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When a bedsheet won’t do: The ultimate guide to projector screens

How to Choose a Projector Screen

Some things are just meant to go together. Haggis and neeps. Starsky and Hutch. Chuck Norris and beards. Vodka and a glass. The same is also true for video projectors and screens. In fact, front projectors are often referred to as “two piece projection systems” among the A/V cool kids; you know, the ones that used to wear nerd glasses and push around carts in high-school but now drive Italian sports cars and date super models. 

But how do you go about selecting a projection screen? Can’t you just blast the image onto a white wall? How about getting a big, ole white sheet – a clean one, cause, you know… — and stretching that on your wall? Should you go with something white, grey or black? What exactly do you need to know about choosing a projection screen for your awesome new home theater system?

Basically it comes down to the four S’s: Style, Size, Shape, and Screen Material. And by “basically” I mean, here are over 5,000 words explaining nearly everything you would want to know about projection screens. So take the red pill and follow me down the rabbit hole as I walk you through selecting a screen that will deliver every juicy pixel of high-def goodness from your new projector.

Style

For a dedicated theater, a fixed screen is a great way to go

For all of the different models and glossy, oh-so-sexy product shots that you might see on websites, there are basically only two different styles of screens: fixed and retractable. A fixed screen stays on the wall all the time in a solid frame that has the screen material attached to it. It stretches to the frame, usually attaching by snaps, though sometimes it uses a hook-and-loop system. (It could also be a giant piece of glass material, but more on that later.) A retractable screen raises and lowers into a case on a roller. There are some manual screens – like what your science teacher used to pull down right before showing you some edutainment like, “DNA and You! What you need to know about the mysterious chain of life!”—but typically home theater projectors are motorized. There are certainly quality differences among both categories, but when it comes down to selecting a screen for your theater, this is the first decision that you’ll need to make.

Fixed

Because I am totally non-partial and don’t want to bias you, I won’t say which one… Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I’m gonna tell you which one I like better. When all else is equal, I always prefer a fixed screen for a number of reasons. One, they’re cheaper. Since I work hard* for my money, I like to save it wherever possible. You can purchase a relatively inexpensive fixed screen from companies like Elite Screens, Carada, Sima and Monoprice for a few hundred bucks. Second, since a fixed screen doesn’t have to roll up-and-down, it can maintain a really tight, tensioned surface for a perfectly smooth image. (If I wasn’t being clear, that is a good thing.) Third, from an installation and system integration standpoint, a fixed screen is easier. You don’t have to get power to it or figure out how to make it roll up-and-down with your remote control, it is just there, always ready and waiting to service your every movie watching need. (Kind of how I like to imagine Keira Knightley would be, but I digress…) For a dedicated theater, a fixed screen is a great way to go and is always my first recommendation. I mean, you are going into the room to watch movies, why does the screen need to be hidden? It’s not like a secret that there is going to be a screen in there.

Fixed-Projector-Zero-Edge

You might think fixed-is-fixed-is-fixed, but you’d be wrong. Depending on the manufacturer you choose, you’ll likely notice multiple models of fixed screens. And beyond the different build quality, the biggest differences between lower-end and flagship models will be the frame or border around the screen image. When you look for a fixed frame, I highly recommend getting one that has a thick – 3 to 4 inch – frame around it that is covered in a black, velour-like material. This border serves two really important purposes. First, because it frames the screen in a dead-as-a-shark’s-eye black, it focuses your eyes onto the bright image and improves the perceived contrast of the image. Second, you might need to zoom the image out beyond the screen for some reason, and this black material will “kill” this image overspray, again making the picture look better. Some manufacturers, like Screen Innovations Zero Edge, are touting screens with no borders and how they can look like a giant flat panel and not like a projection screen, but frankly, I’m against it. Just like the black drapes in a commercial theater help the image to look better, the black frame around the screen is there to help you, so I say let it. Also, from an install standpoint, there is zero room for error with Zero Edge.

(* Yes, I consider sitting on my couch, drinking a cappuccino and listening to Rhapsody on my awesome audio system as I type this hard work. Your definition may vary.)

Retractable

For all the love I have for fixed screens, I personally own a motorized screen. Yup. There are times in this world where you might want something for all the right reasons, but still have to go with something else. So why would you go with a retractable screen if it costs more, is more complicated to integrate and might also not produce as flat a screen surface? Primarily if you are installing a screen into a multi-use space like a living or family room where having a 120-inch screen-of-awesome hanging down all the time might get you served divorce papers. In my system I have a 60-inch Plasma TV that we watch during the day and the screen lowers down in front of it when we want to watch movies at night. So, motorized screens definitely serve a purpose in the non-dedicated room and can be great problem solvers. And yes, my system is awesome, thanks for asking.

