WowWee's £290 Cinemin Swivel is one of the more distinct pico projectors on the market, thanks to its swivelling design, which allows you to project images at various angles, including straight up at the ceiling.
In case you don't know what a pico projector is, it's a miniature, handheld projector that's capable of casting a big image (WowWee says the Swivel can project an image of between 8 inches and 50 inches diagonally). The key to these pint-sized projectors is that they use an LED light source that's very energy-efficient.
Pico projectors come in different shapes and sizes. Most cost somewhere around £250, and they currently sport resolutions of up to 640x480 pixels, although the Swivel only offers a 480x320-pixel, or HVGA, resolution. This model uses DLP technology for projecting an image. That's the same technology employed in many rear-projection TVs, but the image is projected onto an external wall, instead of the backside of a TV screen.
Projection in your pocket
The Swivel is similar in size to competing pico projectors, but the 3M MPro120 is slightly smaller and more compact. Weighing in at 181g and measuring 119 by 23 by 51mm, the Swivel fits in a pocket or easily slips into a laptop bag, and comes with a protective sleeve.
The projector is designed to sit on a flat surface, and then be tilted slightly upwards (a hinge in the middle of the projector allows you to tilt the front up). Like other pico projectors, this one doesn't have any keystone settings, so getting a perfectly rectangular image does take some tinkering, and you do have to play around with the focus as you move the projector around.
The Swivel can use any video source with a composite AV output, such as most portable DVD players. Invest in a separate VGA adaptor, and you can use a laptop as well. But WowWee has made a conscious effort to market the Swivel to iPhone and video-capable iPod owners, bundling in an Apple adaptor cable. The adaptor comes with a short, detachable, 30cm-long AV cord that connects your Apple device to the projector. There's also a port on the adaptor that allows you to connect your iPod or iPhone to your computer via USB and charge it at the same time. The Swivel runs for about 2 hours on its removable lithium-ion battery. It can charge via USB as well.
It's hard to recommend the Swivel for business use because the picture isn't really bright or sharp enough to project a decent-size image in a room with any lights on -- you'd be better off using a laptop. But we could see how it would make sense for certain basic business presentations -- for instance, projecting photographs or short videos to illustrate a small point. Although the picture won't blow anybody away, the tiny size of the projector might impress some folks and score you some points.
Like other pico projectors, this one does best in the dark, and, in a blackened room, you can project an acceptable image of up to about 26 to 32 inches in size diagonally. You can go to 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 to find a size and image you're comfortable with.
As noted, one of the interesting features is the Swivel's ability to project an image on a ceiling by tilting the front of the projector straight up at a right angle. This feature doesn't work well at all if you have tall ceilings, but those with shorter ceilings (less than 8 feet high) might find it alluring. The picture isn't great, but the chances are that this functionality will be a big hit with your kids and their friends. You should just be aware that the tiny integrated speaker isn't terribly loud, so you need to sit near the projector to hear the soundtrack of a movie. You can attach external speakers or connect headphones if you want better sound. It's also worth noting that, although the projector runs quietly, it does get rather warm at the front.
We've seen a few other pico projectors in action and the image quality, particularly in terms of brightness, is similar for all of them (this model's rated at 8 lumens). For comparison, we put the Swivel up against the 3M MPro120, which costs about £280, and has a higher resolution (640x480 pixels), better battery life (4 hours versus the Swivel's 2), and brightness levels (it's rated at 12 lumens on its 'high' setting).
We found the Swivel's picture to be slightly better than the MPro120's, with slightly deeper blacks (the Cinemin uses DLP technology rather than the MPro120's LCoS). The MPro120's picture was a tad sharper but we preferred the colours produced by the Swivel. It's also worth noting that, to get the picture to display correctly, we had to set our iPhone to display in wide screen for the Swivel and 4:3 for the MPro120.
We weren't incredibly impressed with either projector, but we think WowWee has done a better job of making its projector consumer-friendly, particularly with the inclusion of the Apple adaptor and swivel mechanism. Ultimately, at this stage, pico projectors make some sense for parents and business travellers who want to watch an iPhone or iPod movie on a screen that's larger than that of their laptop, although the prices put the units beyond the impulse-purchase category.
There's something cool about the concept of carrying around a tiny, portable projector, and creating an instant mini cinema. But just keep your expectations low as far as picture and sound quality are concerned -- and make sure to watch in a darkened room. If you do that, you'll probably be happy with the WowWee Cinemin Swivel. The technology is advancing and we expect that next-generation models will offer improved performance and, ideally, lower prices.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet