Even though I’ve had a fair bit of experience with video projectors, I took Celluon’s PicoPro somewhat for granted when I reviewed it this January. I praised the pocket-sized projector, which squeezed a 720p laser video display and speaker into the footprint of an iPhone 6 Plus, but I didn’t triple-underscore how much easier it was to use than most of its rivals. PicoPro worked so well and so quietly with such little effort that I hardly thought about it.

AAXA’s ST200 Short Throw LED Pico Projector ($299) is the newest of the traditional projectors PicoPro is challenging. It has roughly the same footprint and 1280×720 resolution as PicoPro, but it’s around 2.5 times thicker, since it uses a lightbulb-illuminated LED projection engine — just like almost every other projector on the market. There’s an audible fan inside, and because ST200 needs to power that fan and the lightbulb, it can’t match PicoPro in battery life. It also requires more manual user adjustment when you’re setting it up.

But ST200 is a markedly better video projector and audio device when judged on raw output quality, and less expensive, besides. If you’re looking for a compact way to display 720p video from an Apple TV, Mac, or iOS device at up to a 100″ diagonal size, ST200 delivers brighter, more color-accurate video output than PicoPro, more powerful speaker output, and — if you appreciate this — many more settings to play with. Read on for the details…

iMac 27"

Key Details:

  • 1280×720, 150-Lumens output for 10″ to 100″ video displays (the latter only in dim light)
  • Macs/Apple TVs need HDMI cable, Digital AV Adapter for iOS
  • Very good video quality, acceptable audio quality, weak battery life given size
  • A little larger than an Apple TV; similar to iPhone 6 Plus footprint
  • Promises 15,000hrs of light life

 

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ST200 is a lot fancier than AAXA’s old iPhone 3G-sized P1 Pico projector, but it starts with the same basic components: a projector, a wall power adapter, and a composite video cable — assuming anyone still needs one of those. The projector’s larger, measuring 5.6″ by 3.1″ by 1.4″, and coated in white soft touch rubber rather than black glossy plastic; it consumes a bit more volume than an Apple TV, but they’re not terribly dissimilar in size. ST200’s wall adapter will require another roughly 3″ by 1.75″ by 2″ (maximum) space in your bag or briefcase.

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AAXA also includes a VGA cable, a remote control, and a tripod, leaving Apple users to self supply at least an HDMI cable (for both Macs and iOS devices), if not also the Lightning Digital AV Adapter needed by iOS users. Unlike PicoPro, which has the ability to wirelessly stream from non-iOS devices, ST200 requires cables for almost everything, and the cables it includes aren’t very useful.

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The included VGA cable connects on one of ST200’s sides to the compact VGA port, which sits between a micro-SD card slot and a DC port for wall power. ST200 can run off of the included adapter, or a battery that’s inside; a small on-off switch on the edge manages all power for the unit. If you have a micro-SD card, you can store content on it and play it back directly through ST200 without assistance.

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A USB port on the back can be used with flash drives for the same purpose, while an AV port connects to the old composite video cable if you still have pre-HD video devices with red, yellow, and white RCA-style connectors. A 3.5mm audio port provides pass-through audio output if you’d like to use headphones or speakers, and a full-sized HDMI port connects to high-definition A/V sources — everything from Apple TVs and computers to iOS devices and game consoles. Vents on ST200’s back and sides are for fan and speaker output.

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The most obvious differences between ST200 and PicoPro are in AAXA’s comparatively huge array of controls. In addition to the on/off switch, ST200 has a focus adjustment knob, a sleep mode-like power button, navigation controls, and buttons with OK, four-box, and back arrow labels. Confusingly, pressing the four-box button lets you select the video input, while the back arrow button takes you to the media selection and settings menu below. You can display videos, photos, music or documents directly from this screen, or select a video output.

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Some of ST200’s settings are in the gear menu shown here, while others are built into the remote control: that’s where you’ll find keystoning buttons, volume and mute buttons, play/pause and scrubbing controls for the on-board media, and a video input select button. As it’s an Infrared remote, you’re limited to line-of-sight control of the ST200.

