Pico Projectors - A Guide To This New Class of Tiny Laser and LED Projectors
July 2009 - Art Feierman
We've recently reviewed 3 pico projectors and more will be reviewed shortly. This article has been written to discuss these Pico projectors in terms of design, capability, limitations and features. We'll also prognosticate as to how these projectors will evolve over the next year or two.
Pico Projectors - Definition and Overview
There are several names currently being tossed around to describe these new, tiny projectors (they probably should officially be called "Tiny Projectors"). The three most common names being used, are currently Pico Projectors, Pocket Projectors and LED Projectors.
The term Pico Projector has no real basis for the term "pico" which is scientifically defined as representing "one trillionth" of something. For example, a pico second is one trillionth of a second. An alternate definition sometimes found, is "very small". None-the-less, it is a term being used by both manufacturers of these projectors as well as in the popular press.
Pocket projector probably makes for a better definition, as any of the pico projectors on the market will definitely fit into a man's shirt pocket.
Using the term LED projector, however, is probably a poor choice to describe them, even though they all use an LED light source, instead of a conventional lamp. I say this because LED light sources are starting to be used in projectors of all sizes. A number of companies showed LED projectors at the recent Infocomm, and the mix included some rather hefty, and bright projectors, for both business and home theater. Vivitek and BenQ, to name two, showed home theater projectors with LED light sources, and a number of companies including projectiondesign, Digital Projection, and others, either were demoing their first (large) LED projectors, or were talking about having some early next year. That list includes more than a couple of the biggest names out there.
At least one announced pico projector (still scheduled to ship later this summer), the Microvision Show WX, does not use an LED light source. It should be the first pico projector to ship using a laser light source. It should be very interesting. For one thing, with a laser light source, there's no focusing. It is expected to be more expensive (Microvision estimates the selling price as between $400 and $500.)
So, while all the currently shipping (7/09) tiny projectors out there have LED light sources, we have decided to stick with the Pico Projector term. It may not be perfect, but it is fast becoming the standard term to describe these projectors.
In this article our goal is to provide an overview of the capabilities and features that are typically foud in pico projectors, and the interesting variety of features they offer.
Let's get started with some of highlights of pico projectors:
Pico Projectors: Highlights
- Generally smaller than a pack of cigarettes - even the largest I've seen are smaller in bulk tha a pack of 100's cigarettes
- Use an LED light source instead of a traditional projection lamp (note, at least one announced model uses a laser, instead of an LED light source)
- Resolution is typically 640x480 or less, although there is at least one widescreen pico projector with slightly higher resolution (not sold in the US at this time)
- Most can run about 1 hour on their rechargeable battery, and recharge in about 4 hours or less
- All the pico projectors we've seen have a composite video source
- At least one offers a genuine analog VGA input, to work directly with a computer's VGA output, at least one other announced pico projector also offers a VGA input
- At least one pico projector has a built in multi-media player to allow using the projector without having to bring along the source device
- At least one pico projector so far, offers a card slot (SD) to input photos, videos, etc. (yes, the one with the card slot, is also the one with the media player)
- Warranties are on the short side - 90 days to one year, depending on brand
- Pricing of pico projectors is typically from $299 to $399 MSRP, with some units available online for down around $200.
