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What to Look for When Purchasing an Education Projector

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Gouldian Finch | June 20, 2019
What to Look for When Purchasing an Education Projector

Considering an education projector for your classrooms or lecture hall? That’s a smart move. This useful tech has a long history of helping educators present content. Teachers have used projection systems for well over a century to bring engaging content to students.

Today, image quality is better than ever. There’s an abundance of education projector options to choose from. Meeting the needs of educators, administrators and IT staff is easier than ever. Choosing, however, can be daunting. Understanding the key technologies and specifications can help you find your best-fit education projector.

First, taking the time to assess your needs and installation conditions will help you pick an education projector you’ll be satisfied with. Consider classroom size and number of students. Assess lighting conditions and ability to control ambient light. These are a few factors to consider. Student needs also play a role. This includes the type of content you plan to display. Your interactivity goals. And whether you want to avoid distracting shadows and glare.

There are specific features in education projectors to address each of these needs. Ultra-short throw projectors do the most to minimize shadows. Network projectors deliver time-saving centralized control. Interactive projection enables added collaboration. There is, of course, a great deal of overlap among these categories. For example, most interactive projectors include networking capabilities and are available in short- or ultra-short throw models.

You’ll want to consider some other key specifications. These affect the quality of the results your education projector produces. They include:

  • Projection technology
  • Light source
  • Color processing technology
  • Resolution
  • Contrast ratio
  • Brightness
  • Aspect ratio
  • Audio capabilities

Finally, you’ll want to assess connectivity. As well as look for features that increase ease of set up and use. Below, we’ll look at each of these key categories and specs for education projectors. First, we’ll look at why projection is an ideal education display solution.

The Advantages of Projection

Classroom projectors have been around much longer than large screen displays. The use of TV-like displays for education is a recent trend. This is largely due to greater availability and reduced cost. Projectors and large-screen displays are both useful technologies. Both can offer an effective classroom viewing experience. Each has differing features and benefits. Reduced maintenance and cost are the main advantages of interactive displays. This is because they lack the bulbs and filters used in traditional bulb-based projectors.

Projectors offer many benefits that can’t be matched by digital displays. The advantages projectors provide to education enviornments include:

  • Lower overall cost. Projectors offer the best value in terms of cost per screen inch. Even when factoring in the cost of replacement lamps and a projection screen. Large screen displays are simply more expensive.
  • Image size. Projectors can deliver really big images. Much larger than the size of flat screen displays. Many projectors can project an HD image up to 300 inches diagonally. Digital displays, by comparison, have a fixed screen size.
  • Viewing angle. LED displays look great to students seated directly in front of them. But for those seated at an off angle the image can be compromised. Projected images stay true regardless of the viewing angle.
  • Space-savings. Paper-thin projector screens and ceiling-mounted projector take up less space than a large screen display. Plus, projector screens can be easily retracted and stored when you want them out of sight.
  • Highly Durable. Large screen displays and a classroom of kids are often not a wise mix. These digital screens are like your TV. Damage can occur. Retractable screens and ceiling-mounted projectors keep equipment out of harm’s way when the room is being used for other purposes.
  • Reduced eyestrain. Flat screen displays can be harder on the eyes. That’s because they’re typically smaller and brighter than projected images. Projected images are larger. Because of this, they fill a larger percentage of the visual field. These qualities can help reduce eyestrain and fatigue.

Education Projectors for Classrooms 

With so many benefits to offer, it’s not surprising that projection technology has flourished. It’s popular across the gamut of professions, industries and home uses. Today’s education projectors include many different styles. There are tiny, ultra-light portable models. Ultra-high-end devices for use in auditoriums. And everything in between. For classrooms, the field can be narrowed. Three projector categories are most often used to address the needs of this environment:

Network-Capable Education Projector Solutions

Network-ready projection solutions save schools time and money. That’s why they’re used by many school districts and higher ed campuses. Network projectors connect to a local area network (LAN). The connection can be wired or wireless. Networked education projectors can be installed across any size school, district or campus, then remotely operated and monitored. This reduces the time and cost burden of managing multiple projectors across multiple locations. The result is improved overall projector TCO. Plus greater projector availability to support learning objectives.

