There aren’t a lot of home activities that compare to the fun of movie night. There remains something magical about screening a film on a larger projector. Sadly for some, the days of 16mm film projectors at home are largely gone. While it was uniquely wonderful to handle real film and watch light project through it to create moving shadows on the wall, that had its drawbacks, too. And now even the vast majority of movie theaters have converted to digital projection, rather than film.
These days you can now find a world of digital projectors that offer fairly good deals in terms of visual clarity and cost.
You want a projector that offers good resolution, quality for its price, and makes it easy to input from your media device. You may want a projector for home, school, or business presentations. The conditions for which you want to use it will make a difference to your projector decision, as well.
So, to get started, there are three main types of projectors: lamp, laser, and light-emitting diodes (LED). But which of these projector types is right for you?
Lamp vs. Laser vs. LED Projectors: Understanding the Differences
Every projector needs a light source in order to project an image on a screen. As this article points out, the brighter the light source, the better it will be at projecting in a room that’s not 100% pitch black, which is likely to be the case if you’re projecting a movie at home, school, or church.
The light source is beamed through a lens, which focuses the image and enlarges it onto a screen. You’re looking for an image that is as bright, clear, and vivid as possible measurable in real quantifiable terms, that is, ANSI lumens. But you likely also have a budget to stick to, as well as an idea of how often you’re going to use your projector.
Broadly speaking, these are the differences between these three popular types of projector:
- Lamp projectors are the oldest and most classic technology of these three options. They work as you’d expect, with bulbs you need to replace periodically. Lamp bulbs are easy to source, though, and can last for up to 4,000 hours. Lamp projectors may be lacking in brightness compared to the other two options.
- Laser projectors rely on the power of laser beams. “Laser” is in fact an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” and their ability to project concentrated beams of light. The beam is extremely focused, and so may result in an image of greater vividness and clarity. Lasers are also capable of producing greater brightness than lamp bulbs, and their technology means you never have to replace a bulb.
- LED projectors use light-emitting diodes to produce their image. You may have LED bulbs at home, so you know they last longer than regular bulbs and consume less power. They produce nice, clean colors, but not as bright an overall image as lasers. They are, however, very energy efficient, the reason for their increasing ubiquity in other home contexts.
How Does Lamp Projection Work?
Lamp projection works by lighting up pressurized gases (sometimes mercury) when they are charged with electric current. This produces a light just like the light bulbs you use at home, albeit brighter, that’s then filtered through a color wheel or projected off a digital imaging chip.
Tiny mirrors keep shifting according to the video data they’re receiving, splitting the white light from the bulb into colors, which results in a projected color image. Your eye combines the pulses of color that are transmitted by the projector, resulting in a coherent image. You can read more specifics on two common kinds of lamp projectors, DLP and LCD, here.
Lamp-based projectors can produce an image of roughly 2000 ANSI lumens.
The Advantages of Lamp Projectors
Reasonable Costs Upfront
Lamp-based projectors are affordable. On Amazon, you can find models for sale for under $100. One well-regarded model, the Epson EX3280 3-Chip 3LCD XGA Projector offers brightness of 3500 lumens and sells for $499.99 on Amazon. A higher end lamp-based projector, the Optoma UHD35 True 4K Gaming Projector sells on Amazon for $1348; 4K refers to the horizontal resoultion of ~4000 pixels that provide a very sharp image quality, although projectors may not always offer the sharpness that the image capture technology has employed.
You will have to replace bulbs at some point, but these are easy to find and also quite inexpensive. It can be worth buying bulbs that come from the same brand as your projector, just to ensure compatibility. As a reference point, Epson sells some replacement lamp bulb models for $50.
Great for Occasional Usage
The main issue with lamp-based projectors is that bulbs can burn out. But if you don’t overuse the bulb — you use your projector sparingly, like once a month — then lamp-based projectors may be a good option for you.
Some businesses like lamp-based projectors because, for example, they are reliable for the occasional short business presentation in a small boardroom, for which the world’s greatest resolution and brightness just aren’t necessary.
The Disadvantages of Lamp-Based Models
Lamp-based projectors also present some downsides.
Short Lamp Life and Consistent Need for Replacement Lamps
It can, quite simply, be a pain to keep buying replacement bulbs. If you use your lamp-based projector more regularly, this can be an expense, but also a substantial investment of your time. Additionally, it can be a drag worrying that your bulb could blow out in the middle of a screening. Brighter light from your bulb means faster burnout.
Some are also concerned about having mercury vapor bulbs around their house, especially if you have kids running around. You can read more on everything you need to know about bulb replacement here.
