It’s not unusual for any lover of Apple and their venerable iPod family to have lifestyle products that compliment the ever-evolving media player; I mean why wouldn’t you have the occasional docking station for the living room, bedroom, or even the beloved bathroom? But while most have centered on bringing out the best in the varying iDevices’ sound output, it looks like Optoma is bringing their expertise in digital projection to the table with an uncomplicated hybrid that combines the best of both worlds. Enter the new Neo-i Video Projector, which couples the company’s famed Pico mini-DLP technology to a full iPod-ready projector, and stands as a pretty unique – if compromising – entry for those not obsessed with crucial performance but still want to project a little life into the party.
Upon first sight the obvious thing we noticed about the Neo-i is the prominent 30-pin iPod dock on top, which is one of the few projectors I’ve seen with such a feature. The Neo-i is housed in a svelte 13” x 3” x 9” UFO-style rounded body, with a black concave surface that houses two powerful 8-watt speakers and cool blue-tined backlit control panel located on the top and focus lens out in front, with ventilation grating circling most of the body. You also get an assortment of docking shells that are designed to help any recent iPod fit snugly into the dock, though most likely won’t need them as our iDevices (iPod Classic/iPhone) docked perfectly fine without them. You’ll operate the projector simply by touching the control panel or through the included micro IR remote controller, with the whole package weighing in at less than 2.5lbs.
Light and compact by design, you’ll have to forgive the Neo-i’s deliberately limited connectivity features, with direct inputs limited to just single ports for HDMI and VGA connectivity. Those looking for further support for legacy devices (including composite or even audio-in) will have to make due with dropping some additional coin on a 2.5mm input jack to do this; no worries on compatibility, however, as there is a selectable source on the projector for just such occasions. Considering its compact size and target devices (i.e. HDMI, VGA) this really isn’t a surprising compromise, and probably won’t be much of an issue for those with bigger plans for this unit.
Adjusting the Neo-i didn’t take long since there isn’t much to fiddle with outside of brightness, contrast, a extended color mode, and a trio of picture modes (cinema/bright/photo) for some flexibility. These settings are merely subtle when you take into account how the ANSI lumen count is at 50 (Optoma tells us its really outputting at a brighter 59), a lower number but considering that its display is using beefed-up Pico tech this is actually a more impressive feat than it sounds. Regardless, this projector probably won’t be hanging with any higher-end models but manages to do just fine with its LED based light-sourcing that Optoma promises will net you over 20,000 hours of use.
For those who are less picky (i.e. most of you reading this) the presentation of material on this DLP is good with both high and standard-definition content appearing rather clear and distinguishable on multiple surfaces, with HD games and movies (Blu-ray/DVD) looking pretty good, even at maximum resolutions of 1080i (854 x 480 pixels). In fact, a few of my guests couldn’t believe that such a lightweight and supposedly ‘portable’ projector could output details at such quality perform so well. Needless to say, a good portion of my testing time was gaming on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (both HDMI-ready), and it should say something when my critical crew of tech-savvy friends were contemplating picking one up for themselves.
Despite the lack of user picture adjustments the color and hues were vivid, if not a bit oversaturated to the naked eye – and this is even before you touch the select color mode which doubles the gamut array. Most likely owing to the slight overcompensation in color, the unit’s black levels aren’t necessarily the deepest we’ve viewed on a projector, and some color bleed in all but the darkest scenes in some films fell short to what we expected. Hardly subpar performance, though it should go without saying that operating in direct or ambient lighting isn’t recommended with this DLP.
Another claim to fame is that the projector can amazingly produce a picture as big as 120” (distance permitting) for large-scale affairs, but quality can and does degrade with a larger area; these claims appear to be for bragging rights only as any display dimension between 36”- 65” for this unit is best for viewing; a small sacrifice if you intended to go larger than that.
iPod/iPhone integration seems to be Optoma’s main selling point of the Neo-i, and it manages to do a admirable job in pulling off such a feat if even if its dependent on which Apple model you have. We brought a iPod Classic into the lab and walked away rather impressed when we put our first device through the rounds. With the Neo-i remote in hand we were able to navigate our Classic iPod’s extensive catalog of music and video with relative ease, with even the song/video’s meta data projected onscreen. Even the layout of the controller, including an iMenu button, was accounted on the small clicker.
Apple’s touchscreen models, including the iPhone and iPod Touch (iPad functionality is coming soon via an adapter) was a different story, as you won’t have complete access to all the media on your iTouch devices from the remote (only audio is available) and will have to manually use the touchscreen in order to browse and enjoy whatever videos you want to project on your viewing area. Perhaps a hardware firmware upgrade might rectify this little snag, as having to continually get up and switch files was a little clunky, especially as Optoma is essentially selling the idea of a happy Neo-i and iPhone marriage.
One of the most surprising feature of the Neo-i was its outstanding audio output, which was not just excellent but manages to trump a number of higher priced multimedia DLPs (including many from Optoma). A two 8-watt (16-watt total) stereo bass setup is as compact as it is powerful, and the benefits also extend beyond iPod use as everything just sounded better with this design, and its a wonder that Optoma hasn’t brought this level of sound quality to more of their projectors. As crude as it might seem, but even if the Neo-i’s more-than-capable projection quality doesn’t do it for you at least you’ll still have one of the best-sounding iPod docks out there.
Perhaps the most frustrating feature about the Neo-i has to do with the controller itself, which is IR based. This means you’ll only be able to control the projector from behind and only then when a good connection is made. This would be fine if the receiver wasn’t placed the lower rear of the unit, perhaps the most inept of places. Fine for some but not exactly the most ideal setup if you’re hosting a party and want to manage a playlist from across the apartment.
Compact design meets performance in Optoma’s Neo-i Video Projector, which manages to combine iPod docking with the company’s Pico DLP technology at a relatively affordable price in one respectable package. You’re unlikely to find a display as good (1080i at 854 x 480 pixels) from similarly-sized projectors, and it even includes one of the most impressive sound systems I’ve ever heard from an iPod-centric docking system. Of course, such miniature power comes with its own set of compromises, such as a lack of available inputs devices and clunky IR remote control, though I doubt that many will complain about the lack of adjustable features or picture quality. Optoma has created a proper lifestyle product that also happens to be a solid DLP, especially for those who wouldn’t initially consider a projector to fit within their circle.
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