The first projector I remember seeing in person had three great big glass eyes (for red, green, and blue lamps) and BNC connectors. It probably weighed more than 100 pounds, and had to be carefully calibrated to align the lenses. Now, I've got a projector above my head that weighs less than a Neal Stephenson novel and has a sharper, brighter image than that monster. I've been looking into LED projectors for a few years now; in that time, I've been waiting for them to come down in price and bump up in lumens. So I was very curious about BenQ's GP1 LED projector (also known, somewhat oddly, as "Joybee"), and was happy to get a sample for review. It may seem retrograde to bother with an 800x600, 100 lumen (no missing zero there: one-hundred lumen) projector in 2009 A.D., but for the past four weeks, I've used it as my primary display, and come out happy. It has some drawbacks, but it's an impressive little device for its $499 pricetag, and I hope a harbinger of even better things to come. Read on for my take on what BenQ got right, and what rough spots stick out.
How long is a piece of string?
The Joybee itself, at approximately 5"x5"x2" (136 x 54 x 120 mm), is a bit smaller than a Mac Mini (which it superficially resembles), and with its multi-input breakout cable weighs 1.4 pounds (0.64 kg); the unwieldy but necessary AC block and power cable nearly double the weight, though, and unfortunately are not accounted for in the pouch that comes with the projector. (If you have a BenQ notebook, though, the GP1 could theoretically share its AC adapter. That assumes your laptop battery holds enough juice to churn out the content you want to project, or that you're using the projector's internal media player via the USB slot, about which more below.) A restrained round panel of touch-sensitive buttons and a thumb-friendly focus wheel are the only controls on the chassis; there are also four ports: DC power jack on one side, USB, 1/8" stereo-out, and a proprietary slot to which an octopus cable (VGA and composite) attaches on the back. The front face contains a deep-set opening for the lens, and a grill behind which sits a fan. (A matching iPod dock is advertised as being separately available; I don't have an iPod new enough to play video, and didn't have the dock to test anyhow.)
This projector won't wow you with its resolution (actually 858x600, but attached computers see it as 800x600 native) or brightness (brighter by 50 lumens than Dell's even-smaller M109S, dimmer by 50 than the Samsung P400). There are plenty of incandescent-lit 800x600 projectors available, and I've seen some on sale recently for under $400. (Those typically advertise an expected lamp life of around 2000 hours, and it's hard to find any that claim less than 1200 lumens.) So is 100 lumens bright enough?
The real answer is "It can be, depending." Whether it's enough for you is a matter of balancing your expectations, the screen or other surface it will paint, and your ability to control the light in the room: this projector is not going to overwhelm any but the dimmest of nearby lamps, but it doesn't quite require total darkness, either. I tried the GP1 out in two rooms in a big house. In a large living room with four tall, north-facing windows, the projected image (from about 10 feet away, onto a white-painted wall) only became easily viewable starting at dusk, even with the (non-light-tight) curtains closed as tightly as I could manage. It wasn't bad, though, once real darkness arrived; it might pass no videophile's test, but Ferris Bueller's blue skies were nicely blue. In a much-smaller room in the basement, with only one window and little direct sunlight, my makeshift screen was bright enough for comfortable use even during the day: no blackout curtain needed. By way of comparison, the not-yet-out H6080 from Vivitek is a 1280p LED-based projector rated for 800 lumens, still weak by current conventional projector standards — and it's expected to cost about $20,000. The extra 19-plus thousand dollars would buy some thick curtains and patience to wait for high-end LED projectors to drop in price a bit, or a whole lot of conventional replacement lamps.
I'm probably at least a few years from buying a Blu-Ray or other ultra-high definition device, so beating the 720x480 resolution of typical NTSC DVDs meets most of my movie- and Hulu-watching demands. Still, I was surprised at how good the BQ1 did at scaling down 1024x768 output from a laptop; downscaled output will never look as good as native, but in a pinch it's really not so bad: icon text at its default size, 14-pt terminal output, and typical PDFs were all quite legible. However, I've instead mostly been using the native resolution to project a Gnome desktop onto my improvised screen (posterboard panels trimmed to fit into a frame found at a thrift store) giving me a nice 46" screen — much nicer on the eyes, I found, than always staring at a laptop.