Typically Lower Life Expectancy of Projector
Lamp-based projectors land in a range of possible life expectancies, ranging from 1,000 hours to 5,000 hours. Many fall in the middle at around 2,000 hours. They are an older technology and while they tend to be reliable, they are more mechanical than other projector options and so more apt to break down.
Unfortunately, exactly how long your projector’s going to last can be unpredictable; it really depends how many hours a week you’re going to use it. If you don’t project a lot, you can stretch those hours. But if you’re looking to screen a few movies a week, your countdown to using up your projector can accelerate. Lamp-based projectors also can generate a lot of heat, as well as requiring you to clean filters from dust.
The Right Scenarios for Installing a Projector Lamp
If you’re looking for a lamp that’s affordable and provides a nice, clear image — so long as you don’t intend to use it too much — a lamp-based projector is a good choice for you.
The classic scenario for buying a lamp-based projector is for home screenings of occasional movies. If you don’t use it more than once a week, your lamp projector can expect to have a nice long lifespan, and it has obvious cost advantages.
Because lamp-based projectors are less bright than laser projectors they work better for indoor screenings than outdoor ones, in which they may end up with a slightly washed-out image.
If you’re looking for a projector in a small conference room for the occasional business presentation to a small group of attendees, a lamp-based projector could be a good choice, too.
And finally, if your main concern is to find a lower-budget option and you’re not too worried about issues like scattered light, a lamp-based projector is your best bet. You could certainly use it for home gameplay. And one helpful, if obvious, tip is that lamp-based projectors will give you a better image if you focus and position the projector to give you a smaller image, so they’re best if you have a modest screen size.
Laser projectors, as lamp-free projectors, represent something of a technological step forward. They come with a matching price hike: One of the more affordable models on Amazon, the Epson EF-100 Smart Streaming Laser Projector, is currently on sale for $499. After that, prices only go up, and the LG HU810PW 4K UHD Smart Dual Laser CineBeam Projector is on sale right now for $2417.99, down from list price of $2999.99.
So why do laser projectors cost more? Laser projectors generally offer better brightness and a better color and tonal range than traditional lamp-based projectors, referred to as “color gamut.” Blacks tend to be richer and whites brighter, giving you more of an enveloping home theater experience.
How Does Laser-Based Projection Work?
Laser projectors use three laser beams — one each for red, blue, and yellow — to create their image. They can also use banks of laser diodes. These can be incredibly bright, offering levels of 3500+ ANSI lumens. Because they use a more concentrated beam of light than lamps, they can be more energy-efficient than lamp-based projectors, and generate less heat.
Lasers are not actually projected at the screen; rather, the laser provides the source of light that is reflected off some kind of imaging chip, which gives you your image.
The Advantages of Laser Projection
Users of laser projectors tend to marvel at the crispness of the image, the brightness, and the range of color tonalities they provide. Projecting a black and white movie with a laser projector gives you lovely, rich contrast and sharpness.
Additionally, laser projectors feature the following pluses:
Laser Technology Is Very Advanced
While lamps generate heat, and so require a noisy fan, laser technology is a lot quieter and cooler. Laser projectors are silent and boot up immediately. The laser image tends to be superior to that provided by a lamp-based projector, with less chance of “bleeding” around the edges. There are constant advances in laser technology — for example, dual lasers or different configurations of lasers and chips — which are allowing for smaller and even more affordable units.
Less Ongoing Maintenance Costs
Laser projectors don’t require replacement bulbs, and they can last — for 20,000 hours or more. They may also save you on electricity bills, as they consume power in a far more focused and efficient manner.
The Disadvantages of Laser Projectors
Laser projector technology is always improving, but no technology is perfect, and laser projectors, too, have drawbacks.
More Expensive Upfront
The biggest drawback to a laser projector is its upfront cost. Laser projectors are high-end projectors. They may save you money over time compared with needing to buy new replacement bulbs. But spending thousands of dollars is still a significant outlay for most.
Not Always Best for Consumers
Because of the expense, laser projectors are not always the best choice for consumers. Then again, home movie aficionados may not need the world’s sharpest image to enjoy a fun popcorn and movie night at home.
It depends on your needs. If you’re just looking for a serviceable, short-throw projector — for example, not too far away from your screen, which some use as a replacement for a TV — you definitely don’t need a high-end laser projector.
When to Invest in a Laser Model
If image quality matters to you and budget isn’t a consideration, consider investing in a laser model.
Laser models are great as commercial projectors, or ideal for home movie theaters that seek to replicate the home cinema experience as closely as possible. While a laser model is an investment, laser projectors will last for 20,000+ hours, so they may also be a more sustainable option if that’s your main consideration.
If you’re a large business looking to wow with the slickness of your presentations, laser projectors can help you project video that’s crisp and bright. And if you’re an artist who needs a reliable image for an installation, laser models are the right choice, too.