…motorized screens definitely serve a purpose in the non-dedicated room and can be great problem solvers.

When choosing a retractable screen, you’ll have some different case and mounting options; do you want it to be mounted to the wall, to the ceiling, recessed into a soffit or attic? Also, are you going to sack up and go with a motorized screen or chintz out and go manual? You’ll have to make those decisions based on your room, needs, budget and how loud you want me to groan when I come over and see you manually pulling down your screen. (Are you getting the sense that I’m totally against a manual pull down? Cause, that.)

The big buzzword you want to pay attention to in your retractable screen buying journey is something that says “tab tensioned” or “tensioning.” This is a system that keeps the screen area perfectly flat when it is unfurled and ready to use. Manufacturers employ tensioning using different methods, but the result is that a tensioned screen remains tight and flat over its entire viewing surface. Without the tensioning, you get curling and wrinkling in the screen that – and I believe this is the technical term – really sucks.

Retractable-screenThere are a variety of ways to raise and lower your screen, and you’ll want to make sure you select the option that best suits your needs and system. Here are the choices you’re likely to encounter:

• Manual – You getting up out of your chair and lowering the screen down. Probably using some kind of hook-and-stick method. This will save you money, but result in years – possibly even a lifetime – of ridicule. Unless you are a high-school science teacher that only shows a film once-a-year, save up and get a motorized screen.

• Wall Switch – This is pretty useless in my opinion, because who wants to get up and press a switch to raise and lower their screen? This is usually a popular option in boardrooms and things, I think primarily so some big wig can yell out, “Dammit, Johnson! Get up and lower the screen so we can start this frickin’ Power Point! And get me another latte!”

• Radio Frequency Remote – This is cool because you don’t have to point it and it usually has great range, but RF is impossible to integrate with a universal remote control system, so unless you like having a separate remote for your screen, I’d take a pass on this one.

• Low-Voltage Trigger – This is a handy little devil that can drop the screen when a projector with an equally handy trigger output turns on and then raise it when the projector turns off. Easy-breasy! From an integration standpoint this is incredibly reliable and cheap, but does require a cable from projector to screen and a projector (or some other device, like an automation system) with a trigger output

• RS-232 – If you are going to be doing something complicated – like masking, which I’ll take about later – then you will need more than just “screen up” and “screen down” commands, and RS-232 will give you a lot more commands and reliability. If you have an advanced control system by the likes of Crestron, AMX or Control4, then RS-232 might be the solution for you.

• Infra-red – Good o’le, reliable infra-red! So cheap and easy, readily available and massively supported! This is the easiest way to integrate a motorized screen with nearly any third party – Harmony, URC, RTI, etc. – control system.

Painted

So, a painted wall isn’t really a style, but I guess it is and it is a question that gets asked enough, as in, “Why can’t I just shine the image onto my wall? My wall is white. The screen is white. So why should I spend all that money on a screen? You tryin’ to rip me off here?!?”

Yes, you could fire your projector onto a wall. And, yes, you would see an image. But, it wouldn’t be a great image. A wall has texture and imperfections to it, and that texture is going to be visible when you are shining an image on it. Now, I guess you could sand, paint, sand, paint over-and-over until you either went blind or eventually got to a perfectly smooth area to project an image, but then what color of white are you going to go with? Alpine White? Winter White? Snow White? Wiggity White? Also, the surface of a dedicated screen is formulated to reflect light back to you, the paying viewer, whereas paint isn’t designed to do this and will scatter light helter skelter all over the place. This actually washes out the image and kills contrast. Will your painted wall have hot spotting? Will it have off-angle viewing issues? Will it affect the color temp accuracy of the projected image? Who can say? It’s paint. 

wall-painting

To be fair, there is another option out there from a company called Screen Goo which manufactures a specially formulated material that you paint onto your wall that is supposed to deliver terrific, equal-to-a-screen results. I’ve never personally used it – or even seen it in action – and I think it is one of those things that if you are really a hardcore DIY-er, and you are really good and careful at painting and making your wall surface smooth, and you love the satisfaction of popping a beer at the end of the day and saying, “You see that. Yeah. I did it,” then maybe you could get a good result. However, the Goo isn’t cheap – kits are around $260 – and you still have all of your time and labor, and the uncertainty of how it will turn out. With a fixed screen being so inexpensive and guaranteed of delivering a known result, I just don’t think Goo is worth the gamble. However if you’ve used Screen Goo and love it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.