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The Optoma HD28DSE is the company's newest portable 1080p home theater projector. ("DSE" stands for Darbee Special Edition, in reference to the DarbeeVision video processing system on board.) With a MAP price of just $799, the HD28DSE is a formidable new entry in the hotly competitive entry level home theater niche. It weighs under 6 lbs and sports an onboard speaker, so it is usable for both home theater and transportable applications.
In addition to the DarbeeVision system, this projector has another noteworthy feature -- an estimated lamp life of 8000 hours in Dynamic Eco mode. This will make the cost of replacement lamps a non-issue for many users.
Rest assured that once it is adjusted the Optoma HD28DSE can indeed deliver an engaging, clean, natural video image. However, I was shocked when I first fired it up. My initial reaction was, "Wow, never seen anything like that before - what's wrong with it?" The picture looked dramatically overprocessed, as if Sharpness was highly overdriven. After some further poking around I discovered that the projector had powered on with the optional DarbeeVision feature already enabled at an aggressive setting.
DarbeeVision is a video processing sub-system intended to increase contrast, color saturation, and detail definition/separation, in the hope of creating a sharper, cleaner picture. You have the choice of activating it or not, in the same way that you can activate frame interpolation or detail enhancement features on other products. When DarbeeVision is on, you can choose varying degrees of aggressiveness between 0% and 120%. (It was already "on" and set to 80% in its factory configuration out of the box.) At more modest settings it can be quite helpful, making the picture look sharper and clearer. But, like most other video enhancement techniques, when it is overdriven it can make the picture look artificial. Though not the same thing, the effect is not unlike the soap opera effect that many people object to with frame interpolation. DarbeeVision can also introduce undesirable noise-like artifacts that make the picture unstable. And with close-ups of a face, it can make natural looking skin appear oddly mottled by exaggerating every subtle skin detail.
The good news is you can turn DarbeeVision down, or turn it entirely off as many videophiles will prefer. But there are situations where you will probably want to activate it. With video games, since the subject matter is artificial to begin with, giving it additional detail, contrast and saturation is all good. Similarly, some animated films can take the enhanced sharpening without appearing over processed. Although with a film like Ratatouille, the exceptional detail in the rats' fur can appear "too sharp" to the point of distracting if DarbeeVision is set to the 80% default.
In general, for standard film/video, choosing a low processing setting like 30% will give the picture some additional clarity and definition that some viewers will like and others won't. In the end, there is nothing right or wrong about these enhancement techniques. They can all be overdriven to produce artificial looking results. But used in moderation many users will find their effects beneficial and will enjoy having the option.
Regardless of whether the DarbeeVision system is activated or not, the HD28DSE is able to deliver an engaging and exciting picture that will easily satisfy new home theater buffs. Black levels are solid. Rainbow artifacts are rare, even when viewing b/w material like Casablanca. And as long as Brilliant Color is not overdriven, colored and white objects appear reasonably and believably balanced. The picture is sharp from edge to edge, top to bottom with all pixel structure clearly defined even in all four corners when examined close up, but there is no pixelation in the image when viewed from a normal distance.
The only noticeable flaws in the picture are brightness uniformity and digital noise. Uniformity falls off about 29% toward the right side and upper right corner. Though easily visible on a 100 IRE white pattern, this is a subtle and largely unnoticeable flaw when viewing video/film. The projector also has somewhat more digital noise than competing units. There is no noise reduction filter and viewers who are particularly sensitive to noise artifacts may find them objectionable.
DarbeeVision. A video processing system that can improve detail definition, contrast, and color saturation (see Viewing Experience).
8000 hour lamp life. In Dynamic Eco mode, the projector is expected to go 8000 hours before having to replace a lamp. The lamp itself is $179 at the moment.
V+H and Four Corner Keystone. If you can't set the projector up such that it throws a perfectly rectangular image, you can adjust it anyway you need to. In particular, the four corner adjustment may come in handy if you are projecting off angle, and it is easy to use. In a permanent installation, we suggest making every effort to project on axis so you don't need to use these features since they eliminate the one-to-one pixel mapping of 1080p source material and will curtail the light output of the projector. But having Four Corner keystone adjustment on hand gives you an option that most competing units do not offer.
HDMI w/ MHL. A common feature in this price class by now, but it will let you connect smart phones, tablets, etc., as a source for video games, photos, etc.
Portability. A small 5.7 lb. projector is easy to transport to a camera club meeting or a friend's house.
Connection Panel. The connection panel is located on the left side of the projector as you are viewing it from behind. Connection ports are relatively sparse but it has the essentials that most home users will want -- two HDMI ports (one MHL enabled), a mini-USB for mouse control from a laptop, a 3D synch port, a USB power port, and even a 12-volt trigger. What is missing is the early vintage analog video inputs that few home theater folks use anymore--VGA, component video, composite, and S-video.
Full HD 3D. The HD28 automatically switches to 3D mode when you pop a 3D disc into your Blu-ray player. No menu selection needed.