The selling points
This projector may not be meant for boardrooms or gymnasiums, but in more modest surroundings it stands up quite well. The controls are simple enough that the "get started" guide in the box is entirely visual, just a reassuring poster illustrating the steps for first use. Plug it in, supply a media source, and turn it on.
The controls clustered on the top surface of the GP1 are backlit, and arranged around the power selector. The four labeled buttons (besides Power) are sane, too: Menu / Exit; Mode / Enter; Blank; and Source. Arrow keys point up/down and left/right, for setting parameters chosen once you've entered a menu. While the opposite would be worse, I found the controls a bit more sensitive than I would have liked; it's too easy to accidentally trigger the Blank button, for instance. The power button, intelligently, must be pressed twice — the second time is to confirm that you really did mean to turn the thing off.
The built-in media player makes the GP1 considerably more versatile, if you prepare your files with its limitations in mind. Plug in a USB thumb drive loaded with JPEGs, AVI files or MP4s, and you can play the files, complete with glorious 2-watt stereo sound, without needing a computer or other active source attached. That's the theory, at least: in reality, not even all AVI or MP4 files will work. A broad selection of home movies, YouTube downloads converted from FLV with the versatile VLC, and random internet curiosities from the "misc" folder of my hard drive gave me the whole array of outcomes: some wouldn't play at all; for some sound worked, but not picture; for some, it was the picture that worked, but not sound; and for some (like a clip of my niece whacking me on the head with her toy sofa, then gleefully punching my head) it worked as hoped, to the boredom of everyone I could persuade to watch. However, a small insert that came in the box (too late for the manual, I guess) outlines the several acceptable permutations of file format and codecs (recommended: Video: MPEG-1, MJPEG Audio: MPEG-1 layer 2, PCM), so I was able to watch some Northern Exposure ripped from my DVDs and loaded onto a USB drive after setting the right parameters in Handbrake.
The kindest things that can be said about the remote are that it works, it's small, and it allows the user to easily correct for keystoning — just press a button labeled with top-heavy trapezoid, or a bottom-heavy one. The actual button layout isn't especially intuitive, in part because the controls are actually split into two sections; the top half controls the operation of the projector itself; the bottom part is for the built-in media player. Having both "Enter" and "Return" choices is probably not a great design choice, either. Like most remotes, though, the user will probably soon enough learn a groove through the actual options he finds useful, and at least there are only a few keys to get used to, because most controls (a decent array of them, from color-correction for different target surfaces to a choice of several languages) are accessed through the built-in menus. A giant remote with one button per function would defeat some of the advantage of having a tiny projector in the first place.
Since low-end projectors based on incandescent bulbs often have bulb assemblies that can cost hundreds of dollars (and fail at intervals that are hard to anticipate, however technically accurate are the listed MTBF numbers), the biggest draw for me of this device is that its light source is an LED array, which should be rugged and long-lived. While most LED life claims strike me as optimistic (has anyone actually tested a projector like this to 10,000 hours?), a light source that I basically don't need to coddle or worry about in the near-term is reassuring. The GP1 is not utterly silent (there's a small fan, and it seems to run at all times), and it gets fairly warm in use, but it's quieter and cooler than most consumer-oriented projectors I've seen, as you'd expect from a LED-based system.
Glitches and hitches: It's hard to look the gift-horse of a built-in media player app in the mouth too hard, so I view its file compatibility limits as facts of life, not problems per se. However, I've run into two actually annoying problems with the the GP1.
