Home Computers & peripherals Aiptek's pico projector pocket cinema fails to impress

If only this worked it could have been the year's must-have Christmas gift for the gadget lover or the hard-to-buy-for. I'm talking about a pocket projector which on paper sounds brilliant: a tiny, battery operated, portable 10 lumens 640x480 video projector. Use it on the plane, the car, your roof, anywhere, without a care for power or weight. If only it worked.

Earlier this month I read David Pogue's review of the Optima Pico Pocket Projector - 4.1 by 2 by 0.7 inches, 0.7 ounces and thought it sounded wonderful. Here is a device you can effortlessly carry around and, without need for a power point, project a movie onto the wall or - so I assumed - give an impromptu business demonstration.

I imagined how terrific this projector could be for a mobile sales force. Imagine going to a client site and during the course of discussion whipping out your pocket projector and laptop and giving a quick demo off the cuff.

I was pretty excited then when browsing my local Dick Smith Electronics store and found the Aiptek PJV11X PocketCinema V10 Portable Projector - 12.4cm by 5.4cm by 2.0cm and integrated 1W speaker. We're talking tiny, although slightly bigger than the Optima that Pogue reviewed which, in metric, is 10.41cm by 5.08cm by 1.78cm. For our imperial friends, the Aiptek is 4.9" by 2.1" by 0.9".

The description reads, 'A truly amazing pocket sized projector, no bigger than a mobile phone but it projects an image up to 50' and can be used for business meetings and watching movies or playing games.' I quickly snapped it up for $AUD 649 (although I later discovered Harris Technology sell it for $AUD 499.) It is $USD 299 from Aiptek directly.

Upon taking it home and opening the box the first thing I noticed was there is no VGA input. There is a composite A/V in socket but that's all. Thus, despite the box even carrying a picture of a guy with a pie chart on his laptop flashing it up onto a wall for others to see you can immediately forget any notion of using this as a data projector for your laptop unless your laptop has a TV out or S-video port and have the appropriate adapter to convert that signal into composite A/V.

I have to say, that's pretty disappointing from the onset. Sure, the device is small. Maybe a VGA input would have added weight and size. I don't know about that, but I certainly know for my money the usefulness of the projector diminished significantly with this omission.

It was moot anyway: after charging the battery overnight I discovered it wouldn't even power on using just the battery. I could turn it on if I left it plugged in to power. Yet, even then it played its nice start-up melody, displayed the menu screen, flickered, flashed up '!!! OVERHEAT !!!' and turned off.

After repeating this process several times with no improvement - even checking the battery was inserted properly and turning on a fan - I figured the unit had to be faulty.

I returned to Dick Smith and the helpful sales attendant confirmed the problem, retrieved another unit, plugged in my charged battery and lo-and-behold it worked right away. Admittedly a sample size of two is not much but 50% of units I tried were flawed. Not a good start.

So off I left with my replacement unit. On the one hand, it was great - I could flick through the sample photos included while laying back on bed, using my roof as a cinema - but on the other hand I couldn't do anything more.

Let me tell you about the bundled software which alleges to convert media files into the projector's desired format. In short, it's a turkey.

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As well as an A/V input, the projector has 1GB memory built in and can function as a USB hard drive when connected to a computer. It also contains an SD memory stick slot which supports up to an 8GB SDHC card.

The supported media formats include JPG for still images (and, by the way, if you do want to store Power Point presentations, the recommendation is you convert each slide to a JPG and run through it that way!) and MPEG-4 and H.264 video as .AVI, .ASF or .MP4 files. DivX is not supported. MP3 audio is supported.

This is a fairly limited set of video formats. The inclusion of H.264 is a pleasant surprise although the exclusion of DivX (and Xvid) was also a surprise, albeit not a pleasant one.
Fortunately, a software CD accompanies the product, containing ArcSoft MediaConverter. This program can be used to convert media into a suitable format. Or so you'd expect. In practice, it did nothing but chew up the CPU and waste my time.