Backlit remote. The remote is white, so relatively easy to locate in dim light, and the backlighting is extremely bright (actually excessively bright in a dark room). In any event, it is not hard to find the function buttons you're looking for. The IR range of 20 feet is sufficient for most installations.
User mode, Presets, and Picture Controls. All of the preset color modes -- Cinema, Game, Reference, Vivid, and Bright -- are essentially suggested starting points that have been programmed at the factory. You have full latitude to adjust anything in all modes, including brightness, contrast, saturation, tint, gamma, Brilliant Color, basic color temp, etc. You can also adjust Hue, Saturation and Gain on R,G, B, C, M, Y and White. So although there is only one mode designated as the "User" mode, all of the presets are, practically speaking, user modes that you can tweak to your preferences.
Anamorphic stretch. If you have an A-lens and want to set up a 2.4 format Constant Image Height theater, the HD28 has the auto vertical stretch mode required to accommodate it.
White casework. If you have a white ceiling, the white casework will help the projector blend in and be less obvious in the room -- always a benefit when installing in a living room or other multi-purpose room.
Brightness. The HD28DSE has a rated maximum brightness of 3000 lumens. On our test sample we measured 2500 lumens using the internal onboard white test pattern. However, feeding an external 100 IRE white test pattern through the HDMI port yielded lower lumen readings in its various color preset modes, as follows:
Vivid - 1677
Cinema - 1601
Game - 1365
Reference - 639
In short, the HD28 is capable of pumping out more than ample light for dark room viewing, and sufficient light for use in some ambient light depending on screen size. However, the 3000 lumen rating may be misleading in the sense that the HD28 is not as bright as competing units that are rated at 3000 lumens based on an external signal.
Color Brightness. The HD28DSE has a color wheel configuration of RYGCWB. The "W", or white segment in the wheel, allows the projector to vary the amount of white relative to the color information that defines the picture. You can control this one of two ways, either by selecting the preset color mode, or by adjusting the level of Brilliant Color. If you choose the Reference mode, it turns off the white segment entirely, and the brightness of the color components of the signal (red, green, and blue) are equal to total white light. That is why the Reference mode is much lower in total lumens than the other preset modes.
If you choose any of the other preset modes at their factory default settings, an additional dose of white light is added to the color components. How much white is added is controlled by the Brilliant Color slider on a scale of 1 to 10. In Bright mode, Brilliant Color defaults to 10, but the amount of color information is not increased. So in this mode color brightness equals 34% of total White. The practical effect of this is that colored objects in scenes will appear darker than they should, and white objects will glow brighter than they should. And overall, the picture is much brighter than it otherwise would be.
In Cinema mode, the Brilliant Color setting defaults to 8, which raises the color brightness measurement up to 40% of White, and total lumens are about 1600. However, as you move the Brilliant Color slider down to its minimum setting of 1, total lumens are reduced to about 800 while color brightness is boosted up to about 79% of White. At this setting the picture is, relatively speaking, more in balance. White objects still have somewhat of an overdriven glow compared to Reference mode, but since this makes the picture appear both brighter and higher in contrast, many viewers will like the effect. Serious videophiles will not care for it as much, but we suspect most serious videophiles are spending more than $799 for their projectors to begin with.
Brightness Uniformity. Our test unit measures a relatively low 71% uniformity, with light fading off most noticeably to the right side and upper right corner, and less so to the upper left corner.
Eco mode reduces light output by 26%, substantially reduces fan noise, and increases estimated lamp life from 4000 to 6000 hours. Dynamic black is disabled in this mode, as it relies on varying the lamp output to achieve its effects. Dynamic Eco, the mode that enables Dynamic Black, boosts lamp life to 8000 hours because it operates by turning lamp power down as low as 30% in dark scenes, but fan noise in Dynamic Eco is the same as it is in Bright mode.
Sharpness. The HD28 has a competitively sharp image throughout. The Sharpness control is quite refined and does not impart any aggressive edge enhancement even at its maximum setting. The slider runs from zero to 15. The ideal setting is 8, the point at which details are the sharpest and no hint of artifacts begin appear. Incremental sharpness can be added, if desired, by activating DarbeeVision in a low setting.
Preset Color Balances. When first powering up out of the box, the HD28 defaults to Vivid mode, in which color balance is biased toward cool/blue. However, it is not a screaming blue. White objects are simply rendered in a cooler, crisper tone of white than they would be if accurate, and blue sky and water is a bit deeper blue than it should be. But overall the picture is perfectly watchable, especially when compared to the brightest presets on competing projectors that are often a color balance nightmare. Game mode is similarly pushed toward blue, but with a different gamma setting.
Bright mode is closer to neutral than is Vivid. It pushes green a little bit, such that a light blue sky can have a subtle blue-greenish hue. But Bright delivers a reasonably well balanced image for a factory calibration. Many would not notice the color balance error without a reference monitor standing by for comparison.
Cinema mode is remarkably neutral, and while a professional calibration will refine the image a bit, it is unlikely that any user would feel the money was well spent.
Reference mode, oddly enough -- the one that should be the most accurate -- has a noticeable green bias that would need to be calibrated out if you were setting up the projector for videophile quality performance.
