Posted on December 16, 2019 By Scott Wilkinson
So-called “smart” TVs are nearly ubiquitous these days, but home-entertainment projectors with similar functionality are few and far between. The Optoma UHD52ALV is one of the exceptions. It doesn’t have built-in streaming apps, but it does include a media player, and it can be controlled with voice commands using Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant—though only in certain countries and languages as of this writing.
Even better, this feature-laden, single-chip DLP model offers full UHD resolution (3840×2160), and it supports and displays high dynamic-range content in the HDR10 and HLG formats—features that are becoming more common among consumer projectors. Of course, it can’t reach anywhere near the brightness of a flat-panel TV, but its specified peak light output of 3500 lumens is pretty high for a projector that costs less than $1800.
The Optoma UHD52ALV measures 15.4″ x 11.1″ x 4.6″ (WxDxH) and weighs in at only 11.75 pounds, making it easy to move from the living room to the den to the back yard for movies under the stars. It offers a 1.3x zoom lens, and it provides vertical lens shift, making placement more flexible than it would be without lens shift. It can be placed from 3.9 to 26.6 feet from the screen and create an image from 34″ to 302″ diagonally. I’d call that pretty darn flexible, though the extreme ends of those ranges would not produce good picture quality.
The UHD52ALV a single-chip DLP projector using a 0.47″ 1920×1080 DMD (Digital Micromirror Device), the imaging chip at the heart of DLP technology. Each pixel is quickly shifted between four different positions to achieve an effective resolution of 3840×2160 individually addressable pixels on the screen. The 8-segment color wheel includes two sets of red, green, blue, and white segments, resulting in a color gamut that exceeds 100% of BT.709, the standard for HD video. In fact, Optoma claims it encompasses more than 80% of the DCI/P3 gamut, the standard for commercial digital cinema and consumer wide color gamut.
Optoma claims a peak light output of 3500 lumens, which is quite high for this price. (Some of the company’s other models have similarly high peak-brightness specs.) Of course, it will almost certainly be less after calibration, but even then, it might still be higher than most calibrated SDR projectors in order to display HDR effectively. If so, the UHD52ALV is particularly well suited for use in rooms that are not dedicated home theaters, though HDR looks best in dark environments. We generally recommend that you use an ambient light-rejecting screen in brighter rooms.
The lamp can be dynamically modulated according to the average image brightness at any given moment—more accurately called the average picture level (APL)—leading Optoma to specify a contrast ratio of 500,000:1. Again, this is undoubtedly much greater than an independent measurement would be, as virtually all manufacturer contrast-ratio specs are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a real-world measurement results in a higher-than-usual number for the sake of HDR. Dynamic lamp modulation—which Optoma calls Dynamic Black—improves black levels and contrast, but the improvement is limited because the lamp’s brightness can’t be changed quickly. A dynamic iris can often improve dark scenes much more.
Optoma specifies that the 240W lamp will last up to 15,000 hours with dynamic modulation enabled. The specs also indicate that the lamp life is 10,000 hours in Eco mode and 4000 hours in Bright mode, neither of which dynamically modulate the lamp. These lifespan numbers are similar to other Optoma projectors, and longer than most, though it’s important to understand that the specification indicates the time it takes for the lamp to lose half its brightness, not how long it will take to fail altogether.
As mentioned earlier, the UHD52ALV accepts and displays high dynamic range in the HDR10 and HLG formats. Many experts say that projectors can’t do “real” HDR, because there is simply too little light coming off the screen. For example, Dolby Vision projectors in Dolby Cinema venues achieve a peak brightness of 108 nits, which is twice the peak brightness of a conventional commercial-cinema projector but only a tenth or less of what many HDR-capable LED/LCD TVs can reach. So, most people say that HDR projectors are more properly called “extended dynamic range” or EDR. I’m fine with that distinction, though in my view, the image quality of such projectors is still clearly better than those that reproduce only SDR.
In addition, this projector can simulate HDR with SDR content. However, Optoma decided to do it by increasing the color saturation rather than significantly increasing the brightness. This means the colors are no longer accurate, but the company has determined that consumers really like colors that “pop.” In addition, they found that many people really don’t like the results when increasing the brightness, so they opted for more saturated colors instead. I don’t like this approach, but apparently, the average consumer does, and as the saying goes, “give the people what they want.”
Another feature that enthusiasts hate but average consumers often love is frame interpolation—otherwise called motion estimation/motion compensation (MEMC)—which the UHD52ALV offers. This function synthesizes new frames between the actual frames in a video signal to sharpen objects in motion, but it also causes the dreaded “soap-opera effect,” causing movies to look like they were shot on video. Fortunately, you can disable MEMC if SOE drives you crazy.
SOE is worst with movies shot at 24 fps, so Optoma offers an alternative called 24p mode. Initially, I thought this might involve repeating each frame two or three times, just like commercial cinemas do. But instead, 24p mode synthesizes one new frame using MEMC after every four frames in the signal, bringing the displayed frame rate to 30 fps. This is still frame interpolation, but not nearly as much as full MEMC, so SOE should be far less apparent.
