Mitsubishi HC3000 DLP Projector
The case in point here is Mitsubishi's HC3000 single-chip DLP projector. Its diminutive $2500 price tag doesn't buy you state-of-the-art performance, but it buys enough to leave this reviewer shaking his head in disbelief. I've been in home theater long enough to tell those "I used to walk five miles to school, uphill, both ways" stories about how hideously expensive CRT projectors and separate scalers were just a few years back. I've also lived through the first several generations of digital projectors, which early on were a great reason to hold onto the old, expensive CRT. And now, I've seen a HD pixel count, digital front projector that I could live with for just $2500.
I don't know if that's cheap enough to declare that front projection is within reach of the masses, but I do know that premium rear projection "big screens" with images much smaller than front projection delivers still cost more than this little DLP. Don't let the tiny box fool you- this is a lotta machine for the money!
A New DMD
The DMD (Digital Micromirror Device) used here is a new job that I'm experiencing directly for the first time. When literature for projectors with this 15:9 1280x768 chip circulated at CES '06, Editor Tom Norton and I inquired with a few manufacturers about whether this resolution spec was a typo. It wasn't. There were a broad number of sub-$5K single-chip DLP projectors shown at CES with this chip set.
While the application for a "native" 15:9 chip isn't apparent to me, it might have an origin in Europe where the 1.66:1 aspect ratio is (or was) more common in filmmaking (England's adopted son, Stanley Kubrick composed a number of his greatest films in this aspect ratio.) The only other things I know about this chip are that it's referred to as a DarkChip2, and that the specified 0.65-inch chip size is even smaller than that of the current DarkChip3 720p DMDs, which are spec'd as 0.8-inch.
The advantages of the DarkChip3 over the DarkChip2 are mirror hinges of reduced size, flatter mirrors with improved reflective properties, and reduced inter-pixel space for better "fill factor." All of these add up to greater contrast in the DLPs using the DarkChip3. This new 1280x768 chip might get some of that back as the reduced chip size should also increase fill factor (in theory, at least.)
Features and Functions
As one would expect at this price point, there aren't any big-name chip sets or optics, and neither will you find a ton of bells and whistles. For hi-res inputs, the HC3000 sports a single HDMI input, one component input, and a computer input on 15-pin DSub connector that, according to the manual, is compatible with component or RGB signals. Even at this price point I'd like to see two HDMI inputs.
The HC3000's image processing is driven by a new integrated circuit that TI has developed called the DDP3020. TI claims this IC "supports 10-bit processing," which isn't necessarily the same thing as saying the processing is 10-bit from end to end. In addition to handling deinterlacing, noise reduction, edge enhancement and a wide array of video processing features, the DDP3020 also features TI's BrilliantColor technology. The lit describing this feature isn't exactly a marvel of clarity. It claims to boost "mid-tone color levels" and provide "truer, more vibrant colors." Now, it's not a secret that color fidelity is an area in which a lot of digital displays, especially cheaper ones, fall flat on their collective face. In particular, orange reds and limey greens plague a variety of displays, and that's just the beginning.
Correcting color for accuracy has never been easy, even in the CRT days. Hand tweaking individual projectors is expensive and time consuming. Optical filters are effective at making better colors, but have the side effect of decreasing light output, which isn't desirable either. Put simply, BrilliantColor is a set of processing algorithms that allow for a wider, more realistic (and more accurate) color gamut without sacrificing light output. Our measurements back this up, as you can see in the Tests and Calibration section of this review.
There isn't much unusual or exotic as you dig through the HC3000's functionality, and while the manual offers little help and betrays a background still steeped in the boardroom, the on-screen menus are clear enough that all but the greenest home theater novices will figure things out.
Gamma has three selectable preset curves (Cinema, Sports and Video), and allows two user settings for custom curves based on any of the presets as a reference. Setting a user curve allows adjustment of high, mid, and low brightness levels in the image. This is a very difficult thing to set by eye without instruments, and I don't recommend it. I used the Cinema gamma curve for critical movie watching and was fine with that.
The HC3000's color temperature setting has four presets—High Brightness, 9300K, 6500K, 5900K- and a fully customizable User setting. Editor Tom Norton calibrated the grayscale prior to sending me the review unit, and found that 5900K was closest to the 6500K standard, but still too high, averaging around 7800K throughout most of the brightness range. This projector is still a good deal after you've paid an ISF calibrator to dial this in, which I strongly recommend.
The iris and lamp power are adjustable, and I found that light output was adequate with the iris in the "Close" position and the lamp at Low, which optimized contrast for watching movies in a darkened room. I could see the pinkish cast on the post-calibrated gray scale that TJN refers to in his calibration notes for the HC3000. But the pink shift was scarcely noticeable on program material, and with that extra light output I never felt the need to open up the iris or goose the light output with brighter HD material (like sports). (I've seen this pink cast to the gray scale on other projectors as well—even when properly calibrated and with the Contrast control set so the peak whites are not clipped or crushed. But eliminating it completely on the HC3000 involves sacrificing about 30% in image brightness.—TJN )
Unlike a number of projectors on the market this one isn't loaded with image adjustment presets. There are simply three user selectable "AV" memories in which your chosen settings can be stored and recalled. This isn't overly abundant, but I'd call it adequate.
The remote is a small, cute and effective little sucker. It offers direct access to all critical functions, including input sources, AV Memory (image settings), aspect ratio, and even individual picture adjustments (brightness, contrast, sharpness.) Going even further, gamma, color temperature, and iris are also accessed directly. And as if all that isn't enough, it's backlit and doesn't feel at all cluttered in spite of its considerable functionality. Wow is all I can say.
The Small Setup
People think I'm exaggerating when I tell them that many of today's digital projectors are smaller than a shoebox, but those people haven't yet seen something like the HC3000. It's teensy even by today's standards.
Setting up a digital projector is about as interesting as tying your shoes, and only takes half as long. A crosshatch pattern can be accessed from the projector itself to align the image on screen. Zoom and focus are manually adjusted on the barrel of the lens, and as is the case with many budget-priced projectors, there is no vertical lens shift. This makes positioning much more important, as your choices narrow between living with either geometric distortion or the artifacts that electronic keystone manipulation invariably inflicts on the image. The throw range is acceptably wide too, another thing I've seen go by the wayside with cheaper projectors.
The little Mits does add one nifty feature I'd like to see on every projector that lacks vertical lens shift: telescopic legs on the back of the projector as well as the front. This compensates for an installation in which the projector lens is higher than the bottom of the screen, such as a bookshelf, or in my case, on a stand that sits behind and above the viewing position. I admit that more people will be doing a table mount that aims up at the screen, but the legs probably didn't cost much and allow more flexibility without the addition of those old, standby doorstops or paperbacks to prop up the projector's ass end.
One oddity in the on-screen menus comes up in setup and that regards the orientation of the projector installation (i.e., table top, ceiling, etc.) The menu setting that deals with this is called "Image Reverse," which isn't incredibly descriptive, and the choices are even less clear. Let me help: select Off for a table or floor installation, and select "Mirror Invert" for a ceiling installation. Done deal. If you're doing a rear projection setup with this front projector, you'll figure out which of the other settings applies.