DLP vs. Laser Projectors: Which is Better
In looking for a high-quality projector, you will encounter many different types of technology that power these versatile devices. As part of your decision-making process to buy a projector, you’re going to ask yourself which is the best one for your needs, so you need to understand the differences in how these technologies work.
This guide is intended to help you understand two of the highest-quality projection methods available: DLP chips and laser light sources.
Here you’ll gain an understanding of how DLP chips are superior to other chip methods, and why a laser can beat a projection bulb any day of the week. On top of that, we’ll cover some of the basics of how a projector works if you don’t understand, so you can understand how these individual components fit into the larger machine.
All this information will help you decide, but it’s important to compare your individualized needs as well. There are many different contexts for using a projection system; home theater, commercial attractions, museums, and so on, so it’s important to understand how your specific setting influences what you’re going to need from a projector.
After overviewing the best in projection tech, we’ll revolve back to your quest for the perfect projector.
Why Would I Want a DLP Projector?
DLP technology, or a Digital Light Processor, is the newest chip-based technology that projects high-definition images. It works differently from LCoS and 3LCD counterparts. The result is an image where the ‘screen door effect’ is minimized and pixels are placed tightly together.
This creates higher-resolution images that look crisp in motion and static. As Projector Reviews describes, this technology provides extremely high native contrast and operates much faster than its counterparts. They accomplish this in a form factor that is both smaller and lighter, which makes them better used in home theaters, offices, or even school auditoriums.
Quick Note: Digital Light Processor’ is actually a marketing term for ‘DLP’ projectors. In originally designing them, Texas Instruments called these chips a Digital Micro Device, or DMD. Digital Light Processor became the go-to term for these as it better conveyed to customers what the technology actually did.
In large-scale productions, projectionists are utilizing three DLP chips in their systems to provide images for high-performance and large-scale productions. These three-chip systems, similar to 3LCD, are able to provide images with the higher brightness and picture quality seen in award ceremonies, musical productions, or just in large arenas.
However, these are exceedingly expensive chips, and not all 4K advertised projectors actually display natively in 3840x2160.
DLP chips are known for being highly innovative in pushing projectors toward consumer markets, as single-chip DLP projectors have been the fastest to decrease in size. The size efficiency of these chips lead to DLP projectors being the first to break many weight standards, and today can weigh as little as just 2.5 pounds.
Comparatively, there are very few LCD projectors weighing less than four pounds. Currently, DLP chips are also working to expand into 3D technology, although this is still in its infancy and not compatible with many consumer-grade 3D solutions.
Still, it is a testament to the fact that DLP technology is able to continue pushing the home-projection medium with higher quality images at more affordable prices and in more reasonable form factors.
Are all 4K DLP Projectors Truly 4K?
Many consumer-grade DLP projectors utilize a technology called pixel shifting and aren’t displayed in 4K resolutions. Instead, the technical resolutions for these are 2716x1528x2 or even 1920x1080x4.
In these resolutions, the first two dimensions are the dimensions of the native image, and the third is the number of times it is displayed and slightly shifted away from the original.
Here these projectors are ‘cheating’ and creating the illusion of greater fidelity by displaying more pixels, even if the pixels are repeated. This is accomplished both on the projector’s chip and with the help of a high-quality projection lens that allows for precise pixel placement.
When examined closely and at exceedingly large scales, these differences can be seen, but for many home consumers, the difference is negligible.
How Do Laser Projectors Work?
A standard projector works by utilizing a single white light bulb and projecting it through a color wheel to filter out some wavelengths of light and create the red, green, and blue colors used to make up an image.
As The Home Theater DIY describes, through this process two-thirds of that white light is discarded and does not reach the projector’s chip, which is the element that ultimately produces the colored image. There are multiple methods for this, such as DLP which uses tiny mirrors for light deflection, LCD which passes light through a tiny liquid-crystal display, or LCoS which is a hybrid of the two.
A laser projector, on the other hand, replaces this single white light bulb with primary-colored lasers, which are diffused before hitting a chip and then focused by multiple lenses. This technology produces vibrant, high-quality images, but is exceedingly expensive, and most consumer-grade versions of this technology opt for a single laser, instead of one for each primary color.
This hybrid single-layer technology consists of a laser split into multiple beams of light which meet at a prism and are then directed toward a chip and through a high-quality projection lens. There are other, more cost-effective means of utilizing lasers for projection, but throughout them, they diminish the amount of light lost between the source and the lens.
