Microprojectors: Small But Mighty

projectors, microprojectors, business
Artwork: Chip Taylor
Whether it's to clinch a sale, show off a new product or discuss a potential acquisition, the digital projector is major part of everyday corporate work. As a result, mobile workers who need to make presentations on the road have become beasts of burden, often hauling 20 to 25 pounds of gear, including notebook, projector, and a seemingly endless array of accessories, cables and adapters.

There's got to be an easier -- and lighter -- way.

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Welcome to the era of the microprojector. Rather than squeezing a five-pound projector into an already overburdened bag, imagine slipping something the size of a cell phone into one of the bag's pouches. Better yet, how about your jacket pocket? Weighing less than a pound -- often much less -- these pocket projectors can rewrite the rules of business travel.

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"These projectors will be a relief to anyone who's lugged a projector on a business trip," says Matthew Brennesholtz, senior analyst at Insight Media. "It takes one of the heaviest and largest items that businesspeople use and makes it one of the smallest and lightest."

Brennesholtz forecasts sales of at least 30 million tiny projectors by 2012, up from essentially zero this year. "This market is just getting started," he adds.

Unlike typical business projectors, pocket projectors are also aimed at consumers -- for showing a movie at a child's birthday party, watching the Super Bowl or having a video game showdown, for instance. All that's needed is a white wall or an old bed sheet tacked to the wall.

Still, projectors -- even tiny ones -- remain primarily a business product, and that's how I tested them for this review. To see whether these projectors have what it takes to fit into the typical road warrior's day, I gathered three of the newest and smallest projectors -- the 3M MPro110, the Dell M109S, and the Optoma Pico Projector PK-101-- for a shoot-out. (The Pico is so new it hasn't yet been released in the U.S.; it will be available on Dec. 15, according to an Optoma spokesperson.)

I put the three microprojectors through their paces by mimicking what road warriors do every day. I also measured how much light they create, and I tested the battery life of the two models with built-in batteries. (See "How I tested" for details.)

How microprojectors work

Microprojectors slim down by doing without the typical projector's high-intensity quartz bulb. By contrast, they use tiny LEDs to create the projector's beam of light. As a result, a pocket projector not only runs cooler but is more rugged. Rather than being fragile and prone to problems, its LED light source can run for as much as 20,000 hours, 10 times longer than a conventional projector bulb. That's about 25 years of use, four hours a day.

The LEDs also simplify a projector's design because they create individual red, blue and green beams of light. This eliminates the need for the single hardest part of a standard projector to design and build properly -- the spinning color wheel that separates the bulb's white light into its primary colors before reflecting it off of the imaging chip.

Instead of light running through a tiny LCD panel, think mirrors, lots of them. The Optoma Pico PK-101 and the Dell M109S use a Digital Light Processing (DLP) chip from Texas Instruments. The chip's surface has hundreds of thousands of microscopic mirrors that swing into and out of the beam of light to selectively reflect a pattern. Each micro-mirror corresponds to an individual pixel onscreen.

By contrast, 3M's MPro110 uses Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCOS) technology, which has no moving parts. Rather than tiny mirrors moving back and forth, LCOS uses a special reflective LCD panel where the pixels either reflect or absorb the LED's light. It's like a magical mirror that can control what's reflected off its surface.

Limitations

The downside is that these devices run the risk of looking more like flashlights than projectors. While conventional projectors put out between 2,000 and 3,000 lumens of illumination -- about what a car headlight produces -- the best pocket projectors produce less than 100 lumens.

They require darkened rooms and will fail to satisfy for a big meeting with dozens of participants. On the other hand, they should be fine for presenting to a small group and are perfect for impromptu gatherings. "It's just enough light now," says Insight Media's Brennesholtz, "but I expect that the technology will evolve and brightness will increase rapidly."

What these pocket projectors lack is as important as what they have, and many presenters will be disappointed by their minimalist designs. None of the three has a lens cover, a remote control or adjustable feet for aiming the projector's beam. Plus, only the Dell M109S has keystone correction to square the image when it's projected at an angle.

Still, their miniscule size and weight make them very attractive in certain circumstances. Read on to see how they performed in my tests.

3M Micro Professional Projector MPro110

It's not the smallest or the most powerful pocket projector, but at US$360, the 3M MPro110 leads on price. However, in my tests it failed to produce an image bright enough for a business meeting and lacked the creature comforts presenters are used to.

Long and narrow, the MPro110 measures a petite 0.8 by 1.8 by 4.5 inches, weighs 5.4 ounces and can be slipped into a shirt or jacket pocket. About one-quarter the size of the Dell M109S, it's slightly bigger and heavier than the Optoma Pico PK-101. Add the AC adapter and connection cables, and its travel package totals only 12.6 ounces -- although unlike the M109S or Pico PK-101, it doesn't come with a case.

