The best pico projector is the AAXA P300. It’s bright enough for both dark rooms and those with some light. It’s easier to position for a large image than its competitors. Plus, it has better contrast ratios, more inputs than other models, and an optional battery for use on the go. Other models might be more portable but won’t be as useful as the AAXA P300.
After 20 hours of research and another 25 hours of hands-on testing and measuring five models, the AAXA P300 stood apart. We watched movies and edited spreadsheets, both with the lights on and lights off, to determine that it is the most versatile option.
The LG PH300 has much more accurate color than the AAXA (and even a full color management system), but it only measures at 151 lumens, so it isn’t as bright. It also has a longer throw distance: From 5 feet away, the LG only gives you a 42-inch image while the AAXA produces a 58-inch image. It also has a built-in tuner and speakers, which are nice if you need a portable TV replacement (for projecting against the outside wall of your house, for instance).
If you need the absolute smallest pico projector to carry around for business, the ASUS S1 is much smaller than the AAXA or LG and comes with a carrying case. Its built-in battery delivers up to 3 hours of use, and it produces a similarly large image to the AAXA from the same distance, but since the ASUS only puts out 90 lumens (and at 480p, not 720p or higher like the others we tested), that image is much dimmer, noticeably washed out, and lower in resolution. So you’ll need to stick to larger type and dim the lights for your presentations.
I’ve been reviewing projectors and home theater equipment since 2008. I am an ISF Level II Certified Calibrator so I am aware of what makes for a good image and how to get that out of a projector. I have all the necessary test equipment and software to provide the objective measurements to go along with my subjective opinions, which we’ll talk about later.
If you need to be able to show something to a group of people, a pico projector makes it easy to display content on a wall anywhere. If you have a pico projector but it isn’t bright enough or isn’t battery-powered, then upgrading to our pick makes sense. If you have a projector but it’s too large to easily carry around with you, then one of our alternate picks might make the most sense.
If you already have a pico projector that’s plenty bright, then there isn’t much reason to upgrade unless you want a feature like a TV tuner. Pico projectors are fairly recent devices, so the one you have likely isn’t outdated yet.
A pico projector can also be used for impromptu movie nights. They are small enough to easily carry to a bedroom and show a 50-inch-plus image on the wall. They likely aren’t bright enough for an outdoor movie night, but if you keep the image small, and your yard is dark, it might work.
So overall, a pico projector doesn’t replace a TV or full-sized projector, but it works well for occasional use.
A good pico projector needs to be easy to carry around, bright enough to be usable, and designed with the necessary inputs (like HDMI). Ideally, it should also provide battery power so you can use it with a laptop or smartphone and nothing else if desired.
At a minimum we decided a good pico projector should offer at least 100 lumens. There are many models out there that only claim 30 lumens, but in the real world this isn’t very useful. 30 lumens would create a very dim 40-inch image in a dark room and would be virtually worthless in a room with the lights on. These devices might be very tiny, or provide a trick that seems cool the first time you see it, but the image is so poor you likely won’t use them more than once.
The more you spend on a pico projector, the bigger the improvement is in the number of lumens you get. More lumens let you project a larger, brighter image, which makes using the projector more flexible. Moving up to more lumens will also mean the projector will be larger and have shorter battery life, so you really want to choose a model with enough lumens for your needs, but not so many that you are carrying around extra bulk you don’t need.
It also needs to have a full-size HDMI input. HDMI is as universal a connection as we have today and is supported by almost all consumer electronics devices. Some pico projectors only accept a Mini HDMI input, which requires you to carry around a special HDMI to Mini HDMI cable or adapter at all times as well. Since there are plenty of projectors available with full-size HDMI ports, even in very tiny packages, this is a compromise you shouldn’t have to make. At some point you won’t have the correct cable with you. Finding an HDMI cable is usually pretty easy, but a Mini HDMI cable is not.
Ideally a projector should either have a battery built in or include the option to add one. A built-in battery for use on the go makes a pico projector more useful than one that has to be powered from the wall. Most batteries, however, are only good for 60-120 minutes. That’s enough for a presentation or a few YouTube videos, but only those on the upper end of that range could handle most movies. It’s also worth noting that projectors are often not as bright when running on battery as when connected to a power outlet, but any image is better than none.