Networked projectors expand instruction options. Educators can send content to one or more projectors from any location with network access. A single high-school or higher-ed instructor can transmit the same course material to several classrooms or auditoriums at the same time. In elementary schools, students in multiple classrooms can simultaneously view virtual field trips, author talks or other content. The possibilities for cost-effectively extending learning opportunities are limitless.

Remote network management saves IT time. Staff can monitor and control all campus or classroom projectors from a single PC. Routine maintenance can be accomplished without the need for physical contact with each projector. Real-time email alerts provide maintenance updates. Automatic alters include everything from power status and lamp life to unit presence and warnings. Many remote operations enable rapid response. These preventative actions minimize downtime – a big plus for learning.

Short Throw and Ultra Short Throw Education Projector Solutions

Classroom size, space constraints, and desired image size are important to consider when choosing an education projector solution. Here’s why. The farther any projector is from the screen, the larger the image it can project. However, the distance a projector must be from the screen to project the same size image varies. This difference is called a projector’s “throw ratio.”

Throw ratio is determined by the type of lens used. It’s determined by the following equation. The distance (D) of the lens from the screen divided by the width (W) of the projected image. D/W = projection ratio.

Projectors are classified as regular, short, and ultra-short throw. For example, if a classroom has an 80” screen, a standard throw projector will need to be at least 7- 8 feet from the screen. A short throw projector will need to be 3-3.5 feet away. And an ultra-short throw projector can be as close as 2-2.5 feet from the screen. In general, a regular throw ratio is 1.1 and above. Short-throw projector ratios are from 0.6 to 0.8.  Ultra-short throw ratios are anything less than 0.5.

In many classrooms, it can be difficult to project a reasonably-sized image with a standard throw projector. In smaller classrooms, it would need to be placed close to the screen. The result would be a small projected image size difficult for all students to see. Additionally, mounting projectors directly above the audience is often prohibited. So again, the projector may need to be mounted close to the screen to avoid being above students. Even in larger classrooms, standard-throw projectors can be problematic. Because they’re situated behind students, they can create distracting lights and shadows.

Because of these constraints and concerns, education projectors with a shorter throw distance are an ideal solution for classrooms. Short-throw projectors reduce the projection distance by more than half. Projectors with a high-quality short-throw lens enable stunning, big-screen results. Even in small spaces. Furthermore, short throw lenses reduce shadowing on the projected image.  They spare students from the distraction of blinding lights.

Ultra-short throw projectors add to the advantages of their short-throw cousins. Ultra-close installation eliminates shadows, glare, hotspots and reflection. These advantages are enabled by a highly specialized lens. Until around 2010, these lenses were cost-prohibitive for most schools. The tech has since become much more prevalent in school systems.

Interactive Education Projector Solutions

Interactive technology is one of the fastest growing edtech categories. Numerous studies have shown that student engagement and learning outcomes improve when it’s employed. The interactive whiteboard (IWB) is the most well-known of these technologies. Recently, interactive touch screen displays have been gaining traction. Interactive projectors were introduced in 2009. Since then, they have offered a more cost-effective option to interactive displays.

Interactive education projectors use tech that was previously only available in IWBs. With these projectors, any flat surface can become interactive. Users can write, draw, and annotate on the projected image with interactive pens. Interactive software, which varies by manufacturer, lets multiple users interact at the same time. Other features may include background templates and copy-saving capabilities. A reveal curtain or spotlight may be offered to highlight content. Often, the interactive pens can also be used as a wireless mouse to conveniently drag or open files.

Interactive education projector solutions offer advantages over traditional IWBs. Not the least of these is a lower initial cost to implement. Another benefit is the ability to easily integrate with many existing IWB systems. This offers a cost-effective way to upgrade to more advanced capabilities.

Choosing an Education Projector: Specs and Features

Several additional features impact an education projector’s overall picture quality. This holds true for interactive, short throw and network projectors.

Education Projector

Projection Technology

Most education projectors are based on DLP or LCD technology. Digital light processing (DLP) is the most-used projector tech for all types of applications. This includes the most basic projectors to the most advanced, such as those used in high-end digital theaters.

Light Source

All projectors use some type of light source to create projected images. There are three options: LEDs, lamps and lasers.

