United Object Smart Beam Laser Projector
You could probably start a pretty healthy debate if you asked a group of home theater enthusiasts what the single most important piece of gear is if you want to truly transform a home video system into a legitimate home theater. Surround sound is important. Without surround sound you’ll never feel like part of the action, and your home theater will never feel like a movie theater. The subwoofer provides the punch you need to really feel the action; the center channel provides all the on-screen action and the surround speakers put you right into the middle of that action.
Equally as vital, however, is the front projector. Sure TVs are getting bigger, and they’re really good – even at the really big sizes. To be honest, big TVs that are really good is a relatively new phenomenon. In the past the really big screens, the rear projection screens, were good, but they were really more about size than quality. But not true today; there are some killer home theaters built around large plasma and LED TVs. But for the authentic big screen experience, you really need that big screen. Something you can still only get from a front projector.
But if you turn that debate inside out a bit, if you ask about the single most important piece of equipment for a portable theater setup, the answers change. Surround sound isn’t as important, because who would travel with 7 speakers. Obviously you wouldn’t travel with a full television set, so you could say a really good, portable screen is key. But most people would tell you the projector is the most important. And small projectors, pico projectors, are starting to really develop into a strong category.
One such pico projector that’s getting a lot of attention is the United Object Smart Beam Laser pico projector. Not only is it tiny, small enough to fit in any travel bag, it has some unique features that make it quite compelling as the centerpiece to your portable home theater. We had the opportunity to play with one recently and it was a lot of fun. Granted it won’t ever be able to anchor your true home theater experience, it is cool enough to anchor your portable video needs and turn any portable electronic viewing device, like a laptop, tablet or phone, into a portable home theater rig.
The United Object Smart Beam Laser Projector is square. It measures about 2.2 inches on a side and can fit in the palm of your hand. They bill it as the smallest HD laser projector in the world. It has a maximum brightness of 60 ANSI Lumens using, of course, a laser power source. The display itself uses LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) technology and is capable of 720p (1280×720) HD video resolution. It’ll go as small as 20” all the way up to a maximum 100” screen. You can buy it online direct from United Object for $419. Or from Amazon for the same price, but you do get Prime shipping.
Setup and Use
The projector needs power and a video source. It includes the power cord and an MHL cable, but you can also use micro HDMI, but you’ll need to provide your own cable for that. The unit is battery powered and the manual claims you can get up to 120 minutes of video from a full charge. We didn’t test that, but because it also supports a couple wireless video options, you don’t need to have it plugged in at all times to use it. You can connect to it using Miracast, mirroring from iOS, or using DLNA over WiFi.
Plugging into power is, of course, trivial. Once that’s done, plugging in a micro HDMI cable (you can get from Amazon for a couple bucks) and using the Smart Beam like a traditional projector is a snap, assuming you have a device that supports either HDMI or MHL. At that time, you have a 2-inch cube portable projector that fits in the palm of your hand. The Smart Beam includes an MHL adapter that is needed for some MHL devices, but we went with straight HDMI and it was ridiculously easy to setup and use. It took all of 30 seconds.
Going wireless really doesn’t take that much more work. When you turn it on without an HDMI/MHL input, the home screen shows you a Miracast Device name to connect to. We assume that is trivial, but didn’t have a Miracast device handy, so we didn’t try it. To use it with iOS or DLNA, you have to switch it to DLNA mode by tapping the power button twice quickly. Then it turns into its own WiFi hotspot and tells you how to connect to it. You join it as if it were a standard, open WiFi network and use AirPlay to mirror a device to it or DLNA to send content to it. This added an extra minute or two to the setup.
One really cool feature of the projector is that it will auto focus for any supported screen size. You can’t zoom, so you have to move it to the proper distance to get the right screen size, but once you have it at the right distance, it’ll automatically focus for you. We found the focus to be much sharper at larger screen sizes than smaller ones, but that could also be a function of how far we were from the screen, so the slight fuzziness of the picture diminished the further away from it we sat. The auto-focus feature makes it just that much easier to use.
For video, the LCoS laser display was surprisingly good. At 60 ANSI Lumens it is absolutely critical that you control ambient light, but in a sufficiently dark room, the projected image was quite good. It doesn’t have the resolution needed for crisp text display, especially at smaller font sizes, so it probably wouldn’t be an ideal projector for all business use cases. But if your business presentations tend to be more graphical in nature, it could work for you.
Using it as a portable video projector, however, is probably the manufacturer’s ideal use case. For video, we found the colors and contrast to be quite good – of course assuming you have a dark room and a good screen to project onto. The clarity of the picture was a bit softer, and perhaps slightly grainier than other 720p projectors we used, but certainly not to where it was terrible or distracting. The built-in audio is what you would expect from a package that size. It gets the job done, but at about the same quality as the speaker built into your laptop or phone.
All in all, we’re excited about where the pico projector technology is headed. You still have to deal with a good deal of trade-offs in brightness and picture quality, but they are improving. We can see a day in the future where you could have video screens all over your home, much like you have with whole-house audio, using pico projectors. Or where multiple pico projectors working together, like surround sound speakers in your home theater, could transform an entire room into a 360-degree panoramic viewing experience. Talk about being in the middle of the action. Add 3D to the mix there, and you’ve got yourself a holodeck. Sure, it might be a dream right now, but at the rate technology is moving these days, you really never know what tomorrow holds.