Gaming with a Home Theater Projector: Pros and Cons
A common question we get is if you can you game with a projector? The simple answer is yes. Heck, if you are motivated enough, you can play Doom on a graphing calculator – ask me how I know! But, just like the calculator, the gaming experience from a home theater projector may not be ideal. That said, there is something to be said about the experience of playing your favourite game on a 120″ screen! As is typical of AV, there are pros and cons to using a projector for your gaming setup. But armed with some knowledge, you can make an informed decision about if a home theater projector is the best for your gaming rig.
- Screen size! I game on a 65″ OLED from about 8′ away. Even at that distance, I often find myself squinting to see detail, and split-screen games are even worse. Gaming on a home theater projector is something I’ve done in the past, and it’s fun as heck! Driving and sports games are immersive and more lifelike, first-person shooters are dynamic, and playing Rock Band with my buddies on the big screen is a highlight. Don’t underestimate the experience of gaming on a projector. It’s like the difference between watching the ball game on TV and being there live. On top of that, you now have a great movie room as well.
- It’s cheap(er). So let’s be honest, rarely is AV cheap. But when you compare a decent projector setup to the largest direct-view panels out there, the projector is far cheaper in comparison. For example, in Canada, a 77″ OLED or 85″ FALD panel is still upwards of $5000. In contrast, for $2000-$4000, you can get a 120″ screen and 4K projector. Now I know that you will point out that there are lots of $1000-$1500 edge-lit 75″ TVs out there. Maybe not everyone wants or needs an OLED or high-end FALD panel for gaming. That is true. But I would argue that a $1000-$1500 panel will not do anything well. So while a home theater projector will give you a large gaming display, you will be disappointed with its movie performance. How do I know? I had a $1500 75″ panel, and I sold it for $1000 six months later, replacing it with a 65″ OLED. Right now, even mid-tier projectors have pretty decent HDR performance, meaning that inch for inch, projectors offer a lot of bang for the buck.
- Projectors last longer. I have owned four TVs in 12 years. Granted, I did buy two TVs in six months a couple of years ago, but two of the four TVs gave up the ghost at about five years each. By contrast, a friend of mine reluctantly changed out his 15-year-old home theater projector. Why? Because he couldn’t find an aftermarket bulb, and he didn’t want to pay the scalpers on eBay an obscene amount for a “vintage, new in box” bulb. He has zero complaints about the image, but he doesn’t want to spend $800 on a bulb when he can get a new 4k projector for $1600ish.
- Input lag. Let’s be upfront about this one. The input lag on a projector will likely never be as good as a flat-panel TV. But just how bad is it? Older projectors had much worse input lag than their newer counterparts. A lot of older projectors had input lags of around 30-40ms. For a pro gamer, this would have been unacceptable. For the average gamer, 30-40ms can be noticeable on really fast-paced games. However, because home theater projectors are becoming more popular with gamers, we see gaming modes in newer projectors that can drop input lag to under 20ms. In some high-end projectors, under 10ms! While this still may not be acceptable to pros, under 20ms would make a projector appropriate for nearly all home gamers.
- Contrast. So again, a little bit of upfront honesty. Projectors do not have the same contrast ratio as a flatscreen TV. That’s not to say that the contrast ratio on a projector is terrible. 3000:1 is pretty typical. But do you need the absolute inky blacks of an OLED? In a lot of cases, you don’t. As I said previously, many newer projectors have game modes that turn off almost all processing that could add input lag. This also removes a lot of the “cinematic” vibe anyway. If you like to game in HDR, you may not like a lower contrast ratio. But if you want to game in HDR on a projector, the chances are that you are investing in a higher-end projector anyway so that you will have a better contrast ratio.
- Light control. Typically you need to have a nearly dark room for a projector. A light-controlled room allows the projector to get as bright (and dark) an image as possible without any ambient light washing out the screen. So this means that unless you can completely control the light in your room, a projector is not for you. Business-class projectors work well in high light environments but generally don’t have motion processing or HDR support. They can work for gaming in a pinch, but you’ll want something better as a long-term solution.
- Motion sickness. For some people, motion sickness is a possibility. Motion sickness happens because you sit too close to a huge screen and constantly move your head to take in the whole picture. How do you fix that? Sit further back or get a smaller screen. A lot of enthusiasts get the largest screen they can and try and get as close as possible. While that will put you in action, it will probably make you want to vomit! If you must sit close, get an appropriate sized screen. That may be a home theater projector, or a gaming monitor or flat panel. Just pick the right size with the right price. Motion sickness is doubly problematic for games. While movies can pan around quickly, the camera movements of a first person shooter are insanely fast. A screen size that is acceptable for movies may still be too large for gaming.
For the typical enthusiast, home theater projectors make a lot of sense for both movies and gaming. Aside from the massive screen and cinematic feel that a projector brings, you also get some serious longevity. Many of today’s projectors are very competitively priced and have many features you want from flat-panel TVs. But, be warned. If you want the absolute best picture quality and HDR performance that can rival a panel, you can expect to pay a lot of money. You will also need light control in your room. But for the average enthusiast, mid-tier projector setups will do 95% of what you want at a much lower cost than a good 75-85″ panel.