LEDs are used in pico projectors – tiny models designed to be extremely portable.  Many are so small they can fit in a pocket or purse. They can be a great way to extend resources among classrooms. LED light sources are eco-friendly. They consume less power and generate less heat than traditional bulbs. They’re also mercury-free, for easier disposal and less hazardous waste. Because LEDs don’t contain a filament, they last significantly longer than traditional bulbs. They power on in an instant, for fast start up – another reason they’re great classroom projectors. LED projectors are also cooler and quieter to operate than lamp-based projectors. On the downside, LED-based projectors are typically not as bright as those powered by other light sources. This can limit their use in some applications. In terms of lifespan, LED-based education projectors reign supreme, with over 30,000 hours of operational life.

Lamp-based education projectors have been around the longest and are the least expensive. Because of this, they can be cost-effective for lower-use applications. They’re common and popular classroom projectors. For frequent use, however, the need to replace bulbs and clean filters increase their total cost of ownership (TCO). Lamp replacement can also cause downtime, interrupting class when a bulb unexpectedly blows out. Lamp brightness and color tend to fade. However, the impact of this is often minimal. Because it happens over time it’s often not noticed. The lifespan of lamp-based projectors is shorter than LED- or laser-based projectors, typically 10,000 hours. Traditional bulbs are also the least eco-friendly option. They contain mercury and require appropriate disposal to minimize harm. 

Laser is the latest thing in projection light source technology.  It offers several advantages. Education projectors with laser light sources have a higher up-front cost. But they can be quite cost-effective over time. This is thanks to their longer lifespan and lower maintenance needs. Laser projectors deliver precise color and high brightness levels that remain stable across their 20,000 hours of life. Another helpful feature for education is instant on/off. Unlike lamp-based projectors, lasers need no warm-up period. This adds efficiency and conserves valuable class time. Laser is a mercury-free, eco-friendly option. It consumes less power than traditional lamp-based projectors. 

Color Processing Technology

Most education projectors will include some type of technology to enhance color performance. One of the better known is BrlliantColor™ by Texas Instruments. It’s used in many projector brands. Some manufacturers offer proprietary tech to expand upon BrilliantColor benefits. This includes ViewSonic SuperColor™.  This unique color wheel design delivers higher brightness and a wider range of true-to-life colors. The result is an immersive viewing experience in any lighting condition.*

Benefits to look in for an advanced color processing technology include:

  • Consistent color performance in both bright and dark environments
  • Advanced color wheel design
  • Expanded color range
  • Dynamic lamp control capabilities
  • Automatic or one-touch color/brightness adjustments
  • Enhanced gray-scale accuracy
  • Minimized brightness fluctuations

Resolution

Native resolution refers to the number of pixels a projector has available to create an image. It’s typically shortened to simply: resolution. The first number represents the number of pixels in each horizontal row. The second is the number of pixels in each vertical column. Multiplying the two delivers the total number of pixels the projector can display. The higher the resolution, the more pixels.

Resolution is the number of dots or pixels used to display an image. Higher resolutions mean that more pixels are used to create the image resulting in a crisper, cleaner image. High resolution is important for projecting detailed charts and graphs, text, and high-definition video. The resolution is indicated by a number combination such as 1920 x 1200. This indicates that there are 1920 dots horizontally across the display by 1200 lines of dots vertically, equaling 2,304,000 total dots that make up the image seen on the screen.

Higher resolution education projectors can display a greater degree of detail. They reduce or eliminate visible pixelation, for crisper viewing at a closer range. They’re also more compatible with high-definition source content. For the most part, as resolution increases, so does cost. In general, for classroom use, ultra-high resolution isn’t needed for typical viewing material. Exceptions may include specialized classes with high-detail content such as science, technology or math.

Maximum Resolution

A related spec is a projector’s “maximum resolution.” Native resolution refers to the total number of actual pixels displayed. Maximum resolution has nothing to do with the projector’s physical display. Instead, maximum resolution refers to which content signal resolutions the projector can display. Content is available in many different signals. Projectors are programmed to recognize and process a number of these signals, based on their popularity in a given market. Maximum resolution is the highest signal resolution that a projector is programmed to process and display.

