Things were simpler 30 years ago. Back then, any article that included the words “gaming” and “television” in its headline would most likely have been a two paragraph blurb about which was better: your Nintendo Entertainment System’s RF adapter output or those fancy looking new RCA video connections. And the question of how to choose the best display for video gaming was easy to answer: Go for the big color TV in the den.
Needless to say, things are a bit more complicated for today’s gamers. While the denizens of the PC Master Race have their pick of all sorts of specialized monitors—professional models, models designed specifically for photo editing and, yes, monitors aimed squarely at the hair-trigger needs of hardcore gamers—big-screen console video gamers don’t have it quite so easy. The quest for the perfect gaming TV can be downright epic, and as perilous as any of the dankest dungeons in Dark Souls II.
If you ask most hardcore gamers, the one TV specification they care about most is input lag. What, exactly, is input lag? Simply put, it’s the amount of time it takes for an incoming digital video signal to pass through all of a television’s video processing and actually appear on the screen. Of course, there are all sorts of other delays that fall under the heading of “input lag”: the amount of time that passes between pressing a button on a wireless controller and the acknowledgment of that signal by the gaming console; the time it takes for the game to respond to that button press; and the time it takes for the outgoing A/V signal to pass from the console through a surround-sound receiver and onto the HDMI input of your TV.
But the TV itself can often be the worst offender in the signal chain these days. While many TVs boast input lag as little as 10 to 30 milliseconds (which is imperceptible to even the most competitive gamer), others create a video traffic jam of 110 milliseconds or more, which is enough lag to slow up even your father’s Frogger flow.
So, the solution is simple, right? If you’re serious about gaming, just shop for the TV with the lowest input lag. Not so fast, though. Scour the specification sheets of the TVs at your local big box store for input lag ratings, and you won’t find it. Amazing as it may seem, this is one aspect of a television’s performance that manufacturers simply don’t put in big bold stickers on the side of the box, leaving gamers at the mercy of reviewers or online databases to find the most lag-free TVs.
Less Is More, but Also Less
Even those numbers, though, don’t always paint a complete picture. Measuring and reporting the input lag of a TV isn’t always straightforward. If you find a TV with less than 30 milliseconds of input lag, chances are good that the measurement was done with the display in Game Mode, which isn’t the same as the Game picture preset you find on many displays (along with Movie, Dynamic, Sports, and Standard, etc.). Game Mode is generally a wholly separate setting that turns off all, or almost all, of the TV’s picture processing. So in Game Mode, you won’t get Motion-Compensated Frame Interpolation (aka MotionFlow, Auto Motion Plus, Clear Scan, or TruMotion), which is good, because these settings usually don’t play well with video games. But you’ll also lose a lot of the other video processing that makes modern TVs look so great: color processing, video scaling, and noise reduction, as well as advanced features like depth enhancement.
The other aspect to consider is that Game Mode tends to be buried deep in the menus of many new TVs, so if you use your display for movie- and TV-watching as much as you do for gaming, you’ll probably want to invest in a display that makes switching into and out of Game Mode quick and straightforward.
The good news is, with this year’s slate of Ultra HD displays, input lag is starting to trend in the downward direction, thanks to the higher frame rate capabilities afforded by HDMI 2.0. So, even if this generation of video game consoles doesn’t support 4K gaming, it may still make sense to save up your pennies for a UHD TV.
Does Any of This Matter for Casual Gamers?
Granted, most of the above advice is targeted at the hardcore gamer looking for every competitive advantage he or she can afford. But what if you’re a more casual player? What if you haven’t even snagged one of the latest-generation video game consoles yet? This doesn’t mean video games shouldn’t play any part in your TV purchasing decisions. In fact, with some of this year’s models, you don’t need a game console at all to enjoy a huge library of on-demand games. For example, Sony recently launched its PlayStation Now service, which is effectively Netflix for video games. It’s available on select 2014 and 2015 Sony TVs, as well as—oddly enough—select 2014 and 2015 Samsung Smart TVs. All you need is a subscription to the service and a DualShock 4 controller to tap into an ever-expanding catalog of the best PlayStation 3 games. And since the games are rendered inside the TVs themselves, you won’t have to worry about input lag. The only lag you’ll have to worry about is that of your Internet and local home network. And that’s a subject of another article altogether. EH
Dennis Burger is editor in chief of HDLiving.com. He also contributes regularly to The Wirecutter, Home Theater Review, and Residential Systems.