Bigger is better! That has always been the rallying cry for using a projector for gaming instead of a computer monitor or a television. But while that phrase captures the biggest and most important benefit of projectors, it ignores that, for a long while, some attributes considered more important to playability have been lacking. Fortunately, over the past few years projector companies have been putting a bigger focus on gaming and now, more than ever, a projector setup can truly compete with tried-and-true panel displays.
Why Game with a Projector?
As mentioned, the biggest benefit of having a projector as your gaming display—quite literally—is the possible size of the image. The bigger image feels more immersive, something I find especially true with racing games like Forza Horizon 4 because the car interior size closely matches reality. TV sizes tend to top out at around an 85-inch diagonal while many projectors support images up to 300 inches (although, in reality, we're all likely watching something around a 100- to 120-inch diagonal image due to our wall sizes and the light output of a typical projector). 85-inch TVs are also heavy, with most weighing around 100 pounds, which can make them a logistical nightmare to hang on your wall without assistance and a mild understanding of building construction. If you instead put one of these on a credenza or TV stand, that surface needs to be wide enough to accommodate the TV feet, which are almost always at or near the edge of a TV that size—around 75 inches apart.
And then there's the cost. While the price of large 4K TVs has come down considerably over the last few years, so has the cost of projector technology. To the point, very good 4K projectors can be had for around $1,000-$1,400. It's true that great TVs can be had for the same price, but you're likely looking at a 65-inch model for a decent TV in that price range. Each player in a four-player game of Mario Kart 8 gets a 32-inch diagonal quadrant on that 65-inch set, while a 120-inch picture from a projector explodes that to 65 inches per player. How's that for getting in the action?
What about computer monitors? Because of the distance we sit from them, they fill a good amount of our view and therefore can be very immersive. But that distance also means we'll be more apt to see pixels, especially on lower resolution screens found in most gaming monitors—e.g. 1080p (1920x1080) and 1440p (2560x1440). These monitors are made with the gamer in mind, though, and usually do include things like very low input lag, high frame rate support, and support for variable refresh rate (which helps to eliminate the possibility of screen tearing). Computer gaming also tends to be a more solitary in-person experience. Yes, we all connect via online chat while playing, but there's much less capability for gaming in the same room on the same display (and LAN parties are basically nonexistent nowadays).
Gaming sessions can often be marathon events, increasing our already high average use of devices with screens. One of the dangers of so much screen time is our exposure to blue light, or more specifically high-energy blue light. Studies point to extended direct exposure to high-energy blue light in the range of 380 to 455 nanometers (nm) as being damaging to our retinal health. In the long term, it's attributable to macular degeneration (the macula is the central part of the retina and responsible for focusing our vision). In the short term we can experience eye strain (I think we've all felt this at some point in our lives). There are monitors that even come with a blue light mode that filters out the more harmful light band, which, expectedly, also adversely affects the visual quality of the picture. But when you're using a projector, there isn't any direct blue light reaching your eyes. It's reflecting off the screen and much of those harmful light rays are being absorbed. That isn't to say using a projector instead of a TV or monitor is 100% safe, but the research suggests it certainly is a safer option for long term eye health.
The Problems with Projector Gaming
So, a projector gives you bigger screen size for the same or less cost than a TV or monitor. Take my money, right? Well, hang on a sec. It's not all butterflies and rainbows. While projectors' screen size vs. cost ratio blows TVs out of the water, there are still some things that they can't compete with. When compared to new TVs and monitors, projectors don't have the necessary light output to properly display HDR as it was meant to be seen on flatpanel displays. And with the technology gaining steam over the past few years, there are only going to be more and more games that support HDR and, more importantly, are designed from the ground up to take advantage of it.
One of the main issues with HDR on projectors is that in order to get enough light output for highlights that pop, the black level becomes elevated and ends up suffering, which hurts contrast. And even then, the brightest brights can't compete with a television, so the overall dynamic range isn't as wide. Tone mapping helps the projector do its best, and there are ways to optimize your projector for HDR, but we're still a while away from projectors that can compete with TVs in this regard. And for Xbox gamers, there aren't any projectors currently available that support Dolby Vision.
Also missing when it comes to projectors is variable refresh rate. What variable refresh rate (VRR) does is link up the refresh rate of the display with the refresh rate of the signal in order to eliminate screen tearing—an artifact that makes it look like your screen is in two different sections slightly offset across a horizontal line. It happens mostly during games with fast motion, like FPS or racing games, and I find it to be more apparent when gaming with a computer that has a high-powered graphics card pumping out a constantly fluctuating high framerate. There are different versions of VRR, the two main being FreeSync from AMD and G-Sync from Nvidia. The HDMI 2.1 spec provides for the possibility of supporting HDMI VRR (a feature that also showed up on a handful of HDMI 2.0 TVs). But we're still waiting for VRR to make its way into projectors.
Features To Look For
Assuming that big, engaging image from a projector outweighs any of these caveats, what should you look for in your next gaming projector? Here are some key features to keep in mind.
Input Lag. Quite possibly the most important attribute to look for in a gaming projector is low input lag. Input lag measures how long it takes a signal entering the projector's video input to reach the screen. In terms of gaming, this is how long it takes the action of a button press to show up on screen. Let's say Cal in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is sliding down an ice-coated shaft and needs to jump across a chasm to avoid falling to his death. If the input lag is too slow, by the time the signal from you pressing the jump button reaches the screen, it's too late.
