Review: Optoma PK201 and PK301 pico projectors

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Short version: Although they require a little more space to create an image, these DLP-based projectors are worth your consideration — especially the PK201, which had a remarkably clear and colorful image.

Features:

  • DLP image processing
  • MicroSD card slot
  • 854×480 resolution in 16:9 native aspect ratio
  • HDMI, VGA, component, and composite inputs
  • MSRP: $299 (PK201) and $399 (PK301)

Pros:

  • Compact and functional
  • Native 16:9 makes movie-watching easy
  • Bright, colorful image for a pico projector

Cons:

  • Long throw distance
  • Hardly any video formats supported by in-device player
  • Still pretty expensive
  • Short battery life

Full review:

I’m reviewing these together because the two projectors have almost the same specifications, inputs, outputs, and so on. I’ll just start by explaining the main differences: The PK301 is newer and larger. Its primary advantage over the PK201 is a shorter throw distance and it promises a significantly brighter image. It also costs $100 more. The differences pretty much end there.

Performance

To get an idea of the size and throw distance of these things, check out the following video, in which I compare the Optomas to the 3M MPro150:

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=13015776&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=ff9933&fullscreen=1

As you can see, there is no clear winner. One thing that surprised me, however, was how similar the images were between the two Optomas. The 201 is supposed to have 20 lumens, and the 301 50 lumens. I didn’t see that difference at all. As in, there was almost no difference at all in brightness or quality. You can verify it for yourself in the above video, which was set at the same exposure settings for the entire sequence, and both projectors were set to maximum brightness. Why should this be? I really cannot explain it, but it certainly strikes off one of the 301′s big advantages. Update: It’s only noted briefly deep in the documentation, but the PK301 only produces 50 lumens when it’s plugged in, or with the optional high-power battery pack. I’ll update this review with some comparisons a little later. Of course, if you need to plug in to get the full effect of the 301, that’s another type of weakness, but it’s good to know that Optoma wasn’t just being optimistic with its speccing of the projectors. There are some shots below.

When it comes to throw distance, the 3M is the clear winner. However, a short throw distance isn’t always desired; the MPro has to sit in front of you, which may conflict with the way your room or screen is set up. And when a long throw distance doesn’t interfere with the clarity or brightness of the image, it becomes almost a matter of taste. That said, for these things’ intended purpose, a short throw distance is usually preferable.

I found the PK201 to have the best color of the three. Why it demonstrated such superior color output with the inputs I gave it is a mystery, but it did. Movies, videos, and games all looked more naturally saturated to me.

The PK301, on the other hand, has better definition, though it’s a close call. I found that fine lines and details were less visible on the 201, with which they were present, but noticeably not as sharp. This likely is the result of the larger and higher-quality lens found on the 301.

Here are two shots I took of the PK301 projecting an image at 50 lumens:


Doesn’t look very bright, but remember that this is essentially in broad daylight. It also appeared brighter in situ. The MPro150 was visible but not nearly as clear and colorful in this bright room.

When it came to focus, I found that neither was very forgiving. Something about the DLP engine makes the focal plane very slim, and consequently if the projector is not exactly on a level with the center of the display surface (or very close), you will not be able to get the entire thing in focus. This was much more of a problem with the 201, in my experience.

Both projectors have the same pleasant-looking on-device navigation interface. It’s much better than the MPro150′s, but still isn’t a joy to navigate. Projector makers have a lot to learn about user interface design. You’ve got your on-device media (under which category Settings is inexplicably grouped), card slot, USB media, and a “search for input” option that goes through the various inputs automatically if for some reason you don’t feel like pressing the input switch button.

Speaking of inputs, the Optomas excel there. Each of them has mini HDMI, Composite/AV, USB, and a universal I/O with attachments for other outputs (like VGA from your laptop).

One of the Optomas’ key features is the MicroSD card slot. This is handy for showing small- to medium-sized files like Powerpoint presentations and vacation pictures. I found both the PK201 and PK301 very capable devices for showing off photos or slides. They were both quick to navigate within the viewers, and allowing for the lowered resolution, my large photos looked quite good, though the 16:9 AR leads to portrait-oriented pictures to be rather small.

Don’t even try to put video on there
, though. Of the many videos I put on the card (from several sources, legal and otherwise), I couldn’t get a single one to play correctly. You’re much better off playing the video on your iPod or phone and using a video out. The Optomas advertise support for MP4 and Xvid, but representatives both those groups were present and neither played. If you find a format that works on these things, you’ll have to do a lot of converting. Better to play via another device.

Battery life is… not good. An hour is the quoted limit for both devices, and that’s about it. I get twice that out of the 3M Mpro150. You can of course plug the thing in, but I feel it really hamstrings a portable device to have to be tethered to the wall.

Sound is tinny and relatively quiet. Both projectors have 3.5mm outs, though, so you can use headphones or portable speakers. The sound is just fine for watching short videos or playing a non-cinematic game, as long as you’re not too far from the device. To expect good sound from a pico projector is pretty unreasonable, so everyone gets a pass here.

Hardware

The PK201 is, let us just admit right off, ugly. I appreciate that it is compact, but the styling leaves much to be desired. You can’t tell which end is the front and there are inputs willy-nilly. If you need to look cool while using your pocket projector, this isn’t the device for you.


Comparatively, the PK301 is understated and classic. It looks like… a tiny projector. All the inputs are neatly laid out on the back, the MicroSD slot is tastefully concealed beneath a rubber flap, and the control cluster is dead center. Everything’s black, and it looks great. I think I still prefer the UFO-lozenge of the MPro150 (or its predecessor, even), but as far as devices like this go, the 301 is very attractive.

I also got a feeling that the 301 is better-built. My main evidence for this, aside from the fact that it’s obviously better-built, is the focus dial. It’s a mess on the 201: fiddly, unpredictable, unresponsive, or both at the same time, I found it extremely frustrating getting the right focus. With the 301 it’s a snap: a little nubbin on a smooth-turning lens, right where you think it should be.

The controls are slightly awkward on both devices, however. The buttons are strangely shaped and difficult to hit, requiring quite a lot of force. If you have the projector on a tripod, it will be totally messed up after you adjust the volume. And speaking of tripods, the tripod screw is frustratingly far off-center on both devices, though it’s worse on the 301. They had to make room for the battery cover, it seems. The result is that either device is easily knocked over or out of place when on their spindly little tripod. This can be corrected for by simply getting a better tripod.

Conclusion

Although both projectors have their strengths and are clearly competitive with what’s out there, I hesitate to recommend them to just anybody. For versatility, they aren’t short throw enough to make a large image in a small room, though they are noticeably brighter than the short-throwing MPro150.

Having a few of these around a school or office could be a lifesaver — they are remarkably simple to operate, and setup is non-existent. But for an individual, I don’t see you saving a lot of money or trouble by getting a pico projector at this stage of the game. 3M, Optoma, Microvision, and everyone else are improving these things at a pretty good rate, and the prices are bound to come down soon as well. I’d recommend the PK301, but at $400 it really is quite expensive for what it’s providing — not to mention the fact that I didn’t find it to be much brighter than the PK201. Add to this their short battery life and it seems to me that you’ve got a great product… in about a year.

Product page: Optoma PK301 and PK201

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