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

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.

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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.

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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.

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