All of the presets except Reference default to Brilliant Color settings that yield errors in the tonal balance of white vs. colored objects, but this is a separate problem unrelated to the inherent color calibration of the presets.
Input lag. The Bodnar meter reports a lag of 50 ms in all preset modes regardless of whether DarbeeVision was on or off. This result is counterintuitive as we expected DarbeeVision to slow things up a bit, but this is what the meter indicated.
The 1.1x zoom lens allows minor adjustments to fit the image to the screen, but it gives you very little flexibility in throw distance. If you have a 120" diagonal 16:9 screen, you can fill it from a throw distance of at least 13 and not more than 14 feet. If you want to sit at a viewing distance of 1.3x the screen width, that would put the seating at about 11 feet from the screen, so the projector would be positioned just behind you.
There is no vertical lens shift, which is not unusual in this price range. The HD28 has a built-in upward throw angle that puts the bottom edge of a 120" image about 9" above the centerline of the lens. This configuration is good for ceiling mounting or for coffee table use, but placement on a rear shelf above the heads of the audience would usually require a tilt of the projector downward for ideal positioning of the image. The Owner Manual prohibits tilting the projector due to interference with the cooling system. Running it in a tilted position will invalidate the warranty, and most likely curtail lamp life as well as the life of the DLP chip.
If ceiling mounted, the manual stipulates a 4" clearance between the bottom of the projector and the ceiling to allow for heat dissipation. Since the projector cannot be tilted up or down to hit a desired screen target, proceed with care when mounting the screen and projector.
The HD28DSE is small, with a footprint just slightly larger than a standard 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. And it weighs under 6 lbs, so it is ideal for occasional coffee table set up, or transportability to a camera club meeting or a friend's house.
A Note on the Remote
The DarbeeVision control is buried deep in the menu and is a serious nuisance to get to -- especially if you are trying to access it repeatedly for experimental adjustments, as pretty much everyone will want to do. The good news is that you can bypass the menu completely and get directly to the DarbeeVision controls by pressing User 1 on the remote. If you want to change color temperature, you can get to that control by pressing User 2. And for gamma adjustments, it's User 3.
The bottom four buttons on the remote don't work, as the analog video inputs they are designed to access have been deleted from the system.
1.1x zoom and fixed throw offset. You must be fairly precise in where you position the projector in order to fit the image to a pre-existing screen. For a new installation, you may find it easier to install the projector first, then mount the screen to the position of the projected image.
Lower than expected lumens. The HD28 has ample firepower for most home theater and home entertainment use, but it falls noticeably short of its 3000 lumen rating when feeding it an external signal.
Weak onboard speaker. If you listen carefully the speaker will give you an idea what a movie's audio track is all about, but despite its 10-watt rating it is not very loud even at max volume. We've heard 5-watt speakers that are far louder than this one. Of course, the onboard audio is only relevant for portable applications -- nobody setting up a home theater would want to rely on any projector's onboard speaker for sound.
Fan noise. When the lamp is in either Bright or Dynamic Eco mode, the fan noise is quite audible, typical of a portable business projector of its size. It is easy to become unaware of it when viewing a movie with surround sound. But if you are sitting near the projector you will likely become aware of the fan noise during quiet interludes. Those who are sensitive to fan noise may find it unacceptable, and may want to run in Eco mode and give up some image brightness. The projector drops to a quiet whisper when put into Eco mode, so if the projector gives you sufficient light for your room and screen size/type, this will solve the problem for most users.
On the other hand, if you're above 5000 feet elevation, you'll need to turn on the High Altitude mode. This increases fan noise to an unacceptable level for home theater use. This is not unusual for a portable projector, but the HD28 has one of the loudest High Altitude fans we've heard. If you're setting up a serious home theater in Santa Fe or Denver, don't buy this one.
No digital noise reduction. An effective noise reduction filter would be a handy option on this unit, as the digital noise level is higher than on competing units. For those particularly distracted by occasional dancing noise artifacts, the HD28 might not be the ideal choice.
Limited warranties. The HD28 comes with a one-year limited parts and labor warranty on the projector, and a 90-day warranty on the lamp. This is minimum coverage by industry standards.
The most unique feature of the Optoma HD28DSE is the DarbeeVision processing system. While serious videophiles will use this sparingly or not at all, we expect many users will enjoy the increased sharpness, detail, and saturation that it can deliver--especially with video games, animated films, and photography. At modest settings DarbeeVision can improve the clarity of the film/video as well without creating many undesired side effects.
Other than the DarbeeVision feature, the HD28DSE has most of the same advantages and limitations of other DLP-based video projectors including a Brilliant Color system that allow you to dial in the trade-off between image brightness and image balance that most closely meets your needs and tastes. The factory color calibrations of the Bright and Cinema modes in particular are reasonably close to neutral, and you can watch this projector right out of the box without any serious calibration work. At $799, the Optoma HD28DSE is well-positioned to take its share of the highly competitive entry level home theater market. Please see these dealers for current prices and availability.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Optoma HD28DSE projector page.