The £280 MPro120 is 3M's second-generation pico projector. It's a distinct improvement over the MPro110, offering a brighter picture, an LED light source rated at 20,000 hours instead of 10,000, and built-in half-watt speakers.
For those who don't know what a pico projector is, it's a miniature handheld projector that's capable of casting a big image. The key to these projectors is that they use an LED light source that's very energy-efficient. While pico projectors come in different shapes and sizes, most cost around £250, and currently sport resolutions of up to 640x480 pixels.
The MPro120 uses LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) display technology, while others use DLP (digital light processing). These are the same main technologies employed in rear-projection TVs, but the picture is projected on an external wall, instead of the back of a TV screen.
Is that a projector in your pocket?
We like the look and feel of the all-black MPro120, and found it simple to set up and use. Weighing 159g and measuring 114 by 51 by 23mm, it does indeed fit in a pocket (or easily slip into a laptop bag), and comes with a protective sleeve. You can prop the projector up at angle by flipping open the integrated flip stand (it's just a thin piece of plastic), or you can attach the included tripod to the threaded tripod mount on the bottom.
Out of the box, the easiest way to set up the projector is by connecting it to your laptop with the supplied computer connector, or to a portable DVD player with the supplied composite AV cable. The MPro120 also includes a rechargeable battery. Its rated life is 4 hours, but that's at the lower brightness setting, which is really too dim. At the higher brightness setting, we got 2 hours of battery life. Fortunately, it can also work under AC power as well, using the included wall charger.
Using your computer, you can then project a PowerPoint presentation on the wall, and, so long as you don't project the image at too large a size (more than 26 inches or so diagonally), you'll get a passable picture, although this type of projector simply can't compete with full-size projectors, which offer significantly brighter illumination and higher resolutions. Go any bigger and you really need the room to be dark. Even then, you're just not going to get the kind of brightness or sharpness you're used to with your laptop screen or traditional portable projectors.
The MPro120 has two brightness settings: high (12 lumens) and normal (10 lumens). Most people will stick to the high setting unless trying to conserve battery life. Neither setting is terribly bright but we felt okay about the picture in the 24- to 26-inch range. You can go as big as 50 inches, but the trade-off is a more washed-out image. You'll really have to play around with distance and lighting conditions to find a size and image you're comfortable with.
At this point, it's unclear whether these miniature projectors are designed for business or entertainment purposes (arguably, it's both). Either way, it's disappointing that 3M doesn't bundle in some sort of adaptor for video-capable iPods and iPhones. An optional Apple adaptor came out recently, but it costs about £30.
Do it for the kids
We used the adaptor to project a few movies from an iPhone, and the picture quality was the same as we experienced when projecting content from a laptop. The big difference is that an iPhone is much smaller, so the whole package is quite compact and road-friendly. Again, although the picture quality isn't great, kids do seem to love having a movie projected on the wall rather than watching it on an iPhone or iPod touch's screen -- or a laptop screen for that matter.
We've seen a few other pico projectors in action, and the image quality, particularly in terms of brightness, is similar with all of them. We compared the MPro120 with the WowWee Cinemin Swivel projector, which ships with an Apple adaptor. Although the Swivel offers a lower resolution (480x320 pixels, compared with the MPro120's 640x480 pixels), is only rated at 8 lumens for brightness, and its battery life isn't as good, we found the Swivel's picture to be better, with slightly deeper blacks. The MPro120's picture was slightly sharper but we preferred the Swivel's colours. It's also worth noting that, to get the picture to display correctly, we had to set our iPhone to display in wide screen with the Swivel, and 4:3 with the MPro120.
The MPro120 has a couple of half-watt speakers integrated into the unit. They provide enough sound to watch a movie (you have to sit close to the projector), but, as you might expect from such tiny speakers, the sound isn't all that good, and it's not particularly loud either. It is slightly better than what you get from your iPhone's speakers, though. If you want to augment the sound, you'll have to connect better speakers to your audio source, or use the ones on your laptop, if they're powerful enough.
There's much to like about the 3M MPro120. It's very compact, offers significant improvements over the MPro110, and projects a passable image as long as you don't blow it up too much. That said, you just can't expect this type of miniature projector to perform as well as a laptop screen or larger, less portable units that cost more and cast a brighter image.
The technology is advancing, however, and we expect that next-generation models will not only offer improvements but also come down in price. Indeed, 3M has already announced a successor, the MPro150. UK pricing is currently unavailable, but this 2010 model adds 1GB of internal memory, a microSD card slot, and a USB input for transferring files from a laptop or netbook, letting you run entire presentations from the projector itself. Anyone interested in the MPro120 should probably wait for that model. At the very least, it should mean lower prices for the MPro120.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet