What the best portable digital projector has

  • High brightness rating. Brightness should be a key concern when shopping for a business projector. While projectors for a large auditorium might have a rating of 2,500 or 3,500 lumens, portable digital projectors have ratings that are far lower -- sometimes as low as 20 lumens in the case of pico projectors. The best pico projectors top out at around 100 lumens, but be aware that brightness can drop if you run the projector from battery power rather than an AC adapter. A larger LED projector with an output of 200 to 500 lumens is fine for a presentation to a small group. For larger gatherings, experts say 1,500-lumen projectors are suitable for use in small conference rooms.
  • High contrast ratio. Experts say a contrast ratio of 400:1 should be adequate for digital projectors geared toward business use. Manufacturer specs are often very different from tested results, partly because of vague standards for measurements.
  • Short throw. If you'll need to show presentations in tight spaces, consider a projector that has a short "throw." The shorter the throw, the closer you can place the projector to the screen without creating artifacts or distorting image quality. This can be handy if you're traveling to unfamiliar conference rooms and have to set the projector up in a small or awkward place.
  • Robust connectivity. VGA connectors are a minimum requirement for an analog connection to a laptop. DVI connectors are digital for improved signal quality. HDMI is similar, but also carries audio and is HDCP-compliant so it can accept a copy-protected HD video signal from a Blu-ray Disc player. Analog video connections (for use with a DVD player, for example) could include composite (good), S-video (better) or component (best).
  • Good warranty. Most digital projectors don't often come with lengthy warranties -- usually one or two years -- though some offer as long as five years. These typically only cover parts and labor; warranties for standard lamps and accessories are usually much shorter -- often 90 days. LED projectors usually don't carry a separate, shorter warranty for the lamp since the light source is rated to last as long as the expected life span of the projector.

Know before you go

What about resolution? Digital projectors come in a variety of resolutions and aspect ratios. Native resolution measures the sharpness of the projected image and refers to a projector's true resolution without compressing the number of pixels (compression degrades image quality). SVGA (800 pixels by 600 pixels) and XGA (1,024 pixels by 768 pixels) digital projectors display images in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Some projectors, notably pico projectors, display images at VGA resolutions (640 pixels by 480 pixels) in a 4:3 aspect ratio.

Many portable digital projectors are widescreen models. These digital projectors are offered in a number of native resolutions. Projectors with WVGA resolution (854 pixels by 480 pixels) match the full resolution of DVD movies, so you get every ounce of a DVD's image quality. WVGA is loosely defined "standard" that also includes resolutions of 800 pixels by 400 pixels as well as 848 pixels by 480 pixels. In fact, any display that's wider than VGA can be classified as WVGA.

Some widescreen business projectors have WXGA resolution. WXGA is another non-standard standard that includes several different resolutions. For business projectors, 1,280 pixels by 800 pixels is a popular WXGA resolution since it matches that of many 14- and 15-inch laptop displays. That resolution can also display widescreen, high-definition images of 1,280 pixels by 720 pixels or 1,024 pixels by 768 pixels without cropping or scaling.

Consider lamp replacement expense in your long-term cost. Conventional digital projectors use lamps that must be replaced periodically. Average lamp life is between 2,000 and 4,000 hours, and replacement lamps aren't cheap. Some cost $300 and up. A few models of office projectors have long-life lamps rated to last longer. Although business projectors typically have warranties of a few years, most lamps are covered under separate warranties -- usually only for 90 days. If you don't want to hassle with replacing lamps, consider a projector that uses an LED light source. Many of these are rated to last 20,000 to 30,000 hours and should survive the life of the projector without needing replacement.

Will you need cables, speakers or a remote control? A projector's built-in speakers are usually unremarkable, but most projectors include audio ports so you can connect to an external sound system or powered speakers. Most projectors include basic cables, but some will leave out pricier options, such as an HDMI cable. Most projectors include remote controls; these can be either easy or difficult to operate depending on the model.

Use a projection screen for the best images. Projected images typically look best against a screen, though a light-colored wall will suffice, too. Decide if it's worth buying a screen and if you want to lug one around with you.

What about Rainbow Effect? All projectors that use DLP technology are prone to an artifact known as the Rainbow Effect, in that flashes of color are seen when a white object moves quickly across a dark background. The effect can only be seen by a small percentage of people, and a smaller percentage still is excessively bothered by it -- though some are bothered to the point where an image becomes unwatchable.

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