Given the choice, we prefer a pico projector that has a shorter throw distance, i.e. one that can display a larger image when placed closer to the wall. It’s usually easier to place a projector closer to the wall than farther to get an image of the correct size. If one projector can do a 50-inch image from 4 feet away and another needs to be 7 feet away, we prefer the one that can do it from only 4 feet away.
Each projector was evaluated both objectively and subjectively. Objective measurements were done using SpectraCal’s CalMAN software with a DVDO AVLab TPG test pattern generator and an i1Pro 2 spectrophotometer and Klein K-10A colorimeter to measure the results. Subjectively we watched Blu-ray content and presentations (the latter using a MacBook as the source). We tested with lights on and lights off, as a pico projector is more likely to be used with the lights on than a traditional projector.
Using an HDMI splitter we could view the same content on two projectors side-by-side. This makes it easy to notice differences in brightness, color, image size, and overall quality. When possible we made the image size the same, though with variable throw distances—and no zoom to make up for this fact—it was often not possible due to space issues.
The AAXA P300 Pico Projector is our pick for the best pico projector. With both movies and presentations, it stood out from the other competitors, providing a very bright image from a short throw distance. It has the inputs you need, a speaker, a tripod mount, and a remote control, and an optional battery is available.
The AAXA P300 was the brightest of the projectors we tested. The manufacturer claims 400 lumens, but in our testing we measured 240 lumens (it’s common for the claim and the measured result to be different). This is still bright enough that we could project a 50-inch image with the lights on or off and have no trouble seeing it. Many other pico projectors measured 150 lumens or less, which didn’t work well at all in a room with lights.
Pictures and movies have vivid colors, looking much better than the very washed-out images of the dimmer projectors. Presentations and documents were easy to read onscreen, even with the lights turned on in the room.
Contrast ratios determine how much pop an image has and are the detail your eye picks up on the most. The AAXA P300 has a very decent 813:1 contrast ratio. This came in almost four times higher than the LG PH300 but is behind the ZTE Spro 2 projector. Combined with the bright image, this helps the AAXA really stand apart from the other projectors.
The AAXA also has one of the shortest throw distances of the projectors we tested. When each projector was placed an identical 5 feet from the wall, some of their images measured as small as 40 inches diagonal and were unusably dim. The AAXA’s image from that distance measured 58 inches—almost 2.5 times the area of some of the other projectors—and was still reasonably bright. You can get an image big enough for viewing from as close as 4 feet. This, along with the AAXA’s brightness, makes it easier to get the image size you want.
An optional battery pack for the AAXA P300 offers up to 60 minutes of playback. This isn’t enough to watch a full movie (you’d want to get a dedicated projector or plug this in for that), but it will get you through a presentation, vacation slideshow, or some videos from YouTube. The battery is removable so you can get a spare if you want, but I’d probably just pack an AC adapter instead of an extra battery in most situations.
The AAXA has a standard HDMI input (it will work with any regular HDMI cable), which makes it easy to play all of your content from almost any source on it. It also has composite and VGA connectors (though you’ll have to use the included adapters), and it can play certain files from a USB drive or microSD card. It’s picky about the movie formats it supports on USB and microSD, but standard JPGs work fine. For video it supports the AVI format, but since there are many variations of AVI files you can’t be certain an AVI file will work without testing.
The AAXA P300 has an integrated speaker so you can listen to whatever content you’re displaying on it. The sound quality isn’t spectacular, but it makes the AAXA work well for both video content and silent presentations. There’s also an audio out if you want to connect better speakers or headphones instead of using the internal speaker.
Unlike most pico projectors, the AAXA also includes a remote. This makes it easy to adjust the volume on the fly, swap inputs, and navigate files on the USB drive or microSD card. You don’t often need the remote, but in cases where you do, it’s useful to have.
There’s a standard ¼”-20 tripod mount on the bottom of the P300, and a mini tripod is included (it’s usable in a pinch, but we’d suggest replacing it with something more stable), and you can use any regular tripod with it. This should make it easy to ceiling-mount the AAXA P300 if necessary, but it also simplifies setting it up in situations on the go where a table isn’t available.
The AAXA has a very bright image, but it is over-saturated and has a color tint to it. Skin tones are reddish and look sunburnt no matter how you try to fix them in the menu system. You also can’t really make good adjustments because when the menu system is up, test patterns won’t display on the screen. You basically only get to choose between the preset modes it comes with; making adjustments beyond that is hard since you can’t monitor your changes as you make them. That said, almost all the other projectors tested, aside from the LG, offer fewer adjustments or none.
