As the number of uses for digital projectors keeps growing, their sizes keep shrinking. While businesspeople have been carrying laptop-sized units around for years, smaller (and cheaper) projectors have recently found a place in home theater systems, dorm rooms and anywhere that you can find a blank space on the wall. (Last year, they even drew attention during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, when protesters used them to project symbols and messages on the sides of buildings.)
There's no accepted definition for these types of projectors. Of the five very compact units I look at in this roundup, two call themselves "pico" while others are labeled "mobile," "pocket" or "mini." Suffice it to say that they're all significantly smaller and lighter than the Xbox-size units that have dominated the scene. They're also not as bright and have lower resolutions than their bigger siblings.
Mobile "pocket" projectors, from bottom to top: Vivitek Qumi Q5, 3M Mobile Projector MP410, Telstar MP50, Optoma Pico PK320 and the General Imaging iPico.
I spent several days living with these tiny projectors and I can say that, for the most part, you get what you pay for. The five I looked at ranged in (list) price from $130 for a one-trick pony with limited application to a $650 device that produces sharp, bright images good enough for almost any purpose short of presenting to an auditorium.
All but one of the five projectors (the iPico) come with HDMI capabilities, so I connected them to an iPad 2 using Apple's 30-pin HDMI connector and projected a PDF presentation containing both text and graphics as well as a slide show of photos. I also connected an upscaling DVD player and showed a movie (O Brother, Where Art Thou). I projected the images on a white wall in a dark bedroom with blackout curtains -- as dark as a hotel room and darker than many living rooms or conference rooms.
Bright and clear
One of the main qualities I assessed was brightness, though that's more significant in a conference room at lunchtime than it would be in a small, dark room. Brightness is measured in lumens, a metric set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to determine the average intensity of a projected image -- a higher number means a brighter image. These projectors are rated between 85 and 500 lumens; as such, they throw less light on a wall than does a 60-watt incandescent bulb (about 800 lumens). However, in the same way a 10-lumen keychain flashlight is bright enough for finding your way in a dark room, these projectors all provided enough light for our test conditions.
I also concentrated on the clarity of the projected text and the saturation of the colors in the photographs, as well as the clarity and contrast in the projected movie. All of these are improved by increased brightness as well as higher resolution.
Four out of the five projectors display their menus on the wall -- none of them have built-in screens. The iPico requires an iPhone app, which shows your choices on the phone's screen.
One other thing: All the units have audio-out jacks for headphones or external speakers. Use them. The projectors have built-in speakers, but they're laptop-quality at best. Since they all have fans going as well, you need something more than what's built in to rise above the background noise.
Finally, all these projectors involve some tradeoffs, such as whether the unit has a battery or you need to be within reach of an outlet. Similarly, some really are "pocket sized," while others require at least a small carrying case. But once your movie is running, the images look fine.
I've looked at these in descending order of brightness (in other words, the lumens rating), from the feature-filled Qumi Q5 to the iPhone add-on iPico. But although there are many differences between these devices, there really isn't a bad projector in the bunch.
5 pocket projectors
$650 (list), $544 - $702 (retail)
With a list price of $650, the Qumi Q5 is the most expensive projector in this roundup. However, it also tops the specs chart -- it projects the brightest and highest-contrast image and supports up to 1600 x 1200 resolution (native is 1280 x 800).
It's also the biggest and heaviest at 6.3 x 1.3 x 4.0 in. and 1.1 lb. And it's one of the two covered here that doesn't have a battery, requiring you to plug in a 9.12 oz. power brick.
The Qumi Q5 projects up to 500 lumens and has a contrast ratio of 10,000:1, which is important in a living room or hotel room where you might not be able to totally control the darkness. It feels very solidly built, with smooth sides, rounded corners and a glossy plastic top. It even comes in different colors: The review unit was navy blue, but you can also get it in black, white, yellow or red.
