What makes the perfect gaming setup? Traditionally, the biggest, best TV for consoles, paired with an ultra-sharp, high-refresh-rate monitor for your PC. For retro gamers, the CRT is the holy grail, perfect for playing classics from the SNES and Genesis. But what about the games in the middle—the not-quite retro but not quite modern games, like PS3 and Xbox 360, that run in 720p? As it turns out, a “cheap” projector might just be these games’ best bet.
720p games are at an odd crossroads visually. A CRT, while great for lower-res, older consoles, doesn’t allow the 720p’s HD visuals to properly shine; on the flip side, 1080p and 4K TVs offer resolutions that are too high for 720p. Games will not look as good as they should on these screens, especially 4K ones, because the pixels will not be properly mapped. In order to properly display the signal for these games, you’ll need a 720p monitor.
But first, a recap: Video is made up of pixels. If your game has a resolution of 720p, what that really means is that game is outputting video 1,280 pixels wide, and 720 pixels tall. If you have a 1080p TV, that TV runs 1,920 pixels wide by 1,080p pixels tall. If you have a 4K TV, that TV is 3,840 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels tall. What’s happening when you try to output a 720p video signal to 1080p or 4K is the pixels from your game are blown up to match the increased pixels density of your higher-res TV, resulting in blurriness, jagged edges, and a general loss of detail.
In short, it’s not ideal, and is far from what the game developers had in mind when designing the game.
Enter, the projector. Not just any projector, mind you—a 720p projector. These days, most people are looking for 1080p or 4K projectors, since most of the content they want to stream or play with that projector is 1080p or 4K. You don’t pay Netflix $20 (yes, it’s $20 now) to stream in 720p, after all.
However, if you’re really into 720p consoles like PS3, Xbox 360, and even Wii U, buying a projector specifically for this type of gaming should be on your radar. A native 720p projection will match pixel-for-pixel with these consoles, allowing you to enjoy classics like GTA IV, Uncharted, and Super Mario 3D World better than you can on your Full HD or 4K TV.
But it’s not just games from the mid-2000s that work well here. Retro console reissues, such as the SNES Nintendo Classic Mini or the MegaDrive Mini, run their games at 720p, making these projectors perhaps among the best ways to play these remastered gems. Even consoles capable of 900p or 1080p, like the Wii U and Switch, look great on these projectors when manually outputting at 720p. Whereas before, you might notice graphical imperfections, like blurry edges and soft focus, these games will pop with pixel-perfect 720p projection.
Now, I’m not advocating you buy any cheap projector you see. Cheap projectors made today might seem enticing, but they’re cheap for a reason; they don’t offer good color reproduction, and they’re horribly dim. Depending on your preferences, they might get the job done, but they also might leave something to be desired.
Instead, if you’re serious about your games’ visual reproduction, I suggest you aim your budgetary sights on older projectors—projectors that are cheap not because they aren’t high quality, but because people don’t want them anymore.
My Life in Gaming has an excellent video discussing this subject. While the entire video talks about different types of projectors, the part that really caught my eye was the focus on high-quality 720p projectors. These projectors were made with great picture quality and brightness, making for an excellent, well, projection. While it’s true you wouldn’t want to buy one of these devices to project modern 1080p or 4K content, it is perfect for 720p video.
Now, pricing is where these types of projectors get tricky. Ideally, you’d want one of the projectors shown in the video, such as the Marantz VP-12S2 or the InFocus ScreenPlay 7205. These projectors were designed as premium home theater options for their time, which makes for an excellent 720p picture quality.
Your best bet for finding one of these projectors for cheap, however, seems to be in person. If you google those projector models, they run much higher than the host of the video was able to buy them for. He, however, bought them from a used technology store for almost nothing. To find the best 720p projector possible for the price, you might need to go down this route.
Of course, you can also find great deals online for 720p projectors, but picture quality may vary, as I said above. Keep an especially careful eye out for brightness, which is listed in lumens, when looking at these cheap options. For a room with some ambient light, you’ll want to find a projector in the 1,500 to 3,500-lumen range (at least).
Don’t be afraid to dive into the critical comments, as well; unhappy customers can tell you if the projector you’re looking at is too cheap to consider. However, do remember you’re looking for a 720p projector, not a high-res one. If people complain their 1080p or 4K content doesn’t look right in a 720p projector, that isn’t particularly useful information.
One option customers are happy with is this $75 Turewell projector. While there are some visual sacrifices due to the budget, the projector is bright enough and clear enough for most people looking for native 720p projection. If you don’t have luck finding a premium 720p projector in stores or online, this is one type of cheap projector you might want to look for.
If you’re going through the trouble of trying to find a good 720p projector, you might be wondering why you shouldn’t opt for a 720p TV instead. My Life in Gaming has an excellent answer to that question, as well: As it turns out, many 720p TVs are really 768p TVs. While those two numbers might not seem far off, it still means your 720p games are going to be scaled on a “720p” TV. You’d be better off playing these games on your current TV, rather than spending the money on a fake 720p TV that won’t even do what you want it to.