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How to Choose a Portable Digital Projector

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/24/2011

Portable digital projectors range in price and quality, and list a confusing array of numbers and specs. Here are the most important considerations in choosing a portable digital projector.

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    Comparing Digital Projectors

    Portable digital projectors have quickly become a necessity for business meetings and are a slick upgrade from carousel slide projectors for photographers.

    The confusing array of portable digital projectors ranges from $300 to more than $3,000. What's the difference, and why pay 10 times as much for a portable digital projector?

    Essentially, a $300 portable digital projector will display a simple PowerPoint presentation and a $3,000 portable digital projector could mean never buying another movie ticket.

    The key considerations in choosing a portable digital projector are resolution, brightness, size and more general value considerations. In addition, portable digital projectors now offer a dizzying range of extra features, many of which are defined in this article.

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    Resolution should be the top consideration in choosing a portable digital projector. Higher resolution typically carries a higher price tag, so you want to find the best balance of image quality and cost.

    Resolution is the number of horizontal pixels times the number of vertical pixels, typically noted as either a 4th-grade math problem or an awkward combination of letters (those crazy engineers).

    VGA is the lowest resolution at 640X480 pixels. At the other end is QXGA with 2048X1536 pixels, which is probably overkill for even the fanciest home theater.

    A middle range of about 1024X768 pixels (XGA) is ideal. XGA and the next level, SXGA, are the industry standard for PowerPoint presentations on portable digital projectors. You might want to go one level higher for a photo-intensive project.

    Many newer portable digital projectors list several resolutions, but the "native" resolution usually works best and is the number to consider.

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    Next, think about the brightness. Portable digital projectors are rated by lumens, or standard brightness units. A brighter bulb can project a clearer image and have fewer problems with visibility regardless of ambient light.

    Experts suggest a portable digital projector with about 1,200 to 2,000 lumens for most basic business use. Larger conference rooms will require about 3,000 lumens, and an auditorium warrants 4,000 to 10,000 lumens. An auditorium will likely have an installed system, though.

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    Other general specifications

    Another number typically listed alongside brightness is contrast ratio, the difference between the lightest white and the darkest black. You can probably ignore this number for most business presentations and photo slide shows.

    There is no standard for determining this number, and most viewers can't see much difference anyway.

    On the other hand, video inputs are worth a look. Find a portable digital projector with several video input options. This will allow the greatest versatility and picture quality. You ideally want a projector with both component and composite inputs. Composite uses the standard single yellow plug and delivers lower quality. But it is most likely to match any computer or other input. Component video signals are split into three signals — color, black and white — for the best picture.

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    With all the technical numbers, it's easy to overlook size. The ideal weight for a portable digital projector is roughly seven pounds (about three kilograms). That's the same weight as an average laptop, so carrying one in each hand should be manageable — and you'll be well-balanced.

    A heavier portable digital projector is impractical and a smaller portable digital projector will likely have inadequate quality.

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    As always, the final deciding factor will be price. If you find two projectors with similar customer ratings and similar stats in all the above categories, you should just buy the cheaper one, right? Not exactly. Also consider warranties and parts.

    Some decent projectors offer warranties of just one year, while most have three years of protection. Likewise, if you are using a portable digital projector nearly every day, look for a company that will automatically send you a "loaner" projector while they are repairing yours.

    Finally, every light bulb eventually burns out, and replacement bulbs for portable digital projectors are not cheap. Saving a few dollars, then forking out $500 more when the bulb dies isn't a good value.

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