Review: Brookstone Pocket Projector for iPhone 4
It's not entirely accurate to summarize the difference between gimmicks and good ideas as pricing, but there is some truth in that reductionist assessment -- recall how Apple added video playback to early iPods as free "bonuses" to earlier models, rather than pitching 2"- or 2.5"-screened devices as ideal for movies or TV shows. By contrast, Brookstone's new portable video display arrives on the scene as a single-purpose product with some daunting pricing, performance, and compatibility challenges: for more than twice the cost of an Apple TV, the Pocket Projector for iPhone 4 ($230) adds a tiny video projector and extra speaker to the iPhone 4 or 4S, enabling either phone to display videos and photos on certain walls. Though you'll have to decide for yourself whether its convenience is enough to justify its tradeoffs, our view is that its value is relatively narrow.
The Pocket Projector’s basic concept is appealing: there are certainly times when people want to view iPhone video content on something larger than a 3.5” screen. Confronted with numerous pico projector options, most requiring considerable additional physical space and power, Brookstone chose a tiny Texas Instruments digital light projection system that promises to project a 640x360-pixel image at up to 50” with 15 lumens of brightness, using a 2100mAh rechargeable battery to deliver roughly 2.5 hours of continuous play time. While the stated resolution, image size, and brightness are all on the very low side for a projector, the small components uniquely fit into a plastic backpack that slides onto the iPhone 4 or 4S with ease, adding a second set of volume buttons below the originals, plus a silver plastic focusing knob immediately next to the top-pointing lens.
Though there are several things that reduce the Pocket Projector’s appeal, the design isn’t among them: having tested numerous sled-style accessories over the years, we were actually quite impressed at how small Brookstone and Texas Instruments were able to make this projector—it’s hardly bigger than some of the more capacious extended battery packs we’ve seen for iPhones. Tiny metallic ventilation and speaker grill stripes are the only other interruptions in the black soft touch rubber-finished accessory’s back, while a mini USB port, three-position power switch, and power light sit on the bottom. The light initially glows blue when the unit’s projecting, and red when it’s being used as an iPhone battery pack—an alternative use of the rechargeable cell inside. A mini-USB to USB cable is included to let you refuel the battery as needed.
Other assets that the Pocket Projector has on its side are its relatively quiet operating sound and all but cool temperature. Given that there’s a small lightbulb inside to power the projector, we were surprised that the unit only runs a little warm to the touch—similar to the hottest corner of the third-generation iPad—and that there isn’t a persistent audible fan noise, as in virtually every other projector we’ve tested. While we noted that some users have reported heat-related issues with the Pocket Projector, we didn’t experience any during testing in our 70-degree offices. Because it doesn’t have to compete with a fan, the Pocket Projector’s integrated speaker roughly doubles the peak output level of an iPhone 4S, without improving its clarity or frequency range. This puts it roughly in the ballpark of integrated iPad speakers, albeit with somewhat harsher sound; you can hear videos from several feet away. Notably, you cannot play pure music through the accessory’s speaker, as audio output is shut off when video output isn’t being demanded.
Given how small it is, the Pocket Projector’s so-so video performance doesn’t come as a big surprise. Like other pico projectors, it virtually requires a dark room and a white, even surface in order to perform video acceptably, which we’d define as nowhere near as clear or bright as a television, but enough of each to be visible. That said, its 15-lumen light source is particularly demanding of ambient darkness, a white surface, and a relatively close distance from your device to the wall. We found that the projector worked particularly well at a distance of roughly two feet from a wall, where it projects a roughly 11” image on the diagonal with enough brightness for fine details to be visible even in moderate ambient light. However, the image brightness falls off significantly as you move to four- or six-foot distances from the wall, and becomes extremely dim thereafter. Even at short distances with a white surface and a dark room, projected video doesn’t even look as good as the screen of the original iPad, and the more the ambient conditions and distance degrade, the more the image quality falls off. In other words, you can indeed project a 50” image with the Pocket Projector, but don’t expect it to look great, or even good, particularly without a white screen to perform on.
There are some other issues to consider, as well. First, you need to place the iPhone face down on a surface for extended watching, as there’s no stand, and unlike some of the more advanced small projectors we’ve seen, there’s no keystoning or other automatic image correction if the surface you’re using isn’t totally level. Second, the Pocket Projector only works for video playback, photo slideshows, and other apps that specifically permit low-resolution video-out. While this thankfully includes Apple’s presentation app Keynote, the Projector notably doesn’t have enough pixels to support screen mirroring on the iPhone 4S—precluding automatic video-out support for many other apps—and similarly falls short of the 960x640 Retina Display resolution of both iPhones. While the Pocket Projector’s properly-focused video looked better than we’d expected from the sub-DVD-quality 640x360 stated resolution, it’s nowhere near as crisp as the iPhone 4 and 4S can deliver on their own, or with Apple’s own video-out accessories.
Third and finally, there’s the topic of compatibility. All of the small projectors we’ve previously tested are device-agnostic, using Dock Connector cables or other means to perform video from Apple’s devices; some even have regular RCA or other connectors so that you can connect non-Apple devices. This model is uniquely useless without an iPhone 4 or 4S; if Apple changes the form factor of future devices, or you want to use the Pocket Projector with your iPad, you’re out of luck. Contrast this with alternative solutions such as Apple’s Digital AV Adapter and recent Apple TVs, which can be had for $99 or less, work with virtually all iOS devices, and deliver far superior image quality. Only if you’re planning to perform iPhone video at a location without a TV set does the Pocket Projector begin to make sense, and even then, you’ll have to be willing to accept image quality compromises.
Overall, the Pocket Projector for iPhone 4 is a decent accessory, but not one that we could widely recommend to our readers. While Brookstone and Texas Instruments have managed to squeeze a projector and speaker into a remarkably small form factor, the quality of the video and audio output isn’t better than what the iPhone 4 and 4S can manage on their own—just bigger, and in several ways not as impressive. If you’re willing to pay $230 for a pocket-sized tool to present dimly magnified versions of your videos, photos, or Keynote presentations on a white wall, this accessory might just be right up your alley, but most users will get better results from less expensive options. Pocket Projector merits some points for trying to do something different and worthwhile, but falls short of our recommended-level ratings due to the decidedly unimpressive output. We’d expect future versions to either improve considerably on the projection technology, or fall enough in price to make the compromised performance acceptable.