X

3M Streaming Projector review: 3M's handheld Streaming Projector is flat-out fun

3M and Roku have teamed up for a pico projector with a built-in Roku Streaming Stick that's undeniably cool, despite its meager battery life.

Matthew_Moskovciak.jpg
Matthew Moskovciak
Matthew_Moskovciak.jpg

Matthew Moskovciak

Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater

Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.

See full bio
6 min read

Pico projectors have been around for a few years, but haven't managed to gain much traction outside of the geek community. They're fascinating little gizmos (a projector that fits in your hand!), but it's not immediately obvious why the average person would want one.

3M_Streaming_Projector_35477933_01.jpg
7.8

3M Streaming Projector

The Good

The <b>3M Streaming Projector</b> features an integrated Roku Streaming Stick in its compact, handheld design. It has built-in dual-band Wi-Fi and essentially the full functionality of a standalone Roku box, including streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, Vudu and HBO Go. There's also a built-in rechargeable battery, making it truly portable.

The Bad

The built-in battery only lasts for a little over 1.5 hours. And while image quality is watchable, the resolution is limited to DVD-quality and the picture could be brighter.

The Bottom Line

The 3M Streaming Projector packs the full power of a Roku box in a pico projector, making for an undeniably cool gadget, even with its limited battery life.

The 3M Streaming Projector ($300, shipping October 22) is the first pico projector with some mainstream appeal. It's ingeniously designed with an integrated Roku Streaming Stick in the back, which means you can wirelessly stream Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and more anywhere you have a Wi-Fi signal and a flat surface. There's also a built-in, rechargeable battery, which means the Streaming Projector can go truly wirefree. Walking around and beaming Netflix on the nearest available wall is just a flat-out cool experience, plus the ability to set up a "TV" anywhere seems like a godsend for anyone who needs to entertain kids on the go.

The 3M Streaming Projector isn't without its faults, especially its limited battery life (a little over 1.5 hours), brightness, and DVD-like resolution. But that's not enough to detract from what's ultimately a delightful gadget, not to mention an exciting new product type from 3M and Roku.

Design: A handheld beam of light
The Streaming Projector is a charming little device. The curved plastic casing and small size invite you to grab it and start streaming video against the nearest available flat surface.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Controls are basic. There's a scroll wheel on the side for focusing and a few buttons on the top for basic projector controls. You can't actually navigate the Roku Streaming Stick's menus using buttons on the projector; for that, you'll need to used the included remote. It's a thin, credit-card-style clicker, with both Roku-style buttons like Home and Back, plus buttons to control the projector. It's not a great remote, and you need to aim it right at the top of the projector for it to work. The Streaming Stick can also be controlled by the optional Game Remote, sold separately for $20.

Sarah Tew/CNET
Sarah Tew/CNET

Around back, there's a plastic, removable cover encasing the Roku Streaming Stick slot. The need for a separate Roku Streaming Stick (rather than built-in Roku software) seems like a recipe for a clunky design, except 3M has done a great job of integrating the Stick into the unit. And by including the removable Streaming Stick, you have the option to pull out the stick and connect any MHL- or HDMI-equipped gadget. Conversely, you can use the Streaming Stick in any TV or AV receiver with an MHL port. (There aren't many, though.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Overall, it's a well-thought-out gadget that just feels fun to use, whether you're turning any spare wall into a "drive-in"-style experience or even lying in bed, projecting your video straight up to the ceiling.

Features: Built-in battery, Wi-Fi and streaming
Part of the Streaming Projector's versatility is due to its built-in, rechargeable lithium battery that allows for untethered projecting. 3M claims "2+ hours" of battery life, but that's overly optimistic based on CNET's testing -- more on that later. There's an included "wall wart" AC adapter that can power the Streaming Projector, as well as recharge its battery.

After you set up the Roku Streaming Stick on your Roku account, it's just like using a Roku box. That means you get access to over 600 "channels", including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, Pandora, MLB.TV, and hundreds more niche content sources. If you're unfamiliar with the Roku experience, read CNET's review of the Roku 2 XS to get an idea of what using the Streaming Projector is like. The Roku Streaming Stick includes essentially the full functionality of a Roku 2 XS, although it has improved dual-band Wi-Fi and more internal memory (512MB).

Image and sound quality: Good enough?
With a projector that fits in your hand, it's fair to wonder how good the image quality can look. The Streaming Projector's internal specs are modest. It's powered by a DLP chip with 800x480-pixel native resolution, which is essentially DVD-level resolution. The projector is capable of 60-lumen light output, which is nothing compared with a true home theater projector, but it's comparable to some of the other pocket projectors on the market. 3M claims you can project up to a 120-inch screen with acceptable brightness in ideal (read: no room light, white surface) conditions.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In my testing, I'd say the Streaming Projector's image quality ranges from acceptable to mediocre, depending on your expectations. I leaned much closer to acceptable, especially having seen the truly lackluster image quality from a handful of pico projectors CNET's tested in the past. However, the lack of resolution was definitely noticeable, especially as you start to increase the image size. You're also at the mercy of in-room lighting; lights off without much natural light really helps keep the image acceptably bright.

I enlisted CNET's resident image quality expert David Katzmaier to try to calibrate the little guy. There aren't many controls, and after trying to tweak the image for a while, we ended up sticking with the default settings, although you can get a brighter picture (without sacrificing too much black-level detail) by cranking the contrast up a bit. If you subject the Streaming Projector to the same rigor as you would a proper home theater projector, there's not much positive to say. Color temperature was way off, as was gamma, although black levels got reasonably deep. But even by Katzmaier's picky videophile standards, he agreed that it was watchable and bright enough watching on a 100-inch screen in a dark room. (Click through if you're interested in the full image-quality testing details.)

As far as sound quality, I was skeptical about the built-in speaker, but it performed better than I thought it would. It's tinny, but loud enough for a few people to hear, as long as they're fairly close to the projector. Sound really only becomes an issue when the Streaming Projector's internal fan kicks in, which can muffle the audio a bit. Don't expect a thrilling experience, but it gets the job done. And you can always get better sound by plugging in headphones or an external speaker using the minijack output on the side.

Battery life: Less than advertised
The initial information provided by 3M pegged the Streaming Projector's battery life at 2 hours and 45 minutes, which was soon downgraded to 2 hours and 30 minutes at the company's press conference, followed by the 3M's official Streaming Projector Web site claiming a more modest "more than 2 hours." In fact, none of those claimed jibed with CNET's battery life tests, which consistently showed between 1 hour and 35 minutes and 1 hour and 48 minutes of battery life when using the Roku Streaming Stick.

At first I assumed the discrepancy was due to the fact that our initial tests used the Streaming Stick as the video source, but subsequent testing using a separate video source (i.e., not using the Streaming Stick) yielded very similar results, maxing out at 1 hour and 49 minutes. The bottom line is you'll be lucky to make it through a full movie on battery power, and more often than not, the Streaming Projector will cut you off right before the ending. While I don't think the limited battery life is a deal breaker, it's the Streaming Projector's biggest drawback and significantly limits its true portability.

Conclusion: Is it more than a toy?
The 3M Streaming Projector is a classic first-generation product that's full of potential. It's undeniably fun right out of the box, which helps gloss over its lackluster specs and its somewhat limited real-world usefulness. On the other hand, I can't blame you if you'd rather wait for 3M's second-gen model, as battery life and image quality improvements will make a big difference. The 3M Streaming Projector may be the coolest tech toy of the 2012 holiday season, especially for the early-adopter crowd, but it has a little ways to go before it becomes a staple for any self-respecting geek.

David Katzmaier and Joseph Kaminski contributed to this review.

3M_Streaming_Projector_35477933_01.jpg
7.8

3M Streaming Projector

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 6Value 7