The Optoma UHL55 projector is, we think, quite possibly the interesting product to cross our desk in years. We haven’t seen anything quite like it, and we mean that in a good way.

So a projector, huh? What’s so unusual about that? Really, it’s the way the Optoma UHL55 combines several different bits of existing technology into a single, neat package. And a remarkably inexpensive package at that.

First point of note: this is an UltraHD projector. It uses DLP technology. The only description of
the Digital Micromirror Device we could find for this projector was thus: ‘Single 0.47” 4K UHD DMD DLP by Texas Instruments’. That sounds to us like it’s the special small 1080p DMD with 4× pixel-shifting technology that we’ve seen in another couple of products.

We know, we know, we’ve been unkind to projectors which use pixel shifting to try to generate a 4K picture. But those have generally used standard full-HD panels. We believe this very small DMD uses relatively small, somewhat spaced pixels, so there’s less overlap between the shifted pixels. And that allows every pixel to be individually resolved.

Second point of note: the projector uses a solid-state light source. Optoma doesn’t go into details, merely saying that the projector has a LED light source. But since the projector is rated at a solid 1500 ANSI Lumens output, we think it’s likely that it uses an LED laser system, where a powerful LED laser excites a phosphorus mass to produce a powerful white light.

The import of this is that it is efficient, allowing for less cooling and faster switch-on and switch-off. And, most importantly of all, a lamp life of 20,000+ hours. Twenty thousand hours is around 2.3 years... full time! For any realistic home usage, some years into the future you will be regarding this projector as a quaint relic of the past long before the lamp fails.

Third point of note: the projector sells for well under $3000. UltraHD projectors with solid-state lamps typically go for three times the cost of this projector. Or more.

Fourth point of note: the projector has other stuff built in. Specifically, it runs on the Android operating system. It’s a relatively closed, locked-off version of Android. But it nonetheless runs apps — including Netflix. There are also some news channel apps and a couple of odds and sods, but it’s relatively limited.

That sounds negative, but in reality this is infinitely more than you get with almost all other projectors. Most require a signal from some other device. This projector can skip that. Plug a USB stick full of media into one of the USB sockets, and you can play (typically) its contents, whether as video, music or photo. Connect to your in-home network and play that material.

Fifth point of note: you can talk to the projector using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant (we tried the Google operation in this review).

We have a very wide experience of home theatre projectors, and almost all of them have some manner of zoom lens. This one doesn’t. It’s what might be called, in camera terms, a ‘prime’ lens. In cameras a prime lens is sometimes chosen for higher ultimate quality than is possible with a zoom. After all, the addition of zoom, with the concomitant sliding in and out of lenses, introduces slack into the system. But of course the downside of a prime lens is reduced flexibility.

With no lens adjustments apart from focus, the attempt to perfectly match the picture to the screen was trickier than usual. In the end, we made do with a very slightly smaller picture than our framed screen. We’d rather do that than lose any of the picture off the edges.

And we were truly impressed with the sharpness and clarity of the image, edge to edge, top to bottom, corner to corner. You lose flexibility but, dare we say it, gain precision.

But that was after we focused the projector. There’s an autofocus feature for ranges of less than two metres, but it wouldn’t work for us. We focused manually, and that was easy to do, and easy to get very precise. The focus is powered, so you just tap the buttons to get it right.

The projector switched on quickly. It took less than seven seconds for the splash screen to appear. But Android had to start up too, so it was a hair under 20 seconds before home screen appeared.

But after we switched on the projector the first time, and used the focus buttons on the unit, we had a little panic. The projector would not respond to the remote control, and there weren’t duplicate controls on the body of the projector. And deadline was only a few days away. Oh, why did we start this on a Friday night when there could be no support? But then we looked at the screen and found that it was using picturegrams to instruct us to choose one of two modes of remote operation. By manipulating its keys in certain ways we could have it work as an IR remote or as a Bluetooth remote. We chose the latter. A few seconds later we were in business.

Close-up detail of a UHD test pattern with one and two-pixel lines, as displayed by the Optoma, in one of the best results we’ve seen from a non-native UHD projector.

The picture quality is remarkably good. We started with our test pattern (above) to check out the projector’s ability to resolve full UltraHD images. The pattern was done well, we think better than any other projector using similar technology. Only Sony’s line, with their real 4K panels, does better. The pixel shifting with this projector really does do the job.

We’re not sure how Optoma determined a contrast ratio of 250,000:1. We’re not convinced that the projector delivered the absolute blacks suggested by that figure. What it did do was deliver convincing blacks. Throughout a whole range of content, from DVD to Blu-ray to UltraHD Blu-ray, we never once had the feeling that there was any weakness on that front.

