Chinavasion Pico Projector
It seems like Linux runs on just about everything these days from phones to televisions, and as my August 2010 column shows, it even can power a refrigerator. In fact, I bet many Linux users have become a bit jaded about it and almost expect electronics to have Linux under the hood—I know I have. Even so, I found myself surprised and intrigued when I heard about a pico projector sold by Chinavasion that runs Linux (www.chinavasion.com/product_info.php/pName/mini-projector-with-wifi-wireless-remote). Once I read the specs and discovered it had built-in wireless networking, an SD card slot and supported USB host mode, I started daydreaming about all the possibilities. Sure, you could use the projector for its intended purpose—playing media files—but imagine if you could access the Linux user space underneath. I knew I had to get one, and I had to try to hack into it. Read on for my review of the device and a chronicle of my adventures with it so far.
In a sense, this article is two reviews. First, I review the product as it's sold, then I discuss what I found when I looked under the hood. Chinavasion was kind enough to send me a review unit and was even open to my hacking on it, as long as I made it clear that taking it apart or messing around under the hood would void the warranty. At the time of this writing, the projector costs $235 and includes the projector itself, an IR remote control, a small IR keyboard, the power cable and adapter to US outlets, a tripod and an RCA cable. The projector itself has the following specs as listed from the product page:
Dimensions: 137mm x 77mm x 23mm
Projector: 10 lumen LED projector at 640x480
802.11b/g wireless support
SD card slot
USB port with USB host adapter support
Two-hour battery life
Two-thousand-hour lamp life
Video: VOB, MPEG1/2/4 AVI, XVID
Audio: MP3, WMA, AAC
Photo: JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP
I have to say, I'm still new enough to pico projectors that I'm amazed they have been able to fit a projector into such a small space (Figure 1). I mean, I can fit this projector in my back pocket, and it's about the size of a pack of cards only longer. However, that small size comes at a price—brightness. Where your average full-size projector might sport more than 2,000 lumens, this projector sits at a fraction of that with 10 lumens. That means you will want to use this in a rather dark room, preferably at night. Also, although the Web site lists the projector as supporting up to a 70-inch projection size, you'll find better results the closer the projector is to the surface.
The first thing you notice when you power on the projector isn't the brightness—it's the sound. No, that's not a jet engine—it's the fan. It turns out that the LED lamp gets quite hot, and as any overclocker knows, when you want to cool a computer quietly, you want a large fan so the blades can spin at a lower RPM. When you have a small space and must use a small fan, you have to resort to very high RPMs to pull enough cool air through the system. It really sounds a lot like the fans you'll find in many 1U servers. Even with the fan, you'll notice after the projector has been on for a while, the metal surface gets quite hot. Apparently this is expected, but I still wouldn't put this projector on a bed or your lap. Luckily, the speaker is loud enough to drown out most of the fan noise. I personally find the sound of fans soothing (I spent many years sleeping near a full-size desktop with fans running 24x7), but I imagine the fan noise will bother some people.
The projector has a simple interface that you can navigate either with buttons on the device itself or through the included IR remote control or keyboard (Figure 2). Basically, you move left and right through the different operating modes and press Enter to select a particular mode. The device I received included modes to play videos and music, display photos, do limited video and music streaming, and had a calendar and a weather app. I have to say that the interface itself isn't impressive or flashy at all—it's just a few icons and simple menus to get you to the media you want to play.
Kyle Rankin is a VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin.