Review: Optoma Neo-i Video Projector + Speaker System for iPhone + iPod
Video projectors are compromises: big ones have powerful lamps inside and weigh a ton; small ones can barely produce enough light to be seen at reasonable sizes during daylight hours. Yet despite the falling prices of brighter, crisper, and quieter LCD HDTVs, projectors still appeal to users with different needs -- those without the wall outlets, spatial depth and/or cash to mount a large enough screen on an otherwise open wall. Optoma's new Neo-i ($450) is the latest option geared towards iPod and iPhone users, and the second to actually include an Apple device dock on its top; it's also the largest such unit yet devised.
Despite the price tag and roughly 13” by 3” by 9” size, the Neo-i almost—almost—feels like a comparative bargain when it’s compared with earlier alternatives such as AAXA’s P1 Pico Projector and Sparkz Products’ Dock Projector. These little units ranged from 12 to 15 lumens of lighting power and had tiny, tinny speakers inside; Neo-i has a lamp with 50 lumens of power and twin 8-Watt speakers, offering three or four times the brightness plus highly audible, legitimately stereo sound. The P1 and Dock Projector compromised so much on audio and video quality that you’d only want to use them in pitch black, silent rooms; Neo-i can be seen and heard in a moderately lit room with a light conversation going on. Additionally, whereas these predecessors were limited to using adapter cables for different types of video and audio input, Neo-i includes full-sized HDMI and VGA ports for the most common types of non-Apple devices you might hope to connect, plus a multi-purpose AV In port for composite video and audio.
These comparisons aren’t entirely fair, as Optoma’s predecessors were stuffing “pico” projectors into pocket-sized enclosures and including rechargeable batteries so that you could play an iPod’s or iPhone’s videos anywhere. Neo-i is comparatively beastly: the 2.2-pound oval of black plastic could conceivably be stuffed into a briefcase, but will more likely wind up being placed in one room of a house or office, only occasionally picked up and moved wherever you prefer. Because it’s designed primarily to be used in one place, Neo-i doesn’t include a rechargeable battery; the system is solely powered by an included wall adapter, at least until Optoma announces a price for and actually ships the battery pack it has developed for Neo-i.
On a related note, it’s worth mentioning that Optoma wasn’t the first to pitch a higher-powered projector at iPod and iPhone users. BenQ’s Joybee GP1 actually packed a 100 lumens projector into a smaller, almost square unit that didn’t include stereo sound, but otherwise offered comparable video quality to Neo-i, with the same 2000:1 contrast ratio and 854x480 resolution. GP1 was an impressive little video projector, packed with some very cool video adjustment tricks, but BenQ delayed and then apparently never sold the iPod/iPhone dock it was supposed to release for the unit at an additional cost. Even without that dock, the GP1 was more expensive, debuting for $500 and only now selling for $400. Neo-i is priced in the middle, has an actual Apple dock built in, and delivers a lot more for the dollar, all things considered.
For instance, Neo-i’s stereo speakers aren’t phenomenally clear, but they’re way more powerful than the one speaker in GP1, so you can watch and listen to a movie with ease. All projectors rely on fans to keep their lamps and other components cool; Neo-i’s 25dB fan is a little quieter than GP1’s, and the speakers are easily able to overwhelm it. They can also be used to play back iPod or iPhone music when you’re not using the projector for video. Similarly, though the lamp isn’t as bright, Optoma lets you focus the LED DLP projector for images of 5” to 120” versus 15” to 80” sizes in the GP1, and 48” or smaller sizes in the other units. Handling focus is as simple as turning a knob on the Neo-i’s lens after you’ve placed it in front of a wall, and you can in fact get a huge image off of the projector, at least if you’re in in a dark room. The image Neo-i puts out looks substantially better in detail, color accuracy, and brightness than the pocket-sized pico projectors; deliberately muted colors in movies such as The Dark Knight and bright test videos each looked sharp and accurate—nearly the rival of an extended-definition TV set, minus some brightness and old pre-HDTV screen curvature.
On the other hand, whenever Neo-i’s image size climbs beyond roughly 60”, the unit benefits substantially from dim lighting, as its lamp doesn’t have the juice to illuminate really large images in bright rooms. And it goes without saying given the current price differences that Neo-i isn’t going to replace even a 46” or 55” HDTV for anything other than convenience. If you can afford to spend twice or three times this unit’s price on a thin LED or LCD set, mount it on a wall, and access a nearby wall outlet, the picture’s resolution, brightness and quality will be substantially better. The audio will be, too: while the speakers do fine with movies, you’re not going to confuse their generally bass-heavy sound signature with what you might get from a standalone $200 iPod or iPhone speaker system—seemingly because it focused its audio optimizations on low-volume sound, losing significant treble as the speakers jump up beyond the relatively quiet 50% volume mark—Optoma has done better than its projector rivals without delivering great across-the-board fidelity. Again, it’s all a compromise to fit a full projector and docking speaker system inside an enclosure that normally would only have room for the latter components.
Though you won’t need to access most of its features—and there are relatively few options compared with the Joybee GP1—Optoma’s interface for Neo-i could have used some additional work. The company gave the system an eight-button capacitive touch control panel that illuminates the button icons only briefly before their blue lights dim, leaving you to either tap the bar to bring them back, or hunt for the included Infrared remote control. Interacting with the buttons for menu settings is somewhat non-intuitive, and the only other button is a power toggle, unfortunately located out of sight below the rest of the controls. We missed the automatic keystoning video angle adjustment feature found on BenQ’s GP1, as well as its granular adjustments for different types of wall surfaces and mounting conditions; Neo-i offers a horizontal image flip and simplified brightness, color, and contrast controls, but not much else in the video department. Audio tweaks are similarly limited, with four EQ settings that generally have overly mild impact on the sound at louder volumes. It’s of only some comfort that the process of using an iPod or iPhone with Neo-i is basically plug and play: apart from using the power and volume buttons, you mightn’t need to play with the controls much at all after initial setup, and you mightn’t know to miss the options that aren’t there.
Our flat B recommendation of Optoma’s Neo-i should be understood for what it is: a “good-” level endorsement of a video projector accessory that, due more to pricing than anything else, will most likely remain a niche product. We can say without equivocation that it’s the best video projector we’ve tested for the iPod and iPhone, in large part because its rivals have gotten so much wrong: AAXA’s P1 was inexpensive and portable but weak, Sparkz’s Dock Projector was more thoughtfully designed but much pricier and insanely fragile, and BenQ’s steep GP1 offered the best prior experience but never received the promised iPod/iPhone dock. Neo-i is in the middle; it’s expensive and large, but puts out nice video and acceptable audio, while including an interface that could stand to be improved but needn’t be used with great frequency. If you’ve been waiting for a solid video projector and speaker that can be easily used with your iPod or iPhone, Neo-i’s all-in-one design is worth considering, as you’d struggle to assemble similar parts into something this good for the same price. That having been said, there’s definitely still room for improvement here, and we hope that Optoma continues iterating on this design for a superior sequel.