Why You Should Get a Cheap Projector for Your Apartment (and What to Do With It When You Do)

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If you’re an optimist, you might say that New York City’s sometimes astonishingly small apartments encourage tenants to think creatively about home decorating. My current apartment, for example, has a bedroom that’s the exact shape of a queen-sized bed, and larger on each side by about two feet. I can cram two night tables on either side with only slight difficulty, but how the hell am I supposed to fit a TV in there?

My creative solution ended up being a gadget I’d long written off as either too expensive or too finicky to bother with: a projector. And it turned out to be an even better choice than the TV I’d have bought had I not been cursed with whatever mental disorder causes one to live in New York.

Projectors are a consumer-tech category that’s very quietly becoming excellent. They went through a long period where they were known mostly as superb but resource-intensive gadgets, enormous, power-hungry beasts that came with absurd price tags and were good for celebrities on MTV Cribs who are outfitting their movie rooms, but not for most people. Thanks to newly efficient LED technology, a new category known as the “pico projector” emerged a few years ago. These projectors were incredibly small, almost pocket-sized, but threw dim and often blurry images — fun toys, but not particularly practical, and most people who knew about them decided to forget about them until Samsung or somebody crammed one into a smartphone.

At the same time, over the past few years, the quality of HDTVs has kept improving while prices have plummeted. Profit margins on HDTVs are so low that manufacturers have resorted to throwing their weight around to secure minimum pricing; Sharp, Toshiba, and Philips have all thrown in the towel, and decided not to bother even selling HDTVs anymore. What’s the point? Amazon’s best-selling TV is a $169 32-incher with built-in Roku. It has excellent reviews. A hundred and sixty-nine dollars!

So most people can be forgiven for not noticing that the pico projector has slowly been meeting the full-size projector category in the middle, resulting in home projectors that are small-ish, cheap-ish, good-ish, and energy-efficient-ish. All those -ishes shouldn’t throw you off; what this means is that you can have a really very decent projector, capable of throwing out pictures up to a ridiculous 300 inches, taking up barely any space in your apartment, that can be brought outside for a summer movie night or beamed onto the cat for a solid minute or two of giggles, for a couple hundred bucks. Here’s what you should know about them.

The Drawbacks to a Cheap Projector (and Why They Don’t Matter)

Let’s get this out of the way first: Projectors in this range — $250–400 — often offer a lower resolution and fewer lumens (this is the projector-nerd word for “brightness”) than projectors that cost a few hundred dollars more. If you’re a serious film buff looking to anchor a screening room, you should probably look elsewhere.

But if you’re looking for a creative, not outrageously expensive way to watch movies in your small bedroom, you’re not going to do any better. The lower lumen count doesn’t matter, because you’re almost always using it at night, and the contrast makes even the dullest picture pop. The resolution doesn’t matter so much either; typically you’ll be looking at projectors with a resolution of 1280x720, otherwise known as 720p, or possibly slightly lower resolutions like 800x600 or even 640x480 (the latter of which is 480p, the same resolution as a DVD). The thing is: In practice, lying in bed, most people are perfectly comfortable with 720p or even slightly lesser resolutions. When it comes to old episodes of Seinfeld or The Office, “good enough” is just fine.

Choosing a Projector

Many of the best projectors don’t really force you to compromise at all. If you read Amazon reviews carefully and keep an eye on resolution and lumens, it’s easy to find something that fits your price range, expectations, and tiny bedroom. This Epson Home Cinema 730HD ($349.99 refurbished) has hundreds of glowing reviews, boasts a 720p resolution, and at 3,000 lumens is bright enough to handle even full sunlight. The AAXA P5 ($339.00) is less bright at 300 lumens, but is much smaller than the Epson and features similarly good reviews. In the other direction, the ViewSonic PJD5155 ($299.88) boasts 3,300-lumen brightness at a lower (800x600) resolution.

The Setup

So what do you do once you get one? You have to figure out where to put it, first. Mine is ceiling-mounted: I made my own platform-thing out of a plank of wood and some chains from Home Depot; you might prefer to buy a more stable ceiling mount, like this $15 VIVO model.

You’ll also need a way to play stuff over and through the projector. Luckily, projectors aren’t the only consumer gadget that’s gotten both smaller and better over the last few years. Plugged into my projector, also sitting on that plank, is a small Bluetooth speaker like this $35.99 Amazon Basics model. And for movie and TV selection, I’ve plugged in an Amazon Fire TV stick that happened to be sitting in a closet, which lets me stream Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. (For more options, see our guide to streaming set-top devices from yesterday.)

You’ll also have to deal with the wires that the gadgets will need. (It’s not much; a Roku can be powered by a USB port on the projector itself, and a speaker can be taken down to charge.) That’s easier than it sounds: Get one of these $11 CordMate kits. They’re basically long plastic tubes with adhesive on them; you thread the cables through the tubes, stick them onto your wall, and your projector setup looks about a thousand times more professional.

I project my image onto my wall, which is off-white; this would probably offend projector experts, which is one of several reasons I don’t allow them into my bedroom. It looks fine. If your room isn’t painted white, or if you don’t have a wall directly in front of your bed, you can get a pull-down screen like this $65 one, or, honestly, you can use a white sheet. If you’re feeling Pinterest-y, you can get a big picture frame with blank posterboard in it, and project directly onto it.

The total cost of the setup is well under $500. This is more expensive than a 32-inch TV, but what you’re getting is worth it: decent sound, internet connectivity, a gigantic screen that is invisible when you don’t want it, and a surprising feeling of luxury.