In fact, the package includes just the basics, with no lens cover, remote control or adjustable feet for aiming the projector. It also lacks a speaker, optical zoom and keystone correction. However, like the Pico PK-101, the MPro110 has a threaded mount for a tripod stand.

There are two video connectors: a mini-video jack for a composite video cable that can work with a DVD player or other device, and a proprietary flat plug for connecting with a notebook. Unfortunately, the latter worked its way loose several times during testing.

Inside its silver and black frame, the MPro110 has a 0.47-in. LCOS imaging engine. The resulting 640-by-480 resolution images are cruder than the M109S but sharper than the Pico. 3M rates the MPro110's contrast ratio at a realistic 80:1. While the other manufacturers say their contrast ratios are an order of magnitude higher, to the naked eye they appear to be similar.

The MPro110's projection size matches the Pico's at between 6 and 60 inches (measured diagonally) but works best at an image size of less than 48 inches. It operates from 1 to 7 feet away from the screen. The biggest defect is that the output of the MPro110 is bowed inward along its horizontal and vertical sides, which distorts the image.

The MPro110 was up and running in 15.3 seconds and shut down nearly instantly. It is capable of putting only 8.4 lumens of light on screen, a bit more than the Pico PK-101 but much less than the M109S. This should suffice for a small group meeting in a darkened room, but I found that the image was easily washed out by sunlight or bright room lights. On the other hand, without a fan, the MPro110 was whisper quiet.

Viewers sitting 5 feet from the screen could read 10-point type, and the projector did a good job of displaying colors accurately, although its reds looked like maroon. The image was significantly brighter at the bottom than the top.

Powered by LEDs, the projector uses only 6 watts of power, about the equivalent of a child's night light. It can run on its 1,050 milli-amp hour battery for 49 minutes between charges, or about 20 minutes shorter than the Pico Projector. Unfortunately, it lacks a battery gauge.

The least expensive of the bunch, the MPro110 comes with a disappointing 90-day warranty; 3M doesn't offer an upgrade to three years of coverage, but Office Depot offers a three-year warranty for an extra $135.

This projector gives an inkling of what's possible when you think small. Business users will love the MPro110's size and weight, but will ultimately be turned off by its image quality and brightness.

Dell M109S Projector

It may not be the smallest or the lightest of these puny projectors, but Dell's M109S is still tiny compared to a conventional projector, and its output puts the other pocket projectors to shame. To my thinking, it is an excellent choice for mobile mavens who want to travel light.

Looking like a one-quarter scale model of a traditional projector, the black and silver M109S is only 1.5 by 3.6 by 4.1 inches. At 12.8 ounces, it weighs more than the other two combined, and its travel weight is 1.4 pounds. Still, it's much lighter than a traditional projector.

The M109S comes with a single multi-input cable that does it all by connecting to a VGA or composite video source as well as its AC adapter. There's a nice padded case, but the AC adapter doesn't fit inside. A big bonus is that it uses the same adapter as Dell's Latitude E series notebooks, which allows you to carry one charger. Like the others, the M109S lacks any way to protect the fragile lens.

The M109S uses a 0.45-in. DLP imaging engine that produces native 858-by-600 resolution, making it the sharpest of the group. Dell specs the M109S with an 800:1 contrast ratio. It's capable of producing images between 15 and 60 inches (measured diagonally) at a distance of around 2 to 8 feet from the screen.

While the others get by with just on-off switches, the M109S has a control panel with an array of adjustments that rivals its bigger brothers. In addition to brightness, contrast, whiteness and color temperature, there are a variety of modes for viewing different material.

It also has one thing the other two can't match: automatic keystone correction for squaring the image. Unfortunately, its focus ring is crude, and there's neither an optical zoom lens nor a remote control.

The proof of any projector is in its light output, and the M109S delivers 68 lumens to the screen, about eight times more than the others and above Dell's listed specification of 50 lumens. While this is much less than even the lowest-output conventional projector, it's enough for a good-quality presentation to a small group.

With excellent focus uniformity, images were sharp and viewers could read eight-point type from 5 feet away. On the downside, the output had a dark zone in the upper-right corner, and some of its blues were rendered as purple while others showed up as gray.

The M109S was able to start up in 18.7 seconds and shut itself down in 17.3 seconds, the slowest of the three. Unlike the other two pocket rockets, the M109S has no battery and uses 33 watts at full power. It's a lot compared to the Pico Projector or MPro110, but a pittance next to a traditional projector. The M109S has a fan to cool its parts, making it the loudest of the bunch. It also lacks either adjustable feet or a tripod mount underneath for aiming the projector.

At $500, the M109S is the most expensive of these pocket projectors. It comes with a one-year warranty, which can be extended to three years for $115.

