Optoma Pico Pocket Projector Delivers Big Pictures, for a Price

optoma_projectorWatching videos on your iPod or cell phone is hardly ideal: If you’re lucky, the screen will be just slightly bigger than a postage stamp. Enter the Optoma Pico Pocket Projector, one of the first products available in the burgeoning category of micro-projectors. This tiny device hooks up to your phone or MP3 player and projects an image up to 60 inches diagonally. The Pico Pocket Projector is incredibly fun to use, but its $400 price is hard to justify.

The Pico projector is about the size of a cell phone, so you really can slip it into a pocket. It comes with a special composite A/V cable that connects to the projector on one end and RCA (red, white, yellow) connectors on the other. You can use this to connect the projector to a wide variety of devices, including digital cameras, video cameras, DVD players and more. It also comes with a smaller cable for connecting to various cell phones and MP3 players, and an adapter that allows it to connect to iPods and iPhones.

I used the adapter to test the Pico Pocket Projector with both a new iPod and a first-generation iPhone. I downloaded videos from iTunes, connected the device to the projector, aimed it at my wall, and voila, I had a virtual big screen. Image quality and brightness varied greatly, depending on the brightness of the room and how big (or small) of a display I created, but for the most part I was pretty pleased with the picture. The Optoma’s native resolution is 480 by 320 pixels, so you’ll never mistake it for HDTV. But it’s still very respectable, especially when you compare it to the experience of watching videos on the miniature screen of an iPod.

At a distance of 8.5 feet, the Pico will project an image that’s 60 inches diagonally; the closer you get, the smaller — and sharper — the image gets. The Optoma’s lamp output is rated at 10 lumens for brightness; a full-featured tabletop projector would have a lamp rating of about 2000 lumens. And you will notice the difference. When I tested it out, unless the room was completely dark, the colors that the Pico projected looked dim and washed out, even it was set at the brightest of its two settings.

But what’s of bigger concern to me is the Pico’s battery life. Optoma provides two batteries with the projector, and says each will provide about 90 minutes of power. In my informal tests, battery life seemed even shorter than that, despite the fact that I was often using the projector at its highest brightness setting. It constantly ran out of juice before I could finish watching a movie, forcing me to sit and wait for the batteries to power up. You can only charge the batteries while they’re in the projector, and they take about 1.5-2 hours to do so. You can connect the projector to a power outlet while it’s running (though the batteries won’t charge unless it’s turned off), but this won’t help you if you’re using it in a car or on a plane.

Nor is sound one of the Pico’s strong points. The iPod dock connector includes a volume wheel, but even when I turned it up all the way the sound was not always loud enough to hear across a room — and the louder it got, the tinnier it got. I’d recommend sitting as close to the projector as possible.

To date, several competing projectors have been demoed, most notably at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, but few have shipped. Among them, 3M’s MPro110 offers very similar specs and a comparable price, at $359. But at these prices, buying one only seems to make sense for businesses or creative professionals who could store presentations or demos in a compact package and display them during meetings.

Optoma’s Pico Pocket Projector is not going to replace your home entertainment system, but it is a whole lot of fun to use. I just wish it were a bit cheaper and had better battery life. But this model is a great start to this entirely new product category, and I’m excited to see what comes next.


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