Optoma H78DC3 Front Projector Reviewed

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When it comes to front projectors, performance is the real issue to consider. A pretty "shell" might appeal to the coffee-table crowd, but once the lights go out so does that value. Optoma's H78DC3 may never make it to the Museum of Modern Art, but when it comes to performance, this projector really excels.

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This is not a compact unit. It's nearly 17 pounds of industrial off-white design that dominates any table or stand on which it is placed (which is my case, not having a dedicated theater or ceiling mounting options). Setup is about as simple as you could hope for - a number of menus and submenus that let you assign settings, enhance the image for different sources, and make global alterations. The lamp's life can be increased from the standard 2,000 hours so as to last longer, but in general it's not something I recommend since front projectors tend to lose light due to "throwing" it through the air. Controls are on top - a power switch is on the same side as where the A/C socket is located, and the other side is the vent for the fan. Menu, source choices, resync, and enter buttons are closest to the back, with a fair-sized direction pad wheel above that powers both the zoom as well as focus. Another wheel above this one can be turned to alter the vertical lens shift. A word about this: while electronic means allow conforming and "squaring" the image to the screen, being able to make minor and even minute vertical adjustments optically to the image when the projector has been aimed up makes for an easier time.

What Your Eyes See
The H78DC3 has the DarkChip3, a new addition to the DLP chips from Texas Instruments and one that is touted as increasing brightness, contrast, and black levels of the video through a process that removes extraneous light from scattering the image. In the real world I live in my eyes, and those who watch with me are the judges of how a technology performs. We watch movies and TV shows and see how pleasing it is. The H78DC3 may not seem quite as bright as some other models in its class, but the way that it pulls detail in dark scenes is outrageous. I played Batman Begins on my Oppo DVD through its DVI digital port and saw smooth, creamy blacks with serious, but not harsh, contrast. Perhaps this chip is almost there when it comes to deriving that chased-after black level from DLP in a front projector. Its being 720p and 16:9 native aid in this, I expect.

Choosing Looney Tunes Collections #1 results in a more sunny atmosphere, both for my mood as well as the visual display. Color purity is a good test with these Warner cartoons - they're old school, and the texture seen is, to me, more "organic" than digital's perfection. Bugs and Daffy both look as they should, with clean colors and no smearing or blurring in their outlines. Contrast is also excellent, and the level of brightness is far, far above adequate, even with some ambient lighting.

High definition comes courtesy of a D-VHS player and component input (I long for the days of either a Blu-ray or HD DVD player already). This lets me play true HD, and I've seen the cassettes so many times now that I can detect when something is out of whack or extraordinary. The H78DC3 projects a powerful display that makes all this effort worth the trouble. My referenced Ice Age looks as good as it's ever going to, with whites bright and pure, the contrast well within norms, and the overall look just plain fun to watch.

The final test, and one I did more often than others over the two months I had this projector, involves watching standard definition television shows (straight viewings of HD programs via a terrestrial satellite and off a Dish HD receiver look great, by the way). The Replay DVR takes a S-video signal from the Dish receiver (and sends it via component) and is used for time-shifting shows that aren't in HD. Stuff like The Simpsons and others are bright enough to view even with some ambient lighting and look as good as with some of those front projectors that only feature extended resolution (i.e., well suited to standard DVDs but not high def).

The remote is small, but the buttons are few and larger than usual. It works fine, and the backlight makes it simple to choose an output or the menu. Additionally, the power zoom as well as power vertical lens shift can be handled here - adding a remote sensor on the front as well as the rear of the unit allows one to get up close to the screen while hitting the focus. It's a small convenience but an appreciated one (as is the projector having a RS-232 and a 12-volt trigger for use in activating motorized screens, shades, and other usages).

Final View
Optoma noted to me that the size of the projector is such so as to contain both the varied optic additions - the lens shift, for example - as well as a special baffling that precludes leakage of light, which they call a "Wind Tunnel" Shield Design. I'd have to agree that extraneous light is absent. In fact, my wife commented on how she found the small, blue LED on the side indicating that power was on distracting - a testament to the lack of light escaping from the projector, whose placement was on a small table in front of our couch in the living room. Also, the noise from the fan is well within tolerance and hardly noticeable even during quiet scenes, although it doesn't fare quite as well as those found on some higher priced units. Still, unless you are seated directly behind the projector, you won't notice the sound, and certainly not at all once any audio is playing. Computer video comes through nicely, as well. In general, thanks to the total package, you almost think you see detail that isn't there - an impossibility, but what it really means is that you're getting an image that's about as good as you can get. That this comes from a one-chip DLP projector shows that it's about all the parts working together for high resolution results. Those who want a powerful home theater experience that won't diminish over time can stop right here.

Optoma H78DC3 Front Projector
38.2mm, F/2.4-2.69,
1.35x power zoom and focus
Contrast Ratio 4000:1
Resolution 1280 x 720/720p

MSRP: $3,999

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