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.

As the number of uses for digital projectors keeps growing, their sizes keep shrinking. While businesspeople have been carrying laptop-sized units around for years, smaller (and cheaper) projectors have recently found a place in home theater systems, dorm rooms and anywhere that you can find a blank space on the wall. (Last year, they even drew attention during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, when protesters used them to project symbols and messages on the sides of buildings.)

There's no accepted definition for these types of projectors. Of the five very compact units I look at in this roundup, two call themselves "pico" while others are labeled "mobile," "pocket" or "mini." Suffice it to say that they're all significantly smaller and lighter than the Xbox-size units that have dominated the scene. They're also not as bright and have lower resolutions than their bigger siblings.

Mobile "pocket" projectors, from bottom to top: Vivitek Qumi Q5, 3M Mobile Projector MP410, Telstar MP50, Optoma Pico PK320 and the General Imaging iPico.

I spent several days living with these tiny projectors and I can say that, for the most part, you get what you pay for. The five I looked at ranged in (list) price from $130 for a one-trick pony with limited application to a $650 device that produces sharp, bright images good enough for almost any purpose short of presenting to an auditorium.

All but one of the five projectors (the iPico) come with HDMI capabilities, so I connected them to an iPad 2 using Apple's 30-pin HDMI connector and projected a PDF presentation containing both text and graphics as well as a slide show of photos. I also connected an upscaling DVD player and showed a movie (O Brother, Where Art Thou). I projected the images on a white wall in a dark bedroom with blackout curtains -- as dark as a hotel room and darker than many living rooms or conference rooms.

Bright and clear

One of the main qualities I assessed was brightness, though that's more significant in a conference room at lunchtime than it would be in a small, dark room. Brightness is measured in lumens, a metric set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to determine the average intensity of a projected image -- a higher number means a brighter image. These projectors are rated between 85 and 500 lumens; as such, they throw less light on a wall than does a 60-watt incandescent bulb (about 800 lumens). However, in the same way a 10-lumen keychain flashlight is bright enough for finding your way in a dark room, these projectors all provided enough light for our test conditions.

I also concentrated on the clarity of the projected text and the saturation of the colors in the photographs, as well as the clarity and contrast in the projected movie. All of these are improved by increased brightness as well as higher resolution.

Four out of the five projectors display their menus on the wall -- none of them have built-in screens. The iPico requires an iPhone app, which shows your choices on the phone's screen.

One other thing: All the units have audio-out jacks for headphones or external speakers. Use them. The projectors have built-in speakers, but they're laptop-quality at best. Since they all have fans going as well, you need something more than what's built in to rise above the background noise.

Finally, all these projectors involve some tradeoffs, such as whether the unit has a battery or you need to be within reach of an outlet. Similarly, some really are "pocket sized," while others require at least a small carrying case. But once your movie is running, the images look fine.

I've looked at these in descending order of brightness (in other words, the lumens rating), from the feature-filled Qumi Q5 to the iPhone add-on iPico. But although there are many differences between these devices, there really isn't a bad projector in the bunch.

5 pocket projectors

List price Weight (oz.) Resolution (native) Max. brightness/contrast
Vivitek Qumi Q5 $650 17.6 1280 x 800 500 lumens/10,000:1
3M Mobile Projector MP410 $599 13.0 1280 × 800 300 lumens/10,000:1
Optoma Pico PK320 $399 8.3 854 x 480 100 lumens/3,000:1
Telstar MP50 $400 7.8 854 x 480 85 lumens/1,000:1
General Imaging iPico $130 3.2 960 x 540 15 lumens/100:1
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