One thing that is glaringly absent from this home-entertainment projector is a game mode, which would reduce the input lag to acceptable levels for gaming. Because of MEMC, however, the UHD52ALV has a specified input lag of more than 66 ms—and that’s with MEMC off! Turning MEMC on, the input lag increases to 140-160 ms, which is way too high for gaming. In general, an input lag of 55ms or less is acceptable, while a lag in the mid-30s is considered good, so don’t expect gaming to be very satisfying on this projector.
3D might be gone from new flat-panel TVs, but it’s still going strong in projectors. The UHD52ALV supports all 3D formats, including side-by-side at 1080i50/60 and 720p50/60, over-under at 1080p/24 and 720p50/60, and frame-packed at 1080p/24 and 720p50/60. Viewing 3D requires optional active-shutter glasses that are compatible with DLP Link. Optoma does not sell these glasses, but you can easily find them online from companies like Xpand.
For all you enthusiasts out there, the UHD52ALV offers ISF Day and Night calibration modes. These modes let you—or a professional technician—calibrate the projector for optimum performance with ambient light and in the dark. The ISF modes are normally locked so they can’t be inadvertently tweaked; you need a special code to access them, which you can get from your dealer or calibrator.
Unlike many consumer projectors, the UHD52ALV includes a built-in media player, which allows you to play video, audio, and other content from a USB storage device. Even better, you can stream content from other devices on your local Wi-Fi network if you plug the included dongle into one of the USB ports on the back. This is a way-cool feature that I really appreciate.
The included Wi-Fi dongle also lets you control the projector with your voice via Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. As of this writing, that capability is available only in the UK, Germany, and France, though Optoma is planning to add it to other regions. For voice control, the dongle must be plugged into a different USB port than the one used for Wi-Fi content; if you want to use both, you can buy a second dongle for $30.
A related feature is support for something called IFTTT (If This Then That). This free web-based service lets you create chains of simple conditional commands to perform various tasks—for example, home-automation activities—in response to Alexa or Google Assistant commands.
One feature that’s missing from the UHD52ALV—and, to be fair, most other projectors—is a suite of built-in streaming apps that can be found in so-called smart TVs these days. Optoma and LG offer a few “smart projectors” with streaming apps, but this is still fairly rare. Of course, most folks get their online content from a streamer such as Roku or Amazon Fire TV, which can easily be used with the UHD52ALV.
Like many home-entertainment projectors, this one provides an onboard audio system with two built-in speakers and a 10-watt amplifier. This is very handy if you routinely move the projector from, say, the living room to the bonus room to the back yard for outdoor movie night, and it’s better than many projectors that provide only one speaker. But it’s undoubtedly a far cry from just about any outboard audio system. Fortunately, the UHD52ALV offers an analog and digital audio-output jack that sends the audio signal to a speaker system, which should give you much better sound quality.
The back panel has more connections than many projectors. Two HDMI 2.0 inputs implement HDCP 2.2 copy protection and operate at 18 Gbps, and they are joined by a VGA input. A total of four USB ports include one for a memory stick with media content, one for the Wi-Fi media-streaming dongle, one for voice control (using the same dongle), and one for service only. In addition, the memory-stick port can also be used to power a streaming dongle such as a Roku Streaming Stick or Amazon Fire TV Stick plugged into one of the HDMI ports.
An RJ-45 port lets you connect an Ethernet cable to your network, an RS-232 port connects to a control system, and a 12V trigger output can activate things like retractable screens and window shades. There’s also a 3.5 mm analog-audio output as well as an optical digital-audio output. A 3.5 mm analog-audio input rounds out the connections.
I’ve rarely seen a home-entertainment projector with as many features as the Optoma UHD52ALV, especially for less than $2000. With UHD resolution, compatibility with HDR10 and HLG, high brightness and contrast, 3D, media playback from USB sticks and over Wi-Fi, voice control, integrated speakers—this thing has it all.
Well, almost—one of the only drawbacks is a very high input lag, making it a poor choice for gaming. And since gaming is one of the primary applications for home-entertainment projectors, that’s a big disappointment.
If it didn’t have frame interpolation, the input lag could be made much lower. Optoma clearly decided that smoother, sharper motion—even with the dreaded soap-opera effect—was more important than gaming in this model. So, whether or not the UHD52ALV is right for you depends on the importance you place on gaming. If you really enjoy it, I recommend looking elsewhere, especially other Optoma models, many of which are aimed at gaming with 16 ms input lag.
On the other hand, if you’re not a serious gamer, this model seems to be worth serious consideration thanks to a strong set of features and plenty of brightness. But keep in mind that Optoma’s warranty on the UHD52ALV is one-year parts and labor, which is on the short side; home-entertainment projectors in the $1000-$2000 range tend to include warranties of one to three years.
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