- Darbee processing adds remarkable sharpness and detail
- Strong colour performance
- Low input lag for gaming
- Darbee processing is “labour-intensive”
- Clumsy dynamic black system
- Limited zoom range and rainbow effect could be problems for some
Key Features: Single-chip DLP projector; Full HD native resolution; Darbee video-processing engine; Powered USB port; 3,000 lumens claimed brightness.
What is the Optoma HD28DSE?
At first glance the £699/$1,049 Optoma HD28DSE looks just like any other member of the increasingly crowded budget projector marketplace. However, it hides a neat feature up its sleeves: award-winning DarbeeVision video processing, which claims to be capable of improving image depth, clarity, object separation and realism. But can such a seemingly powerful image-processing system really be compatible with such an affordable projector?
Design and Features
Optoma has a knack for making attractive projectors, and the HD28DSE continues the trend. Its cool all-white exterior and bold combination of angles and curves give it plenty of coffee table appeal.
While those wanting to place the HD28DSE in a dedicated movie room may have preferred a black finish, in most cases I see the affordable Optoma being used on an ad hoc basis in a living room.
Down the HD28DSE’s side sit a decent suite of connections. Highlights include two HDMIs (version 1.4a types with 3D and MHL support); a powered USB port capable of supporting dongles such as the Amazon Fire and Google Chromecast; an audio output; a 12v trigger port for, say, firing up a connected motorised screen; and a circular port for attaching an optional 3D sync transmitter. You can also add wireless HDMI functionality via Optoma’s optional (£180/$270) WHD200 pack.
To make use of the HD28DSE’s 3D abilities you’ll need to invest in 3D glasses – predictably, none are included for the projector’s £699/$1,049 price.
The HD28DSE delivers its pictures using a single-chip DLP system, claimed to be capable of pumping out a huge 3,000 lumens of brightness and an unexpectedly high 30,000:1 contrast ratio.
Note, though, that this contrast figure is based on a “Dynamic Black” feature that adjusts light output in response to the image content. This is a process that can result in light instability issues if it isn’t handled well. This is especially likely if partnered with the sort of extreme brightness the HD28DSE can apparently deliver.
The practical benefit of the Dynamic Black feature is that it delivers a claimed 8,000 hours of life from the HD28DSE’s lamp. That’s an impressive figure for such a bright, affordable projector – and it means that, even if you watch a movie every day, it could last you up to 10 years.
The HD28DSE’s biggest selling point, though, is its DarbeeVision Visual Presence video-processing system.
This processing engine claims to use neuro-biologic algorithms to enhance the detail and depth of skin tones, textures and reflective surfaces, resulting in a boost to the image’s clarity.
You can choose between three modes: “Hi-Def” is the least aggressive, and is recommended for high-quality content such as Blu-rays; “Gaming” mode is suited to computer generated images; and finally, the brilliantly named “Full Pop” mode, designed for low-resolution and/or low-quality video sources.
Given that I love a good neuro-biologic algorithm as much as the next man, I’m intrigued to discover what the Darbee engine can do. Especially given that the inclusion of such as video-processing engine in a projector costing under £700/$1,050 is practically unheard of.
When it comes to physical setup tools, the HD28DSE is disappointing. It offers only a token amount of optical zoom, and – more predictably for its money – there isn’t any optical image shifting in either a vertical or horizontal direction.
Depending on your room layout, getting the required image size could be tricky. And it could even result in you having to resort to the projector’s digital keystone adjustments to get the edges of the image looking perpendicular. This isn’t ideal, digital keystone adjustments essentially distort the image, detracting from the pixel to pixel accuracy with HD sources you’d otherwise get from the HD28DSE.
The HD28DSE fairs better with its menu setup options. There’s a decent degree of colour management, which extends to the secondary as well as primary colours, and there’s also a solid selection of picture presets for different types of content and room setup.
Of these the most useful are Reference, which essentially turns off all the fancy stuff to deliver a classic Rec 709 picture and Cinema. The Cinema setting uses tricks such as DLP Brilliant Colour, the Darbee engine and the Dynamic Black feature to deliver a markedly more eye-catching image.
You need to handle the HD28DSE’s picture tools with care, however. Where Darbee is concerned, I’d recommend against using the Full Pop setting for reasons I’ll discuss in the next section.
With the Hi-Def setting, tedious though it sounds, I’d adjust its level of operation depending on how grainy the Blu-ray or DVD you’re watching is. You can leave it at its default 80 level for a pristine Blu-ray transfer such as Oblivion, but for grainy titles such as 300 and the final Harry Potter film you’ll need to reduce the setting to below 50.
Throughout testing, the Gaming mode seemed just fine using its default setting – just remember to switch away from it when you go back from gaming to watching a film.
Rather reluctantly, my final piece of advice is that you turn off the Dynamic Black function, for reasons I’ll cover in the next section.
Out of the box, the HD28DSE has some significant issues. The worst of which is unstable levels of brightness when watching dark scenes in movies.
This is a result of the Dynamic Black feature adjusting the projector’s light output in response to changes in the image content to boost dynamism and black-level response. Many other projectors use dynamic contrast systems too, but the one employed by the HD28DSE seems too react too slowly and then too aggressively to changes in the images you’re watching.
This means that you end up distracted by what the projector is doing, rather than being engaged with the movie.
Turning off the Dynamic Black feature fixes this issue instantly. But the trade-off is less punchy images, which also appear greyer in dark areas.
The other issue from the off is the Darbee system. The Full Pop option tends to push contrast too far, leading to dark parts of the picture appearing hollow, with startling bits of noise from time to time– spikes of colour around the edges of sharply contrasting picture elements, for example.