Vivitek Qumi Q5
The projector's smooth lines aren't otherwise marred by the controls, which consist of six touch-sensitive buttons on the top: one for selecting the current option, one for stepping back up through the menus and four for navigating the choices on any particular screen. One sign of the Qumi's build quality is the tight feel of the focus wheel on the side. Of all the units I looked at, it was by far the easiest to focus precisely.
My only complaint is that, although the buttons light up when you're using them, they go dark very quickly -- you have to brush your hands over them to get them to light up again, and it's easy to accidentally trigger something you didn't intend to. I remedied the problem by sticking to the included remote.
Lots of options
The Qumi Q5 offers a variety of source options. There is an HDMI port for projecting content from, say, a tablet or a DVD player. It also has a "universal I/O" connector with a VGA adapter for displaying data from a PC and a 3.5mm AV-in port with a composite video/stereo audio adapter.
You can also project files from a connected USB drive or from the Qumi Q5's 4GB of internal memory. (You copy files by connecting the device to a computer via USB.) You can use the buttons on top of the unit to project a menu of file types such as photos, movies and office documents; selecting one brings up a list of corresponding files. The Office Viewer selection can display native Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint as well as PDF files; and the video, audio and image selections handle a good assortment of common file types, including H.264 and MPEG-4 video; MPEG, AAC and WMA audio; and JPEG, BMP and PNG images.
There's also a Web browser option: With an optional Wi-Fi dongle ($99.99), the Q5 can connect to a wireless network -- handy if your presentation is on Google Docs or if you want to stream a movie.
When I projected an image on a wall 10 feet away, the image was more than 6 feet wide, plenty big for watching at home. The Qumi Q5 even offers the kinds of presets for showing movies, games or presentations that you find on HDTVs.
The Q5 is the top performer in this roundup, packing a ton of features and a high-quality display into a small, portable package. Its only real disadvantage (besides its price) is that it doesn't have a battery, but even the cord and power brick are relatively light and compact.
$599 (list), $452 - $805 (retail)
It seems kind of unfair to criticize the MP410. It's got perfectly fine specs at a perfectly reasonable price. It's just hard to get excited about.
There's nothing to complain about when it comes to the MP410's performance. At 300 lumens, it's the second-brightest projector in the bunch; it also has one of the highest resolutions at 1280 x 800.
The movie from the DVD player looked clear and had good color, and the presentation on the iPad was adequately sharp. Like the Qumi, it was able to project a 6-foot-wide image on a wall 10 feet away.
3M Mobile Projector MP410
The MP410 has 1GB of built-in storage; it can also read data from a USB drive and is one of the two devices in this roundup that can accept a micro SD card. Like the Q5, it handles a reasonable selection of file formats, such as JPEG and BMP images; MOV, MP4, AVI and DIVX video; and MP3 and WMA audio. It doesn't come with a remote, but you can buy one separately for about $25 - $30.
An old-fashioned design
But it's the little things that keep the MP410 a runner-up, starting with the design. Where the other projectors in this roundup are sleek and smooth, obviously influenced by current trends in gadget design, the MP410 looks like a device engineered in the '90s. It's got a cheap-looking brushed-silver plastic top with blocky square buttons. And while the Qumi Q5 reacts when you attach a new source and asks if you want to switch to it, the MP410 just waits for you to tell it what to do.
Like the Qumi, the MP410 needs to be plugged in. The projector itself weighs less than the Qumi -- 13 oz. vs. 1.1 lb. -- but its power brick is somewhat heavier (11.68 oz. vs. 9.12 oz.) and requires a three-prong plug. (It also comes with cords for British- and European-style outlets.) The result is that the MP410 feels like a more awkward package. (3M does offer a number of other sleeker -- but somewhat less powerful -- mobile projectors.)
The MP410 lists for $50 less than the Qumi, making it the second-highest priced projector in this roundup. Retail discounts can increase the difference still further, but remember that you'll pay extra for a remote.
