Due to increasing quality and falling prices, projectors are now being used in applications where they haven't been widely used before. One such area is PC gaming, where high-resolution monitors have reigned supreme for many years. And while projectors suited to PC gaming have a lot in common with home theater projectors, they also have some unique factors that need to be considered. Native resolution, while important on home theater projectors, is absolutely critical on PC gaming machines. Video delay, also known as latency or "lag," can make or break the gaming experience.
We took a look at five projectors for use with a PC- the Dell 1609WX, Hitachi CPX3, Planar PR5030, Epson PowerLite 400W, and Panasonic's AX200U. The first four are native 1280x800, a common resolution in computing today. The last is Panasonic's first dedicated "gaming" projector, built for best performance with console games.
Video games are not just the domain of console systems like the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. People have been using personal computers to play games since before game consoles existed, and continue to do so today. While they are similar to console games in many ways, they are not the same. The method of output is typically different - most computers use a VGA connection, while some later graphics cards use DVI or HDMI. While a projector lacking component video inputs would be a poor choice for console games, it would be perfectly acceptable for PC games. In addition, the resolution of a PC game can be set by the user, rather than being dictated by the system. While an Xbox 360 will output all games at 720p, 1080i, or 1080p with little user input into the matter, PC games can be told to output in a given resolution, limited only by your computer's graphics card and processing power. This is a useful option that can be used to match the game's resolution to that of your projector, ensuring the sharpest possible picture and reducing video delay.
The transmission of a video signal from source to screen is not instantaneous. There is a brief delay between the time a video signal reaches your projector and the time it is displayed on screen. This is due to the projector's processing of the input signal, namely scaling. The more processing that occurs, the greater the delay. Conversely, reducing image processing by the projector reduces video delay.
Most of the time, video delay is not an issue. Many popular games in the first-person shooter genre will not be negatively impacted by video delay. Gameplay in these titles is usually not dependent on exact timing, and when it is, a delay of 100 milliseconds is not enough to negatively impact performance. Gamers playing The Sims or World of Warcraft, arguably the two most popular games available today, will likely never know video delay exists for the same reason. If you are among these folks, or play any other games where user input is not highly dependent on exact timing, you have nothing to worry about.
Likewise, if you are playing a multiplayer game over the internet, you need not worry about video delay. A side-effect of network play is lag, a phenomenon where game slowdowns are caused due to the speed of the players' computers communicating. Network lag will cause far more slowdown than video delay, and shaving a handful of milliseconds off of your projector's processing time will likely have no noticeable effect on gameplay.
However, PC games sometimes rely on precise user response that is extremely time-sensitive. In this case, ignoring the issue is not practical. If your projector were 100 milliseconds behind the source, any input you made would already be 100 milliseconds too late. In fighting games and rhythm games like the popular Guitar Hero series, 100 milliseconds can be the difference between great success and utter, crushing failure.
Recently, my girlfriend and I saw an in-store display at my local Best Buy where a game console and a large, expensive flatscreen were advertised as a package deal. The console was set up with Rock Band, a rhythm game where players use instrument-shaped controllers to play along with popular songs. Seeing that we had plenty of time to spare, we decided to play for a while. Sadly, whoever had set up the display did not bother to use Rock Band's onboard calibration system, so the image on screen did not match the actual game's timing. I missed every single note and failed in short order.
All is not lost, however. An easy way to eliminate or greatly reduce video delay is to send the projector a signal that it does not need to re-scale. This makes 1280x800 an excellent resolution for a PC gaming projector, since you can use 1280x800, 1280x768, 720p, or XGA if you're willing to live with black bars -- all without doing any scaling at all. Using these signals will keep video delay to an absolute minimum. By that same token, however, upscaling lower resolutions or compressing higher ones will cause some delay.
Last fall, Panasonic released their AX200U, which they marketed as the gaming projector of choice, due in part to its low video delay of 1.5 frames in "Game" mode. While Panasonic does not state the resolution or frame rate used to reach this 1.5 frames number, our testing showed that the AX200's video delay when using a native signal was so slight that it was beyond our capacity to measure. On the other hand, non-native signals were delayed about 70 milliseconds, or 4 frames, due to the projector's need to re-scale the image.
Further testing revealed that video delay on almost every projector in our round-up was negligible when using a native resolution signal. The AX200 is also less versatile for PC gaming than 1280x800 projectors, since it can only display 1280x720 natively. The bottom line is that the AX200 is a fantastic console gaming projector, but not the best choice for a PC gaming projector. This is not intended as a slight against the AX200, but merely an attempt to show how PC gaming and console gaming are not synonymous.
The Dell 1609WX is very similar to the 1409X we reviewed in June, both in terms of looks and ease of use. The 1609WX has the same long-life lamp as the 1409X, rated for 4,000 hours of operation with a $199 replacement cost. This is an impressive benefit for a projector serving as a replacement computer monitor, as it is likely to see many hours of use. Contrast is rated at 1900:1, which is more than enough to give most computer games the depth they require. The projector retails for roughly $750, so those on a budget won't have to strain too far.
Dell rated their 1609WX at 2500 lumens, and we measured a maximum of 2422 from our test sample. In color-balanced "sRGB" mode, the projector measured 1820 lumens, and dropped to 1457 lumens in low lamp mode. No matter which way you slice it, this is a bright machine.
