In terms of external hardware, there isn’t a whole lot a tablet needs to be a success. The iPad restarted the whole tablet market and brought along for the ride only a headphone jack, microphone, volume rocker and connector port. That sparse packaging—still pretty much the formula for all tablets—has led to a svelte form factor standard almost across the board. But as SmartDevices’ U7 deftly illustrates, a tablet can tack on some intriguing hardware bonuses and still manage to keep its figure. In the U7’s case, it’s an embedded pico projector.
Pico projectors—whether external or internal—have gained ubiquity across the industry, mostly marketed toward travel business types or folks who want to go cinema-scope with the entertainment on their mobile devices. Plenty of pico projectors are available for attachment to a smartphone or a tablet but to this point, the highest profile example of an embedded projector is the Samsung Beam.
The Beam—Samsung’s attempt to combine phone and project—is a spec-starved Android phone that looks a bit too big to fit comfortably in your pocket.
The U7 looks like a run-of-the-mill 7-inch tablet and feels like one, too. It’s similar in size and weight to the Nexus 7 but that’s about the end of the similarities in the spec department. The U7 sports a 1024x600 display, a dual-core 1 GHz processor, 1 GB of RAM, 8 or 16 GB of memory with the option to add 32 GB via microSD and a 4,800 mAh battery, all teaming up to run Android 4.1. Not much to write home about unless you’re putting down your gripes about the rear-facing camera, shooting at an archaic 2 megapixels—the front-facing sensor packs the same.
But the U7 has enough muscle to show off what can be accomplished with an embedded Texas Instruments DLP projector, which turns out to be a good deal.
The projector is mounted on the side of the U7. An on/off switch sits on one side of it and a focus slider on the other. SmartDevices claims the projector works for about four hours on a full charge. Of course, it’s ideal for quick PowerPoint presentations and with the lights off in our conference room, we were able to project a big, clear image of the device’s screen from six to eight feet away from the wall. The 854x480 resolution projection can go from five to 50 inches—though why anyone would project an image smaller than the actual display is a mystery.
There didn’t seem to be any latency between the display and the projection, which really came in handy for watching videos at home. This is where the fun really comes in and it’s nice to know that the audio and video will sync up. The U7 is a blast for movie night, especially with a decent set of speakers that can plug into the auxiliary port. Of course, my three-year-old daughter isn’t much of a stickler for audio quality and was happy just to see her shows all big on the wall of her room. In a case like that, though, supervision is recommended to make sure your little one doesn’t pick up the tablet and shine the projector directly into their eyes.
The U7 also seems like a fun, almost old-school way to show off photos and videos to family and friends. Dig back to memories of a relative rolling out a massive slide projector and you’ll get the picture.
However, without a peripheral controller, the U7’s projector is mostly superfluous for mobile games since your eyes will be glued to the touchscreen. It’s mostly a moot point since the U7’s projector only works in landscape anyway, eliminating any game that’s built for portrait mode. Landscape works best for the key functions of the U7 so it’s not a huge disadvantage. But still, considering how a device like the Samsung Beam uses its gyroscope to adjust its projector between landscape or portrait, it’s a little strange the U7 skips portrait all together.
Orientation aside, the U7 holds a big advantage over smartphones with embedded projectors in that it isn’t too big. The projector doesn’t extend past the edge of the U7 because most of the module is built into a small bump on the back of the device. That bump houses speakers and the rear-mounted camera as well as the internal workings of the projector. Because the Texas Instruments chip powering the projector is so small—it’s roughly the size of a Tic Tac despite packing millions of micro mirrors—the bump is barely a nuisance. Strangely though, the U7 has a protruding strip on the bottom of the back. It’s likely there so the device will lie flat when placed on its back. But without it, the projector might be at a better angle. As it stands, you’ll need to find something to prop up the front of the tablet to project from a flat surface.
At $299, the U7 isn’t ridiculously priced but it still runs a fair bit more than other more functional 7-inch tablets. On top of that, it’ll be tough to find it outside of SmartDevice’s website and some small online retailers—though a rep for the company says SmartDevices expects to the see the U7 on Amazon before too long.
Where the U7 literally shines is with its projector. Not only in the projector’s performance—which is more than adequate—but in its ability to blend the projector into the standard build of a small tablet. On any given consumer tablet, an embedded pico projector might be tenth on the list of most used features. But if it’s possible to tuck it into the body of the tablet so it’s basically out of sight until you need it—like the U7 has done—then there’s no reason we won’t see it popping up in more tablets in the future.