Made in China: XGIMI projects innovation in Android entertainment

A new 3D LED pico proiector combines the platform flexibility of Android with a Harman Kardon sound system to create an all-in-one portable home theater device.

xgimi-z4-aurora.jpg

In our previous article in this series we touched on how Xiaomi, the largest smartphone manufacturer in China, is branching out and doing new and innovative things with intelligent lighting devices.

However generally speaking, the overall perception of Chinese companies by American consumers is that they do not innovate -- they copy the industrial designs of more successful Japanese and Korean companies.

Made in China

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Are Chinese products simply imitations of what is produced in Japan and Korea? Or is the country creating its own unique designs and brand identity?

In my interaction with Chinese device manufacturers, I am learning more and more that the country is looking to shed this image -- and is producing products that not only are qualitatively equivalent to their Japanese and Korean counterparts, but also produce unique designs and innovative products as well.

One such company whose products I have been looking at is Chengdu, Sichuan-based XGIMI (pronunciation: "ex-gee-mee") which was founded in May of 2012 and as of 2015, has shipped more than 300,000 devices in mainland China and Asia.

The company is unique in that it has specialized in the LED pico projector space, which has been developing in the last four years as the technology has started to mature. XGIMI currently occupies over a 50 percent market share in pico projectors in China.

I recently was shipped a pre-production sample of their latest design, the Z4 Aurora. The product is in the process of being localized for the US consumer market, which is targeted for July of this year.

The Z4 Aurora is unique among LED pico projectors in that while capable of accepting two 1080p/4K-compatible external input sources via HDMI, it is also a completely self-enclosed entertainment device which runs on the Android operating system, has integrated Wi-FI and is paired with built-in Harman Kardon speakers.

The device is ideally suited for a number of use-cases including families or students that are space-constrained or cannot accommodate a permanently wall-mounted television. It incorporates a 700 ANSI Lumens OSRAM LED projector element which is fully capable of both 1080p and 4K output, and can render 3D video, with up to a 300" diagonal width projection area.

The device can also act in a "Business" mode where data from a cloud storage service or from local USB can be presented using a built-in Microsoft Office-compatible viewer. Of course, with Office 365 for Android, it's also possible to run the real thing, provided you have the right packages installed.

In its pre-production configuration the device was shipped to me with a modified version of Android 4.3 using AOSP-based sources. The device uses a 1.5Ghz quad-core ARMv7-based SoC, which is comparable to that which might be used in a high-end smartphone.

Unfortunately Android 4.3 is a bit behind the curve of what is currently available on smartphones in the US, and Google Play and other services are blocked from use in mainland China, so the device as it was shipped to me reflects what is currently usable within the local Chinese market.

This includes a 3rd-party app store (Aptoide) and pre-loaded Chinese video and audio streaming services. Both the Google Play store and the iOS App Store have compatible apps that duplicate the functionality of the Z4's physical remote and can stream content (in Chinese) to the device.

XGIMI has recently sent a software engineering team to the United States in order to create a full Google Play and Android 5.x-compatible US software ROM and compatible app, which should be ready by the time the company releases it in the July 2016 time-frame.

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The user interface of the device is menu-driven, and is highly customized as opposed to looking like a generic Android launcher menu that you might find on a smartphone or tablet.

The projector setup and all other configuration options such as for Wi-Fi are similar to that what you would find on any other DVR or set-top device and is fairly straightforward. This includes keystone alignment for the projector screen itself.

For my testing I was able to side-load older versions of Google Play, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video, and successfully play movies on it, streamed over my 5Ghz 802.11ac network.

This side-loading of APK files will not be necessary when the product is localized with a US ROM, which will be based on Android Lollipop 5.x, and will include Google Play Store and other Google services out of the box.

The device can also act as an Airplay/Cast/Miracast receiver so that compatible apps on Android and iOS can broadcast video directly to it. While I had DRM-related issues with attempting to Airplay both Netflix and Amazon Video on my iPhone and iPad, I was able to display video output from unrestricted applications easily.

The video output quality and the sound quality of the device is impressive. 700 ANSI Lumens doesn't seem like a lot, but given the size of the device (about the dimensions of a Mac Mini) in a properly shaded room, the results are quite astonishing, as shown in the demonstration video above.

With the XGIMI Aurora Z4, an entire entertainment center can be confined to a small box which can be stashed away as needed.

Although I consider it to be something of a novelty the device also includes a "turntable" photoelectric sensor on the top of the device, which can be used to adjust volume and perform certain media control tasks using the wave of a hand.

I was not able to do this with the sideloaded applications, but I presume this will be better integrated come actual release of the product in the US.

One aspect of the product that I find well-executed which is often overlooked in much more established brands is the remote, which is made out of metal and resembles that of Apple TV's or Amazon Fire TV, except much better designed. While small, the ergonomic and overall industrial design of the remote is pleasing to the touch.

The remote is useful for not just stream-control functions that you would normally expect from a product like Apple TV or Roku, but also for projector focus adjustment and using as a virtual mouse for Android applications like Google Chrome.

The XGIMI Z4 Aurora is slated to cost $699 retail when it streets this summer. Early Indiegogo backers can pre-order it for $449.00.

Are you interested in the XGIMI Z4 Aurora? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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