For as long as I’ve been writing about tech, I’ve been hearing about the potential for gadgets with built-in projectors. Although the idea of being able to show off a photo or video by beaming it onto a wall is intriguing, it’s one of those things that’s never quite practical enough to take off. (Here’s a story of mine from 2010, wondering when projector-phones will go mainstream.)
But one tablet I’ve been playing with lately comes closest to integrating a projector in a practical way. It’s called the SmartQ U7, from a company called SmartDevices, and it’s available through the company’s website for $299. (You’d be forgiven for never having heard of the brand; its products generally aren’t available through U.S. retailers, and I’m told that the odds of the U7 showing up at Best Buy are slim to none.)
If the U7 didn’t have a built-in DLP projector, it would probably cost about $150, judging by its specs alone. It has a 7-inch, 1024-by-600 resolution display, a 1 GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, 8 GB of storage, a MicroSD card slot and a pair of 2-megapixel cameras, one on each side.
What makes the U7 special, and what explains the much higher price tag, is the built-in projector, which sits along the top edge of the tablet if you’re holding it in landscape mode. Flick the switch on, and the projector mirrors anything that’s showing on the tablet’s own display–albeit in a lower 854-by-480 resolution. A small slider next to the projector adjusts focus, and you can control the brightness through Android’s quick settings menu.
At the very least, the U7’s projector is a neat trick, capable of impressing friends and relatives. I managed to find some practical uses for it as well: My wife and I don’t have a TV in our bedroom, so the U7 served as one, allowing us to beam Netflix videos onto the ceiling. At a friend’s house, the U7 became an old-school game console, beaming emulators onto the wall while paired with a Bluetooth game controller.
The performance of the projector is better than I expected. At about six feet from a wall, the projected image is roughly the size of a 40-inch TV, and just bright enough to watch a video in a well-lit room. (SmartDevices says the projector can hit 50 inches, but at that distance you’d want dimmer lighting.) When the tablet screen is turned off, you can drag your finger over it to simulate mouse cursor input on the projector. You can also pair the tablet with a Wii Remote and set up the projector to act as a whiteboard.
I didn’t do rigorous battery testing, but SmartDevices promises up to four hours of projection time, and I had plenty of battery to spare after watching several episodes of Arrested Development in a row. Unfortunately, the only way to adjust the size of the image is to move it closer or further from the wall.
My biggest gripe with the projector is its resolution. It’s certainly usable for text, video and gaming, but when you actually look down at the tablet, the difference in image quality is striking. Unless you need to share the screen with someone else, you’ll just want to use the tablet screen instead of the projector, despite the difference in display size. Another nitpick: The slider that adjusts focus is far too sensitive, with most of the focus range being useless unless you’re a foot or two from the wall. At TV-like distances, the slightest touch to the slider can produce a blurry image. I should also point out that MLB At Bat and Flickr–two apps I really wanted to use with the projector–simply would not install on the U7.
Overall, I found the projector to be a useful addition, but I can also see why bigger companies aren’t slapping projectors on their own tablets. The projector itself creates a bulge on the back panel, and along with the extra hardware switches, it makes for an awkward shape.
The bigger problem is the price of the device, and the compromises that were necessary just to reach $300. At a resolution of 1024-by-600, the U7 isn’t as crisp-looking as Google’s Nexus 7 or Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, and it’s $100 more expensive despite having half the storage and a weaker processor. Cost has always been a major obstacle for projectors in phones and tablets, and that hasn’t changed much. Also, to really take advantage of the projector, you need a good tablet stand; including one would drive up the cost even more.
After using SmartDevices’ SmartQ U7, I still don’t see a bright future for projectors in tablets. If anything, the case for built-in projectors is weaker than ever, with the rise of cloud storage and other technologies like Miracast and Apple’s AirPlay that make it easy to view photos and videos on larger screens.
Still, there’s something to be said for creating your own screen wherever you happen to be, and the U7 does an admirable job of it. If only it didn’t require so many trade-offs.