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Diving into the on-screen menus lets you manually adjust the contrast, brightness, color, sharpness, and tint, change red/green/blue levels individually, toggle between multiple aspect ratios, and set up ST200 in front/behind/inverted front/inverted behind projection modes. PicoPro has virtually none of these controls, since Celluon has eliminated them in favor of “it just works” execution. But there are obviously benefits and consequences to having granular user settings.

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After using PicoPro, as well as some small projectors with automatic keystone adjustment capabilities, one of the first things I noticed when setting up ST200 was that it actually requires use of both its manual front focus dial and remote control keystoning buttons. When it arrived, the picture was so profoundly trapezoidal that I thought the unit was broken, but I found that it had been set to +40 (versus 0 or -40) on its angle-adjusting projection scale. Zeroing it out made things much better.

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ST200’s video quality is really quite good. The image shown above is an approximately 22″ diagonal screen size, using a challenging black background in dim lighting. Using the manual focus knob, it’s possible to see the pixel-level detail in videos, photos, and even Mac, Apple TV, or iOS UIs. And unlike some devices, where the “settings” are just there to let you diminish the default, ideally-tuned parameters, playing with the brightness or colors on ST200 actually does optimize them for your current lighting and distance conditions. AAXA promises that ST200’s LED lights will last for 15,000 hours of use, better than many small projectors.

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On the other hand, I found AAXA’s included tripod to be incapable of perfectly level use — almost not worth even having in the box — and the unit’s inability to even slightly auto-adjust to its orientation or distance from a wall meant that manual tweaking was always necessary. If you plan to use ST200 as a “set it and forget it” projector, just choosing one stationary place to always use it, the setup process will be a modest one-time nuisance. But if you plan to take it on the road, expect to do some fidgeting to make everything look great.

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The good news: if you take that extra time, ST200 will indeed look better than PicoPro — probably much better. Not only does it project a much larger image at the same distance as PicoPro, ST200’s image is also visibly more color accurate even before you start playing with its settings. I noted in PicoPro’s review that the laser-based projection system had a slightly greenish-blue tint and tendency to sparkle on whatever surface it was projected upon; both issues are absent on ST200. ST200 also has a markedly louder built-in speaker that’s better able to audibly render the audio content in movies, though it’s susceptible to distortion at higher volumes, not well-suited to music, and needs to compete with the projector’s audible built-in fan.

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Due to their differing projection systems, it’s not fair to rely upon the numbers to compare PicoPro’s 30-Lumens, 80,000:1 contrast output to ST200’s 150-Lumens, 2,000:1 contrast output. You can see ST200 on the left in the image below, with PicoPro on the right. The real-world differences in contrast are not pronounced, and similarly, the Lumens (brightness level of brightest light) isn’t as strongly in ST200’s favor as the numbers might seem. In short, they offer virtually indistinguishable clarity, with very similar brightness and contrast at similar distances, but ST200 puts out a much larger and more color-accurate image. If I was only picking one on image quality, it would certainly be ST200.

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Battery life is another story: the smaller PicoPro absolutely destroys ST200 when they’re both running off of their internal batteries. Celluon promised 3.5 hours of run time and actually delivered 3, which is not bad for a projector that’s only twice as thick as current iPhones. AAXA promises 1 hour of run time and actually delivers a meager 36 minutes — at least, on medium brightness settings — even though there should be more room in the thicker enclosure for a higher-capacity cell. For this reason, I would be hesitant to even describe ST200 as capable of operating as a fully portable unit; you should really carry the wall adapter around except for brief untethered use.

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Every pico projector requires compromises, and ST200’s are obvious: you get the benefits of a relatively large, bright picture with 720p resolution and good audio, assuming that you’re willing to make manual adjustments to optimize the video, live with a bit of fan noise, and typically carry around a wall adapter. In short, ST200 isn’t as portable or versatile as PicoPro, but it’s better at its core tasks. As PicoPro’s $50 more expensive, the pick that’s right for your needs will depend on the specific features you value.

Manufacturer: AAXA Price: $299 Compatibility: All iPads, iPhones, iPod touches, Apple TVs, HDMI/VGA Macs

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