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RevolvingDork How Your HDTV is Holding Back Your Games
Thu, May 07, 2009 2:34am EDT
By RevolvingDork

In one form or another, lag is something that most gamers have had to contend with.

In the 90s, "lag" usually referred to network latency. It was a direct reflection of the speed and stability of your internet connection. A low ping time could be the difference between a visceral game of Quake and trudging through a soup of seemingly random death.

Thanks to more widespread broadband internet access and better programming tricks, network latency isn't as big a problem as it once was. Unfortunately, modern technology has introduced a new type of lag into our games: HDTV processing lag.

What causes processing lag?

HDTV processing lag ( also known as "input lag" ) is a phenomenon that is unique to modern televisions. In the pursuit of making the end picture better, TV manufacturers have built a myriad of video processing filters into their products. These filters have been designed to aesthetically benefit the playback of movies and broadcast TV.

This video processing lengthens the time between a signal being passed from its source ( your DVD player, antenna, or game system ) and the resulting picture being displayed on the screen.

Please note that processing lag is a completely seperate entity from response time, which is the time it takes any given pixel of a display to go from black to white and back again. Manufacturers often advertise their response time figures in milliseconds ( ms ). Response time has no bearing on processing lag.

How does processing lag affect videogames?

Generally speaking, this delay is in the ballpark of a fraction of a second. In the case of non-real-time media like broadcast TV and movies, it doesn't make much of a difference. The signal may be delayed, but it doesn't matter because you aren't interacting with it.

In the case of console videogames, this situation is less than ideal. Your console is working in real-time; When you press the A button it makes Mario jump. If your display is portraying the jump late, the game begins to fall somewhere between sloppy and unplayable.

This type of lag is most apparent in games where split-second timing is an inherent part of how they're played. Music games like Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and Dance Dance Revolution can be crippled by processing lag.

What about in-game calibration?

In the cases of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, game developers have implemented video calibration options that attempt to compensate for this lag. The newest Rock Band instruments have even gone so far as to include sensors you can use to calibrate the game automatically by holding them up to your screen.

These options work well enough to combat video lag, but there's another issue that calibration alone can't alleviate: audio lag.

Audio signals are subject to similar degrees of laggy processing. The end result is the same; audio is played slightly later than the source sends it out.

Modern music games have additional calibration settings for audio lag but you will quickly discover that they provide no substitution for real-time sound. When you beat the drums during a freestyle fill or sing into the microphone, the actual sound is reflected by your TV later than "truth". This results in a very unpleasant echo effect that drains the fun out of improvised drumming.

How can I eliminate processing lag?

We've established that modern TVs introduce video/audio lag and that it's a bad thing for games. What can we do about it?

Sadly, there is no way to entirely eliminate processing lag in modern flat-panel televisions. Every flat-panel TV currently being manufactured for the consumer market will introduce some degree of lag. Older non-HD CRT ( cathode ray tube ) displays are your only option for real-time gameplay.

Without going off the deep end and buying outdated analog TVs, let's do our best to mitigate the damage. You can try to find an HDTV that utilizes less video processing and therefore introduces less lag. Unfortunately, TV manufacturers do not include this information in their specifications. Worse yet, most professional audio/video reviewers don't mention processing lag in their reports. This kind of information can only be found online anecdotally in places like the AV Science forums ( a fantastic resource, for a message board ).

Before making a big purchase, you should absolutely test out prospective TVs in person. Bring your console to the electronics store, plug it into a set, and measure the lag ( again, music games are best for this ). You might look obsessive but you'll be much happier later on knowing that you bought the best device for your hobby.

If you own a big fancy HDTV and you want to cut down its processing lag, you have a few options.

1. Ensure that your console is outputting video at the display's native resolution whenever possible. The native resolution of a television is generally the highest resolution it can display. If you have a 1080p display but your console is feeding it 720p, the TV will have to perform additional calculations to make it fit the screen.

2. Check to see if your TV has a "game mode". Some TVs have a lower-latency video setting that turns off some bells and whistles to get the picture to the screen faster. Some have multiple game settings, so be sure to delve into your TV's manual to find them all.

3. Manually turn off every video processing option your TV gives you access to. You can usually identify these as a stream of acronyms: DRE, ACL, CTI, 3DNR. Turn them all off. You will sacrifice some picture clarity but you'll gain precious milliseconds.

4. You can eliminate audio lag by connecting the audio cables from your console directly into an analog stereo receiver. This may prove problematic if you're using a digital audio output method like HDMI, but you may be able to find a good digital receiver that's faster than your TV if you're using external speakers.

5. If you're using an AV receiver, be sure to turn on its video pass-through option to send your console's signal along without any laggy preprocessing. Some receivers don't have this option, so be careful.

