What makes for a good video game projector? Video games are a sort of cross between data and video, and often they can include text that needs to be displayed clearly as well as stunning, cinematic visuals. As a result, finding a projector ideal for video games can be difficult, but we have chosen a couple of contenders that we consider to be a good match for video gaming.

Early generation video games delivered pixelated video and cheesy computer-generated sound effects. But these days, video and sound quality is much improved. New game systems typically output at least 480p, if not 720p or 1080i. Some next-generation systems are even claiming the ability to output 1080p. Few video game enthusiasts will be willing to lay out huge bucks for the latest 1080p projectors, but 720p projectors have dropped to prices well within reach of the average consumer. Most widescreen 1280x720p models display high definition content beautifully, and this makes 720p the resolution of choice for today's video game projection.

Video games can consist of many different types of content within the same game. Often a game will include menus with text that needs to be displayed clearly, so image sharpness must be top-notch. Lately, games have been incorporating cinematic sequences that are nearly on a level with high-definition video content. Gameplay has been getting more and more lifelike, with realistic light and shadow detail. As such, high contrast helps to properly display shadow detail, which is often quite complex. Color must be accurate and well saturated.

Of utmost importance is overall image brightness. Home theater projectors seem to average out at 300 to 350 ANSI lumens, which is ideal for a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen in a dark room. However, video games look better if the image is somewhat brighter. Increased brightness not only makes the image appear more vivid, but also provides the game room with enough light that you can easily see your controllers. While many video gamers have the controller layout mapped to their long-term memory (myself included), not all of us have that kind of time to devote to the hobby. Since video game console controllers are not backlit, a little extra light in the room from the screen or an ambient source is helpful.

Our picks

If you are already using a projector at home, chances are good that you are happy with it. Nothing says you cannot use your existing projector for video gaming, and as a general rule a good home theater projector will perform as well with video games as it does with video and film. However, if you haven't yet stepped into the world of projectors, there are a couple of low-cost options that will make for an outstanding video game experience.

Sanyo PLV-Z3

One of the low-cost 720p projectors on the market today is the Sanyo PLV-Z3. The Z3 is an older projector, released in October of 2004. At the time, it was an excellent value for a 1280x720 projector, with an 800 ANSI lumen output, 2000:1 contrast, a wide lens shift range, component and HDMI inputs, and quiet operation. Today it is an even greater value, since it offers great 720p performance for a street price hovering around $1200.

When using the Z3 for video games, we made several changes from settings suited to home theater. We switched over to "video" mode, which offers a brighter picture and opens up shadow detail by tweaking the gamma. We left the lamp on high output and brought screen size down to 80" diagonal. This gave us a nice bright picture that is still of a suitable size for gaming.

One important change that we made was to disable the Z3's auto-iris; we found that due to the fast motion inherent in many video games, the iris changes became distracting and tended to lag behind the action on-screen.

With this setup, we tested several games on our Xbox. These included Halo 1 and 2 (both of which are relatively bright games, with varying amounts of detail), Brothers in Arms (which has lots of green content that can be hard to differentiate), and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (which is a very, very dark game). All of these games looked just about as they should, though we did have to change brightness and contrast settings to get Splinter Cell to look satisfactory.

Thanks to the Z3's lens shift range, we were able to set the projector on a coffee table and angle the projected image onto our wall-mounted screen. This saves the expense of a ceiling mount and simplifies your setup.

Optoma HD72

If you've got a slightly larger budget, consider stepping up to the Optoma HD72. For an incremental outlay (the HD72 is currently selling around $2000) you get a higher performance projector with some desirable features.

The HD72 is rated at 1300 theoretical ANSI lumens and 3500:1 contrast - or 5000:1 contrast with the "ImageAI" feature turned on. With the HD72 at cinema settings with the lamp on high, we measured 500 real ANSI lumens. With settings tailored to video games, this number could easily reach higher, though 500 ANSI should be more than enough for an 80"-100" diagonal screen.

Contrast is excellent, and black level and shadow detail give a whole new dynamic to games like Splinter Cell. The Z3 struggled with dark content, whereas the HD72 brings out much more shadow detail. The HD72's superior contrast can help to bring some of the more cinematic games such as Halo or Half-Life 2 to life, and add to the "movie" feel that many games now try to achieve.

There is a good deal more image noise on the HD72 than on the Z3, but we see this on many DLP projectors, not just the HD72. However, in games with lots of rapid motion, this image noise tends to go mostly unnoticed.

Rainbow artifacts should not be a problem on the HD72. Not only does the HD72 feature a 4x rotation speed 7-segment color wheel, but video games do not typically include the type of content that most often causes rainbow artifacts to appear. Personally, I am very sensitive to rainbows when watching film or video. However my experience has been that, even on DLP projectors with 2x rotation speed color wheels, rainbows have not been a distraction when playing video games. Most likely this is because the camera moves to accommodate your eyes when playing games, rather than your eyes moving to see everything that's on camera, as is the case with film. This results in a minimum amount of rapid eye movements, and hence fewer rainbows.

Mounting options are not nearly as flexible on the HD72 as they are on the Z3 because it has a more limited 1.2x zoom range and no lens shift. The HD72 has a fixed upward throw angle that lends itself to either ceiling or coffee table mounting. While a coffee table or ceiling mount may be ideal for your playing environment, the lens shift on the Z3 makes rear shelf mounting an option without resorting to keystone correction.

Conclusion

Until recently, 720p resolution projectors were high enough in price that they were used only for serious home theater. But now, with great 720p performance available at such low prices, it is much easier for video gaming hobbyists to justify the selection of a 720p projector. The much bigger image you can get from a projector immerses you in the experience in a way that you just can't get from TV or flat panel video displays.

The Sanyo PLV-Z3, while a touch outdated for home theater applications, makes a fine video gaming projector and a great addition to any home entertainment setup. The Optoma HD72 is slightly higher on the price scale, but it delivers an exceptional image that will make most any game system look stunning. And with flatscreen LCD, DLP, and plasma TVs priced at several thousand dollars each for a much smaller picture, projectors are now the most affordable way to get the most from your high-definition gaming system.