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What to Expect When You’re Projecting

Dealing with the “ins” and “outs” of finding the right projector

Buying a projector is a major investment. Before spending a dime, there are many factors to consider, but which are the most important? With all the different aspect ratios and resolutions, there is a lot of information to consider to make sure that the projector(s) you purchase best suit your needs.

This article is aimed at helping you to sift through the numbers, acronyms, and technical jargon, and to isolate the key components of your ideal projection system. Always remember, however, that there is no substitute for actually comparing projectors head-to-head. Your congregation doesn’t care what the specs are; they only care about being able to see what’s on the screen.

“Contrast”ing Opinions
Two of the most commonly referenced projector specs are brightness and contrast. A rule of thumb to remember is that the more control you have over the amount of light coming into the room, the less vital the brightness is. In a room where there are large windows letting in lots of daylight, contrast becomes much less relevant, and you should look for a bright projector to ensure that the images can still be seen despite the ambient light. The size of the screen, size of the room and the location of the projector will be the major factors that determine the amount of brightness you will need from a projector in order to display your message clearly.

In most houses of worship, the lights are not turned off during the service, so contrast ratio is not really something that you should put too much emphasis on. Home theater projectors— which are sometimes used in houses of worship needing a widescreen solution— are manufactured for use in rooms where the projector is the only source of light. For this reason, home theater projectors tend to be rated according to higher contrast ratios. Once you turn the lights on, however, the contrast drops significantly. This is because a projector that has very good contrast in a dark environment will perform very poorly in an environment with ambient light. For this reason, home theater projectors are not a good fit for most worship services. An even balance of contrast and brightness is good, but the brightness is what will ultimately determine whether or not someone in the back row will be able to see your images.

Resolution Solutions
Another popular talking point for assessing the quality of projectors is resolution. With so many formats and acronyms, this is one of the easiest places to get confused. While a large portion of the market currently is using XGA projectors, they are not the best choice for displaying the sharpness of multimedia content.

When you need to display a lot of text (such as lyrics or scripture), a higher resolution projector is preferred, especially if you want to show more text at a larger screen size, or display images along with the text. If you use a low-resolution product, you’re going to end up with a lot of artifacts in the text, and/or a very limited amount of space in your display area. You have only a certain number of lines of pixels with a lower-resolution projector, so there’s only so much text, pictures, or lyrics that you can show without distortion. If you go for an SXGA+ or higher resolution projector, it’s almost like you’re using a bigger “canvas” to “paint” on, so you can put more things into the displays, giving you more flexibility, content-wise, to show multimedia content along with text.

Unless you are going to be setting up in a small (meeting room-sized) space, the lowest resolution that you should look for in a 4:3 (aspect ratio) projector is SXGA+ (1400 x 1050). In a widescreen (16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio) projector, you want to be at least at WSXGA+ (1680 x 1050) or WUXGA (1900 x 1200) resolution. A good solution for those who are slowly transitioning to widescreen display, but still have a 4:3 projection screen, is to get an SXGA+ projector, which can also display widescreen images at WXGA (1366 x 768) resolution without distortion. If you are looking to future-proof yourself, and want to have the ability to show widescreen HD content on your 4:3 screen, an SXGA+ projector will essentially allow you to have two projectors in one.

As the trend toward widescreen projectors continues to grow, laptop manufacturers will continue to promote widescreen laptops to try and match consumer assumptions that a widescreen image means a higher resolution. But this is not the case; a widescreen image doesn’t automatically mean that the resolution is a higher quality than a standard, 4:3 image. Look at the number of pixels, instead of assuming that the widened aspect ratio will improve your image.

The Emergence of Widescreen
As widescreen televisions have found their way into an increasing number of homes, the demand for widescreen content has also risen. Widescreen laptops and widescreen projectors have increased their respective market shares as a result. A great misconception is that widescreen computer screens have the same aspect ratio as a widescreen television.

Widescreen TV sets have an aspect ratio of 16:9, while widescreen computers have an even larger 16:10 screen. This is another reason why a home theater projector should not be repurposed for a house of worship. If you were to use a home theater projector for displaying a PowerPoint or computer graphics, the image would be distorted because the computer is outputting 16:10 while the projector only outputs 16:9. What’s happening in the marketplace right now is that there are two simultaneous trends: the push to go widescreen, and the push for higher-resolution (WSXGA+ or WUXGA) widescreen. Many of the newest models of popular computers provide WUXGA resolution, and it seems to be where the market will be heading. Because there are only a handful of WUXGA projectors on the market right now, you have to make sure you get a projector that’s an exact match of your computer’s resolution.

With a 16:10 projector, you have the ability to match the output of your computer without sacrificing image quality, and still be able to display 16:9 HD video content. With the video, there will be very narrow bars at the top and bottom of the screen to account for the ratio difference, but the image will be shown in its entirety without distortion, as opposed to trying to use a 16:9 home theater projector to display 16:10 computer content.

Even with your newly acquired arsenal of projector knowledge, there is no substitute for observation. A projector with the most sophisticated internal technology can display an inferior image if it is equipped with low-grade lens, for example. The lens is an often-overlooked quality of a projector, even though it is the heart and soul of the image. Do not underestimate the importance of high-quality optics on your projector.

There’s a lot more to consider in looking at an image than just looking at specs on a piece of paper. I strongly suggest, if you have the chance, having a “shoot out” to be able to compare multiple projectors at once. Go to an integrated dealer that has several products that you can see side-by-side, rather than just reading the specs on paper.

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