If you're thinking of buying a decent 50-inch plasma TV, don't expect a great deal of change from around four or five grand. Enter Optoma's ThemeScene RD50 rear projection TV using Texas Instruments' wonderfully named DarkChip2 DLP technology. It's half the weight, half the price and, at only 380mm deep, not too much porkier than a plasma.
DLP technology relies on a small chip with an array of tilting mirrors on the back which is known as a digital micromirror device (DMD). In the RD50 a projector lamp shines through a four colour wheel and on to the DarkChip2 DMD, reflecting the image in RGB and white components 50 times a second on to the back of the visible screen. There is no need for hefty glass tubes or panels, brightness is directly proportional to lamp power and the fill percentage (areas of the screen lit with information) is higher than any other technology.
Okay, the RD50 is not going to hang flush to the wall and it lack the kudos of owning 50 inches of flat panel TV, but in terms of tech specs and features there's not much in it. The native resolution of the RD50 is a healthy HD compatible 1,280 x 720 pixels, the contrast ratio is a whopping 2,000:1, and the brightness is on a par or better than most big plasmas on the market.
Connectivity is first class, packing three Scarts (two of which are full RGB), a couple of progressive scan component inputs and a DVI input with HDCP copy protection protocol. This means you can hook up an HDMI source output with a fairly simple socket converter. There are a host of front connections for camcorders, PS2 or PC and gives you twin tuners with picture in picture feature. The spec list is topped with Faroudja's de rigueur DCDi de-interlacing hardware to turn interlaced inputs like broadcast TV into progressively scanned image.
There must be a catch? Well only little ones. For some frankly bizarre reason Optoma has decided to remove NTSC compatibility from the RD50. Bonkers, we know, because region 1 DVDs just ain't going to play on this TV. Even Optoma realises that errors have been made here and is at pains to stress that none of its projectors nor future DLP TVs will be thus afflicted. Of course, if you're a dedicated R2 PAL DVD buyer receiving UK broadcast TV this simply isn't going to be a problem.
The design doesn't quite manage the same panache as a plasma, but the sleek black frame, matt finish screen and grey base give the RD50 a purposeful, rather sinister look. The remote follows suit and elevates the term bland to a whole new level of. blandness. The only fun comes when you have to exercise Olympic standard marksmanship to aim its pencil thin IR beam at the TV to have any affect whatsoever.
The basic set-up and tuning are suitably straightforward but there are deeper menus for the die-hard fiddler. However, the settings are very coarse so just one notch either side of the median has huge and often catastrophic effects on picture quality. We faffed, we fiddled, we tweaked and tuned. and ended up with the settings pretty much as the RD50 came out of the crate.
But that matters not, because the standard picture is absolutely stunning. The dynamic contrast and spectacular colour intensity leap out and grab you by the eyeballs while the clarity and image definition are up there with the very best 50-inch plasma TVs. Quality stations like BBC1 are fantastically rich and colourful, and possess a sense of depth that makes many flat panel TVs look, well, flat. Fast panning scenes such as football matches show a beautifully smooth scrolling motion with only minor processing sparkles visible.
Romp through the DVD Essentials test disc and you cannot help but be impressed by the vividness of the whole visual experience. Using an RGB input there is minor dot crawl around high contrast changes but this is near enough eliminated using a progressive component input, and eradicated totally using DVI. Put on a high colour visual feast like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the RD50 plays a handful of trump cards all at once. Very few flat panel TVs - LCD or plasma - have such sumptuous colour saturation or visual dynamics and fewer still manage to back that up with the solid cinema sound afforded by the RD50's cabinet and speakers.
This DLP rear projector is a full fat, high cholesterol, binge TV watching experience and it will take your breath away. Okay, it simply doesn't do subtle pastiches or easy on-the-eye softness, the lack of NTSC compatibility is a pain and the cosmetics are pure Darth Vader fan club territory.
So do you buy a 50-inch plasma or the RD50? No contest. With over 150 DVD movies' worth of change from the DLP set, Optoma's ThemeScene RD50 wins hands down.