Of course, it was not as strong in that department as the LG OLED TV we normally use, nor were the colours as deep and rich. But by front projector standards they ranged from good to very good. The projector does not support Dolby Vision, but it does support HDR10 signals. The mapping of HDR to the capabilities of the projector was very good. Using the grey-scale test patterns on a Sony UltraHD Blu-ray (key in 7669 at the main menu), the full black to full white graduated bar was extremely smooth, with no perceptible banding. That means indistinguishably small steps between levels of grey. At the black end of the scale it was possible to distinguish between the 0.010 and 0.005 nits calibrated bars. At the bright end, there was very little difference between 1000 nits and 1100 nits, so some material might crush up against that boundary.

With default playback settings there was clear motion judder on 24p content, likely because of conversion to 60p for playback. There’s a mode optimised for 24p playback. This had a slightly weird effect. It had the general feel of a motion-smoothing interpolation system, although we doubt that’s what’s in play. It didn’t really remove that instability from 24p to 60p conversion, but still managed to smooth the transition somehow.

Playback of 50 hertz content was much jerkier, and there was no getting around it. In addition, we’d strongly recommend you don’t try 1080i/50 or 576i/50. The former in particular resulted in a weird ghosting of moving elements, as though there was just a straight weaving of the wrong fields into new frames at the UHD level. Likewise for DVD stuff, except that the combing lines here were at the original resolution. Only watch 50 hertz material converted to progressive scan by your player.

But on the big question of resolution, it certainly pulled off the whole Ultra-HD thing with its pixel-shifting DMD.

We feel a little embarrassed to say this but... the little speakers in this projector weren’t too horrible. Optoma seems to have engineered them for a fairly balanced sound, and about as much bass as can be produced. That isn’t much, but more than we’d expect from such a projector. Importantly, the speakers fire forwards, so in our position behind the projector we were mostly getting sound reflected back from the screen. That made it seem airier and relatively listenable.

Of course, there is such as thing as scale. A large picture really should be accompanied by a large sound. At a pinch, perhaps for some kind of educational program, you could use the built-in speakers. But for a sound appropriate to the picture this projector produces, couple it with a home theatre audio system. While on the subject of sound, we were surprised that the noise in this projector was really quite muted.

We set up the projector for voice control with Google Assistant. In the projector’s Smart Home Settings page, pay sharp attention to a too-brief message about which website to use, go there to create an Optoma Smart Projection account (entering a very long serial number and a much shorter pair code). Then the Google Home app links with the OptomaSmartProjection ability. This Google connection worked perfectly. We could tell the projector to do a whole range of things by voice, using either the Google Home Mini in our office or our phone. That included switching the projector on and off, switching input, switching to different picture modes and so on.

There are few streaming apps available in the app store of the projector, including Netflix. Already built-in is a media player, but this was a bit buggy. It worked nicely with USB media: we streamed music (including FLAC content up to 24-bit/96kHz, but ALAC is apparently not supported), video and photos. It looked like it would work also with DLNA content on our network, but when we tried to select our NAS for playback, the player always opened the first external DLNA source on the list. No doubt Optoma will issue a firmware update to fix this.

An upcoming update promises to deliver an ‘InfoWall’ (see image above) of weather and appointments that can be timed to turn on with your morning alarm, and we note that the UHL55 supports IFTTT, so you can set up all manner of additional triggers that way.

The fact is, the Optoma UHL55 would be a bargain even without any of the smarts. It could make for some uncomfortable watching for those who spend a lot of time watching 50Hz broadcast content, including sport. But that aside, the combination of true UltraHD resolution and a long life solid-state lamp gets a high recommendation.

Optoma UHL55 UltraHD smart projector
Price: $2799

+ Successfully creates Ultra-HD resolution
+ Super long-life light source
+ Very handy smarts

- Bad judder with 50Hz content
- Poor 50Hz deinterlacing

Projection technology: 12mm FHD Digital Micromirror Device with 4x pixel shifting technology
Resolution: 3840 by 2160 pixels
Aspect ratio: 16:9
Lamp: LED light source with RGBB colour wheel
Lamp life: 20,000 hours
Contrast ratio: 250,000:1
Brightness: 1500 ANSI Lumens
Inputs: 2 x HDMI, 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Outputs: Optical digital audio, headphone (3.5mm)
Dimensions (whd): 220 x 135 x 220mm
Weight: 3.76kg

Additional information:

Contact: Optoma
Telephone: 1800 251 367 (Amber Technology)