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Last year, the Optoma HD25 made a splash in the sub-$1000 home theater projector market. This year, Optoma has released the HD26, another sub-$1000 home video projector, as the next iteration in its inexpensive home theater line-up.
Like many other inexpensive home theater projectors, the HD26 is powerfully bright but feature-light, eschewing many of the bells and whistles found on higher-end models in order to keep costs down without sacrificing image quality. However, its 6,500 hour lamp life in Eco mode makes it an obvious choice for television and video games, while its light weight adds to portability for mobile use. Prices on the HD26 have already fallen to $699, making it one of the most affordable 1080p projectors available, and you can buy the Optoma HD26 on Amazon as well as from specialty projector resellers. And while there is fierce competition in the sub-$1000 home theater market, the Optoma HD26 can be an attractive option for folks who want 1080p for as little money as possible.
Update 12/12: A statement from Optoma regarding the firmware update has been added to the Performance section.
Just going by the spec sheet, the HD26 is a bright video projector built for ambient light use. So it came as a surprise when we started up the projector and found ourselves with an image that wasn't terribly bright after all.
The HD26 starts up for the first time in its Cinema mode, with the lamp at full power. Cinema mode emphasizes image balance rather than sheer light output, so it only measures about 1,000 lumens after the projector has warmed up for a few minutes.
Cinema mode produces bright colors with plenty of saturation, but white balance needs some adjustment. Detail sparkles with excellent definition and crisp focus. Black level is deeper than some competing projectors, and the image has good three-dimensionality, with foreground objects in good source material appearing to pop off the screen.
While viewing film and video, we saw a decent number of rainbows, especially in dark scenes whenever a bright highlight also appeared on screen. The opening minutes of Quantum of Solace are a good telltale scene if you need sample material. If you already know that you are sensitive to the rainbow effect, you will definitely want to audition the HD26 prior to purchase.
In 3D, the HD26 turns in a respectable performance, but it doesn't do much to differentiate itself from other DLP Link 3D projectors. Like those projectors, it has very good definition with very little crosstalk when using good-quality 3D glasses. We did not get a chance to test the VESA 3D sync port, but 3D performance using that feature is largely dependent on which glasses you choose, so our results would not mirror yours in any case.
Unlocked image modes. Many inexpensive projectors have image modes that can't be adjusted - the settings they came with are the settings they keep, forever. This was the case on the HD25 - you couldn't make adjustments to the factory image modes without the projector dropping you into User mode. This has been corrected on the HD26, and the projector now allows users to make corrections to the stock image modes. This is especially helpful if you use the HD26 in different environments, or if you want to maintain different calibrations for day and night use, or one calibration for movies and another for games.
Full HD 3D. The HD26 is compatible with HDMI 1.4 3D inputs, and uses the DLP Link standard for glasses synchronization. The projector does not include any glasses, but as DLP Link glasses are both inexpensive and widely available, it's easy to pick some up if you decide to give 3D a try.
The HD26 also includes a "3D to 2D conversion" option. No, we didn't get that backwards. If you have a native 3D movie but want to watch it in 2D mode, you can instruct the HD26 to display only the frames intended for either the left or right eye, discarding the others. While many 3D sources include a 2D option, some don't, so this is a nice option to have available.
VESA 3D sync. In addition to the built-in DLP Link 3D compatibility, the HD26 also includes a VESA sync port. You can connect an external emitter to use either infrared (IR) or radio-frequency (RF) 3D glasses, which have their own benefits and downsides that are beyond the scope of this review. This can also be used with certain 3D accessories to convert the HD26 from active shutter to passive-polarized 3D using a third-party switching polarizer and a silver screen. If you're serious about 3D or simply have strong preferences about RF versus DLP Link or passive versus active, the HD26 can accommodate your needs.
MHL. Mobile High-Definition Link is becoming more and more common on home theater projectors, especially those aimed at the portable and home entertainment markets. MHL allows you to connect mobile devices (such as your phone or tablet) or internet streaming devices (such as a Roku stick or Chromecast) without running any additional wires, essentially transforming the HD26 into a complete Netflix streaming solution with the use of a single power cable.
