Review: 3 tiny projectors light up the big screen

They're small and light, but do ultraportable microprojectors measure up for business presentations?

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.

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.

three microprojectors
Microprojectors from Dell, Optoma and 3M

"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.

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