- Superb value
- Good picture quality for the money
- Decent picture-calibration options
- Very limited optical zoom
- Colours need handling with care
- Minor rainbow effect
Key Features: Single-chip DLP projector; Full HD native resolution; Active 3D playback (no glasses or transmitter included); Brilliant colours; Dynamic Lamp system.
What is the Optoma HD26?
The HD26 is, at £550/$825, a strikingly affordable single-chip DLP projector designed for, in Optoma’s own words, “super-sized home entertainment.” Key features include a very high 3200 ANSI Lumens light output and MHL playback support via one of its HDMIs.
Design and Features
The HD26 is quite a looker for such a cheap projector. Our model came clad in a chic, crisp white over all four of its sides, and the bodywork’s blend of subtle curves, sharp angles and a boldly protruding lens comes together very fetchingly.
The projector’s connections are fine for the money, too, with two HDMIs, a USB port (for servicing purposes), a 3.5mm audio output, a port for attaching an optional 3D sync transmitter, and surprisingly a 12V trigger output for, say, firing up an electronic screen. One of the HDMIs is compatible with the MHL mobile phone protocol.
There are no component video or D-Sub PC ports, but surely most people have now moved beyond these old analogue connections?
The HD26 uses a single-chip DLP projection system with a colour wheel, and sports a Full HD DLP chipset. Its 3200 Lumens maximum brightness rating is unusually high for such a cheap home entertainment projector, yet promisingly this is partnered by a high claimed contrast ratio of 25,000:1. On paper, this combination of specifications may help the HD26 deliver that rare trick of being able to function both in rooms with a bit of light in them and completely blacked-out spaces.
The claimed contrast ratio is not, it must be stressed, native; it’s measured via the HD26’s dynamic black feature, which continually adjusts the output of the projector’s bulb in response to the requirements of the image content. But actually, finding a dynamic black option like this on such a cheap projector is itself impressive – so long as the HD26 makes a decent fist of it, of course.
As with most relatively casual ‘living room’ projectors these days, the HD26 comes with its own built-in audio system. And it also follows the recent trend for making these audio systems actually tolerable to listen to, courtesy of a fairly generous 10W of power.
Other highlights on the HD26’s spec sheet are 3D playback – although you get neither the 3D transmitter nor any 3D glasses for free – a backlit remote control, and an unusually long lamp life of at least 5000 hours using the bright lamp setting, rising to 6500 hours if you use the dynamic lamp option.
Optoma usually provides plenty of picture-calibration tools, and the HD26 doesn’t let the side down. Among its most useful tricks are hue, gain and saturation adjustments for the three primary and three secondary colours, as well as white. It also boasts gamma adjustments and four colour temperature presets.
You can toggle the dynamic black feature on and off, pick from a decently well-calibrated selection of themed picture presets – including Game, Cinema and Reference options – and choose from a range of settings for DLP technology’s Brilliant Colour feature.
From our tests, though, we’d suggest not using Brilliant Colour higher than its ‘2’ setting, as higher settings can introduce a little extra noise and some colour imbalances in subtly toned areas.
Also a good move for dark-room viewing is setting the lamp to its Eco option, as this boosts black-level response and colour balance.
Getting colours looking totally natural takes quite a bit of effort, too. In the end we found the best settings for watching films in a dark environment involved nudging the Tint setting down to -1 and slightly reining in the yellow saturation. Although if you can’t face such efforts, the best picture preset by far for film and TV viewing in a dark room is the Reference one.
While the HD26 is well equipped with picture-calibration aids, it’s rather more basic where mechanical setup is concerned. The amount of optical zoom on offer via the wheel on the lens barrel is so small at 1.1x that it’s hardly worth including, and although the focus wheel is more useful it’s also rather ‘baggy’ in its responsiveness, making it a fiddle to get the focus exactly right.
Predictably for such a cheap projector, you don’t get any optical image shift. So to get the image appearing in the correct place on your wall or screen, you’ll have to make do with adjusting the screw-down legs on the projector’s underside and using the keystone correction. Or at a push you could try the ‘digital image shift’ option to move the image left, right, up or down.
However, the keystone approach leads to digital distortion of the image, while the digital image shift only moves the image up and down within the confines of the 1920 x 1080 chipset. In other words, you’ll lose the edges of the picture, meaning this feature is really only usable for moving the image up and down a little when watching wide-aspect-ratio films with black bars above and below them.
The HD26’s picture quality comes as a very pleasant surprise. Particularly unexpected is how decent its black-level response is. We never found ourselves having to squint through any grey mist over dark scenes, which is a characteristic of many budget projectors, and we could also see impressive amounts of shadow detail in dark areas of the picture, helping dark scenes look as consistent in depth as bright ones.
Also impressive was how neutral dark areas look. By which we mean we didn’t notice any intrusions of blue or green into the blackness, or any of the sort of ‘glowing’ finish seen on some budget projectors. Even the low-level fizzing noise often seen in dark areas with single-chip DLP projectors is largely avoided.
