Pico projectors have been around for a few years, but haven't managed to gain much traction outside of the geek community. They're fascinating little gizmos (a projector that fits in your hand!), but it's not immediately obvious why the average person would want one.
The 3M Streaming Projector ($300, shipping October 22) is the first pico projector with some mainstream appeal. It's ingeniously designed with an integrated Roku Streaming Stick in the back, which means you can wirelessly stream Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and more anywhere you have a Wi-Fi signal and a flat surface. There's also a built-in, rechargeable battery, which means the Streaming Projector can go truly wirefree. Walking around and beaming Netflix on the nearest available wall is just a flat-out cool experience, plus the ability to set up a "TV" anywhere seems like a godsend for anyone who needs to entertain kids on the go.
The 3M Streaming Projector isn't without its faults, especially its limited battery life (a little over 1.5 hours), brightness, and DVD-like resolution. But that's not enough to detract from what's ultimately a delightful gadget, not to mention an exciting new product type from 3M and Roku.
Design: A handheld beam of light
The Streaming Projector is a charming little device. The curved plastic casing and small size invite you to grab it and start streaming video against the nearest available flat surface.
Controls are basic. There's a scroll wheel on the side for focusing and a few buttons on the top for basic projector controls. You can't actually navigate the Roku Streaming Stick's menus using buttons on the projector; for that, you'll need to used the included remote. It's a thin, credit-card-style clicker, with both Roku-style buttons like Home and Back, plus buttons to control the projector. It's not a great remote, and you need to aim it right at the top of the projector for it to work. The Streaming Stick can also be controlled by the optional Game Remote, sold separately for $20.
Around back, there's a plastic, removable cover encasing the Roku Streaming Stick slot. The need for a separate Roku Streaming Stick (rather than built-in Roku software) seems like a recipe for a clunky design, except 3M has done a great job of integrating the Stick into the unit. And by including the removable Streaming Stick, you have the option to pull out the stick and connect any MHL- or HDMI-equipped gadget. Conversely, you can use the Streaming Stick in any TV or AV receiver with an MHL port. (There aren't many, though.)
Overall, it's a well-thought-out gadget that just feels fun to use, whether you're turning any spare wall into a "drive-in"-style experience or even lying in bed, projecting your video straight up to the ceiling.
Features: Built-in battery, Wi-Fi and streaming
Part of the Streaming Projector's versatility is due to its built-in, rechargeable lithium battery that allows for untethered projecting. 3M claims "2+ hours" of battery life, but that's overly optimistic based on CNET's testing -- more on that later. There's an included "wall wart" AC adapter that can power the Streaming Projector, as well as recharge its battery.