When it comes to big-screen pictures, nothing delivers better value than a projector. Thomas Bartlett compares four sub-$3,000 jobbies and a wildcard full HD model.

The prices of all displays are plummeting. The average quality of displays is improving. There has never been a better time to purchase a high quality display for your home theatre system.

But there are limits, even with reduced prices, to how much a family can afford. Fortunately, you can obtain a truly high quality display with a massive screen size for well under $3,000… or a little over if you purchase a good quality projection screen as well.

That is thanks to the enormous competition between the manufacturers of home theatre projectors. We have to draw a distinction here between home theatre projectors and the rest. We recently saw a compact projector from a well-known brand advertised in a sales catalogue for about $800. This may tempt some people, but it is not a home theatre projector for several reasons. First, this projector offered an aspect ratio of 4:3, not the widescreen 16:9 needed for home entertainment. Second, it had a low resolution.

A home theatre projector, in addition to offering widescreen, should have a resolution of at least 1024 x 576 pixels. That allows it to display DVDs and standard definition TV with full detail, instead of ‘down-scaling’ the picture to a lower resolution. When you have a big display screen, you cannot afford to lose any detail at all.

A more common, and better, resolution from home theatre projectors is 1280 x 720 pixels. Four of the projectors we look at in these pages deliver precisely that. This allows excellent quality from DVDs, and also allows the increased sharpness and detail from HDTV, Blu-ray and HD DVD to be enjoyed. These four projectors range from $1,999 to $2,749, bringing them in under the cost of a high quality 46 inch (117 cm) LCD TV. Yet each is capable of delivering a fine picture of 100 inches (254 cm) or more.

There’s more to projectors than just pixel numbers

We have also included here a fifth projector which raises the stakes – at a higher cost – by delivering ‘true’ high definition. That is, it offers all of the 1920 x 1080 pixels that can drawn from HD DVD, Blu-ray and HDTV.

All five of these projectors have HDMI inputs, which allows the very best picture quality because the picture is kept in digital format all the way from disc to display. All five offer plenty of brightness for home theatre use. And because all offer such large display sizes, they all reveal the benefits of high definition video more than regular ‘direct view’ TVs.

However to really enjoy any projection system, you must control light. That is, your viewing room must be dark – very dark – the darker the better.

You should also consider purchasing a projection screen. While simply using the lounge room wall may seem the easy thing to do, the chances are that it will throw off the colour balance of the image and produce ‘hot spots’ in which parts of the picture shine back more powerfully than the rest.

Happily, you can acquire good projection screens for well under a thousand dollars from a number of suppliers.