Looking into the future, concept artists often equip their dream iPhones with built-in pico projectors. That feature probably isn't coming to an iPhone anytime soon, but Micron Technology's $99 Pop Video pico projector accessory may be the next best thing.
The key feature here is the 30-pin connector that lets you dock your iPhone or iPod, forming one compact unit. While some of the larger pico projectors like the
Brookstone is offering up a similarly styled pico projector that's simply called the Pocket Projector for iPhone 4, but its native resolution is lower at 640x360 pixels than the Pop Video's 960x540 pixels, and the Brookstone accessory costs $229.
|Pop Video||Main specs|
|Dimensions||4.4 inches by 1.8 inches by .6 inch (HWD)|
|Weight||3.5 ounces (97g)|
|Input||30-pin dock connector|
|Video output||qHD (960x540-pixel resolution)|
|Battery||Built-in lithium ion rechargeable battery|
|Play time||Up to 2 hours with full battery charge|
|Charging||Micro-USB charging (1.2-compliant)|
|Charge time||About 4 hours|
|iOS version||5.0 and greater|
|Compatible with||iPhone 4/4S and third- and fourth-generation iPod Touch|
As for the light engine inside the Pop Video, Micron uses something called FLCOS microdisplay technology, which is cheaper to produce and more energy-efficient. It's worth noting that the company doesn't list brightness specs (lumens). That's partially because it's trying to avoid getting into the brightness game, which is a little like the contrast game with TVs or the watts-per-channel game in audio, where numbers have a tendency to get inflated. It's also because the Pop Video just isn't that bright, coming in at less than 10 lumens. But the product developer told me that there are more important factors that go into making a good picture than just brightness -- and he's mostly right.
How is the picture?
The first thing I'd advise is to turn the lights off. The projector just doesn't work well in a lighted room, unless you project a tiny picture that isn't much bigger than your phone's screen. But in dark conditions projecting on a plain white wall, the picture was OK. And in this case OK means pretty good. Or good enough.
I set up a little viewing area in an office and projected about a 30-inch image on the wall (the manual says you can go up to 50 inches but the sweet spot is more in the 25- to 30-inch range). For source material, I used an iTunes copy of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." It's a 1.8GB file and about as high-quality as you're going to get coming from an iPhone.
I watched the movie for a while myself and then had our video guru David Katzmaier come in and take a look. Katzmaier echoed what I was thinking: "The color's oversaturated, the picture's soft, and the contrast isn't good," he said, "but for what it is -- and its price -- I think most people will be fairly impressed. It's good enough." (Note: you can make some picture tweaks via the free Pop Video app, but we didn't have any luck improving the picture quality beyond the default settings.)
We both agreed that the bigger issue was getting the projector set up properly. For showing photos, you can hold it in your hand and project against a wall, but for any serious video watching, you've got to lay it on a flat surface and make sure it's sitting at the right height. I ended up creating a little projection tower out of a box, a CD cover, and a plaque we had lying around. I then stuck a coin under one side of the projector to tilt it slightly to the right and get the image more geometrically correct.
Aside from that, the only other gripe I had was that while my iPhone docked just fine with the projector, it didn't feel that securely attached. It's not a huge issue but it would be nice if the designers figured out a way to retain the small form and the flexibility of being able to accommodate iPhones and iPod Touches of various sizes but create a more secure connection.
I should also mention that you focus the image by using the slider switch on the side of the projector, which also doubles as the on/off switch. I liked that design, though it can be a bit tricky to get fine focus while you're watching a video, so it's best to focus based on the Pop Video logo when you turn the projector on.
As for sound, the projector has no built-in speaker, which means you have to use your iPhone or iPod Touch's speaker for sound. I found my iPhone's speaker worked fairly well; in a quiet room, the speaker can actually play pretty loud. Another option is to use a Bluetooth speaker like the Jawbone Jambox or Logitech Mini Boombox. While small, those speakers will provide significantly bigger sound.
Last but not least is the question of battery life. The Pop Video's battery is rated at 2 hours, or just enough for a movie. We managed to get almost all 2.22 hours of "Ghost Protocol" in but had to plug in for the last few minutes. You can run the projector on USB power while watching (a short cable is included), though Micron advises against doing this, as the projector generates some heat while projecting and so does charging the battery. It's better to fully charge the unit and run off battery power the whole time.
Note: Micron says that some sort of tripod accessory is in the works.
The Pop Video is definitely a big step in the right direction for the pico projector market, in terms of both price and form factor. The killer app for these types of projectors has always been tighter integration with the iPhone (and other smartphones eventually) to makes it much easier to project without attaching any kludgey cables. To that end, the projector is designed to be used with a free app with which you can tweak the projector settings and, more importantly, project more content directly from your iPhone, including YouTube videos, Web pages, Facebook, and videos downloaded from iTunes or iTunes U that are not MPEG-3 protected.
With its price point and marketing angle, Micron is gearing this product toward a younger audience that would find it fun and cool to whip out a tiny projector, attach it to an iPhone, and project images or videos on a wall at a moment's notice. I could also see the Pop Video as a useful travel companion for parents who have to entertain a small cadre of children (though if you have an iPad already, this accessory is much more of a luxury than a necessity.)
In the end, the Pop Video is far from perfect and will certainly get some design and performance upgrades; battery life could be improved a bit, for instance. But for a first-generation product, this is fairly impressive. No, the picture isn't going to wow videophiles, but it's good enough, particularly coming from an accessory that's truly pocket-size. In other words, keep your expectations in check and you won't be disappointed.