First, keeping the signal locked, which should be high on a projector's priority list, doesn't always work. My Gnome desktop has blinked on and off a few times, inexplicably; a "Searching all signals" message appears on screen, but it only manages to automatically recapture the signal about half the time. I blamed this at first on my computer (Toshiba laptop running an Ubuntu 9.10 alpha), but have since seen these occasional drop-outs with a MacBook Pro as well as another Linux laptop, and even while using the built-in media center software. Re-selecting the input source (an easy one-second, two-button dance on the remote) has usually worked to correct this, but sometimes the signal has been lost until I restart the attached laptop. My hope is that this is a teething problem related to early production, rather than inherent to the device. Since I've had left it running most hours of most days for a month, maybe it's just asking for a rest.
Second, I've hit a problem that seems to go with a lot of devices that use high-powered LEDs: occasional flicker. This flickering is my most serious complaint about this device. On the same once-in-a-while basis as the signal-dropping just described (which is to say, rarely, but enough to notice in the course of constant use), the lamp will cycle through several colors and brightness levels. Sometimes this is fleeting — just a momentary change — but sometimes the image takes on a new hue and stays that way for minutes (or at least until the device is restarted). In a theater, I'd want my money back, when I'm reading a story at the New York Times' site in 2-inch letters on the wall, it doesn't bother me much.
What's not in the box:
This projector is inexpensive, and comes in a box that could hold shoes for a small child, so it's not surprising that the supplied accessories are a bit bare-bones.
You'll need a VGA extender, unless your computer is going to sit practically next to the projector — sometimes that's the most practical place for it anyhow, but a bit awkward for many set-ups. After deciding where I wanted to put the projector, I bought a VGA extension for $5 from a local used-computer dealer, so the projector could fit on a Rube Goldberg-style shelf about 12" from the ceiling and nearly touching the wall. The projector is mounted upside down, connected to a wooden panel with a 1/4" bolt to the tripod mount on the GP1's underside. Having a tripod mount is a nice touch; the projector weighs little enough that something like a Gorillapod would be a handy accessory.
You'll also need an adapter if your video source's output jacks are fancier than composite RCA or VGA; the HDMI-to-VGA adapter that came with a MacBook worked fine for me.
A USB extension cable makes it easier to swap out USB devices, especially if the projector is set just-so. Plugging a cheap SD adapter into the USB port or extension cable works fine, too; wedding or birthday pictures could be instantly reviewed on a big screen rather than by passing around a camera's 3" display.
Since these are cheapish items and not strictly necessary for little Joybee to work, it's not a complaint that they're not supplied, just a reminder.
In the sort of space where this projector's bright enough to use comfortably, the middlin' resolution won't stick out — the fact that a device about the size of some early consumer-level digital cameras is spitting out the image will. Projectors of this general description would be great in every dorm room, bedroom and fallout shelter; personal-size image-beamers like this (rugged, relatively lower power, with built-in playback abilities) could be the basis of OLPC-style education efforts (or field medical training, or detailed political news) in places where live lecturers might be too expensive to ship in. It's not hard to imagine some of today's "portable desktop" computers with projector beam built-right in to their chassis. Working with one 46" screen has led to fantasies of having a few more, to compensate for the limitation of SVGA resolution; perhaps a screen apiece for browser, terminal, and IM client.
Rating a product like this is difficult, but on a scale of 1-5, here's my upshot for a few obvious categories:
- Ease of use: 4 (Twitchy controls, weak remote take away from nice menus and ergonomic focus wheel.)
- Overview picture quality: 3 (Hey, it's 100 lumens, 800x600.)
- Portability: 4 (The giant AC adapter drags it down, but the thing is still tiny.)
- Features: 3 (No shame; broader media compatibility, motorized focus, and tilt lens would make it a 5, but it's not that kind of projector.)
- Overall Value: 4 (For now!)
The Joybee isn't anything like the end of the line for personal projectors (a year from now, there will surely be ones along the same lines that are brighter, cheaper, higher-res, or all three), but despite my list of gripes above, it is a glimpse (from the cheap seats) at the future, and worth checking out.