each pixel will be obvious when you’re standing at the screen. Sometimes, even with high-end projectors, the adjustments will be too coarse to get perfect. Don’t stress about it. As long as you’re close it should look fine when you’re seated. If your projector is on a stand, you could experiment with moving nudging it backwards a fraction of an inch, if the focus is in between one if its steps.
With analog, manual adjustments, you’re actually more likely to get perfect focus as there are typically no “steps” to the adjustments, just a smooth analog rotation of the focus wheel. I’ve reviewed a few projectors that have focus wheels that stick, or don’t move smoothly. The technical term for this is “annoying.” The main issue with this type of focusing method is that you’re standing at the projector, and the screen is on the other side of the room. If you can’t make out the pixels at all from where you’re standing, enlisting a hapless, well-sighted aide will work. I believe this is the main reason people have children.
I once used binoculars to get the focus correct on a particularly long-throw, high-resolution projector, but I doubt most of you will need to resort to this, not least because you’ll look as ridiculous as I did.
If you have a three-chip projector, either, it’s also possible each chip isn’t precisely aligned. This might appear like a focus issue, with an inability to distinguish individual pixels. It could look like each pixel has an edge that’s a specific color. If the red panel is misaligned, each pixel might have a red edge. These projectors usually have adjustments for to align the panels in their menus.
Depending on the projector, it’s possible not every part of the image will be in focus at the same time — that’s one downside to low-cost lenses. As you can see in the image of the menu in the next section, there are some halos around the letters. That’s another side-effect of low-price optics.
6. Use the right setting
Every projector is going to have slightly different settings but there are a few that are fairly universal. Like TVs most have picture mode settings like Sports, Movies or Vivid. Usually the one called something like Movie, Cinema or Theater will deliver the best, most accurate picture.
The most important settings specific to projectors have to do with the lamp. Inside most projectors is some kind of superbright light bulb, called a lamp. A handful of projectors use LEDs or lasers , but these are less common for home theater projectors.
Remember the adage “a candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long”? Well that, basically, with your projector’s lamp. While the projector might look its best on it brightest lamp setting, it’s not going to last as long as it would in a dimmer setting. Most current projectors are rated to last 4-5,000 hours on their normal lamp setting, which is several years if you’re watching 4 hours a day. If the price of a lamp replacement, usually over $100, doesn’t seem like a big deal, go ahead and run it full bore. Why not?
If you have a smaller screen, only watch at night, or want to save some money in the long run, you can dial back the brightness. Often this is called Eco mode, but the change will be very noticeable regardless what it’s called on your projector. Dimmer lamp modes are usually quieter as well, as the fans don’t have to work as hard.
There’s also commonly a dynamic brightness mode that runs the lamp at 100% during bright scenes, and then makes it dimmer during darker scenes. Usually this mode offers even longer lamp life, but this ramping up and down of the light might be visible. With some projectors the fans getting faster and slower is noticeable as well.
Some projectors have an automatic iris. This works similarly to the dynamic brightness mode, but the lamp doesn’t change. Instead, a mechanical iris dims the image during dark scenes. How well these work varies greatly. Some people don’t mind them, others find it annoying. There isn’t as much of a payoff, however, like the longer lamp life of the dynamic brightness lamp mode.
7) Upgrade your sound
Don’t expect to use the speaker built-into the projector. It’s like buying a Porsche and putting on tires from a wheelbarrow. The sound just won’t match the grand picture.
The cheapest alternative is getting a descent speaker, and connecting via an analog cable. Some projectors have Bluetooth, as do Roku and Amazon Fire ($42 at eBay) Sticks which you can connect to directly, but Bluetooth has a lag that manifests as a . Not ideal for long-term use. Go analog if you can.
Better would be a soundbar or with speakers. Connect these all with HDMI for a real home theater experience.
8) Projector practices potpurri
Now that you’ve got everything set up and running, there are a few “best practices” to keep in mind with a projector that are different from a TV. They all center around the lamp.
A traditional UHP projector lamp is a fragile thing. Electricity sparks across two electrodes. This creates the light you see. Over time, the electrodes degrade, sort of like how a candle’s wick burns away. Eventually, they’ll be too far apart for the arc to form, and the lamp is dead. No picture for you.
The biggest shock to these poor little electrodes actually occurs when you first turn on the projector. Leaving it running, on the other hand, isn’t as punishing.
In another counter-intuitive aspect of projector ownership, you’re better off leaving it on instead of turning it on and off multiple times in a row. There’s no hard rule, but multiple restarts in a single night is bad for lamp life. Leaving it on might be better. For what it’s worth, since I use my projector as the main “TV” in my home, it runs for many hours every night. I routinely get many, many more hours out of a lamp than its rated.
How strict you want to be with this is up to you because, like I said, there’s no hard rule. I’d generally say if the projector is still warm when you want to use it again, you shouldn’t have turned it off in the first place. Turn it off when you’re done, of course. Don’t sweat it if you accidentally turn it off and then want to watch one more episode. If you’re doing that every night, that’s not great. Just something to keep in mind, and the minds of anyone else who uses the projector.
Also, never ever unplug a projector when it’s on, or even when it’s off and cooling down. Most projectors will run their fans for a few minutes to gently cool down the lamp. Pulling the plug doesn’t allow this gentle cooldown and is also bad for the lamp.
Of course you’re going to need a new lamp eventually. Depending on the projector, your settings and how you use it, this will be a few years away on the short side, perhaps many years away on the long side. This is just the cost of ownership, like owning a disposable razor or getting an oil change in your car. For the most part, lamps aren’t outrageously expensive compared to the price of the projector. This isn’t printer ink.
Though finding what lamp your projector needs isn’t hard, it might be worth writing the exact model and writing it somewhere you won’t lose. On the bottom of the projector maybe.
As tempting as it is to find a cheap “knock-off” lamp to save some money, beware. If you find a lamp that’s significantly cheaper than the rest, it’s probably for a reason. They might not perform as well as the real thing. One friend who also uses a projector full-time replaced his old and dim lamp for a cheap no-name version. I measured the brightness of the many-thousand-hour old lamp, then measured the brightness of the brand new zero-hour lamp. The new lamp was actually dimmer than the worn-out old one. Yeah, that’s not great.
If possible, buy the lamp through the projector manufacturer’s website, or via retailers they recommend. Sometimes that’s not possible, in which case use your best judgement. If all the options for your lamp are $150 on Amazon, and a random website has one for $60, I’d avoid the $60 option.