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Setting up a projector


Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

For the largest possible screen in your home, the best projectors can create really huge images. In many cases, they cost less than the largest TVs. From movies to TV, PlayStation 5 to Xbox series X, there is just something more compelling and engaging about big screen entertainment.

The catch is that projectors require more setup and hassle than TVs. You have to find the right space, of course. Then there is figuring out the right settings, choosing the focus and more. The payout at the end, while turning the room into a home theater, is worth it. You may never want to go back to a small TV.


7;s how to get started.

Read more: Best Home Theater Projector for 2021

benq projector positioning

Three possible placement options for projectors from left to right: ceiling, table and short throw.


1. Find the right location

The first step is figuring out where to put the thing. You need enough space for the projection itself – either a screen (recommended) or a piece of blank wall (as close to white as possible). The bigger that space, the better. Projectors can deliver images as small as 40 or 50 inches and as large as 300 measured diagonally. Note that larger images will be fainter and, depending on the projector, may expose individual pixels (also called “screen door effect”), especially when you are close to the screen.

For larger images, you will also need to move the projector further back. And unless you mount the projector on the ceiling, you can’t sit in the path of the beam, so be mindful of the seating arrangement.

Most projector companies offer screen size calculators on their websites, so you can figure out how far to place the specific model you’re considering for the screen size you want.


Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

2. Set up the screen (optional)

If you have a screen, the next step is to set it up. And we highly recommend a screen. It provides a uniform, blank surface (no light switches or other wall “features”), and screens can reflect or even amplify the light from your projector better than a wall for a brighter picture.

Before final assembly, do a test drive of the projector and screen to make sure you have the correct dimensions and distances.

3. Provide the correct height

For this how-to, we’ll assume you’re using the most common projection orientation – a table mount from the front. However, the concept is similar for ceiling mounts. If you don’t get the height correct, the image will be in the shape of a trapezoid. That may not be too bad for you, but trying to perfectly match the edges of a screen can be frustrating or impossible.


Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

Most projectors have an “upward throw”. This means that the image is projected above the center of the lens. How much higher varies depending on the model. This is good for placement on a coffee table or ceiling mounting as the image is close to the center of the wall or screen, even though the projector itself is closer to the floor or ceiling.

However, this means it is challenging to place a projector on a stand behind you as the image will now be projected on the top part of the wall and probably the ceiling. If this is the placement you want, check out projectors with either lens shift or no upward throw.

4. Plug everything in and turn it on

Now is the time to make connections. Note that you still haven’t mounted anything permanently. You want to make sure everything is working before you commit everything.

So now is the time to implement that extra long HDMI cable. This is the ideal way to connect to the projector itself via wireless or multiple sources, as it gives you the most flexibility and the fastest frame rates and resolutions. However, it means that you have a receiver or soundbar to connect and switch your sources. In any case, a good idea, because you should never rely on the speakers in a beamer for sound.

Once everything is connected, check out a number of different content. If you have one 4K projector, make sure to watch 4K content to make sure your system can handle that resolution. Just because it can handle 1080p doesn’t mean it can do 4K.

Read more: Best 4K Projectors for 2021


A geometric test pattern can be of great help here.

David Katzmaier

5. Project an alignment image

An alignment image, like the one shown above, can help you make sure you have everything aligned. Spears and Munsell has a good pattern available on its site if you want. It also has a good installation disc, which will help with some of the steps here. Alternatively, you can turn off the lights and just see where the edges of the image are. However, make sure to use real video content.

If the image is not rectangular, it is probably because it is not exactly perpendicular to the screen. Measuring the exact distances for everything will probably make it easier to align the projector. Do not use keystone adjustments on the projector unless absolutely necessary. These electronically manipulate the image so that it is rectangular. This comes at the expense of resolution and image quality – best avoided. Lens shift, on the other hand, creates a mechanical angle or movement of the lens, and is fine to use with minimal or no effect on the image.


Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

Adjust the focus until the details are in focus (walk closer to the screen if you can’t see it). If the center is in focus but the corners are not, this may be an indication that the projector and screen are not completely perpendicular.

When the projector is on a table, one or more feet are usually adjustable to level the projector.

6. Fasten the hatches

Once you are sure that everything is working, the image orientation is perfect (or as perfect as you can get), it’s time to permanently mount the screen and projector. It’s also a good time to hide HDMI cables so that no one can walk or trip over them.

If you run the HDMI cable through a wall, make sure it is rated for it and follow all local building codes.


Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

7. Select the correct picture mode

With everything running, it’s time to make sure the projector looks its best. Like TVs, projectors have preset picture modes, so you have to choose the right one. The best choice for overall picture quality in a dark room is usually “Movie” or “Cinema”. If you’re dealing with ambient light, you may want to choose a brighter mode such as Vivid or Dynamic, but keep in mind that they often skew blue, green, or both. Check out our tutorial on how to find the right settings. It’s for TVs, but projectors all use the same settings.

Read more: How to adjust your TV picture settings, no professional, disc or Apple TV 4K required

There are only two major settings that differ between projectors and TVs. The first is lamp mode. This, as you would probably guess, is how bright the image is. For the most part, brighter is better, but the projector will be louder (due to fan noise) and the lamp won’t last as long. Usually there is a setting called “Dynamic”, not to be confused with the picture mode of the same name. This will vary the lamp power depending on what is displayed on the screen. Again, this is usually a good thing, but on some projectors it means you can hear the fan going up and down with the brightness.

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Related is the iris setting. Not all projectors have an iris, but the ones that do usually give you the option to turn it on or off. The iris will darken and reopen dark images to keep bright images clear. It does not improve the native contrast ratio, but it can help make high grayish black levels less noticeable on dark content. You could see it in action, with a pulse of the image’s brightness, and when you do, feel free to turn it off.

Finally, most projectors have a game mode, so the input delay. This is better for gaming, but if you’re not a gamer, don’t worry about that.

8. Consider a better sound (optional)

As mentioned above, for sound, it’s best not to rely on a projector’s internal speakers. They are a few watts at most. They are always small and worse, they are nowhere near the screen where the sound should be coming from. If your room doesn’t have room for it full sound systemwe recommend connecting at least a decent Bluetooth speaker. You need one with an AUX input, a projector with built-in Bluetooth, or an external Bluetooth transmitter. Alternatively, you can connect almost all powered speakers. Most projectors have an analog audio output for that purpose.


Geoffrey Morrison / CNET

9. Turn off the lights and enjoy!

Projected images are best enjoyed in the dark, where the pictures look their best. Just add popcorn.

First published in 2017. Updated with more information in 2021.

In addition to TV and other display technology, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, huge aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane cemeteries and more.

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and YouTube, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel.

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