Long life, low cost lamp. The HD26 uses a 190W P-VIP lamp rated to last 5,000 hours at full power or 6,500 hours in Eco mode. That's about as good as it gets for projectors using traditional arc lamps. What's more, replacements (model number SP.8VH01GC01) are only $179. Depending on where you live, the lamp cost per hour can be lower than the cost of the electricity needed to run the projector in the first place.
Audible noise. Even in full power mode, the HD26 is rather quiet - much more so than several of its competitors that use higher-wattage lamps. This is a bonus in small rooms and during quiet scenes in films. It also means less heat exhaust, which is a benefit when you don't want to run your air conditioner every time you watch a movie.
Input lag. With only 33 milliseconds of input lag, the HD26 is fast enough for most gamers. At 60 frames per second, 33 milliseconds is just two frames of video. While it's not as fast as dedicated gaming monitors, the HD26 on the fast side for projectors and one of the quickest projectors in its price class.
Anamorphic mode. The aspect ratio control of the HD26 includes an option for "Superwide," which stretches 2.4:1 content to vertically fill the projector's native 16:9 frame. This setting enables the use of anamorphic lenses for native 2.4:1 home theater. This is a nice feature, especially since there are quite a few home theater projectors significantly more expensive than the HD26 that don't include this ability. On the other hand, even the least expensive anamorphic lenses are twice as expensive as the HD26, so this feature is primarily of interest to folks who already have a lens and need a new projector to go with it.
Light output. According to the spec sheet, the HD26 should be capable of 3,200 lumens in its brightest mode. Our initial test sample measured only 1732 lumens in Bright mode, but we discovered that this was due to a firmware bug that caused the HD26 to produce much less light than it should.
Regarding the firmware update, Optoma offers the following comment: "Optoma believes that the vast majority of users will not be affected by this issue, as it is unlikely to impact any normal viewing. That said, if users are having an issue and want to have the firmware updated, they will handle it though normal warranty repair channels."
If you already purchased an HD26, contact Optoma customer service for instructions on how to upgrade your projector to the correct firmware. In North America, the phone number is (888) 289-6786.
Our updated test sample measured 3,041 lumens in Bright mode, which is right on target. Bright mode, as the name suggests, is the HD26's answer for those times when you need maximum light output without much regard for color accuracy or contrast performance. In this mode, whites are boosted, while color can appear dull and muddy. Shadow detail also takes a hit.
For more balanced performance, the HD26 includes Cinema mode. At 1056 lumens, Cinema mode has much better color and contrast performance than Bright mode, but only produces a third of the white lumens. However, color in Cinema mode is just about as bright as color in Bright mode, so you end up with a much more balanced image by opting for Cinema.
Reference mode, at 983 lumens, is quite similar to Cinema mode. The differences come down to a one-point decrease in BrilliantColor and some tweaks to grayscale and gamma. Whether you prefer Cinema or Reference is largely personal preference.
Vivid mode, at 2,331 lumens, attempts to strike a balance between Cinema and Bright modes. It performs more similarly to Bright mode than it does to Cinema mode, though color balance and saturation are significantly better than that of Bright mode.
The readings above were all taken with the lamp at full power. The HD26's Eco mode extends lamp life from 5,000 to 6,500 hours and decreases light output by 22%, bringing Cinema to 813 lumens. That's still quite a bit of light for a darkened theater room, but it should make for some vibrant, engaging big-screen performance.
Contrast. Black level on the HD26 is slightly better than that of other sub-$1000 home theater projectors. This is probably due to its lower lumen output in Cinema mode. In film and video, contrast in mixed scenes is sufficient to give the image satisfying depth and detail. The default gamma settings are imperfect, but still better than expected for such an inexpensive projector.