From the onset ArcSoft annoyed me because once I installed their program a series of unrelated pop up messages began appearing at the system tray. It turns out the software also installs ArcSoft Connect which runs on startup and sends you 'helpful' messages. It does perform one useful function, allowing you to check for software updates - of which there wasn't one, I had the latest version (2.5.7.53) - although this could have been a feature within the MediaConverter program itself and not required a separate tool adding to the bevy of system tray icons and computer start up sequence.

To be fair, the software is easy to use. You have three steps. First, pick conversion settings to use. The default is to create an MPEG-4 file within an .ASF container, in 640x480 resolution, 512Kbps, 25.00fps and PCM audio at 11000Hz. Another conversion setting is provided, which creates MJPEG AVI files and besides these two presets you can make your own custom settings if needed.

I went with the default which seemed reasonable; I knew the projector had 640x480 output and I knew it supported MPEG-4 and ASF. Step two is to merely select the file, or files, you wish to convert.

Step three is to click Start and kick off the conversion process. By default, converted files are saved to an 'ArcSoft MediaConverter' directory under your Documents folder but you can choose to save them anywhere else.

Half an hour later I had encoded a TV show which was originally in DivX format. I copied it to the projector's internal memory and fired it up against the wall. I set it playing and .... watched as a horrendous display of jagged lines rippled about.

I could hear everything fine, but the picture was unviewable.

Wanting the projector to be a success, I made several more attempts. Here's what I did.

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At first, I re-converted the same show. However, as they say, insanity is attempting the same thing in exactly the same way and expecting different results. Sure enough, the jaggies persisted.

I converted some different TV shows, and while the source files varied, the problem did not. I could still hear the soundtrack fine, but the video was trash.
I wondered if the resolution was too high for the projector; even though it advertises 640x480 maybe something lower was required. I thus opted to use ArcSoft MediaConverter's custom settings and convert to 320x240 resolution. I did wonder just how poorly such video would look like (although that was the video output of the venerable Commodore 64, but 8-bit computers weren't exactly renowned for their video playback capabilities.)

No change. The image was still trash. Let me mention, by the way, that the original and the converted files all played fine on my laptop. I had all the appropriate codecs and the source files were not corrupt.

In case the problem was with the ArcSoft software I loaded eRightSoft's trustworthy (though ugly) SUPER media converter.

I set up an MP4 output file using H.264 as the video codec. The resolution of my selected TV show was actually 384 by 288 so that was definitely within the 640x480 requirement. I converted this show, copied it to the internal memory and fired up the projector hoping, finally, for some satisfaction.

This time the projector locked up while listing the video files available, no doubt seizing when attempting to display a preview image of my newly added file. In fact it locked up so badly that I had to remove the battery to power it off. The power button did not respond, nor the menu button.

You can probably guess that I'm taking my Aiptek Pocket Cinema portable projector back today for a full refund.

Maybe it works fine if you're also carrying a battery operated DVD player, or you have the right cables to get TV output from your iPod. Let's give the device one credit: the composite video input worked fine. I plugged in to my Medion Portable Media Player and had perfect video playback (but no sound! Yet, sound emitted from the PMP when I removed its A/V out leads.) Did I have a second faulty device out of two? Or is there some other obscure reason for this failure?

Let's cut to the chase. The device is plainly and simply crippled for what I want to use it for, and for what I think should be reasonably expected.

Despite the box picture, despite the marketing hype, this is not a tool for business. You can't have an impromptu demonstration - unless by 'impromptu' you mean previously having converted all your Power Point presentations into static JPEG images, or wasting hours attempting to transform a video presentation into something that you can only pray the unit will concede to display (and in my experimentation, I couldn't get anything to play properly!)

If you give something like this to your boss or to your sales team you're just asking for trouble. The formats supported by the unit are too limited, the lack of VGA input is a major flaw and the software provided fails to do its job - but it will consume extra resources despite that a media converter program hardly merits a load-on-startup buddy.

Oh, it looks nice. Give this to someone and they'll be impressed - the package includes a drawstring carry bag and a remote control and the projector is oh-so-tiny and light and just looks damn good. Yet, it virtually doesn't do a damn thing. Any delight on your recipient victim's face will soon drain away when they try to use it.

Back to the drawing board, Aiptek. Let me know when revision 2.0 is out.



 

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

 

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