3M has been in the pocket (or 'pico') projector market since 2008, and each new model brings more features and — perhaps more importantly — more brightness. It's a small but surprisingly fast-growing market, with analysts such as Pacific Media Associates reporting a year-on-year doubling of global sales during 2010.
The £399.99 (inc. VAT; £333.32 ex. VAT) PocketProjector MP180 offers 30 ANSI lumens from its LED light source, double the output of the previous MPro 150 model. The MP180's LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) projector chip has a native resolution of 800 by 600 pixels, supporting input resolutions up to 1,440 by 900 (WXGA). At 338g, it's not the lightest pocket projector around, and the large 3-cell 2,600mAh Li-ion battery pack also makes it quite bulky with dimensions of 150 by 65 by 33.5 mm. The battery pack clips in securely underneath, and is good for two hours' use at most, so a spare battery (£31.99 inc. VAT) might be a wise purchase.
As well as connecting to VGA and composite video sources (surprisingly, there's no HDMI input) using the supplied proprietary cables, the MP180 can be used autonomously, with 4GB of integrated Flash storage plus a microSD card slot at the side, next to the power button and 3.5mm audio jack. You switch between the two storage areas via the settings menu. Connecting the projector to a PC using the supplied Mini-USB cable presents it as a removable drive in Windows, allowing you to copy content by dragging and dropping. An AV adapter for iPhones or iPods costs an extra £28.99 (inc. VAT).
The 338g MP180 has a 2.5in. colour touchscreen for manipulating files stored on the internal 4GB of Flash or a microSD card
The control panel is a 2.5in colour LCD touch panel on the top of the unit. It's a resistive screen, so you can use fingers or any suitable object as a stylus. There are icons for each of the supported media types (audio, photo, video and most office documents including PDF), and pressing these opens a list of stored files. The list can be projected onto the screen instead if desired. Although the menu system is logically arranged, we found navigation using a finger to be very hit and miss; we opted instead for a plastic stylus, which improved matters considerably. Document support from the embedded Picsel file viewer is good, although there's limited font and embedded object support.
From the control panel, the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi settings can be configured. The underlying Windows CE OS supports the Bluetooth object push and file-transfer protocols, so it's easy (if slow) to send or receive files. The 802.11n Wi-Fi can connect to networks with WEP or WPA/WP2-PSK encryption, but Wi-Fi can only be used for web access using the built-in CE version of Internet Explorer.
Using the browser is a painful experience. The control panel doubles as a mouse touchpad, with an icon for left mouse clicks and another to bring up a touch keyboard. This is oriented along the axis of the projector, making it very difficult to input text accurately. A keyboard can be projected on-screen, but it's not much better given the poor cursor control. Similarly, website navigation is very frustrating, and the ancient browser throws up lots of 'unsupported browser' errors. The poor implementation of this feature is a shame, and because the Wi-Fi can't be used to browse a network or connect to a UPnP media server, it's also a wasted one.
The good news is that the projected image quality is surprisingly good. The extra brightness makes all the difference, and although you still need a dark room for best results, we found that at a distance of 56 inches (1.42m) it gave a pretty clear 40in. widescreen display; the maximum image size is 80in., for which we measured the projection distance at 100 inches (2.54m). It's certainly adequate for text-based presentation material for small groups in normal office lighting, although not for dark videos or photos. It can be tricky to get the focus spot-on with the focus thumbwheel at the front, though. The twin stereo 0.75W speakers are quite loud, but so is the cooling fan; the unit does get quite warm after a while.
We have mixed feelings about the MP180. On the one hand, the core technology is close to being practical, with decent brightness and contrast levels. But on the downside, the touchscreen and wireless connectivity don't really add much in terms of usability or performance, yet add a lot of expense.