5 mini projectors: A show wherever you go

Need to give a quick presentation or want to show a movie to your friends? One of these five compact projectors will do the trick.

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.

Telstar MP50

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.

Bottom line

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.

iPico

$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.

Bottom line

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.

Conclusions

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.

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

This story, "5 mini projectors: A show wherever you go" was originally published by Computerworld.

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