If specs matter to you more than style, choose the MP410 and congratulate yourself on getting a bargain. But if you want to impress your friends or colleagues when you set up your unit, the MP410 may not be quite the thing.
$399 (list), $369 - $800 (retail)
With the Pico PK320, we get into the truly portable projectors. For one thing, it has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that, according to the vendor, provides power for more than 45 minutes in standard mode. For another, it's small enough to easily fit into a pocket and it has a tripod mount. This convenience does come with some tradeoffs, however.
You control the PK320's functions through seven illuminated buttons on the top, labeled like a PlayStation controller: a circle, an X, a square and triangles pointing in different directions. The functionality of each depends on what you're trying to do; colorful projected menu screens identify which icon goes with which menu choice.
Optoma Pico PK320
From the home menu, you choose source, setup options or media type (video, music, photo or Office Viewer). The last lets you access media that's on a micro SD card, a USB flash drive or copied to the 2GB of internal memory. The device has only a micro USB port, so to use a flash drive, you'll need a female-USB-A-to-micro-USB adapter. If you want to just copy files directly from your computer, you can use the included USB-A-to-micro-USB cable.
But while the menu options are generally (but not always) clearly labeled in the projected image, I could have occasionally used some additional feedback. For example, in addition to basic contrast and brightness sliders, the Pico offers choices of Economic, Standard, Movie and Bright LED modes (the last two are available only when the power adapter is plugged in). You switch among them by pressing the LED Mode button. However, there is no indication of which mode you're currently in.
Similarly, the projector has extended and standard color modes, and while you can see some change as you switch between them, there's no confirmation of which is which. Fortunately, the user guide is preloaded onto the unit's internal memory, so you can project it to help you figure things out.
Not quite as bright
At 100 lumens, the PK320's picture is noticeably less bright than those from the two higher-priced projectors, the Qumi A5 and the 3M MP410. Optoma says it's "bright enough to present and share content with small groups with controlled ambient light," which is true. The projector has a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080 (native is 854 x 480); at a 10-foot viewing distance, the projected image is also smaller, at a few inches short of 6 feet wide. Also, the list of file types supported isn't quite as great as with the higher-priced units, though DivX video is the only really egregious omission.
While being able to put it in your pocket is nice, the PK320's small size (4.7 x 1.2 x 2.7 in.) and light weight (8.3 oz) also present their own difficulties. You focus by turning the ring around the lens. But to do that, you pretty much have to pick the unit up -- it's too light to turn the ring without moving the projector. In addition, it's easy to put your hand in front of the lens while focusing. For these reasons, it's tricky to actually see what you're trying to focus on while you're focusing.
The Optoma Pico PK320 manages to pack a lot of functionality into a tiny package -- it wins on the features-per-ounce scale. The tradeoff is in usability. Expect to spend a lot of time going back and forth between the menus and the user guide, trying different options, before getting really comfortable with this one.
$400 (list), $299 (retail)
The Telstar MP50 strips things down to the basics. It's got only three buttons: volume up, volume down and a "circle mode" that lets you choose movie- or text-oriented display mode. It's got two ports, HDMI and USB -- and the USB port is for using the projector's built-in battery as a backup for your smartphone. (In fact, you can find the MP50 marketed as a smartphone accessory.) Basically, you attach an HDMI device and start playing something, and the MP50 projects it on the wall.
Its 854 x 480 native resolution is the same as the Pico PK320's, but while, at 85 lumens, the MP50 projects a slightly dimmer image than the PK320, its image looked a bit sharper in tests. This may have been because it was easier to focus using the scroll wheel on the side of the MP50 than it was by trying to turn the ring around the lens on the PK320.
With so few choices, it's hard for anything to go wrong. Whatever your device is showing or playing, the MP50 is projecting.