Animated films look very good with the punchy color gamut, but real people look off. This makes the AAXA less well-suited to presenting accurate images in a vacation slideshow or watching a movie. For the price, however, this behavior is acceptable. In a $1,000 projector, it wouldn’t be.
The fan noise of the AAXA is also louder than the others. With more lumens, you need more power, and that generates more heat. More heat needs to be removed, lest the projector melt itself into your coffee table. With audio going this isn’t noticeable, but in a quiet room you can clearly pick up on it. So if you need a near-silent one, you should look at the quieter LG.
There is no carrying case included with the AAXA. Many other pico projectors include one, but you’ll have to find your own if you buy the P300. It also has no rubber feet, which makes it prone to sliding around on the table due to the weight and pull of cables. This can be remedied for $1 at any hardware store, and is the first thing we’d do after buying the projector.
If you want a quieter pick or better color, the LG PH300 is the way to go. It measures at 151 lumens, so it isn’t as bright as the AAXA, and it has a longer throw distance, so the AAXA’s image will be 90 percent larger from the same distance. From 5 feet away, the LG only gives you a 42-inch image while the AAXA produces a 58-inch image from the same location. However, the LG’s image is much more accurate, with a neutral gray and colors that aren’t as saturated. It even includes the full color management system that LG uses in their TVs, with a 20-point white balance control and a 3D six-point color management system. We don’t think anyone will ever use this, but the default color modes are still far more accurate than the AAXA.
It also has an integrated TV tuner, which none of the others have. If you want to watch sports on your pico projector—and many people do—this might be a key feature for you. With only 150 lumens it can’t project a 100-inch image in a well-lit room (with the lights on, a 40-50-inch image will work but won’t be as clear and bright as with the AAXA), though you could project a usable image that size at a nighttime tailgate or outside against the house. The LG also has built-in speakers, making such use a real possibility.
The built-in battery is rated for up to 2.5 hours, enough for most movies and almost enough time for a full game without AC power. The HDMI port is MHL-compatible for smartphones and tablets.
Side by side against the AAXA, the LG PH300 image looks noticeably more accurate: accurate skin tones, no blown-out highlights, whites that are white without a tint to them. The image is much dimmer though, and you have to be almost 50 percent further away to get an image the same size as from the AAXA.
If you need any of the features the LG offers over the AAXA it might be worth paying the higher price, but the AAXA is a better pick for most people. You’re also getting right up to the cost of our favorite $500 projector. If you don’t need an ultraportable projector, our $500 pick needs to be plugged in but is much brighter.
If you need the absolute smallest pico projector to carry around for business, the ASUS S1 is the way to go. It only packs 90 lumens, but it is much smaller than the P300 or LG, making it easier to carry with you. It includes a carrying case to prevent it from being damaged in your bag, and it has a built-in battery that can deliver up to 3 hours of use. It has a very similar throw ratio to the AAXA, so it produces a similarly large image from the same distance, but that image is not nearly as bright— it can manage a 62-inch image from 5 feet away, but it’s noticeably washed out, and text can be difficult to read. The ASUS is small enough to carry around in your bag all the time without your noticing it too much, which cannot be said for the AAXA or the LG. It is the most portable option, but you’ll want to use it with at least the lights dimmed due to its lower light output.
The ASUS is also only capable of projecting a 480p image, not 720p or 1280×800 like most of the other units. Given the small size and portability, this is an acceptable compromise, but small text on presentations will not work as well.
If you need a projector that’s portable, but you don’t need it to be incredibly tiny or run off a battery, check out our best $500 projector guide. The projectors there will be five to 10 times as bright as a pico projector and can easily create images 100-120 inches in size. They also have more inputs and more video adjustments. If you want a projector to watch movies on the wall and still want to be able to occasionally take it with you, one of these might be what you’re after. A $500 projector is small enough to stick in a closet to store it while you’re not using it, but not small enough to just toss in a backpack and carry around with you, which you can do with a pico projector.
Asus recently announced the ZenBeam E1, a pocket projector capable of producing an 854×480 picture at 150 lumens. Measuring 4.3 by 3.27 by 1.14 inches and weighing 11 ounces, it’s smaller than even our ultraportable pick, the Asus S1 (and with a 6,000-mAh battery, it lasts for five hours—two hours longer than the S1). The ZenBeam E1 has an HDMI/MHL output and allows connections to PCs, smartphones, and media streamers. We look forward to testing it soon.
