Is that a Projector in Your Pocket? Are Portable Big Screens a Reality Yet?

You know me, I’m a gadget geek. You only have to read my blog’s “Gear I Own” section to see how bad my addiction is. It’s not something new, I’ve been this way since I was a kid. The devices I write about are not review units on-loan from their manufacturers, they’re mine forever, or at least until I sell them on.

One piece of tech gear that has always intrigued me is a portable mini projector. What could be better than a big-screen you could take and use anywhere? I first remember seeing one in a Brookstone store at my local mall several years ago and almost reflex bought it. My wife pointed out that I didn’t have an actual use-case for one. Her logic stopped me cold. Beyond playing with it for a few hours, what purpose would having one serve?

After gazing at them longingly in the stores and messing around with the display units, I discovered they had some severe weaknesses. First and foremost, they weren’t bright enough to use anywhere but in a very darkened room. The first-generation devices also required some complicated cables and accessories to hook up your source device up with. Still though, a big-screen that fit in your pocket was an extremely alluring thought that would not go away.

I kept dreaming of having an extra screen with me everywhere I went, being able to hook up my laptop, phone, or gaming consoles at home or on the road. Fast forward a few years, I had gotten back into computer consulting and ran into a situation where I was trying to explain a complex distributed computing environment to a customer. I wanted to show some examples, but there wasn’t a shared screen in sight. We ended up hunching over my laptop, but the experience wasn’t ideal. Ha, take that wife! I have a reason to get one!

Now that I have my excuse, err reason, I had to brush up on the latest options. A quick search of Amazon returns an unbelievable number of devices. I can’t believe the market is big enough to support this level of manufacturing, I don’t know anyone that has one of these things, but judging by the number available, they sell like smart phones. How do I decide? They range in price from fifty bucks to over a thousand.

The tech is all over the place on specs, options, sizes, and functionality. I spend a fair amount of time breaking it all down to filter out the fluff. The features that matter are: Brightness (measured in ANSI Lumens), the native resolution (this one is tricky), connection options (wireless is nice), the size, battery’s runtime, and the operating system. These specs vary widely and are confused by all kinds of useless marketing terms so pay attention to the details.

Most of the devices under two-hundred dollars are rated for fifty lumens. They aren’t bright enough to compete with a standard light bulb. If you’re not going to use your projector in a nearly dark environment, then you need to shoot for at least one-hundred, and more is better. The claimed resolution is obscured in the marketing materials by the mis-leading term “supported resolution”. The supported resolution means essentially nothing. The native resolution gives you an idea of how sharp the text and graphics you project will be. Higher is better, I would shoot for 720P as a minimum. Most of the inexpensive devices, even those marketed as HD, are only 480P (technically the lowest end of HD).

The more connection options a projector has, the more useful it will be. At a minimum you are going to want one that has an HDMI port. Most modern video sources: laptops, gaming consoles, tablets and phones, can support HDMI. Some (Tablets, Phones) will require and adapter. Wireless options are the a great feature. There are two basic types of wireless, Miracast works with most Windows 8 and newer devices as well as, most Android tablets and phones. AirPlay is the Apple flavor of wireless. Personally, I needed both.

The size and battery are personal choices, go for the options that best fit your requirements. Some of these devices can also act as a portable battery pack to charge your other gear. As for the operating system, I wanted one that ran full Android. An OS that includes an App store, the ability to view documents off an SD card, run Netflix and Amazon Video, and be easily upgradable were important to me.

After hours of research, I ended up with a Vivitek QUMI Q38-BK. It’s rated for 600 ANSI Lumens, has a native resolution of 1900 x 1200, runs full Android, and has a battery rated for 2.5 hours. The projector has HDMI, supports both Miracast and Airplay, and will join a Wi-Fi network. It also has a micro SD card slot, two USB ports, and a 3.5mm audio jack. I especially like the built-in lens cover. It’s not pocket-sized but it easily fits in the front pocket of my laptop bag and only weighs a couple of pounds.

After reading all of this you are probably left wondering, does it live up to the expectation of having a big screen everywhere that I go? The anwser is, yes. The experience and usability are better than I thought they would be. The unit I purchased is bright enough to use in a normally lit office space and will connect to almost anything. I find myself using it several times per week.

I’ve used it for impromptu team-meetings, tossing my screen up on the wall behind our cubes. Gotten it out at people’s houses to show them pictures and vids. Used it as a big-screen monitor for my laptop while working at a customer’s location. Hooked it up to my Switch so a group of friends could play Mario Kart at happy hour. I even projected the Star Tracker app from my mobile phone onto the side of the house during a family telescoping session.

Now that I’ve had it for a few months and found that I use it often, I will probably always have a similar device in my kit. I can’t imagine how I got along without one all this time.

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