A couple of weeks ago, I became aware that pocket-sized Pico Projectors were amongst us (see my blog I want a Pico Projector – but which one?). Good grief, I hadn’t realized that this market was so varied and confusing…
Now that I’m aware that Pico Projectors exist, I seem to be seeing them everywhere. In fact, it appears that the whole Pico Projector concept is a market poised for explosive growth. I just saw a report saying that the worldwide market for Pico Projectors is expected to grow to more than $6 billion by 2014 (assuming, of course, that the world doesn’t end on 21 December 2012 [grin]).
This report says that the big market will initially be for standalone units due to their multipurpose nature and the early commercialization of these products. Over time, however, we will increasingly see Pico Projector capabilities being embedded in other products, such as cell phones and tablet computers, for example.
From what I understand, there are currently four main technologies competing in Pico Projector space: Digital Light Projection (DLP), Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LQoS), Laser Beam Steering, and Holographic Laser Projection (HLP).
Invented by those clever folks at Texas Instruments, DLP technology (www.dlp.com) uses a light source and a DLP chip, which contains a rectangular array of up to two million microscopic mirrors along with associated electronics. In this case, the brightness of a pixel is controlled by modulating the state of the mirror related to that pixel.
An LCoS projector employs a method similar to DLP, but uses liquid-crystals instead of mirrors to control how much light each pixel gets. An LBS projector uses three laser beams (red, green, and blue) to create an image one pixel at a time. Last but not least, an HLP system uses a laser to illuminate a hologram that diffracts the laser to create the original image.
Introducing the Optoma PK301
If you do a search on the web, you will soon discover that there is a baffling and bewildering array of Pico Projector products, with different resolutions, brightness levels, features, and capabilities. On the basis that DLP (www.dlp.com) seems to be the most popular Pico Projector technology – and also that Optoma (www.optoma.com) is the #1 selling brand of DLP projectors in the world – I ended up with an Optoma PK301, which is available for around $350 from Amazon.
Including its internal battery, this little beauty is only 4.7 x 1.2 x 2.7 inches (120.1 x 29.7 x 69.8 mm) in size and weighs in at around 8 ounces, so it really does fit in your pocket. (Of course the external AC power supply and suchlike take up additional space.)
Just to give you some idea as to the confusion you can run into, the native resolution of the PK301 is WVGA (854 x 480), but it is said to have a maximum resolution of WXGA (1280 x 800) through its VGA adapter or HD (1080i) through its HDMI input. I don’t know what this means. Does it imply that the device can display higher resolutions if they come from an outside source, or does it convert those high-res signals into its native resolution? On the other hand, if the final images look OK, do I really care?
One big selling feature for the PK301 is that it offers 50 ANSI lumens of brightness when used with the AC power adapter or the optional extended power battery pack. When using the regular battery you get only 20 ANSI lumens. Since most of the competition offer maximum brightness values of 20 lumens or less, the PK301 is well ahead of the game on this score.
Of course 50 lumens offers much lower brightness than a regular projector, but it really isn’t too shabby when you see it in real life as illustrated in the photo I took above. (The guy in the picture is Nick, who has an office just down the corridor from me. I asked him to stand next to the projected image to provide a sense of scale.)My “Out-of-the-Box” experience
Overall I would say that I am extremely happy with this little beauty. It arrived with a very understandable and easy-to-use “Quick Start Guide” printed on a small piece of card with mixed graphical/textual depictions of the steps needed to get it up and running, including inserting the battery and charging it up.
The next step is to connect the PK301 to your PC with the supplied USB cable. When you do so, the PK301 looks just like an external memory device containing two files – a software executable and a PDF user manual. You have to copy the software executable over to your PC and run it. This installs an application called the Pico Media Converter on your PC (we’ll return to this application in a moment).
The PK301 can be used in two ways. If you wish, you can simply connect it to the VGA port on your computer, in which case it will display whatever’s on your screen. The alternative is to download photos, videos, or PowerPoint presentations from your PC into the PK301 and to then run it in standalone mode.
I decided to start by simply displaying what was on my computer’s screen, so I connected the supplied VGA cable between my PC and the PK301. I instructed my computer to activate its external display, but try as I might I couldn’t get the projector to work. “Bummer,” I thought (or words to that effect).
So then I took a mental step backwards and tried to look at things through fresh eyes. Was everything set up the way I would expect to see if I were using this in real life? Well, no, in point of fact, because I still had the USB cable connected between the PC and the PK301. As soon as I unplugged this cable the projector sprang into life. Hurray!
Next, I decided to try downloading stuff from my PC into the PK301, so I reconnected the USB cable, which automatically launched the Pico Media Manager application as shown below:
All you have to do is drag images and/or videos and/or PowerPoint presentations and drop them on top of this application, which automatically converts them into whatever format and resolution the PK301 requires and then downloads them into the appropriate Image, Video, or Presentation folder on the PK301.
I don’t know all of the image and video formats supported by the PK301, but it handled the ones I threw at it without any problems. Actually, this application is amazingly easy and intuitive to use. Similarly, the menu system on the PK301 is both intuitive and easy to use (I’ve fought with some weird and wonderful applications in my day).
As you will see from the video below, once you’ve dimmed the lights in the room, the final display is very respectable. One slight issue is that even with a slide that has a pure white background, the resulting image comes out with a light steely-blue tinge, but that really doesn’t impact what I wish to use the PK301 for, which is to give presentations to small groups of people on-site at local companies.
Having said this, I can’t wait for the weather to get warmer so that I can try having a film night outside for my son and his friends – we’ll project homemade videos onto a white sheet hanging on the wall (I’ve also heard of folks projecting onto the side of their tents while out camping).
Other good points about the PK301 are the fact that it sports a wealth of connectors. These include VGA (using a special cable), Mini HDMI, an AV input, and an audio output (the latter will be particularly useful when displaying videos, because the inbuilt speaker is rather pathetic). There’s also a slot for a MicroSD memory card, which allows one to store more videos and images.
The bottom line is that, even though the PK301 does have some limitations, it’s more than good enough to be really useful. The ability to download images and videos and presentations into its internal memory or MicroSD card means that you don’t have to lug your computer around with you. On the other hand, the fact that you can drive the PK301 from your computer means that you can use it to display any information that you can display on your computer screen.
Although we should remember that smaller, lighter, cheaper, and brighter Pico Projectors will doubtless be appearing in the not-so-distant future, overall, I would say that the PK301 is well worth the money, not the least that it’s available today.