Big screen gaming on the Mac

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I admit, I’m a display glutton. Without question, I know the Leopard gurus in Cupertino were thinking of me when they created Spaces for Leopard. No matter how much screen space I have, I can fill it and be left wanting more. So it’s only natural that I’d eventually turn to figuring out how to get my Mac working with the biggest display I could find. Especially when it came time to play World of Warcraft.

Normally, I’ll run software on a 17-inch MacBook Pro, and in all fairness, that’s a good screen experience. But when I really want immersion, what do I do? Step up to an Apple Cinema HD display at 30 inches? Pshaw. That’s nothing. 60-inch plasma? Never you mind. I game on my Mac using an 80-inch display. It’s a projector.

I’m also very, very cheap. So I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. To that end, Epson has a line of very reasonably-priced entry level projectors that do the job quite well. At the time I was looking I opted for a PowerLite S4; that model has since been replaced with the PowerLite S5, a modestly upgraded unit that offers 2000 lumens brightness, a small footprint, is reasonably quiet and cheap to maintain (projector lamps burn out after a while).

I project the image onto Epson’s Duet, a portable projector screen. I’ve wall-mounted it, though it can sit on an included tripod. What makes the Duet special is that it can lock at either 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios, which makes it ideal for watching movies, or viewing videos and games on an image display.

The ability to hook into my home entertainment center is a really nice fringe benefit; I can watch TV shows, movies and play console video games on the big screen, too. All told, the projector and screen cost about $750 according to the manufacturer’s Web site—though the street price is significantly less. You can get away with spending even less, if you’ve got a big wall and bright, white paint. (A word of warning, though: It’s very difficult to get the right shade of white in paint to act as a neutral background for a projected image. They have screens in movie theaters for a reason, you know.)

Hooking the screen up to a Macintosh doesn’t take anything more than a cable. In this case, Epson includes a VGA input cable that works fine; all I needed to do was to hook it up using an inexpensive DVI to VGA adapter.

Now, obviously, when you start working with a tight budget, you run into a few compromises. One of mine is that the projector that I’m working with is limited natively to 800-by-600 pixel (SVGA) resolution. That sounds like a deal-breaker, but it scales quite well when running at 1,024-by-768, as well (some text might get a bit squished), and that’s a good compromise for many of the games that I play to run at good frame rates. Obviously, if you can spend more, you’ll get a lot more for your money—Epson’s higher-end home cinema projectors work natively at 1,920-by-1,080 resolution (enabling them to work natively at 1080p High Definition resolution), but they can cost $2,500 or more.

Connecting the Mac to any external display is a lead-pipe cinch, but here’s a word of advice: Mirror your internal display on the projector or external monitor if your main goal is to play games. I say this because multi-monitor support in games is infrequent at best, and when it’s available, it can seriously diminish the performance of the game. Mirroring may make things look weird on the Mac’s main display if it has to run at a non-native resolution, but it’ll be a smoother game experience, for sure.

So what’s the experience of big-screen gaming like? Mainly when I’m gaming and really want the “big screen” experience, I’m playing World of Warcraft—and to that end it’s a lot of fun. It takes a bit of getting used to to adjust your view upwards to the big screen, but once you do, it makes playing the game less of a solitary activity and more of a spectator sport. My kids—especially my two boys—love to run play by play and color commentary while I’m doing battle with orcs and elves.

It’s also a lot of fun for the occasional flying or driving game I play, and it’s super when it’s time to sit down with a first person shooter (I’ll usually rely on a lapdesk with room for a mouse if that happens, though—playing those games with a trackpad is a sure way to lose life quickly). It’s more of a waste if I’m playing puzzle or casual games.

Big screen gaming has other advantages, too. I can use the big display to run videos I’ve bought from the iTunes Store without having to rig up my video iPod, or without having to buy an Apple TV (haven’t made that move yet). I’ve also used the freeware application HandBrake to rip a few of my favorite movies to the Movies directory on my MacBook Pro so I can watch them whenever I want. Hooking the MacBook Pro up to the projector lets me watch them without having to dig the DVDs out of their cases (and in my house, where we have DVDs spread over several stands in two different rooms, that’s a time-saver).

Needless to say, Apple’s Front Row software and wireless remote control make accessing and running all of this on the projector to be really, really easy. And for the occasional game that works well with the gamepad, I’ve even found a wireless unit that I’m happy with—Logitech and Mad Catz both make wireless gamepads for the PC that will work with the Mac too. (I’m partial to the Mad Catz controller, which is designed a lot like Microsoft’s Xbox controller)

All of this takes place is a very modestly-sized living room in my house. One of these days, I’ll get a chance to build the media room/man-cave I’ve always dreamed of, I hope. And there, I’ll try to arrange a Mac media installation that’s a bit more permanent. And I’m willing to bet that some of you have done similar work on your own homes—and if you have, please drop me a line and post here so I can trade notes with you. Mating a Mac with a home entertainment system is loads of fun.

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