HDTV processing lag is a complicated issue that is widely swept under the rug. This post is intended as a starting point to combat the general lack of knowledge about this subject. If you've got any other tips for reducing lag, please post them in the comments -- these are the solutions that have worked best for me, and I'm sure there's a great deal more to learn.
Fraser
'In the 90s, "lag" usually referred to network latency. It was a direct reflection of the speed and stability of your internet connection. A low ping time could be the difference between a visceral game of Quake and trudging through a soup of seemingly random death. Thanks to more widespread broadband internet access and better programming tricks, network latency isn't as big a problem as it once was.'

Unless you live in some geographically isolated corner of the world with mediocre internet cabling, in which case lag is still alive and well.

Excuse me while I cry into my Foster's...
RevolvingDork
Sorry to hear that, Fraser. Does it at least make up for the bad net connection with dragons and waterfalls and stuff?
MyForumSN
ive heard about problems with lag on newer HDTVs with 120hz versus the old 60hz. The extra Hz help with sports when watching tv but the 60hz is ideal for gaming from what little I've read. It's made me question buying newer tvs like let's say a Sony 32xbr9, ive looked at others like samsung, lg and toshibas comparable 32 inchers, but im still nervous about buying a 120hz tv.
I might just go with a model from last year if they're still available by August...

I was wondering what other people think about 120hz vs 60hz hdtvs... or if any body has anecdotes. I wonder how noticeable lag is when gaming online as well.
KillerMelons
I suggest checking out http://www.hdtvtest.co.uk/

Most of their reviews also test for input lag as they call it, and tell you how noticeable it will be.
FraGNeM
MyForumSN, those problems should NOT be inherent to 120Hz TVs.

I personally own a Sony 46XBR6 120Hz TV which has no noticeable lag when Game Mode is enabled. Disabled (and with certain picture-enhancing effects on), I can notice a lag difference between it and Game Mode, but it's still quite playable.

I've also played on a Samsung A850 in Game Mode and that one ran great, too.

I hate excessive video lag, so I'd say I'm quite sensitive to it, but I've been pleased with the 120Hz TVs that I've game'd on. And I've witnessed a lot of lag in non-120Hz models (especially ones that sadly have no game mode to speak of).

In summary: 120Hz TVs are fine. Just enable game mode, like you should for any applicable HDTV.
superberg
The other option is an older HD tube. My Sony XBR970 isn't as sharp as an LCD, but I don't have any lag concerns.
OmegaVader
My sony 50" HDTV has some weird fluctuations -- it's suppose to be native 1080i, but Guitar Hero II on 360 runs without lag at 720p. The original rock band can run at 1080i in game mode with no lag, but Rock Band 2 (my music game of choice) lags both at 720p and 1080i game mode! It's befuddling, and really hurts my overall performance (and thus enjoyment) of the game.

However, I only use that tv when playing with others. When by myself, I'm connected to a 1680x1050 monitor using a VGA cable (so it outputs at the native res), before that I used regular component cables (the monitor has component input) -- while the latter option has a scaled, poor image, both options nonetheless result in lag-free gaming. It's the only way I know to get wide-screen, better-than-SDTV music gaming. An alright solution for now, albeit the monitor is only 22".
RevolvingDork
@MyForumSN: I don't have much experience with using a television set to a different frequency, but I'd hypothesize that any output difference would need to be converted digitally and could introduce lag. If you learn anything else, please come back and share it!

@KillerMelons: It's good to see a site that addresses the lag issue! I hope they keep it up.

@superberg: In my experience, HD tube televisions can be subject to the same types of lag that LCD/Plasmas are. The lag isn't primarily the result of display mechanics, it's caused by digital image processing that all HDTVs utilize. My first HDTV was a 27" tube and it still had upwards of 80ms lag. If your set has a low enough lag so that it doesn't bother you, that's fantastic. :D

OmegaVader, I've found that different music games operate at different timings. I suspect that the "base rate" for 0ms is actually different between them all, which would account for the discrepancies you've seen. The VGA cable sounds like a great option, as monitors don't have the same processing issues that televisions have.
breachless
In my never ending battle to figure out the best way to play Rock Band 2 on my HDTV in the basement, I have found a really simple solution: instead of running my 360 through the HDMI cable, I switched over to the less pretty, but MUCH less laggy component cables.

This may sound crazy, and it could very well be my imagination, but when playing with the HDMI cable, the lag seems to get worse with time. You can go into options when you first turn it on and calibrate it to where it's reasonably good, but an hour or two later, it gets considerably worse.