Projectors can convert signal resolutions that differ from their native resolution. To do this they use a process called “scaling.” When a signal exceeds a projector’s native resolution, the image is compressed into fewer pixels. When a signal has a lower-than-native resolution, the projector must expand it in order to display a full-frame image. When source material is scaled there will always be a loss of signal quality. This results in a somewhat softer image compared to the same material displayed at its native resolution. For many classroom uses this will rarely be noticeable. However, it can be problematic in some circumstances. These include projection of data such as text or mathematics content, which suffers the most from being scaled.

Source Content

The resolution abilities of any education projector are limited by the native resolution of your source material. Low-quality signals result in lower-quality images. This is the case regardless of the projector’s native resolution. The larger the screen, the more noticeable this will be. To achieve the best image quality, match the resolution of the content to the projector’s resolution.

Thankfully, video scaling technology has advanced considerably. Today scaling can produce images nearly as crisp and clear as they would be displayed in native format. For displaying data content, matching projector-source resolution is more critical.

The most popular resolutions for education projectors include:

  • 800x600. Because of an attractive price and great images, SVGA is a popular resolution. It’s a good option for basic presentations. PowerPoint slides on a 60" screen (or smaller) will look good. As will other basic applications like simple data, charts and videos. 4:3 aspect ratio. Price range $200-$450.
  • 1024x768. This resolution is also referred to as XGA. It generally delivers good image quality for native DVD video and 1080p Blu-ray content. Additionally, 1080i HD broadcast content can be scaled for reasonable quality. Visible pixels can be eliminated by sitting further from the screen. These projectors have a 4:3 aspect ratio and vary in price from around $349- $649.
  • 1280x800. This hybrid resolution (WXGA) can natively display 720p HD video. This format delivers crisp, clear viewing for computer data, web pages and video from computer-based data signals. The tradeoff is the 16:10 aspect ratio. Standard aspect ratio is 16:9. With WXGA, 16:9 video content is displayed with black bars at the top and bottom of the projected image. However, 16:10 is becoming more widespread. It’s now the standard for many laptops and smartphones. Pricing for WXGA projectors ranges from around $379- $699.
  • 1920x1080. Also called Full HD, this resolution offers a high total pixel count. Also called 1080p, Full HD delivers sharp, detailed images. Full HD education projectors are a perfect match with high-definition content sources. Compatible with HDTV 1080i signals and 1080i and 1080p signals from Blu-ray disc players, 1080p needs no scaling with these formats. Prices for classroom and home-theater 1080p projectors range from $499 to $849. Full HD 1080p projectors priced higher than this include features to support commercial use.
  • 1920x1200. A relative newcomer, WUXGA resolution is the widescreen version of 1080p. It has 16:10 aspect ratio, delivering added pixels and greater width to the projected image. It’s becoming the standard for higher-end laptops and PCs. WUXGA offers higher-brightness and is ideal for higher-ed and auditorium installations. The added pixels make these education projectors a great fit for detailed source content such as web pages, presentations, spreadsheet data and design software. This makes it a good option for specialized teaching environments. WUXGA projector prices are around $849.
  • 3840x2160. This is the 4K ultra-high definition (UHD) resolution familiar for its popularity with TVs. 4K education projectors deliver bright, highly-detailed images. They’re ideal for lecture halls. Ultra-HD is also a great choice for specialized topics that call for precise detail.  Prices range from $999 - $2,199. 

Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio is the difference between an image’s white and black components. For example, a contrast ratio of 1000:1 means that the black levels will be 1000 times darker than the white levels. The larger the contrast ratio, the greater the difference between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks a projector can display.

In general, a projector’s ability to create image depth increases along with contrast ratio. It’s an important spec for home theater projectors and other high-end uses. It’s less critical to the needs of a typical classroom. This is because the benefits of high contrast ratios are only noticeable in highly light-controlled spaces. Think pitch-black auditorium or theater. Therefore, a high-contrast ratio education projector would be a good choice for lecture halls and theater spaces. In a typical multi-use classroom, however, projectors are used with some degree of ambient light. For these settings, contrast ratios of 4,000:1 – 10,000:1 are sufficient to deliver a satisfying visual experience.

Brightness

Projector brightness is measured in ANSI lumens (or simply, lumens).  Brightness output ranges between 500 – 10,000 lumens. Importantly, brighter is not always better. For one thing, brighter means more costly. For another, most environments don’t need a high-bright education projector to achieve satisfying results. To determine your brightness needs, consider your ambient lighting and the size of the audience and screen.