Rather than an automatic iris, the HD26 instead features DynamicBlack. This feature adjusts lamp power in response to the content being shown, producing less light during dark scenes and more light during bright ones. The system is reasonably well executed. Since the HD26 has low fan noise to begin with, the use of DynamicBlack does not create any objectionable audible noise. However, it sometimes takes a moment for the lamp to adjust, and if that adjustment is particularly dramatic, it can occasionally be visible as a drop in brightness after the scene has already changed. If you are one of those folks who finds auto irises objectionable due to the visibility of their adjustments, you probably won't enjoy DynamicBlack. Plenty of folks, however, will appreciate the increased on/off contrast and won't mind the occasional adjustment.
Color. In terms of grayscale tracking, Cinema mode isn't bad, even right out of the box. The chief deficiency in the stock calibration is a lack of green, as seen in the graph below. There's also slightly too much blue, but the lack of green is far more noticeable.
Since the HD26 does not include separate adjustments for gain and bias, one has to be careful and deliberate with the single-axis adjustments in order to obtain a usable picture, balancing low-end error with high-end error until both are minimized. This can be tricky, since decreasing error on one end of the spectrum tends to increase it on the other. In the end, we arrived at a satisfactory calibration by using the following settings:
You'll note that we ended up reducing red and increasing blue, even though our initial readings indicated too much blue. That's just how things worked out. The final calibration has some unwanted warmth in the shadows, but acceptable performance from 20% to 100% illumination and rock-solid accuracy from 30% to 90%.
The HD26 has a full color management system, but we had limited success making adjustments due to the inherent limitations in the projector's gamut. The color gamut in Cinema mode is far from ideal, but that's one of the trade-offs inherent in purchasing a $700 projector for home theater.
Color adjustments. The HD26 has a full color management system, which is good. However, its white balance controls are surprisingly coarse. The HD26 has one slider each for red, green, and blue, whereas most home theater projectors have those adjustments split into Gain and Bias. The lack of separate high- and low-end controls makes it much more difficult to perfect the HD26's grayscale tracking.
Color light output. In Bright mode, the HD26 cranks out over 3,000 lumens. However, color in Bright mode is dull, undersaturated, and generally lackluster. The use of non-RGB segments in the HD26's color wheel means that it can produce more white light than colored light. This can be helpful in a bright room when watching content that isn't particularly color-sensitive, but it is entirely inappropriate for film and video. Cinema mode, on the other hand, has excellent color but only produces about 1,000 lumens. If you plan to use the HD26 as a home theater projector, count on 1,000 usable lumens, not 3,000.
Placement flexibility. The HD26 has a skimpy 1.1:1 zoom range, giving it only a few inches of leeway when adjusting image size or projector placement. Its predecessor model, the HD25, had a 1.2:1 zoom. Very few home theater projectors below $1000 have good placement flexibility, but moving from a 1.2:1 to a 1.1:1 lens is a step in the wrong direction.
Remote backlight. For years now, Optoma's remote controls have included a bright blue backlight. It is so bright, in fact, that in a darkened theater room it can leave afterimages in your eyes. We would much prefer a more subdued backlight at a lower level of brightness. The HD26 has HDMI Link compatibility, so the easiest way to avoid the bright blue backlight is to use a different remote for your day-to-day viewing. When properly configured, you should be able to turn on your projector by turning on your HDMI-CEC enabled Blu-ray player or other input device.
The Optoma HD26 is a perfect example of why you shouldn't base purchasing decisions on a projector's specifications. On paper, the HD26's 3,200 lumens make it look like a super-bright projector for living rooms and other areas with lots of ambient light. In reality, the projector's best modes are much more appropriate for darkened theater environments, and it makes the HD26 an attractive option in the entry-level home theater market.
In some ways, the HD26 is a no-frills projector for first-time buyers. It lacks extensive placement flexibility and some of its adjustment options are unfortunately limited. On the other hand, it includes a surprising number of high-end features, such as a VESA 3D sync port, anamorphic lens compatibility, low input lag, and super-long lamp life. Combined with a satisfying image, these features make the HD26 a strong contender for your home theater dollar.
Competition in this market is fierce, and more options are available every day. But the Optoma HD26 is a solid product, and if it fits your needs (and your budget), it can make a great addition to your home theater.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Optoma HD26 projector page.