Modern society is often criticised for having become too individualistic, in spite of the fact that there are more of us and, we have more ways than ever to keep in touch with each other and build communities.
It struck me that our gadgets sometimes reflect this trend. Phones, tablets and laptops are very much ‘personal devices’ - great to use on your own and perhaps share content online, but not easy to gather people round for a group experience.
But sometimes I still want to share what’s on my screen with people in the same room as me. For example, when I’m at work presenting, or collaborating in a round table session and at home when I want to share some photos or video round. The tiny screens don’t work quite so well here, I want a huge screen!
Is that a cinema in your pocket?
Projectors are fantastic. They can throw huge pictures up onto the wall so groups can tolerate yet another PowerPoint presentation, or more happily, wind down with a cinema-like movie experience together.
Historically, projectors have been big, noisy, expensive and certainly not portable. But, that’s all changing and recently, micro-projectors that will fit in your bag have started to appear thanks to LED bulb technology. A typical big branded mobile projector from a company like Dell will set you back over £400, but incredibly it’s possible to pick up unbranded versions on Ebay from as little as £35!
I thought I’d get hold of one of each and see whether this is the best way to get those tiny smartphone and laptop pictures up to epic sizes whilst maintaining quality.
The Dell M110
On paper, the Dell is everything you would want from a projector that can come out on the road with you. It’s nice and light at 0.8lb (it comes with a case too, that includes compartments for the power and video leads, the supplied remote control and a miniature tripod). It’s small enough to sit in the palm of your hand and if you really want to travel light, it has enough onboard memory you to copy your PowerPoint presentations over (and even a built in 1w speaker) so you can leave the laptop behind!
Crucially, setup is quick and painless. I tested with an Asus T100 Windows tablet that has an HDMI video output and found I was able to connect everything up within about 2 minutes and all I needed to do once everything was plugged in, was set the zoom and focus using the handy lever sitting on the top above the lens.
It’s important that these devices aren’t too loud, after all you’re likely to be sitting quite close to them whilst they’re running. The cooling fan on board is needed to manage the lamp temperature, but that’s not much good if you can’t hear yourself think over it. Fortunately, the Dell clocked in at 65Db, which is about the same as you speaking to a colleague from across the table.
Well, I’m pleased to say that both as a means to share PowerPoint slides and to ditch the work and watch a movie, the Dell M110 was very impressive indeed. To project a good picture on the wall in a well lit room, your projector needs a powerful enough bulb. A projector’s bulb output is general measured in ansi-lumens and the M110 clocks in at 300. What does that mean? Well, 300 is enough to get a watchable picture in a room with some ambient light, but the colours may look washed out and the more you can do to reduce the light in the room, the better. In low light, the picture is fantastic. The screen resolution of 1280*800 is roughly equivalent to those early ‘HD Ready’ flatscreen TVs of a few years back and streaming Toy Story 3 from Netflix, I found it hard to criticise at all.
Switching to Breaking Bad, I did notice the resolution resulted in a bit of blockiness here and there, but when you’re watching something as compelling as Breaking Bad, you’ll soon be lost in the story and it was great viewing at around a 60” picture size. Certainly for projecting your computer applications up and PowerPoints, this device will fill in really well where fixed projectors are not available and keep you amused in the hotel or back home afterwards.
All the above for £35!?
So £400 will buy you a near pocketable projector that can bring big screen thrills to any available wall - but you can spend a fraction of that and get something that looks very similar. How did the Chinese factory unbranded projector fare?
Out of the Box
First impressions are surprisingly good. Although the plastic casing does feel cheaper to the touch, the LED projector doesn’t feel like it will break apart at a moments notice and it has an even smaller power brick than the Dell, meaning it’s technically more portable (it’s lighter too at under 0.6Lb). You don’t get a tripod in the bag, although the industry standard mount is present, but it has some rubber feet on the underside if you can get away with sitting it on a flat surface.
Connecting up was just as simple, with a choice of HDMI or VGA connections on the back. The box claims that the fan is silent, but the sound meter was quick to prove it wrong with peak noise hitting 65Db, the same as the Dell (although it did drop a bit at points).
At only £35, you’re going to expect some corners to be cut though and sure enough, they come in thick and fast on powering the gadget up. First, at only a 48 ansi-lumen lamp output, I could not use the projector in normal ambient light conditions. Near pitch black is pretty much a mandatory requirement, ruling it out for many business purposes and things are still weak with muted colours and poor contrast.
Secondly, although I could achieve focus at around a 30” picture, it was clear I would never get a 60” picture as claimed on the box. It’s simply not possible for it to cast a light far enough once I’ve moved it far enough back for the poorly made (possibly plastic) lense to cope.
Accepting that 30” was as big as the picture could get, I hit another problem. The HD output from my Asus T100 was impossible to read on the projected screen. It was nothing but large messy pixel blocks. I dialled the Asus back to its lowest setting of 1024*768, but still, the Windows 8 start menu, with it’s usually large colourful tiles was unreadable. I had to switch back to the computer screen to kick off a film and then switch back to the projector.
Although I could tell you what the film was, in every other way it was unwatchable. Toy Story 3 looked like the Lego Movie made by drunk people. Breaking Bad looked like it had been censored by pixelating everyone’s face out, so that they couldn’t be identified, as happens on news interviews sometimes.
It was really, really bad. I remember when internet video first started happening in the early days of broadband. I know it wasn’t much good, but I’m sure it was better than this and expectation has long since moved on.
The problem is that the max resolution of 320*240 is just not good enough for anything - even 4” phone screens lack detail at this standard - so blowing up a large picture here is a waste of time.
It’s great news that such capable projectors now exist that are this portable. Inevitably, the price will come down to the point where it’s not just for the business folk, but in the meantime, I would advise patience to the rest of us. The ones on ebay look the part, and make some great claims, but this one is not bad, it’s unusable. Save your money, or spend the extra on the Dell (now succeeded by the M115HD which is even brighter!).
Quick Note - If you want to watch a movie on one of these projectors, a simple way to get the sound coming from where the picture is, is to pick up a cheap Bluetooth speaker. This might result on a tiny hit on the lip sync (ie the sound is ever so slightly delayed), but if you can live with that, it keeps everything convenient without too much compromise.