Although the Dynamic Black feature doesn’t deliver as pronounced a contrast difference as we ideally like to see, it does deliver a slight contrast boost and is worth experimenting with. Especially as it works subtly enough not to generate too many over-obvious ‘leaps’ in the image’s overall brightness.
The biggest argument for not using it, in fact, is that it causes some distracting shifts in the noise levels produced by the projector’s cooling fans. These fans aren’t by any means the noisiest we’ve heard from a budget projector, though, and we didn’t notice any additional ‘whining’ from the colour wheel.
The HD26’s running noise can be considered neutral enough not to be distracting when the lamp’s running in non-dynamic mode – unless you’re sat right next to it. It might have been better, actually, if the projector had chosen to stick in the highest fan setting for the Dynamic Black mode, rather than shifting gears up and down.
As noted previously, the HD26’s colours are a little fiddly to get right. Ultimately you need to reduce saturation levels to stop skin tones looking patchy and a little yellow around the gills, which leaves images looking a touch more washed out than on more expensive projectors. But the slightly desaturated look is preferable to the over-ripe, gaudy appearance that colours often have on such cheap projectors, as it still gives you much more believable and subtle tones than you’d commonly find for £550/$825.
The fact that the HD26 can produce a credible black level also does no harm to its colour handling.
More good news about the HD26’s images is that they look detailed and dense, with little sign of any visible pixel structure in the image unless you get your face much closer to the screen than you’d ever want to. Motion looks quite clean for such a cheap projector, too. There’s a touch of judder, but it’s only rarely a distraction.
There’s a slightly softer finish to the pictures than some people might like, but actually we don’t mind this, as it helps hide noise and doesn’t stop you appreciating the detail and pixel density in the HD26’s images. Forensic clarity isn’t actually always a good thing, especially at the budget end of the projection market…
While we predominantly tested the HD26 in a darkened room, its impressive brightness using the Dynamic preset does mean that, as hoped earlier, it copes with a little ambient light much better than most home entertainment projectors.
There are only two significant problems with the HD26’s pictures. First, no matter what we did calibration-wise, we couldn’t stop bold colours looking a touch cartoony. For instance, the yellow explosions and fireballs that occasionally crop up in the last Harry Potter movie tend to look startlingly dislocated from the muted palette of the rest of the film, due to the lack of finesse in the Optoma’s rendition of bold yellows.
The other issue is the rainbow effect, where single-chip DLP projectors can suffer from flickering stripes of red, green and blue appearing fleetingly over very bright parts of the image. To be fair, this doesn’t show up as aggressively or as often as is common with cheap DLP projectors. Plus, more importantly, you can reduce its appearance by keeping the Brilliant Colour and brightness lamp output settings low.
Still, if you’re particularly susceptible to seeing the rainbow effect, you’ll see it from time to time on the HD26, and should maybe consider an LCD projector instead – although you’ll have to accept reduced black-level response with similarly affordable LCD models.
Optoma doesn’t provide either its 3D transmitter or glasses as standard with the HD26, and didn’t provide them for the review either, so we couldn’t test its 3D performance. We would say, though, that feeding the projector a 3D signal didn’t cause the strange red colour infusion witnessed with BenQ’s 3D DLP projectors. Also, experience suggests that DLP usually fares well when it comes to suppressing crosstalk ghosting noise with 3D sources.
As always, we must preface this section by stressing that using audio from a projector’s built-in speakers is never an ideal solution, since the sound inevitably appears dislocated from the picture.
On the plus side, the HD26’s audio goes louder without distorting than the sound systems of most projectors, and delivers decent levels of audio detail, too. However, the soundstage doesn’t escape far from the confines of the projector cabinet, and there’s hardly any bass around, which leaves action scenes sounding flat and unconvincing.
Other things to consider
The HD26 is impressively easy to use, as its straightforward, clear onscreen menus are accessed via one of the better remotes in the projection world. This fits comfortably in your hand, features a notably helpful layout, and benefits from really bright backlighting for easy use in a dark room.
The HD26 obviously has appeal as an unusually affordable big-screen gaming display. So it’s great to find that, when using its Game preset, we measured its input lag – the time it takes to render images – at just 33ms. That’s a very respectable figure by projection standards and shouldn’t significantly mess with your gaming abilities.
Should I buy an Optoma HD26?
You should seriously consider an HD26 if you want massive pictures on a tiny budget. The only real competition for the HD26 would be the BenQ W1070, which has slightly better colour response, but slightly worse contrast. It’s also not quite as well equipped to cope with varying room brightness as the HD26.
The HD26 is an excellent small-cost big-screen option for movie fans and gamers alike.
Scores In Detail
- Design : 8/10
- Features : 8/10
- Image Quality : 8/10
- Value : 9/10