Small and simple
Like the PK320, the MP50's picture is smaller than the more expensive projectors -- again, a few inches smaller than 6 feet when the projector is 10 feet away, compared to the larger-than-6-feet image projected by the Qumi and 3M units -- but it's fine for small groups and compact spaces. You're stuck with whatever picture quality you get -- there aren't any color control options. But that's OK.
The MP50 is the second smallest (3.9 x 3.9 x 0.3 in.) and lightest (just short of 8 oz.) projector in this group, after the iPico. Its straightforward simplicity and minimalist design -- basically, it's a thick square of heavy white plastic -- makes it easy to imagine throwing it in a pocket or suitcase just in case you need a projector. The others have more features, but also require more fiddling and planning; the Telstar would be my choice for casual use.
At its full list price of $400 -- essentially the same as the Optoma, which has more features -- the MP50 can't really be said to be a better choice. But given a retail price of $299, it's worth it.
$130 (list); $99 - $123 (retail)
Compared to the other projectors in this roundup, the iPico can't help but fall short -- as a projector. Its 15-lumen brightness and 100:1 contrast ratio means that its projected image can't compete with any of the other units in this roundup.
As an iPhone accessory, on the other hand, it's kind of cool.
The iPico attaches to an iPhone (3GS, 4 or 4S) or an iPod Touch (third or fourth generation) with a pop-out dock connector. The iPhone slides into the dock; turn the iPico on and you're ready to go -- to the App Store, to download the required free app.
General Imaging iPico
I did have a little trouble getting everything working: The first two times I tested it with an iPhone 4, the app couldn't tell the projector was attached, simply giving a "no device found" error message. The third time was the charm, though -- with a second iPhone 4, the app and the projector found each other right away. (Out of curiosity, I also tried the app on an iPad -- which is not in the list of supported devices -- but it froze.)
Projecting from your phone
The app lets you project six things from your phone: your own photos and videos, Facebook pages, websites, YouTube videos and what the phone's camera sees. This last option lets you use your phone as a sort of projector magnifying glass, since the way the iPico fits onto the phone, the iPhone's camera will be pointed down when the image is on the wall. (You can also view Office documents, but that requires a $4.99 app called Go Universal.)
The projector's image is really too dim and too small to make it an enjoyable way to look at Web pages or Facebook feeds. At a distance of 10 feet, the image was about 4 feet wide, but was out of focus; this isn't surprising, since their specs claim only a "throw" (projection) distance of up to 5.5 feet. It's fine for quick-and-dirty displays of photos and video, however.
For example, it was easy to get a slide show going of some of our travel photos, though the projected image was stretched to make it fit the iPico's 16:9 resolution. And a college-age friend (closer in age to the happy people depicted on the iPico box than I am) suggested that someone could show friends their current video projects, or someone could take photos at a party and project them while the party was still going on.
Weighing only 3.6 oz. and measuring not much bigger than the iPhone itself, the iPico is a fun tech toy and definitely a conversation-starter. I couldn't recommend it for more serious applications, though.
The projectors I looked at fall into three tiers. The top tier includes the Qumi Q5 and the 3M MP410. Both project large, bright, sharp images, have a wide variety of source options and can deal with pretty much any file type you want to throw at them. But both need to be plugged in, making them less portable than the second group. Of these two, I preferred the Q5, even though it costs a bit more, because of its superior fit and finish.
The second tier includes the Optoma PK320 and the Telstar MP50. Their images are smaller and dimmer than the top two, but that just means they're better suited to smaller rooms and groups. They both have batteries and are compact enough to fit in a pocket, which make them truly portable. Of the two, I prefer the MP50 for its straightforward simplicity, but only at a significantly discounted price: Its list price is the same as the PK320's, and for that amount, the latter's superior features would make it a better buy.
The iPico is more of an add-on than an actual independent projector; as such, it could be fun to have around for photos and the occasional video, but not much more than that.
Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning of this roundup, there really isn't a bad projector in the bunch.
Jake Widman is a freelance writer in San Francisco and a regular contributor to Computerworld.
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