We are witness to the beginning of a new era in front projection. As CEDIA Expo 2006 so clearly demonstrated, the market is about to be flooded with 1080p front projectors, many with list prices below $10,000. Among them is the Optoma HD81, one of the first DLP models to become available. Its MSRP is $9999, but Optoma’s officially sanctioned street price is $6999, making it a very attractive purchase.
The HD81 is a twopiece system: the projector itself and a separate processor unit with a multitude of inputs, including three HDMI, two RGBHV/component (using BNC connectors), two component, one VGA, three S-video, and three composite. Other connectors include an RS232 port for control and two 12V trigger outputs.
The projector connects to the processor via dedicated HDMI and RS232 ports; both must be connected for the system to operate. There are no other connectors on the projector itself (other than AC power). The included 6-foot RS232 cable is of the “null-modem” or “crossover” variety. If you must place them farther apart, a normal RS232 cable can be mated to the included cable with a “straightthrough” adaptor.
The HDMI inputs can accept anything up to and including 1080p at 60 and 24 frames per second. If the signal is 1080p/24, each frame is displayed twice at a vertical frequency of 48Hz, which is far better than converting to 1080p/60.
The projector is a single-chip DLP design using Texas Instruments’ 0.95-inch 1920x1080 DMD with DarkChip3 enhancements and a 7-segment color wheel. Another feature touted by Optoma is a 16- step auto iris to achieve a dynamic contrast of up to 10,000:1. This iris is very noisy and slow, making its operation obvious and distracting, so I left it off (which I normally do anyway, preferring a constant black level).
The processor is based on the Gennum VXP, a highly regarded chipset that provides 10-bit processing. Among the more advanced features here are user-definable gamma curves, 16-region RGBCYM color adjustments, and ISF CCC Day and Night modes.
There are many controls in the user menu, including everything needed to perform a full grayscale calibration. (Of course, I do not recommend that users attempt this without the requisite skill and equipment.) One great feature in this regard is a Settings Copy function that lets you copy the settings for one input and signal type to another, greatly easing the pain of re-entering settings for multiple inputs.
There is one feature conspicuous in its absence: vertical lens shift. Without this critical feature, positioning the projector is far less flexible than it should be. In fact, in its table-mounted configuration, the projector must be placed below the bottom of the screen. Here at Grayscale Studio, the projector platform was 26 inches above the floor, and the screen had to be raised so the bottom of the active image area was 45 inches above the floor, which is too high for comfortable long-term viewing.
The remote is generally excellent; it’s fully illuminated (even the button labels) and not universal. There are lots of buttons, but they are well organized and mostly useful, including direct selection of input, picture mode, and aspect ratio. Several “enhancement” controls are also directly accessible, but I prefer to disable them to achieve the most accurate picture possible.
The remote doesn’t seem to have enough power to reflect commands from the screen to the processor box at the back of the room (a distance of 14 feet in my case). I had to aim the remote directly at the box. I could have put the included IR sensor near the screen; it’s attached to a 6-foot cable that plugs into the back of the processor box that can be easily extended with an inexpensive cable from someplace like RadioShack.
The menu system is clean and wellorganized, with four main menus. The menu remains on the screen until you exit, which I like. However, I wish there was an exit button that made the menu disappear immediately rather than having to back out of it one level at a time. The selected picture control moves to the bottom of the screen and the rest of the menu disappears, which is as it should be.
One bit of confusion: if you call up the menu with no input signal, the only item you can access is the System menu. The Image, Display, and Setup menus cannot be selected unless there is an input signal.
Out of the box and firing onto a Stewart Grayhawk RS screen, the HD81 was closer to correct in terms of brightness, contrast, grayscale, and lack of edge enhancement than most displays we’ve seen. Still, at this price, it would be worthwhile to have a professional calibration done to get the best possible picture out of it.