I knew Celluon had something special on its hands when I reviewed the $349 pocket-sized video projector PicoPro earlier this year: the Korean company known for laser-projecting keyboards released an iPhone 6 Plus-sized HD projector, capable of simulating a TV using lasers, a speaker, and a rechargeable battery. PicoPro’s projection system was MicroVision-developed and laser-sharp, requiring no manual focus knob — an advantage over rival projectors such as the otherwise more powerful AAXA P700 and ST200, which I subsequently reviewed and liked.

This week, Sony is entering the pico projector market with MP-CL1 ($350), which uses the same MicroVision laser projector found in PicoPro. Sporting the same 1920×720 resolution and putative 32-lumen brightness/80,000:1 contrast ratio as PicoPro, MP-CL1 promises to create a 40-inch TV image at 4-foot distances, an 80-inch image at 8-foot distances, or a (very dim) 120-inch image at 12-foot distances. Sony has pitched it as a “take it anywhere” big screen display for the iPad, iPhone, and PlayStation 4; it’s equally viable for Apple TVs and HDMI-ready Macs. So which is the better value: MP-CL1 or PicoPro?…

Key Details:

  • 1920×720 video projector similar in size to an iPhone 6/6s Plus
  • Uses same MicroVision-built laser projection engine as Celluon’s PicoPro, tuned a little better
  • Fully HDMI-compatible with Apple TV, Mac, iOS devices
  • Roughly 3 hrs of video playback

Looking solely at the actual projector units, Sony’s MP-CL1 and Celluon’s PicoPro have a lot more in common than not, and even where they diverge, they’re pretty similar. For instance, MP-CL1 measures 5.9″ by 3″ by 0.51″, while PicoPro measures 5.9″ by 2.9″ by 0.55″ — just barely thicker and narrower. Sony’s matte-finished aluminum-bodied unit weighs 7.4 ounces and Celluon’s glossy plastic PicoPro is around 6.4 ounces, a weight difference that isn’t practically noticeable. MP-CL1’s minimalist metal chassis is more timeless than PicoPro’s pleasant but decidedly plasticky design; if I had to pick just one projector solely on overall look and feel, I’d go with Sony’s.

Sony also has the better port and control array. Everything is lined up on MP-CL1’s right side, starting with a reinforced wriststrap hole, a micro-USB charging port, a power button, a three-position volume/menu navigation toggle, a mini-HDMI (MHL) port, a 3.5mm headphone port, and a full-sized USB port that can be used to share the projector’s battery with a USB device. Unlike PicoPro, there are no wonky capacitive surfaces or color-coded lights to worry about; MP-CL1 is really cleanly-designed.

However, Celluon wins on pack-ins. Sony includes a detachable stand, a USB to micro-USB charging cable, and an MHL HDMI to HDMI adapter. Celluon doesn’t include a stand, but bundles in a wall adapter — not found in MP-CL1’s box — plus a USB cable, HDMI cable, MHL to HDMI adapter, and soft carrying bag. While Sony’s bundled stand makes MP-CL1 easier to prop up, a non-trivial advantage, Celluon’s set makes PicoPro easier to charge, carry around, and immediately start connecting to certain Apple devices.

Both units feature wired and wireless connectivity interfaces, though Apple users only have the option of using the wired HDMI port — not integrated Wi-Fi, supported by some Android devices. If you’re connecting an Apple TV or any Mac with an HDMI output, all you need is a self-supplied HDMI cable, but iOS devices will also require Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter, sold separately. Additionally, although Sony includes a larger 3,400mAh battery (PicoPro’s is 3,140mAh), their continuous HDMI video playback time was virtually identical: MP-CL1 ran for 2 hours and 58 minutes of continuous video playback time at its full audio volume, versus the “just under 3 hours” I reported when testing PicoPro.

Another point of commonality is sound output. Like Celluon, Sony includes a small speaker, and it’s adequate for listening to the audio portion of videos. Monaural and frequency limited, it’s just a hair less powerful than the speakers built into the iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6s Plus, and a little more powerful than PicoPro’s, which is to say that it’s capable of being heard clearly in a quiet room, but not phenomenal. The biggest advantage both projectors have over non-laser rivals is their fanless designs, which enable their speakers to perform without competition from a loud adjacent source of noise. If you need more sonic power or clarity, the 3.5mm audio port lets you attach self-supplied speakers or headphones of your choice.

As a video projector, MP-CL1 is very similar to PicoPro, defying conventional wisdom as to a 32-lumen projector’s capabilities without presenting a challenge on raw light output. In a room with no ambient light, MP-CL1 can create a very watchable, colorful image ranging from around 6 inches to 80 inches in size, though as with all projectors, the light really begins to fall off at the upper end of that range, and pushing it further to its 120-inch limit isn’t advisable. The unconventional (and PicoPro-matching) 1920×720 resolution isn’t quite 1080p “full HD,” but there are enough pixels here to display reasonably sharp videos, text, and computer output; an iPad, iPhone, or Mac UI can be read without issues. Just as was the case with PicoPro, MP-CL1 presents images with a faint but noticeable sparkle that looks a little like grain in these screenshots.

This doesn’t mean that the two units are completely the same in video quality. Although this comparison image doesn’t show it perfectly, MP-CL1 (shown right, above) received a small but valuable color tweak from Sony, reducing (but not eliminating) PicoPro’s (left, above) slightly blue-green color balance. MP-CL1’s white balance is a little closer to white, though still visibly aqua-tinted in person. You can play somewhat with the contrast, hue, and saturation, as well as separate optical and biphase alignment, but Sony’s default settings are about as good as you should expect from MP-CL1. There’s no toggle to adjust brightness, which is — just like PicoPro — hard to measure by conventional lumen standards, as the unit’s laser-lit points are very bright; my ST200 review discusses the real-world differences you can expect versus a larger but similarly-priced conventional projector.

Two things that make MP-CL1 special are the zero-focus projection and quick keystoning adjustments. Like PicoPro, MP-CL1’s MicroVision laser projection engine automatically projects perfectly sharp images regardless of its distance from a wall, a major setup and usability advantage over rival pico projectors where manual knob turning is required to achieve sharpness. Additionally, and unlike PicoPro, MP-CL1 has two (fully working) keystoning presets and manual keystone adjustments so you can make its projections rectangular rather than trapezoidal. Even relying solely on the very basic included stand, MP-CL1 does a good job of displaying appropriately boxy rather than distorted videos.

Overall, MP-CL1 is a very nice pocket-sized video projector, and on balance, a little better than the earlier-to-market, same-priced PicoPro: between its video tweaks and metal chassis, it has modestly better performance and design on its side, even if its threadbare pack-ins leave some things to be desired. By contrast with bigger projectors, MP-CL1’s ability to operate nearly silently, without fan noise, is an advantage that helps Sony make the most of its battery life, size, and audio output. If you’re interested in a very small, low-configuration video projector capable of creating a good, reasonably-sized TV facsimile, MP-CL1’s worth considering. Those seeking huge displays and more lighting horsepower will need to accept considerably larger projectors to achieve bigger, brighter results.