All in all, the M109S is a tiny projector that delivers just enough light to be worthy of a place in your bag.

Optoma Pico Pocket Projector PK-101

Easily the smallest projector of our roundup, the soon-to-be-released Pico Pocket Projector PK-101 sets the standard for mobility with a device that's smaller than many flashlights. Unfortunately, it's about as bright as one and is suitable for presentations only in a dark room.

So small and light it might be mistaken for a cell phone, the Pico weighs 4.1 ounces, which rises to 7.4 ounces with its AC adapter. It measures just 0.7 by 2.0 by 4.2 inches, and like the others doesn't have a lens cover. Like the MPro110, the Pico has a tiny threaded tripod mount underneath for properly aiming its image on the screen. It comes with a padded case, but like the M109S's pouch, the AC adapter doesn't fit inside.

Showing its dual business-consumer orientation, the Pico's only AV input connection is a mini-video jack that works with most digital media players; there's an included RCA-to-mini-jack cable for composite video and audio. In addition to the basic $400 projector, there will be a $430 package that includes a connector kit for iPhones and iPods.

What's missing is a VGA port for connecting laptops. I used a scan converter, which weighed at least as much as the projector, to transform the computer's output for the projector.

The Pico is the only projector of the three with a speaker, but that's on a par with a cheap AM radio. The black and silver frame holds a 480-by-320 resolution 0.17-in. DLP imaging chip that delivers one-third the number of imaging pixels as the M109S. Optoma specs the Pico Projector with a 1000:1 contrast ratio.

Like 3M's MPro110, the Pico can create an image of between 6 and 60 inches (diagonally) at a distance of around 1 to 7.5 feet. There's no keystone correction, remote control or zoom lens. Its LED light source is rated at 20,000 hours of use (double the others), which translates into 25 years of Monday-through-Friday use for four hours a day -- something I was obviously unable to test for this article.

A fast starter, the Pico PK-101 was up and running in 3.9 seconds. It offers two brightness settings: dim and dimmer. At full power, the Pico put out 7.9 lumens of light and consumes 4 watts of power, one-eighth that of the M109S and just below the MPro110. This drops to a paltry 5.2 lumens in low mode, which requires 2 watts -- about the power drain of a television when it's turned off.

Overall, the projector's focus was sharp and showed surprisingly good color balance, but at a much lower resolution than the others. Its whites were blue and the upper-right corner of the screen was very dim. Viewers could easily read 14-point type from 5 feet away.

A big step forward is that the Pico is powered by a mini-USB cable, which means you can recharge it with a notebook and leave the projector's AC adapter behind. It also came with two battery packs, each of which powered the projector for 1 hour and 10 minutes at full brightness, 20 minutes longer than the MPro110. There's no battery gauge, however.

The Pico comes with a one-year warranty, but Optoma doesn't sell extended coverage. The smallest and lightest projector available, the Pico offers its own speaker and lets you pick its brightness level, but still suffers from low resolution and dim output.

Conclusions

The diminutive duo of the 3M MPro110 and Optoma Pico PK-101 represents an incredible step forward for presentation technology, but it doesn't deliver enough light for a business meeting. After all, the last thing you want is to have your audience squinting at your show. Clearly, what they need most is time to evolve, get brighter and add some of the features that presenters expect.

On the other hand, Dell's M109S seems to me to be just right. At less than a pound, it offers enough power for small group presentations and will provide a welcome relief from heavy, clunky projectors that are overkill for most circumstances. It's the clear winner here.

How I tested

To get a good idea how these mini-projectors perform, I gave them each a tough workout that simulates how traveling workers use projectors. After connecting each projector to a Lenovo IdeaPad S10 mini-notebook, I used DisplayMate 2.2 software to project a series of test patterns that help determine how well each device shows a variety of patterns, colors and type.

While displaying the program's white screen in a dark room, I adjusted the projector's distance to create a one square meter image and measured each system's brightness at nine evenly spaced locations on the screen using an Extech 403125 light meter. The brightness given is the average of these readings.

Next, I timed how long it took to start up and shut down the projector, and connected it to a Kill A Watt power meter to measure how much electricity it uses. With the projector running, I measured its maximum temperature with an infrared non-contact thermometer.

I then connected it to a second notebook (a Dell Vostro 1510) and looked at YouTube videos, PowerPoint presentations and a large Excel spreadsheet. After that, I played videos from a Flip Mino video recorder and a Coby Tablet DVD player to make sure the projector can work with a variety of sources. Each projector worked with these tests, but I needed to use a scan converter to transform my notebooks' VGA video output into a composite signal that the Pico Projector could use.

Those that can be powered by internal batteries were charged up overnight, connected to a notebook and started while timing it with a stopwatch as it played a series of YouTube videos. When the battery gave out and the projector died, I stopped the timer.

Brian Nadel, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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