LED projectors represent something of a midpoint between lamp-based projectors and laser ones.
How Does LED Projection Work?
LED projectors use a mix of colored LED bulbs (red, blue and yellow) that are then filtered through a lens to create an image.
The Advantages of LED Projectors
There are many advantages to LED projectors. LEDs are environmentally friendly and do away with some of the pitfalls of lamp-based projectors, like the potential messiness of their projection and potential rainbow effect at the margins of the image. Interestingly, only LED projectors are immune to this pitfall of the three kinds surveyed here.
Additionally, the precision of these tiny LEDs makes nice, bright colors possible. But LED projectors offer further pluses.
Rarely Overheats and Stays Cool Due To Efficient LED Bulbs
LEDs consume less power than classic incandescent bulbs, and are more energy-efficient. That means that LED projectors don’t require a fan to cool them down, because they simply stay cool on their own. In fact, the U.S. Government’s Energy Conservation site calls LEDs, “Today’s most energy-efficient and rapidly-developing lighting technology,” noting that quality LED light bulbs “last longer, are more durable, and offer comparable or better light quality than other types of lighting.”
LEDs create light in a focused manner, allowing for a quality image while also consuming a lot less power than lamp-based projectors.
Compact Design and Portable Size
The diminutive size of LEDs means that LED projectors can be very compact and small. For example, the Kodak Ultra Mini Portable Projector, only $179.99 on Amazon, fits in the palm of your hand. The Meer Mini Projector (though not quite as highly rated) sells on Amazon for $54.99.
If you have a small space at home or are running an office where you need to maximize every square inch of office space or have to make presentations on the road, a high-quality projector that’s only about as big as a deck of cards can be very appealing. And the chance to have a movie night while you’re camping may make up for the slightly less-than-perfect image quality and brightness in these tiny models.
Even the slightly larger models are compact and sleek, like the Yaber Buffalo Pro U9 Native Entertainment LCD Projector, which Best Buy sells for $249.99, offers high resolution, lasts for 25,000 hours, and offers digital keystone correction. This means your image won’t be skewed, but will autocorrect so as not to distort the image if the angle of your projector placement is slightly off for the screen.
The Disadvantages of LED Projectors
Limited Light Output
The aspects of LED projectors that make them so appealing as portable projectors — their size and compactness — admittedly can also limit the brightness of their picture. They offer sharper images than lamp-based projectors, but still have a ceiling of about 2000 lumens. The smaller versions mentioned above max out around 200 or 300 lumens. That means you may have to use them in well-darkened rooms or, if you’re traveling, just be willing to take the tradeoff of portability for image quality.
More Expensive Than Lamp Projectors
Other than the palm-sized example above, LED projectors can be more expensive than lamp-based ones. Best Buy sells the LG PF50KA Wireless Smart DLP Portable Projector for $576.99. Far less expensive than laser projectors, these are still a greater investment than the lamp-based projectors you can find for under $100.
Usage Cases for LED Models
Palm-sized or mini LED projectors can be great for gaming or kids’ movie nights, where the audience’s passion and excitement may override the need for a laser-quality image. You could use them for outdoor screening in backyards — indeed, any time you need a portable projector, consider an LED model. If your budget is slightly larger than the basic lamp-based projector, LED models represent a great compromise, too. And LED models involve far less maintenance than lamp-based models, as the bulbs really do last for many thousands of hours.
The aforementioned LG PF50KA is a great example of a model that marries excellent image quality with small size, and it’s easy to imagine using it instead of a TV to project movies and streaming content on your wall.
LED projectors could also offer an upgrade as educational projectors for schools or churches that want to project films in small, less-than-dark rooms. They offer better image quality than lamp-based projectors, and you can feel better about their environmental impact, as well as their hour life.
Find a Projector That’s Right for Your Budget and Context
Hopefully, you’re excited about the possibilities available thanks to the world of digital projection. There are other considerations you can read about when you’re looking to buy a projector, including:
- Aspect ratio: Does the projector create an image that’s more square or widescreen; common formats include 16:9, 4:3, and 1:1.85.
- Throw ratio: The image size you can project from a certain distance from the screen.
- Mounting and set-up ease: If you are interested in installing a permanent projector, you want to make sure your home can support it. For a less permanent installation, you also want to make sure that your media system and speakers are compatible with your projector, and that it can support HDMI connection, wifi, USB, or some other format.
But the biggest choice you’ll make is lamp-based, laser, or LED. To sum up, lamp-based projectors are generally the most inexpensive projectors, LED projectors tend to be in the mid-range of budget but offer sharper image and more sustainability, and laser projectors are the top end of price and image quality. Whichever you choose, happy viewing!