The 1609WX does suffer from the most restrictive lensing in this roundup; its 1.10:1 lens will project a 100" diagonal image from 11' to 12'. Color accuracy and saturation are a bit lackluster when compared to the very strong performance from Planar and Hitachi. Video delay with non-native signals was about 90 milliseconds, or 5 frames at 60 fps, which put the 1609WX firmly in the middle of the running. While 5 frames of delay may be noticeable in games that are extremely time-sensitive, most gamers will never know it's there. Finally, the projector has a two year warranty, as opposed to three years on the competing models.
The 1609WX is the least expensive of the WXGA models tested here, and is among the most affordable in terms of lamp life and replacement costs. While it is not the best at any one thing, it presents a well-rounded package for the PC gamer.
Planar's PR5030 is another 1280x800 DLP projector. Rated at 3000 lumens, our test sample measured 2375 ANSI lumens in its brightest mode, and 881 lumens in color balanced mode. Low lamp mode drops output to 665 lumens. This gives the PR5030 the most highly variable lumen output of any projector in this round-up, and an ideal choice for environments both bright and dim. Contrast, meanwhile, is rated 2000:1, the highest in the group. In shadowy scenes, the PR5030 makes it easier to pick out shadow detail. Completing the trifecta, color is accurate and well saturated, among the best in the group.
Connectivity is impressive, with two VGA inputs and one DVI-I port. Like the 1609WX, it has a 4,000 hour lamp, though replacements cost $400 instead of $199. Video delay measured out to roughly 30-40ms across the board, including with native signals. The PR5030 is the only projector to show delay across the board, which makes it the slowest when using a native resolution signal. However, 30ms is barely two frames of video, and the PR5030 has less delay when scaling than all other projectors in the review, making it the fastest at all other times.
If it's starting to sound like the Planar PR5030 can do no wrong, remember that it costs roughly $1500 on the street or $1800 MSRP. At double the price of the 1609WX, the PR5030 comes with a bevy of extra features -- but as always, quality costs. The PR5030 is an excellent all-around PC gaming projector, if you can cope with the hefty price tag and higher than average lamp replacement cost.
Hitachi's CPX3, a 1280x800 LCD model, is the smallest projector in the group at only 2.3" x 10.8" x 8.1" and 3.9 lbs. This high degree of portability makes it a great companion for a laptop, for those times when a 13" to 15" screen just won't cut it. The CPX3 has the only HDMI port aside from the AX200, potentially adding versatility - though if your graphics card outputs DVI, you'll need to purchase an adapter. A 1.2:1 zoom is slightly more flexible than the other 1280x800 projectors, though not by much.
In color balanced mode, the CPX3 put out 1736 lumens in high lamp and 1180 ANSI lumens in low lamp mode. Many users in quiet environments will want to use low lamp mode to keep fan noise to a minimum. The CPX3 has superb color performance, which is a must in the bright world of many PC games. This tiny package sells for roughly $860.
The CPX3's small size does not come without disadvantages -- as the smallest of the group, it is also the loudest and hottest. Heat exhausts back and to the right, which could cause problems if placed on a table with other computer equipment, which can be heat-sensitive. Contrast is rated at 500:1, and while it does a good job with most content, heavily shadowed areas will not look as clear as on the DLP projectors. To get around this, you might want to use a smaller image size; a picture that looks washed out at 100 inches will look much more dynamic at 60 inches. Video delay clocked in at 50 milliseconds when upconverting a smaller video signal and 100 milliseconds when compressing a larger one. This puts it ahead of the curve when upconverting, but behind it when compressing.
The CPX3 is an excellent choice to pair with a laptop due to its small size, light weight, and bright picture. As long as you keep the exhaust vent pointed away from yourself and your computer, the CPX3 can go everywhere you want it to.
Epson's 400W is a short throw projector, built to create a large image in little space. The advantages to this are obvious - large image sizes in rooms not traditionally able to house a projector. And, indeed, the 400W can create a 100" 16:10 image from a mere 3'6" away. This, combined with the projector's excellent color, make it a strong contender for the PC gaming market.
But it is not for everyone. The 400W has no zoom, so there's no way to adjust the projector's image size short of physically moving it. There is a digital "zoom," but it simply re-scales the image into a smaller frame. When reducing video delay is critical, this sort of zoom is not an option. The lack of a digital input likewise limits flexibility. In addition, the 400W sells for almost $1400, making it more expensive than several other options.
The Epson PowerLite 400W is a great choice for those interested in large-screen PC gaming who don't have an entire room to devote to the hobby. However, keep in mind that the 400W needs to be mounted very carefully, so be sure to plan out your installation before taking the plunge.
PC gaming and its special requirements mean that not just any projector will do. Aside from the usual concerns about contrast and color and adequate lumen output, video delay is an important factor and can make or break a projector for some folks. While we found very little video delay in the products we looked at, there was enough to potentially cause issues for some gamers. The moral of the story here is to send your projector a native signal whenever possible, and the rest should take care of itself.
Each projector in the group has something unique to offer. Panasonic's AX200U has a long zoom lens and excellent lens shift, though 1280x720 is a limitation when using PC games. The Dell 1609WX is a well-rounded package with long lamp life and cheap replacements, but color is not as accurate as some other comparable projectors. The Planar PR5030 has great color, contrast, and connectivity; it is an excellent choice if you can swing the $1,500 price tag. Hitachi's CPX3 is an excellent portable option, but one must be aware of heat exhaust. Finally the Epson 400W is a good choice for small spaces, but mounting can be tricky due to the lack of zoom. These projectors are not all designed for the same purpose. Each one has its own strengths and faults, and being aware of them is the key to making an intelligent decision and, ultimately, a satisfying purchase.