It’s also by far the softest-looking Darbee setting; overall, it didn’t appear to be a good fit for any HD or standard definition sources that I fed the projector.
Initially, the Hi-Def Darbee setting too looked problematic when viewing the grainy Harry Potter test disc. It resulted in noise that resembles the MPEG blocking experienced with low-quality digital broadcasts over skin tones and strong vertical picture elements such as windows and room corners.
On occasion, a strange halo effect surrounding moving objects also became evident. However, heavily reducing the strength of the processing entirely removed such issues. In fact, they appeared rarely and so subtlety that such issues became insignificant next to the upsides of what the Hi-Def Darbee mode has to offer.
With our much cleaner Oblivion Blu-ray transfer, I was able to set the Hi-Def mode to a much higher level without any resulting processing nasties, which gave me the opportunity to fully appreciate what the Darbee engine can do. Pictures look so much sharper and more detailed that sometimes they appear almost 4K-like.
The sudden appearance of leaf, grass, hair, clothing weave and skin pore detail that didn’t seem to be there before toggling on the Hi-Def mode can take your breath away, making it hard to believe you’re still looking at a Full HD projector – never mind a Full HD projector that costs only £700/$1,050.
Using the Gaming mode to play Xbox One games on the HD28DSE delivers even more eye-catching levels of sharpness – although I wouldn’t recommend using this mode with video, since noise again becomes an issue.
What’s particularly great about the Darbee video-processing engine is that, provided you commit to adjusting it for different sources, it really can deliver its sharpness-boosting effects without leaving the image looking unnatural. Motion, too, continues to look clean and natural, while colours retain subtlety and intensity.
The HD28DSE itself also does very well with its general colour response, delivering punchy but impressively natural tones with video content, while also responding well to the bolder, less nuanced tones in games.
There are however a couple of issues that not even the Darbee engine can sort out. First, there are some quite noticeable rainbow effects, whereby stripes of red, green and blue show up over bright image elements. This is especially noticeable if they appear against a dark backdrop.
Second, the HD28DSE’s delivery of blacks isn’t great. There’s a pronounced grey “curtain” over dark picture areas that reduces their naturalism and can also hide some of the image’s subtler shadow details.
It’s important to stress, however, that such issues are relatively common at this price level of the projector market – unlike the remarkable Darbee-inspired detail and sharpness.
3D Picture Quality
The HD28DSE continues to impress with 3D. There’s hardly any evidence of crosstalk ghosting noise, for instance, which is hugely refreshing given how much of it can still be seen on 3D TVs.
The level of detail on show from 3D Blu-rays is also excellent, making the 3D worlds you’re watching seem more real and involving. The projector’s intense brightness helps 3D images look bold and well defined, despite the inevitable dimming effect of the 3D glasses.
For me, the issue with the HD28DSE’s 3D pictures is that the sharpness can almost go too far at times, to the point where foregrounded objects can start to look a little like cardboard cut-outs rather than natural parts of the 3D environment. In addition, shadow detail in dark areas tends to get crushed out.
One oddity about the HD28DSE’s 3D pictures is that I had to activate the 3D Sync Inversion option to get foreground and background objects to appear in their proper place. I’ve had the same experience with other Optoma 3D projectors too.
While it isn’t uncommon for casual projectors such as the HD28DSE to have built-in speakers, it is unusual for those speakers to sound as effective as the 10W units built into this Optoma. They deliver a soundstage of surprising presence and clarity for such a small device, making it genuinely usable if you’re wanting some audio to accompany a sporting occasion you’re projecting, for instance.
In movies, however, sound appears dislocated from the pictures. But this is an issue that has affected every other projector featuring built-in audio that I’ve tested – it isn’t a failing that’s specific to the HD28DSE.
Other Things to Consider
The HD28DSE’s price, brightness and Darbee Gaming mode clearly make it a potentially excellent gaming projector. Happily, it backs up these headline attractions with an impressively low input lag figure of around 30ms. Precious few TVs and projectors suffer less delay in rendering their images than that, and surprisingly, the HD28DSE even manages to deliver this figure with the Darbee processing engine engaged.
A common issue with relatively small but bright projectors is running noise. And if you use the Dynamic Black feature, or the lamp on its brightest setting, then the noise from the HD28DSE’s cooling fans can become a distraction.
With the Eco lamp mode active, however, the HD28DSE is pretty easy to live with. Handily, this mode delivers the best picture quality too, given its positive effect on the projector’s black level response.
Also worth mentioning is the HD28DSE’s remote control, which features one of the brightest backlighting systems I’ve seen, making it easy to use in a dark room.
Should I buy an Optoma HD28DSE?
No other projector at the HD28DSE’s price point offers a serious video-processing engine. The inclusion of the Darbee system gives this new Optoma a genuinely unique selling point – especially since it’s capable of being unexpectedly potent and effective if you’re willing to commit enough effort to getting the best from it.
The HD28DSE’s rather noticeable rainbow effect and a messy Dynamic Black option mean that the slightly less bright BenQ W1080ST+ could also be worth considering – especially if your room layout suits a projector placed close to a wall or screen (the ST part of the BenQ’s name refers to its short-throw lens).
You could also save £150/$225 by going for the strong Optoma HD26 instead. For me, though, the Darbee system is comfortably worth the extra outlay.
If you’re willing to regularly visit the Darbee options of the HD28DSE’s menus to adapt it for different sources, its inclusion helps the HD28DSE deliver the crispest, most detailed images you can get on a sub-£1,000/$1,500 projector.