Quick Note: If you want a detailed diagram of how a laser projector works, you can see some from this CNet article. Here, you see how certain laser configurations only include two primary colored lasers and have one reflect through a layer of phosphorus to create the third color. This technique is complicated and requires multiple mirrors within the projector, but ultimately is more cost-efficient than simply adding lasers.
Laser projectors are most valuable for their efficiency, as they fully utilize their light output and therefore do not need as many resources in order to run. This means using less electricity, producing less heat, and even removing the heating period that some projectors need to start their operation.
They are also able to last much longer than bulb-powered projectors, with lasers having a life expectancy of 20,000 hours, compared to a bulb’s 2,000. However, this increased lifespan comes with a much higher price tag, which can make these projectors difficult for consumers to access.
In addition, if you frequently move your projector or have limited space for it, you should note that laser projectors are both heavier and larger than their counterparts, meaning you’ll want to see if this laser projector will fit with your mounting equipment or fit into a limited space.
For the safety-conscious, laser projectors are equally as safe as traditional bulb projectors, if not safer due to the lack of heat produced. Within the context of the projector, the light itself is diffused, which removes any possibility of it burning or over-heating objects.
Of course, it is also dangerous to look into the light of a laser projector, but only slightly more so than when looking into a bulb projector. Lasers will only blind people when they are high-powered and concentrated directly into the eye, contrary to popular misconception. Being blinded by a consumer-grade laser is exceedingly rare.
If you do have pre-existing light sensitivities though, you should reconsider whether a projector is right for you.
Which Type is Better: Laser or DLP?
While a lot of your purchasing decisions are going to be personalized based on your budgets, needs, and limitations, there are still areas different projectors excel in. When evaluating your options you should be sure to examine all of these factors to understand the use-case for one type over the other, as it will help you understand how that differs from your own experience.
Projector Ninja has a great breakdown of the ups and downs of each type, and some analysis on how they both compare.
Pros & Cons: Laser
Laser projectors offer supreme quality, outclassing all other forms of projection technology, especially when paired with the right projection lenses. On top of that, lasers are both longer-lasting and more durable than projector bulbs, which can break and require warm-up time in order to get running.
However, this comes at an immense monetary cost, and these projectors can be very hard to find at consumer-price points. For those who need to get a lot of life from their projectors, these can actually be more cost-efficient considering their 20,000-hour lifespan, but for more casual users this might not be applicable.
Pros & Cons: DLP
DLP projectors are exceptional models for low-light environments with their exceptional light output. This doesn’t take away from the image quality at all, as these projectors have high color accuracy and minimal motion blur for a great viewing experience at 60 frames per second.
The experience will not always be perfect though, as these projectors can sometimes experience “artifacting” such as a rainbow light trail or after images. This issue isn’t present in 3-chip models, however most consumer-priced models will only include one chip.
How They Compare
While laser projectors will be of higher quality, the comparisons are only discernible through a side-by-side comparison, and even then they are hard to notice.
Instead, the benefits to a laser projector come in its energy efficiency and longevity, as laser crystals last far longer than standard projection bulbs. While you will get better color performance with less maintenance when operating a laser projector, these will be far more expensive and harder for average consumers to acquire.
So, if you’re a power-user who wants a strong projector with a long shelf-life, you might want to consider a laser model. On the other hand, if you take a more casual approach when using your projector and will not need to perform maintenance often, then you could lean toward DLP.
Acquiring a projector can be a large investment, and should be taken seriously if you’re investing in any form of home theater or film display assembly.
After working to acquire proper sound equipment, the means to output high-resolution content, an appropriate screen, and possibly even an entire home theater with furniture and lighting, you’ll want a premium video experience that’s equivalent to the rest of your ensemble. This means finding one in your budget that offers the highest quality available, with 4K support and minimal image artifacting.
A laser projector utilizes a crystalized laser instead of a mechanical bulb, which means it can last for ten times as long, doesn’t generate as much heat, and doesn’t require maintenance in the same way a standard chip projector might. On the other hand, DLP can utilize pixel-shifting to offer improved visual results with sub-4K resolutions, making them a more affordable option for the average consumer.
Each form of projection technology brings about its own merits, whether that be performance, longevity, or simply cost.
This guide gives you a good preview of what you can expect when previewing certain models, beyond a simple image quality comparison and cross-examining specifications.