- Picture quality is no match for a home theater projector, and for that matter, a typical entry level business projector
- These are all, essentially first generation products out on the market. Expect picture quality and brightness to improve with future generations
- Most are extremely "plug and play" in fact, most don't even have a menu system, or any adjustments other than focus
- They are definitely fun to play with - and seem to have a lot of appeal for those who just can't keep their hands off of the newest gadgets
Features and Facts About Pico Projectors
MSRP: Typically $299 to $399, with online prices starting around $200
Pico Projector Technology: Either DLP or LCoS chip with LED light source
Native Resolution: Typically VGA (640x480), some lower, at least one (not sold in the US, is widescreen
Brightness: Typically 8 - 12 lumens
Contrast: 1000:1 to 2000:1
Lens: fixed - no zoom, manual focus
Lens shift: None, typically 0 offset
Lamp life: 20,000 hours or more, most rated 10,000 to 30,000 hours
Weight: .3 to .6 pounds
Warranty: Typically 90 days to 1 year, parts and labor, depending on brand
Inputs: Composite video seems standard on all, one or more may feature a VGA input, USB input, and/or a card reader
Other features found or included with on one or more pico projectors, but not all: Media player, color and other controls, tripod screw thread, speaker(s), spare rechargeable battery, Audio out, ability to charge battery while projector is powered on
Pico Projector Usage (some or all): Presentations, gaming, viewing photos and videos, watching movies
iPhone Compatibility: Varies from basic (audio through headphone jack on iPhone), to viewing slideshows of photo, or viewing videos and YouTube videos. None yet, that can display the iPhone user interface (and generally project what's on the iPhone screen
Below we'll look at some of the common features we expect to find on almost all pico projectors. On the next page, we'lll get into some of the features found only on certain models
Common Pico Projector Features
Projector Lamp Life
The most common number being toss out there for the LED light sources in these pico projectors is 20,000 hours. Of the units I have looked at, one rates theirs at 10,000, and two at 20,000. The company with the 10,000 rating says they are being very conservative, while one of the companies claiming 20,000 also says it's being fairly conservative. Bottom line - who cares! By the time you even reach 10,000 hours, newer models will probably be 2-4 times brighter, have better overall performance, and cost less than $100. (10,000 hours - at 20 hours a week is roughly 10 years!)
The important point is that you won't have any lamp expense during the useful life of one of these projectors.
So far, every pico projector I've seen has a composite video input. That means you can hook up any DVD player, almost any camcorder, some digital cameras, and a host of other devices. Feeding these projectors a composite video input will not provide quite as good an image compared with a VGA analog computer signal, but, hey, composite video was how we all fed our TVs cable signals, VCR signals, and even DVD signals until the last few years when component video and HDMI caught on.
Another standard feature, the rechargeable batteries in the three pico projectors so far reviewed are all removable (replaceable). All of the projectors seem to run about 1 hour (or a little less) before their batteries are drained. That is, of course, with a brand new battery. As all of us with assorted portable devices know, over time the battery will hold less charge, and therefore run out of charge sooner.
All seem to fully recharge in 3-4 hours. If you plan a lot of usage, especially watching a full length movie, you'll probably want a spare battery. One model (the Optoma) even comes with a spare. Consider also, how easy is it to change out a battery. In our testing we found that the battery cover just snaps off (as it does on most battery devices) in two out of three pico projectors tested so far. The third one has a small screw (3M MPro110), which is certainly going to be a nuisance for those who plan to change batteries frequently.
Another issue is recharging. So far, most of these devices can only charge the battery while it is inside the unit (no separate charger), and, to make matters a touch less convenient still, they can't actually recharge the battery while they are projecting. Probably not a big deal since the batteries charge up in a few hours, but important to know.
Lens related: Focus, Throw distance and lens offset
It may be coincidence, or that all three brands we have tested have extremely similar lens specs. All three create almost identical sized images from the same throw distance. That spec works out to roughly a throw distance that is 1.9 times the width of the projected image. Thus, for a 20 inch image, the front of the projector will be about 38 inches from the screen (or wall, or other surface you are projecting on to.
Lens offset the same on all of them, and that's to say that there is no lens offset. This differs from almost all larger projectors. Most (larger) projectors have their lens elements tilted so that you place the projector about even (in height) with the bottom of the screen, to get a nice rectangular image. Not so with these early pico projectors. They have no lens offset, so that for a rectangular image, the projector is centered vertically - the lens at the same height as the center of the screen. That means of you set it on a table, half of the image will be below the table height, half above. This tends to make a small tripod a handy device, to raise up the projector a bit off of a table. I wouldn't be surprised to see future models being offset like larger projectors so that the bottom of the image will be about the height of the projector.
You can, of course, tilt the projector upward, but that will give you an image that keystones - wider at the top than the bottom. None of the three pico projectors reviewed so far have any keystone correction controls to keep the image rectangular when the angle is shifted.
Please note, the announced Microvision Show WX, with its laser light source has a shorter lens throw. It throws approximately a 1 foot diagonal image from a distance of 1 foot - about half the distance needed for the others on the market.