Ambient Lighting

Ambient light is the most critical factor in determining the best education projector brightness for your needs. The more light you have, or want, during viewing, the higher the brightness you’ll need to deliver a sharp, clear image. For most classrooms, instructors want a moderate level of lighting during projection. This allows for eye contact, interaction and safe movement around the room. In these cases, a mid-range brightness of 2,500-3,500 lumens is generally good. This range offers the flexibility to project in a range of lighting conditions. However, if the room will always be darkened, or always be lit, you’ll want to choose a projector on either end of the brightness spectrum. Keep in mind that a projector bright enough to shine through a great deal of ambient light will be hard on the eyes in a dark room. Conversely, a low level of brightness will look washed out in a room with lots of ambient light.

Audience Size/Screen Size

The larger the projected image, the lower the perceived brightness of any projector. This is due to the distribution of light over a larger area. The typical number of people that will be in a room is a good guideline for picking your education projector. It can help you determine the optimal projected image size for comfortable viewing. As a general rule, the more people in the room, the larger the ideal screen size. Typical classroom projection size ranges from around 60 to 80 inches (measured diagonally). Typical average audience size is 20-30 students. These conditions are ideal for projectors delivering from 3,000- 5,000 lumens.

Larger spaces, such as lecture halls and auditorium, benefit from higher brightness. For these spaces, look for projectors that offer from 4,000 – 6,000 lumens.

Projectors can be grouped by ANSI lumen output as follows:

  • Under 3,000 lumens. These education projectors are used in low-lighting environments. They require tightly controlled conditions to eliminate ambient light. They can be appropriate for theaters or similar spaces. However, they’re not typically used for multipurpose classroom viewing.
  • From 3,000 – 4,000 lumens. Representing the mid-range of education projectors, these are the typical brightness levels for classroom use. Slightly dimmed lighting will produce the most vibrant images. However, the image will still be visible will full classroom lighting.
  • 4,000 + lumens. Projectors with this level of brightness are typically not used in classrooms. They may be appropriate for large meeting rooms, classrooms or multipurpose rooms. High brightness education projectors are ideal for large spaces like lecture halls. With this level of brightness, there’s no need to dim lights. Users can expect a crisp, clear image with standard room lighting, even on larger screens. This enables ease of viewing with larger audience sizes.

Projectors with brightness ratings higher than 5,000 lumens are considered “high bright” and are intended for high-end commercial use. This can include installation in some higher education settings.

Aspect Ratio

A projector’s aspect ratio doesn’t directly impact the quality of the projected image. Nonetheless, it is an important spec. That’s because it determines the image’s shape and space occupied on the screen.  Aspect ratio defines the relationship between the width and the height of an image. It’s used to describe projection screens and content sources as well as projectors. For example, a 16:9 projector, projection screen or content source will have 16 units of width for every 9 units of height. This results in a rectangular shape. Projectors, screens and content sources with a 4:3 aspect ratio will have 4 units of width for every 3 units of height. These images more closely resemble a square.

As with resolution, challenges arise the projector’s aspect ratio doesn’t match aspect ratio of the source content. Ideally, the aspect ratio of the projector, projection surface, and content source are aligned. When these match, the image will fully cover the screen. When the content aspect ratio doesn’t match that of the projector, a portion of the screen will remain unused. For example, when watching 4:3 content on a 16:9 display, there are black bars along the top and bottom or sides of the screen.

Most education projectors today offer the popular 16:9 aspect ratio. This corresponds to the familiar HDTV standard and Full HD 1080p desktop displays for computing. However, there are many other formats. The aspect ratio of cloud-based content, movies and video content varies. For example, TV programs and videos made for non-HD TV are developed in the legacy 4:3 format. Content delivered on DVDs comes in a wide range of formats.

There’s no universal standard for video content. Because of this, it’s highly unlikely that the aspect ratio of your education projector will always match up with all content teachers want to display. Fortunately, most projectors can scale images to fill all or most of the screen. Scaling inevitably entails some loss of detail. However, it’s generally quite minimal and is rarely noticeable when displaying video and images. For curriculum that relies heavily on text-based content, matching the projector and source content aspect ratio is of greater importance.