With the component cable, you calibrate your lag settings and you can play for hours upon hours with little to no problems. It kind of sucks switching between HDMI and Component whenever I want to play Rock Band 2, but it works... And that makes me happy.
RevolvingDork
@breachless: Sliding lag, that's really interesting -- do you have the Rock Band 2 guitar with built-in calibration? If so you could take your subjectivity out of the test and see if the TV really does get worse over time.

That's one of the biggest problems with the lag issue, most folks feel it subjectively and actually measuring it accurately is difficult.
isurus
If your Xbox 360 does not output to your TV's native resolution, like a 1360x768 TV, then buy a VGA cable for your Xbox 360 > hook it up to a computer monitor > change your Xbox display to your TV's native resolution > then unplug from your monitor and plug into your HDTV.
DrMarioKart
@ isurus. I believe the issue of the article is not upscaling lag, but video processing lag, which can still happen even when you are displaying at the native resolution.

You bring up an interesting point that I would like to question further. Will hooking up a console to a computer monitor via VGA (not a TV that has VGA/HDMI output) eliminate the problem of video processing delay while still giving you an HD picture?

Surely most PC monitors (LCD or CRT) arent concerned about picture quality enough to add much video processing. I usually notice a slight delay when playing PS3 games on HDTVs but not when I'm typing or playing games on the computer, for example.
OmegaVader
In my experience, that is a viable solution, DrMarioKart. I am using a 22" 1680x1050 monitor, and with the VGA cables, I can run at the native res so the picture is damn good. I play RB2 with no lag whatsoever.
RevolvingDork
I haven't tried it out firsthand, but the computer monitor workaround sounds quite plausible. I have yet to see any monitor that produce processing lag.

I see they're selling 46" LCD monitors on newegg, which is starting to sound kind of sweet... couple that with an analog audio receiver and you just might be living the dream ;D
DJ Incompetent
Overhead Projectors: HD resolutions, zero lag, half the price of HDTVs. How were these not mentioned? It almost requires one of these or a 4:3 tube to play shooting games at a high level.
RevolvingDork
@DJ Incompetent , it depends strongly on the projector you're using -- home theater projectors tend to introduce just as much processing/input lag as televisions, and many office projectors do as well.

Here's a pretty interesting thread with folks measuring the lag on their projectors: http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?t=1068844
leigh13
Hi, first time reader, first time poster here.

I've been a casual-to-moderate gamer for years and haven't really experienced much of a lag issue on the 3 different plasma HDTV's I've owned. Same goes for friends & family with Samsung DLP's that I play on regularly. The only real issue I ever had was when I tried hooking up a PS2 to my DVD-Recorder's front inputs for Guitar Hero. The lag there due to the video buffer on the DVD-R made the game pretty much unplayable.

Right now I've got my 360 hooked up to a 720p 42" plasma screen via component cables (actually a "universal" cable that hooks up PS2/360/Wii simultaneously) AND with the video and optical digital audio signal switched through an A/V receiver. If there's any issue with lag, I can't tell--and that's playing Left 4 Dead, Halo 3, and any number of the Guitar Hero franchises. Maybe I'm just too casual a gamer to notice any lag issues--if they are there at all?


Despite my own lack of concern over display processing lag on HDTV's, I understand that there are others for whom it's a problem. And that's just a few ms of lag from the video processor on a TV screen--so how could a hosted service like OnLive (http://www.onlive.com/) *ever* work for games that require synchronous interactive for gameplay?

I've had a hard time explaining to some friends just why I think OnLive will never work. I'd love to see a writeup with your thoughts here!
RevolvingDork
@leigh13 from what I've seen, different people have different sensitivity levels to the lag issue. Personally, I have difficulty playing any rhythm game on a system with measurable lag, but then again I play on the hardest difficult level which frequently requires you to play 8 or more notes per second.

I'm also a little OCD, so any time I miss a note I need to play again to get it right.

An OnLive article is a good idea, I've been following the project and it does sound a bit far-fetched. I also think having your own tweakable machine is one of the joys of PC gaming, but again that harkens back to OCD tendancies.

I'll see what info I can dig up on the subject...
Oddbrother
As ridiculous as this may sound, is it possible to eliminate video lag by modifying the HDTV internally? Has anyone ever taken that plunge to take their TVs apart and find this out?
Holcomb
I have an extremely cheap Dynex 720p LCD television. When I use component cables or an HDMI cable there is noticeable processing lag, so much that I can't play FPS games very well. But when I use a VGA cable there is almost NO lag whatsoever. Also when using VGA, all of the picture settings on the TV (color, sharpness, gamma, ect) are all disabled. Native resolution is 1360x768 but playing on 1280 x 720 makes no difference in processing lag as far as I can tell.
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