Home theater projectors are awesome.
For about $2,000—if you include the price of a decent screen to shine it on and a few bags of Jiffy Pop popcorn—anyone with an HDMI cable and a dream can get picture quality that very nearly rivals the shuttered local cineplex. Throw in another $500 for a Dolby Atmos soundbar and a Roku, and you’ve got yourself a truly immersive home theater. Right now, such escapes are more special than ever.
When it comes to (relatively) affordable projection at home, it’s a battle of steady technological progress between BenQ and Optoma. Over the past five years, the two brands have offered what I’d call perfect successors—with every new model, performance improves yet prices go down. Optoma’s new UHD50X is a good example. It’s $1,000 cheaper than the first 4K Optoma projector I plugged in years ago, and it has much better picture quality.
Better still, the UHD50X finally takes aim at a projector’s Achilles’ heel: input lag. Plug in a powerful gaming computer and the new Optoma offers a 240-Hz refresh rate, making it visually smooth and speedy enough for all but the most competitive gamers. Like watching movies as much as you like winning life-size games of Project Cars 2? So do I. That’s why the UHD50X is my favorite home theater projector right now.
I’ll be the first to admit that projectors don’t offer anywhere near the image quality you’ll get from a TV that costs the same price. In fact, for nearly the same money you’d spend on the UHD50X, you could get a new LG CX OLED (8/10, WIRED Recommends), which offers museum-quality picture. And yet, I’d still rather watch most things with the projector.
Projectors are to watching films what record players are to playing music; the real reason to buy one isn’t for perfect fidelity, but for the experience. When I pop on Black Panther and turn off the lights, it feels like I’m in an actual movie theater instead of my dusty basement. In times like this, that mental vacation means a lot.
The main reason I often point buyers toward TVs instead of projectors is that projectors aren’t very versatile. They’re awesome when you’re re-watching the special editions of Star Wars or episodes of The Mandalorian, but they’re almost unusable in bright rooms, with too much latency to be good for anything other than video playback. Plug a videogame system or gaming PC into last generation’s Optoma UHD50, and you’ll be sniped in Fortnite by any 12 year old with an iPhone.
With the latest model, you’ll still need a dark room, but the latency problem has been solved—at least for a specific category of gamers. If you’ve got a fast enough computer with a good video card, the UHD50X can offer a 240-Hz refresh rate at 1080p resolution when gaming. Games will appear smoother because Optoma claims you’ll only see an input lag of 15.7 milliseconds. That’s not the best by gaming monitor standards, but still good enough for all but the most serious online gamers to notice. For less action-packed games, it’s no issue whatsoever.
It’s a shame then to see no support for Nvidia’s G-Sync or AMD’s FreeSync technology, which helps sync a screen’s refresh rate with a graphics card’s framerate, alleviating issues like screen tearing in videogames. The addition would have made even more of a no-brainer for a PC gamer, but alas we can only hope support will come in a future model.
Unfortunately, the improved 240-Hz refresh rate doesn’t apply to game consoles like the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One, but that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The Xbox One—the fastest of the two—maxes out at 120-Hz at 1080p.
But the ability to offer a 240-Hz refresh rate does pave the way for future Optoma projectors to be fast enough to work with upcoming consoles like the PlayStation 5, which will run 4K games at 120-Hz. But don’t buy the UHD50X as a futureproofing measure, though: the UHD50X only has HDMI 2.0 ports, so it can’t offer higher refresh rates at 4K resolution. (It’s likely future models will offer HDMI 2.1.)
It doesn’t take much to get a great picture out of the UHD50X. The colors come well calibrated out of the box, and even HDR mode is enabled automatically when the projector senses my Roku is feeding it the good stuff.
You will want a quality screen, a streaming device (or gaming PC), and a projector mount to hold things steady. I’d also strongly advise blackout curtains if you’ve got windows—ambient light makes your image look washed out, regardless how fancy the projector. Also, make sure your soundbar or speaker system has HDMI inputs and outputs, as you’ll need it to pass video signals from your PC or streaming device through the soundbar and to the projector so you can have sound.
As with nearly all projectors I’ve tested, cinema mode is where you’ll want to spend the vast majority of your viewing time. It offers the most lifelike representation of what a director intended, with the downside that it isn’t as bright as other modes. Game mode is what I’d stick to when using the projector with a PC, as it increases brightness so you can see opponents lurking in the shadows.
I watched a few recent Marvel films and a good amount of Netflix and Amazon Prime original content in my few weeks with the UHD50X and everything looks excellent, especially when HDR kicked in. It doesn’t offer the same highlights as a TV with HDR performance, but the difference in colors is certainly noticeable.
In terms of sheer visual joy, there’s no contest between this and a traditional TV. Anyone who doubts this hasn’t put on The Avengers and watched the glorious final action sequence on a 100-inch screen. Frankly, I prefer this home theater to the real one. Alcohol is readily served alongside popcorn, and you can pause for bathroom breaks.
Another thing that’s great about projectors right now? They’re perfect for outdoor movie nights with friends. Remember watching movies together? Get a cheap outdoor screen, bring the UHD50X outside, and watch The Big Lebowski with the neighbors (six feet apart!)
The Optoma UHD50X isn’t for most people, but it offers more than you might expect. If you’re a gamer who loves watching movies between rounds, it’s one of the coolest distractions you could buy.
It’s also a great choice for those who are already interested in installing a projector to watch movies and TV shows. You might never plug a PC into the thing, but the UHD50X is still among the best-looking projectors for the price.
As we’re all spending less time outdoors, a home theater or massive gaming screen might offer you some semblance of a mental vacation. The UHD50X, albeit more expensive than most TVs, is certainly the best choice for that.