In August 2016, LG announced the PH450U and the PH150G, two new battery-powered models in its Minibeam lineup—the same line that features our runner-up pick, the LG PH300. The $650 PH450U measures 5.2 by 7.9 by 3.2 inches, weighs 2.4 pounds, and needs only 13 inches of distance to throw an 80-inch screen. Its brightness is rated at up to 450 lumens. The $350 PH150G, meanwhile, comes in at 4.5 by 4.5 by 1.7 inches and 1.1 pounds, offers 150 lumens, and requires 4 feet to throw a 40-inch image (in comparison, our runner-up is 11.8 by 6 by 10 inches and 5 pounds, and it needs 5 feet to project a 42-inch image). Both of LG’s new models should provide up to two and a half hours of battery life, and they allow you to stream audio or video wirelessly.
The ZTE Spro 2 Smart Projector features a hotspot and built-in touchscreen that runs Android 4.4. This lets you stream content directly from the projector without any external source. Anything with an app can be used: Netflix, Hulu, Google Drive, and so on. There’s also a version that has LTE and uses a SIM card (an AT&T or Verizon data plan, is required), so you can use it on the road without a Wi-Fi connection, and it’ll act as a hotspot for your other mobile devices too. At home it will connect to your Wi-Fi network like any other Android device does. I carried it around the house streaming content on the wall while running from the battery and it works great.
Compared to the AAXA it isn’t quite as bright, and whites have a green tint to them. It is much more expensive than the AAXA, and most people already have a portable source—their phone or tablet—that they can use with a pico projector, so the optional hotspot feels unnecessary. But if you have AT&T or Verizon, need a hotspot, and also want a pico projector, you might want to check it out.
Our prior pick, the Brookstone Pocket Projector Mobile, fared worst in our testing. It only offers 93 lumens and the image quality is poor, even though it’s 720p rather than 480p like our portable pick, the ASUS S1. The Brookstone’s throw ratio is long, so from the same distance the S1’s image is 218 percent larger (from 5 feet away, the ASUS produces a 62-inch image, while the Brookstone can only manage 42 inches), and the image adjustments available are minimal. It also has no remote. Despite the Brookstone being slightly smaller, the ASUS is still a better choice unless you need the extra resolution.
The Vivitek Qumi Q6 has dual HDMI inputs and supports 3D, but exhibits video processing bugs that reduce the image quality. It has to be closer to the wall than the AAXA for the same size image. There are posterization artifacts with moving objects, especially on faces, which makes it a worse choice for movies. One cool feature is internal Wi-Fi lets multiple people connect and project content for presentations, but this doesn’t make up for its other issues.
The 3M Streaming Projector included a Roku Stick and was well-reviewed but is no longer available. The follow-up version is limited to only 60 lumens so it is too dim to be used with any lights on and isn’t flexible enough for most people.
The Optoma ML550 is compact and portable with a rated 500 lumens, but has no battery option. With enough models available that offer battery power, it didn’t make the cut.
The AAXA P4X is small and portable, but has fewer lumens and worse reviews on Amazon than the ASUS S1. Since both are similar in price and size, the ASUS gets the nod for our portable pick.
The AAXA P2 Jr. only puts out 55 lumens which just isn’t enough.
The AAXA LED Pico is very small and cheap, but with 25 lumens you aren’t going to get a large image or one that you can see in anything but a pitch-black room.
Celluon’s PicoPro uses a laser for a light source but only manages 32 lumens. It also uses a Micro HDMI input which means carrying around a special cable to be able to use it.
The Celluon PicoAir only connects via Miracast, and so will only work with Android or Windows devices—no macoS or iOS support here—and also only has 32 lumens of light output. With no other inputs it really isn’t a good choice for most people.
Aiptek’s MobileCinema A50P only has 50 lumens of light output and uses a Micro HDMI connector. That it can work as a USB battery pack to charge your phone is nice, but you’re better off getting a USB battery pack and a better pico projector.
Nothing about the Aiptek PocketCinema V150W really stands out, which is a problem at the high price. It only has 100 lumens, and while it does have Wi-Fi, most people with a pico projector will be close enough to have it cabled to their media source.
The Philips PicoPix is only 40 lumens and has overall poor reviews. Using USB means you need a driver for your laptop and they apparently don’t have a decent one for anyone using a Mac.
(Photos by Chris Heinonen.)
Originally published: November 9, 2015