One of the difficulties in writing a series about affordable front projectors is deciding what constitutes “affordable.” A few years ago, that would have meant anything under $5,000 for a 1080p projector. But advances in technology, manufacturing efficiency and market demand have caused the prices of entry-level front projectors to plummet. Soon a 1080p front projector could be had for $3,000; only a year later there were $2,000 (street price) projectors that put out a surprisingly good picture. Surely $2,000 was the floor for a 1080p projector?
Don’t call me Shirley. Optoma, known for both its business and home theater line of projectors, has thrown down the gauntlet with the new HD20, a full 1080p front projector priced at $999. Let me repeat that: $999. You can’t even buy a 50 inch flat screen for under a thousand dollars. How could anyone possibly make a front projector that looks half-way decent for under a grand?
- Design: Singl-chip 1080p DLP Projector; 0.65″ Texas Instruments Dark Chip 2 DMD DLP
- Native Resolution: 1920×1080
- Light Output: 1,700 ANSI Lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 4000:1 (Full On/Off)
- Lens Throw Ratio: 1.5 -1.8 (Distance/Width)
- Zoom & Focus Adjustment: Manual; 1.2
- NTSC, PAL, SECAM, HDTV 480i; 480p; 720p; 1080i/p
- Bulb Life: 4,000 Hours (Standard Mode)
- Dimensions: 3.8″ H x 12.8″ W x 9.2″ D
- Weight: 6.4 Pounds
- MSRP: $999 USA
The HD20 is a single-chip DLP design, based on TI’s 1080 Dark Chip2 DMD. That is not the most advanced DLP chip, but keep in mind that everything about the HD20 is designed around meeting a price point. For example, all single chip DLP projectors use a rapidly spinning wheel to create color images (unlike LCD projectors, which use three separate chips—one each for red, green and blue). The spinning color wheel can produce an artifact called the “rainbow effect,” a flash of colors that appear on the edge of white images. Some people are quite sensitive to the rainbow effects; others never see them. Generally speaking, the faster the color wheel, the less likely users are going to see rainbow effects. The HD20 uses a six-segment, 4x speed color wheel; more expensive single-chip DLP projectors use 5x or 6x color wheels. Of course, if you’re not sensitive to rainbow effects, it’s a non-issue.
The other major limitation dictated by the HD20’s cost-conscious design is its limited lens adjustments. The HD20’s lens is fixed; it does not adjust on either horizontal or vertical axes. Likewise, the manual zoom is quite modest, providing only 1.2:1 zoom range.
What this means in the real world is that placement options for the HD20 are limited. My main listening room is laid out primarily for audio. So the “sweet spot” is located at the apex of an equilateral triangle from the left and right front speakers, 10.5 feet from the projector screen (an 84” diagonal Elite Screens EZ Cinema Plus). Other projectors with vertical lens adjustments and greater zoom capabilities were set up either on a coffee table in front of my love seat, or on a portable shelf behind me. Neither of these options were possible with the HD20, as the throw range for filling an 84” screen is limited to between nine and 11 feet, smack in the middle of the prime seating position. So during my time with the Optoma, I had to move my love seat to the side of the room, placed the projector shelf where my love seat normally went, and flanked it with two chairs. While not everyone will have those same challenges, the moral is that buyers interested in the HD20 need to carefully measure their room to make sure the Optoma is suitable for their living space.
The HD20 is very lightweight at 6.4 pounds, and its white gloss curved shell makes it look like a more expensive unit. The back panel of the HD20 includes two HDMI inputs, as well as component video (Y, Pb, Pr) and VGA/SCART computer connector. The back panel also includes a 12 volt trigger. The manual zoom ring is on the top of the projector; the manual focus ring is on the lens, which includes a rubber lens cap. The side-venting fan was not as quiet as some of the other projectors reviewed in this series, but was never intrusive.
The HD20 has four image presets: Cinema, Bright, Photo, and Reference, along with a User adjustable preset. For my viewing, I chose the Reference setting, even in ambient light conditions during daytime viewing. There are two basic color settings, warm and cold. Advanced user-level video settings included separate R, G, and B gain/bias, and four pre-set gamma settings (film, video, graphics and standard) with the ability to offset the start level of base point in the gamma curve.
The HD20 does not have an adjustable iris, which is to be expected at its price. Instead, the Optoma has something called “Image AI,” which is supposed to adjust the lamp brightness according to the source material. I gave it a try, but the brightness ramping up or down took several seconds and I found it distracting. Also, the Image AI doesn’t work with scenes with both bright and dark segments, so I turned it off.
The small back-lit remote allows the user to switch between inputs, picture modes, contrast and brightness adjustments, and output image scaling (including 16:9, 4:3, and LBX-which stretches nonanamorphic 2:35:1 material to full screen width).
