Let’s face it: When you first move out on your own, you’re probably buying yourself a cheap 4K TV. We’ve all lived that life. You need something that’s inexpensive, portable and looks good when you’re sitting close to it.
But there will come a day when you’re going to want something bigger than the TV you bought right out of college. When the time comes to finally get your home theater up and running, you’ve got a decision to make: Should you buy a TV, or should you buy a projector?
The easy rule of thumb here is to base your decision on how far you plan on sitting from the screen. If you’re more than six feet away, buy a projector. But there are a lot of grey areas where either a TV or a projector could work for your space.
Not sure which one to pick? We can help.
TVs vs projectors: The basics
Let’s start from the top. TVs are great because they’re typically cheaper than projectors, and are usually much brighter than projectors. We measure the brightness of TVs in a unit called nits, and the brightness of projectors in a unit called lumens. There’s not quite a one-to-one conversion between the two, but the closest approximation is that 1 nit equals 3.426 lumens.
When your average 4K HDR TV comes through our testing labs, we’re looking for a peak brightness of more than 1,000 nits in a 10% window. The recommended brightness level comes courtesy of the UHD Alliance, a coalition of TV makers that wanted to create common standards.
Projectors, however, can be all over the place when it comes to lumens. Some ordinary projectors promise 2,000 lumens, while some of the very best can reach upwards of 3,500 lumens. Others, unfortunately, offer much less than that.
How bright a device can get is important, because that determines how washed-out the colors will look on your wall. The more ambient light you have, the worse contrast you should expect.
The takeaway here is that if you have a super-bright room, you’re going to want a TV instead of a projector. The added brightness of the screen will help the image hold up to the amount of ambient light in the room.
What if you have an actual home cinema room?
Here’s where things get murky. If you’re the proud owner of a home cinema — i.e., a room with controllable lighting, just for watching movies — the choice between a projector and a TV can be extremely difficult.
4K projectors are almost always going to be more expensive than their 4K TV counterparts. That simply comes down to the cost of manufacturing. Panels are becoming easier and cheaper to produce, while the finely tuned components inside of a projector haven’t reached the same level of optimization.
Where things get tricky, however, is when you talk about screen sizes larger than, say, 85 inches. That’s where you’d be spending the same amount of money for a larger OLED TV or a 4K projector. So, which one should you buy?
For the money, we at Tom's Guide think you’re better off with a projector. 4K TVs have a set size. For example, an 85-inch TV can never be another size besides 85 inches. But you can adjust a 4K projector to well over 100 inches. For example, LG’s latest 4K projectors, the Cinebeam HU915QE and HU915QB, can fill a 120-inch screen, even at just 7.2 inches away from the wall.
TVs vs projectors: Final considerations
For most folks, whether to buy a projector or a 4K TV comes down to price, space and amount of ambient light in the room. However, if you’ve got money and space, but not much ambient light, then a projector makes more sense.
One final note, though, is that gamers might want to stick for 4K TVs for now. There are few projectors that can hit 4K resolution at a 120Hz refresh rate. (The Epson Home Cinema LS11000 4K PRO-UHD is the only one that comes to mind.) However, many of the best TVs offer the 4K/120Hz combination. It may not be that way forever. But if you want to make the most out of your new consoles right now, make sure that your next 4K TV has a native 120Hz refresh rate and HDMI 2.1 ports. If you have trouble, our guide to the best gaming TVs can help.
TV and projector deals
Looking for recommendations on TVs and projectors? Here are the best of each:
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Nick Pino heads up the TV and AV verticals at Tom's Guide and covers everything from OLED TVs to the latest wireless headphones. He was formerly the Senior Editor, TV and AV at TechRadar (Tom's Guide's sister site) and has previously written for GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer and other outlets over the last decade. Not sure which TV you should buy? Drop him an email or tweet him on Twitter and he can help you out.