Ultra-Compact Projectors to Go

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Pocket projectors, also known as pico projectors, are getting brighter and more capable. Although they're still no match for a high-lumen home theater projector, these small wonders are unsurpassed in terms of size and ultra portability. The original pico projectors had no built-in intelligence to decode files. They relied on a connected computer or video device to play content.The new crop of pico models has internal storage, or they let you plug in a memory card or USB drive and embed decoders for a variety of entertainment and office formats, so you can travel unencumbered by extra hardware.

If your audience numbers in the single digits and darkness becomes the viewing room, a projected image can make for a more dramatic presentation than crowding heads around a small TV screen. Also, because the light source in all pico projectors is one or more LEDs, the projection lamp will typically last the life of the projector.

When the first picos hit the market a couple of years ago, brightness was measured at about only 10 lumens. The projectors in this roundup range from 32 lumens for 3M's Pocket Projector MP180 to 100 lumens for the Optoma Technology PK320 Pico Pocket Projector when running on its AC power adapter or optional high-power battery pack in bright mode. In STD mode, it features only 25 lumens of brightness. The AAXA M1 and P4 deliver 75 and 80 lumens respectively, making them some of the brighter projectors in the Pico class. All five projectors feature LED illumination.

We’ve listed the projectors based on price (lowest to highest) as of the end of March, 2012. We don’t normally list prices here since they may fluctuate after the article is published. (Click through the product link to get the current price.)

The AAXA technologies M1 Ultimate X Micro Projector is a versatile LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) projector with an onboard media player that, depending on the file type, enables you to leave your notebook computer behind. Load your JPEG, MP4, AVI and MP3 files onto the included 2GB SD card or a memory stick and you’re good to go. (The brushed-gray aluminum projector has a standard SD card reader and a mini-USB input built in; a USB cable is included.) The projector contains a 1-watt speaker. For playing a larger variety of file types, you’ll want to store the files and play them from a computer using an optional VGA cable. The projector, which must be plugged into an electrical outlet using the supplied AC adapter, comes with a composite A/V cable, adjustable tripod and infrared remote.

For about $100 more, the AAXA Technologies P4 Pico LED Pocket Projector can be powered by an included rechargeable lithium-ion battery (good for about 75 minutes of projection). The DLP (Digital Light Processor) projector has 2GB of internal memory (instead of an SD card slot) and a full-size USB port (for use with your memory stick). It also comes with a VGA cable for use with your computer. You may not need to bring your computer, though, for showing Microsoft Office files. The projector is directly compatible with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and text documents via WinCE file support. At 80 lumens, the P4 is slightly brighter than the 75-lumen M1.  

An essential accessory for someone using an AAXA M1 or P4 projector with an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch is the AAXA Technologies Apple iPod/iPhone AV Cable. The 18-inch cable tethers the 30-pin connector on your iOS device to the 3.5mm AV jack on either projector.

3M calls the Pocket Projector MP180 “your office on the go,” and the pitch is not a stretch. With 4GB of internal memory (3.5GB useable), a microSD card slot, 120 minutes of battery life and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the 12-ounce projector is compatible with a wide variety of formats. For video, it plays MPEG-4, H.264, MOV, WMV and FLV files. For photos, compatibility runs to JPG, TIFF, BMP, GIF and PNG files. For audio, you can play AAC, MP3, WAV and AMR files. For office presentations, you can load DOC, PPT, XLS, TXT and PDF content. At 30 lumens, the MP180 incorporates an 800 x 600 LCoS projection panel only 0.37” (9.4mm) in size. The MP180 comes with a wall charger, adapters for various countries, a composite video cable, a computer cable, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, an RCA adapter, a tabletop tripod and a soft pouch.

The Optoma Technology PK301 Pocket Projector puts out 50 lumens when plugged into a wall outlet and 20 lumens when powered by its included battery. The projector’s microSD slot accepts images, text, audio and videos on a card with up to 16GB of capacity. The projector has 28MB of internal memory. At 8 ounces with its standard battery, the PK301 is the lightest model in our bunch. The projector internally supports JPEG and BMP images; AVI, MOV, MP4 and 3GP video; and Microsoft PowerPoint files. The projector's inputs include micro USB, mini HDMI and composite video and there’s an earphone jack. The VGA connection is made through a 24-pin “universal” input and an included adapter cable.

The Optoma Technology PK320 Pico Pocket Projector offers the same resolution (854 x 480 pixels) as the PK301 but doubles the brightness to 100 lumens when plugged into a wall outlet or run from an optional high-power battery. According to Optoma, the greater brightness makes it possible to create images as large as 150 inches, projected from as far away as 235 inches. Please note that pushing such limits requires a pitch-black viewing room and a liberal interpretation of "discernable.")

Still, when you operate at more reasonable sizes, the PK320 can show off your photos (JPEG, BMP), videos (AVI, MOV, MP4, 3GP, CMB, FLV, WMV, ASF) and office documents (Microsoft PowerPoint PPT or PPTX, Word DOC or DOCX, Excel XLS or XLSX and Adobe PDF). It can also play these audio formats: MP3, AAC, ASF, WMA, FLAC, RA, OGG and WAV audio formats. The projector features a 1-watt speaker as well, which is twice as powerful as the PK301. The inputs on the PK320 are the same as those on the PK301.

If you have any questions about these pocket-size road warriors, please post them in the Comments section below.

Click here for specs & comparison chart

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My thoughts on the ultra compact projectors...

Once we carried around notebooks to write in (and some of us still do) but now almost everyone has a phone for taking notes, high res photos and videos. I think we will see projectors becoming more and more compact, higher resolution and quality, and able to project on any surface. Because at the end of the day people are doing all this to be able to share their stuff. And what better way to share than projecting your home made video, ideas, photos and so on on the nearest wall so everyone can see?

Phones may incorporate projectors, as they are already starting to, but then again projectors may still stay stand alone gadgets and just improve in their own right.

Just my thoughts on the matter anyway.

Thanks... :) Martin