At $999, the Optoma doesn’t use one of the name brand processing solutions such as Faroudja or HQV. I don’t have an extensive DVD collection, so watch very little standard-definition content. When I do watch standard DVD, I usually let the HQV Reon-VX chip in my Integra DTR 8.9 handle upconverting of standard DVD images. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the HD20’s internal processing solution.
HD content was sourced through my Sony PS3 Slim (for Blu-ray) and Motorola HD cable box, which outputs at 1080i. Standard definition DVD was output through an Oppo DV-980H. My first impression of the HD20 was that it put out a surprisingly bright image. I watched several afternoons of NFL football with a large amount of ambient light streaming into the room, and was surprised at the amount of color and contrast on the screen. Obviously, the image was somewhat washed out by the sunlight, but it was quite watchable.
Evenings were mostly reserved for movies, including one of my new favorites, Star Trek. I loved this film, which paid homage to the original series while creating its own characters and telling a story that never lagged. The Optoma created nice colors, a reasonably sharp picture, and fair black levels. I wasn’t expecting a videophile image at $999, but was more than satisfied with the overall picture quality for that price. However, I did experience significant rainbow effects on most films. Two of my family members also noticed it, but my other son did not see them despite whipping his head around like a golden retriever trying to figure out what everyone else was talking about. Curiously, no one saw rainbow effects from cable TV projected on the HD20. If you are sensitive to rainbows, I suggest demo’ing the HD20 in a showroom—your mileage may vary.
On the Bench (Chris Eberle)
Optoma HD20 Benchmarks
Equipment used: EyeOne Pro spectrophotometer, CalMAN Professional 3.3 analysis software, Accupel HDG-3000 signal generator, Spears & Munsil Benchmark Blu-ray.
All measurements were taken off the screen (Carada Brilliant White, gain 1.4) from the seating position (10 feet).
After performing a factory reset I engaged the User mode for all measurements. This gave the best out-of-the-box results for color and grayscale. Here is the color gamut and luminance chart. This is decent performance with a very watchable image. The main issue is the color luminances are too high resulting in a slightly over-blown look.
Grayscale ran somewhat cool on the default Warm setting averaging around 7200 Kelvin. Gamma was also quite low with a 1.76 average.
After calibration color was much improved by reducing the color ten clicks (10 percent) and the tint by one click. Secondaries were positively affected by the grayscale calibration and lined up quite well when calculated from the measured primaries.
Calibrated grayscale tracked very well after adjustments to the gain and bias controls. The adjustment steps are quite coarse but I was able to achieve very flat tracking despite this. Gamma also measured well after changes were made to the Film gamma preset.
One note about the gamma chart above: Though the gamma tracking measures flat and just under the target of 2.2, I observed very obvious instabilities in the actual black levels. I adjusted brightness using a series of Pluge patterns with bars that are 4% above black and 4% below black. The patterns rise in average picture level (APL) from zero to 50%. As the APL increased, the black levels decreased. When going from a zero APL pattern to a 25% one, the +4% bar disappeared. This made setting the brightness extremely difficult. The best I could do to preserve some low-level detail was compromise so I could still barely see the +4% bar at 50% APL. This made the darkest content gray rather than black but it was the only way to preserve any shadow detail.
Dynamic range wasn’t too bad with a minimum black level of .004. I adjusted the contrast to a peak white level of 13.44 foot-Lamberts for an on/off contrast ratio of 3360:1. The loss of shadow detail in brighter scenes was noticeable however. I have watched the Spears & Munsil montage hundreds of times so I am very familiar with the content. In the sunflower clip near the beginning I could not see the seeds in the flowers as I normally do. The detail in the brown machinery was also crushed. Near the end when the cityscape fades to night, blacks turned to gray as the scene darkened.
Optical performance was good with solid focus in all areas of the screen. Detail in the Spear & Munsil montage was well-rendered. I observed a slight shift to red on the left side of the screen and slight shift to green on the right. As there is only one imaging chip; and therefore no convergence error; this is a lens issue. Video processing was also good with all source adaptive tests passed except 2:2 pulldown. Edge adaptive tests looked excellent with superb handling of the jaggies in all scenes. 1080p/24 was processed correctly and there were no pixels cropped in the 16:9 mode.
The Optoma HD20 succeeds in doing something I would have thought impossible: Creating a worthy 1080p front projector for under $1,000. The HD20 suffers from some practical limitations and image quality issues not present in some of its more expensive competitors. But we’re talking about projectors that cost twice at least twice as much as the HD20. If you’re looking for getting into the front projector market without spending a lot of money, aren’t bothered by rainbow effects, and have a room that can handle the HD20’s limited placement options, the Optoma HD20 is a great place to start.