Projectors have a well-deserved bad rep for really high input lag. I can't count the number of projectors I've measured with input lag greater than 100 milliseconds. If you're watching movies, who cares, right? But, with a game running at 60fps, that's around a 6 frame delay, which makes the game unplayable.
Gaming projectors today are designed with low input lag at the top of their priority list. Anything below 30 ms is really good, but we're now seeing projectors that have numbers in the teens—and some single-digit values at higher refresh rates. That rivals TVs and monitors. At that speed, any delay is negligible and anyone but the top one percent of competitive gamers won't feel it. (And those folks are competing for their eSports team on a 1080p monitor in an arena, anyway).
High Refresh Rate. When watching movies and TV, we're most concerned with 24 and 60 Hz playback. Watching at a higher refresh rate—120 or 240 Hz—can smooth out motion and cause the movie to look less film-like (whether it looks natural to you and whether you like it is another debate). With games, motion smoothing is less obtrusive and in fact highly desirable since the content is all computer generated and doesn't look inherently unnatural as it does with movies.
The other significant benefit to having a gaming projector with a high refresh rate is tied to the topic mentioned above—input lag. When a projector is able to display at 120 Hz, the input lag is basically halved. So that 1080p projector with 16.8 ms of input lag will have only 8.4 ms of input lag at 120 Hz. Bump that up to 240 Hz, and you're now down to around 4.2 ms of input lag, competing with the ultra-low numbers we see from better gaming monitors.
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In order to take full advantage of a projector running at a high refresh rate, you'll want a game that runs natively at 120 or 240 fps. The new consoles—Xbox Series X/S and PS5—implement high frame rate games in different ways, although they all are limited to 120 fps. To turn on high frame rate with a PS5, you'll need to do it within the game's video options menu, and there are currently only a handful of games supported. With both the Xbox Series X and Series S, the list is much larger, thanks in part to the FPS Boost feature that Microsoft added at the beginning of 2021. This feature increases the refresh rate support for some previously released games to either 60 (if the game was at 30 Hz) or 120 Hz. Not every game supported by this feature is available on both the Series X and Series S. High refresh rate console capability is turned on in the TV & Display Options system menu by selecting 120 Hz from the Refresh Rate dropdown. To enable the FPS Boost support, make sure your console is updated to the most recent system firmware, then navigate to the Compatibility Options in the Manage Game & Add-ons menu to flip the switch.
240 Hz refresh rate is only available if you're gaming from a computer with a good enough graphics card. The option needs to be turned on within your video card's display settings once the projector is connected via HDMI.
Of course, high refresh rate (both 120 and 240 Hz) is currently limited to 1080p (1920x1080) resolution on most released projectors because they're lacking the next key feature...
HDMI 2.1. Playing 4K content at 120 Hz requires a significant amount of bandwidth. Bandwidth that is just not possible with the HDMI 2.0 connections still found on most projectors. We're just now starting to see a few projectors that are implementing HDMI 2.1, but the first true 4K/120Hz gaming projector that combines full bandwidth HDMI 2.1 with low input lag and high refresh rate is yet to be released. I'm hoping we'll see a few announcements come CES in January that will take care of that.
But high refresh rate at 4K is only one of the possible benefits of HDMI 2.1. The increased bandwidth also means the possibility of a 10-bit HDR signal with better chroma subsampling (probably one of the most substantial benefits of HDR on a projector). Some HDMI 2.1 features have already started to show up on HDMI 2.0 (such as eARC), but we'll be seeing these features in greater abundance as 2.1 ports become more common.
Throw Distance. Throw distance, the range of distance from the screen the projector requires to cast a certain size image, is always a concern with projectors. But it is even more so with gaming projectors. I will always advocate to take the time, both with pre-planning your placement and once you have your projector in-hand, to properly set up your projector and avoid any digital zoom or keystone adjustment if at all possible. It can affect projector clarity and diminish light output, but with gaming projectors it can also increase input lag time because you're adding extra processing. In any event, if the projector has a game mode, either as a dedicated picture mode or as a toggle option, this will likely shut off extra processing including any digital image positioning. So it's best to make sure you have a straight-on, square image from the get go.
Right now the main options among gaming projectors are all short throw or standard throw models, and many have limited optical zoom capabilities (the preferred type of zoom that won't affect the signal path). For now, all the decent ultra-short throw console projectors available have input lag that is too high to be considered for serious gaming. As always, you can check the throw distance for any projector in our database with the ProjectorCentral Throw Distance Calculator, and scan for projectors that fit your image size and throw criteria with our Find a Projector database and search engine.
The Future of Projector Gaming
The past year has seen some really interesting developments in gaming. And while they've hit the TV market first, we're going to be seeing more and more of them seep into the gaming projector market. HDMI 2.1 will start showing up more consistently, broader 4K/120Hz compatibility is just around the corner, and more and more projectors will be offering high refresh rate support. But even with what's ahead in our future, the current state of projector gaming is solid. The technology is only going to get better and more affordable than it already is. The time is right to throw Forza 4 up on the screen. Who's got next race?