Additional Features to Consider

Beyond these basic specs are some features that make installing and operating an education projector easier and more efficient. Among the things to look for are:

Audio

Virtually all of today’s education content and apps rely on sound to enhance their message. However, not all education projectors include audio. Those that do may deliver sub-optimal quality that’s difficult to hear throughout a classroom. Projector manufacturers may cite high wattage levels to indicate sound quality. This can be misleading, as wattage alone isn’t a reliable measure of speaker performance.

Education projectors that deliver great sound quality plus high-quality images are designed and made with both of these attributes in mind. Look for options such as ViewSonic projectors with SonicExpert™ technology. SonicExpert speakers are specifically designed to deliver higher volume and enhanced sound quality in a compact projector speaker.

Connectivity Options

One HDMI port is a must for ensuring that your education projector has connectivity for the most current source content. Dual HDMI inputs add flexibility for easy setup and installation, with fewer cabling concerns. These inputs allow for simultaneous connection of two HDMI-enabled video sources. Devices such as digital cameras, smartphones, laptops, satellite boxes, and Blu-ray/DVD players. Projectors with dual HDMI inputs minimize time spent switching between inputs.

Most education projectors offer at a minimum a VGA (analog) connector for a computer and a composite video connector for video equipment. If your computer has a digital output (typically HDMI) you may want a digital connection on the projector as well. This will eliminate any chance of problems like jittering pixels caused by poor signal synchronization. For video sources, HDMI is the preferred connection choice (assuming your video equipment has HDMI connectors). Component video is a close second. Some projectors include Mobile High-Definition Link-enabled HDMI ports. MHL-enable ports let you project from Android devices, and, in some cases, charge them as well.

USB Power Port

Education projectors with a USB power port let teachers use wireless HDMI dongles like Google Chromecast™ to stream multimedia content. This enables them to present an endless array of material from their mobile devices. It also lets them do so while moving around the room for increased classroom participation and interaction with students. Added features to look for include an integrated dongle compartment. This adds ease to wireless streaming by keeping media dongles secure and out of sight.

Portability

Need to share resources among classrooms? Teach in several locations across the campus? Look for education projectors designed for lightweight portability. LED-powered projectors are ideal, often weighing in at under two pounds. Look for features that add ease and options. High-quality Bluetooth speakers create room-filling sound. Smart TV capabilities make it easy to stream Kahn academy, TED-Ed content and so much more. Another example is ViewSonic’s built-in Smart Stand. Enabling 360-degree rotation, the Smart Stand makes set up fast and easy. Better yet, it doubles as a protective lens cover with auto on-off to conserve battery life.

3D Blu-ray Ready

While still relatively uncommon in the classroom, 3D can be used to enhance specialized lesson content. Education projectors with the latest HDMI technology deliver the best 3D results. With HDMI you’ll get the highest picture and sound quality without degradation. And you’ll be able to display 3D images directly from 3D Blu-ray players.

Remote Control Features

Look for options like single button controls that let you to preset brightness and other settings on your education projector. One-button controls that dim screen brightness when you pause content reduce power consumption and extend the life of projector lamps. An auto dim feature when the projector is idle also helps in these regards. Both are energy- and cost-saving enhancements that are good for the environment and your budget.

Ease-of-use Extras

Smart design features can make using and maintaining your education projector easier and more enjoyable. Cable management hoods reduce cord clutter and tripping hazards. Easy-access lamp doors save time, reduce frustration increase maintenance efficiency.

Long Lamp Life

The longer the lamp life, the lower a projector’s TCO. This can be an important factor in a heavy-use classroom environment.

Conclusion

Education projectors provide a cost-effective way for schools to display multimedia content for easy classroom viewing. They deliver a range of capabilities ideal for higher education and larger spaces as well. Durability, space savings and wide-angle viewing are among the benefits education projectors deliver.  Many of today’s education projectors offer filter-free design and offer extended lamp life for an even greater TCO advantage.  This can effectively enable schools to extend their technology budgets. Careful assessment of room requirements and the features outlined above will help ensure a good education projector fit – with the lasting performance to support your school’s needs and ongoing student success. 

*Based on normal variance in office/classroom/home lighting conditions.