Review: AAXA P1 Pico Projector for iPod and iPhone
Understanding the potential appeal of the iPod- and iPhone-compatible AAXA P1 Pico Projector ($239) requires an understanding of several facts and a number of real-world considerations that might make such a device appealing. Yes, this is a 4.25" long by 2.5" wide by 1" deep video projector. In that tiny, full-sized iPod or iPhone footprint, but with twice the thickness, P1 Pico packs a LCoS imager, an LED light, a Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery pack, and a speaker. Charge it up and connect it with a cable to one of Apple's video-ready pocket media players, and suddenly you can create a comparatively big video wall anywhere you go. Appealing, right?
Yes, it is, at least in concept. Under the right conditions, and given the current iPhone and iPod system software, users could do photo gallery presentations on the road, or watch movies or TV shows on a display that’s larger than Apple’s 2-inch, 2.5-inch, or 3.5-inch screens. All you need is a flat surface and a dark room, and P1 Pico can create a viewable image that’s around 48” on the diagonal at a distance of roughly four feet, at 640x480 resolution. While it can project larger images than that, they become increasingly faded as you move further than four feet away to try to expand them. More on all that in a moment.
AAXA packs P1 Pico with a total of five components. There’s the unit itself, which in addition to handling focus adjustments through a knob on the top, also includes a microSD slot and 1GB of integrated memory to store MP3, MP4, AVI, JPG and WMV files locally. These files can be transferred via an integrated USB port, and you can navigate through them using five top-mounted silver buttons. A volume knob on the unit’s side lets you activate an integrated speaker, and a power switch on the back flips between “battery,” “off,” and “DC” wall power options. The unit’s removable battery is the second component—extras are offered for $20—while the rest of the included pieces are cables, one for power, one for the iPod or iPhone to connect directly, and one with the ability to take input from devices such as DVD players and other composite video sources. The company sells Sony PSP-compatible video tables for $19 each, and a VGA adapter for $79.
So those are the basic facts, and without belaboring the point, we’ll say this much: if you can see yourself doing photo-based presentations or watching videos in pitch-black rooms with flat display walls, P1 Pico isn’t a bad option. It’s the first iPod- and iPhone-compatible mini-projector we’ve tested, and it delivers on its promised 640x480 resolution to enable the display of either still or video imagery that’s as detailed as current models are capable of putting out, at larger sizes than any other portable device out there. But there are some serious caveats that any potential buyer needs to know about first—ones that would take P1 Pico totally out of contention for our purposes, and quite possibly for yours as well.
Start with the video imager, which works fine in completely dark rooms but begins to experience issues in ones that are modestly lighter than that. We found that images became somewhat ghostlike and next to unusable in ones with moderate lighting, then worthless in ones with bright lighting. These are inherent limitations of projection technology, compounded by P1 Pico’s small size, but they are inescapable: put P1 Pico next to any of the portable video displays we’ve previously tested, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a video image at any size that’s as viewable as the one on a dedicated LCD screen. It’s not the frame rate, which is fine, but the Pico’s brightness, contrast, and black levels, all of which combine to create low-contrast images unless you’re in a room with little ambient light and properly colored and textured walls. A white-toned, flat wall does better than an earthtoned or ripple-textured one; every increase in ambient light means that you’ll need to get closer to the wall and shrink the video image to a smaller size to get a viewable picture. Our final three photos below show the difference between P1 Pico close to the wall in a moderately lit room and several feet away from the wall in a room that’s almost completely pitch-black.
This does create some practical concerns. If you’re hoping to watch a movie on the fold-out tray of an airplane seat, you might be able to pull it off if all the lights are dimmed and the windows near you are closed. Doing a presentation is possible even in some ambient light if you’ve prepped your photo slides to accommodate low-contrast visibility, or if there’s a projection screen in the room where you plan to use Pico. And so on.
AAXA’s speaker and battery pack also present some issues. The speaker’s maximum volume level is lower than the iPhone’s—much lower, actually—and further drowned out by a fan that runs all the time when the unit is on. While it’s not impossible to hear for most things, it’s pretty close. Between the video imager, LED light, speaker, and the fan, P1 Pico uses up plenty of battery juice when it’s playing back videos, so you can expect to get about an hour of run time before the battery’s dead. AAXA estimates the longevity at 45-60 minutes depending on speaker use, but with a fresh battery, we were able to get just a little over an hour before the projector died. While it’s tempting to give AAXA somewhat of a pass on the run time because it makes the battery removable and offers affordable replacements, these factors are no excuse for a standard play time that’s shorter than a full-length movie. Every portable video display we’ve tested offers better speakers and run time than this, without the need for a spare battery to keep things running.
Ultimately, though some people who helped us test AAXA’s P1 Pico deemed it a “solution in search of a problem,” we’d disagree: it’s actually a half-finished solution to the common problem of limited-scale video and audio from portable devices. By offering weaker audio than an iPhone can muster on its own, and video that’s larger than iPod and iPhone screens but only capable of being viewed under strictly controlled conditions, it limits its usefulness to a narrower audience than might initially be excited by its premise. With stronger light sources, better speakers, and perhaps some included method to prepare a wall for cleaner viewing, successors to this device could one day become fine replacements for fixed-size screens, even conceivably at this price point. But for now, P1 Pico is for short-duration, dark room viewing only unless you have access to a power outlet or are willing to compromise a lot on contrast and brightness.