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Portable Vs. Pico Projectors, What’s The Difference And Which Are Best?


If you go searching for portable projectors to deliver big screen viewing on the go, you’re likely to run into results discussing what are known as pico projectors. They’re called that due to their tiny size, and indeed they are very portable. But they also hardly qualify as projectors. That’s where proper portable projectors come in, typically equipped with far superior brightness, excellent image quality thanks to digital light processing tech (DLP), and long lasting batteries.

You may want a projector that’s light and compact, but the pico category has quite a few disadvantages that’ll compromise your large format viewing experiences. Whether for work or entertainment, if the projector is too small then it’s not going to give you the screen size, image quality, or features you want and deserve. As of this writing, there are still limits to how small the projector can be before it stops being a projector. Therefore, it’s important to distinguish between portable and pico projectors, as the two categories often get intermixed on retail sites and other venues. You don’t want to get the wrong one and then regret it. 

Portable vs. Pico Projectors, What’s the Difference and Which are Best?

What are Pico Projectors?

As denoted by “pico”, these are mini projectors or micro projectors, and the term projector is used generously here. They’re very small and of course light, so you can effortlessly move them around, carry them in your pocket or a bag, and take them anywhere.

But due to their tiny size, these devices have very limited projection capabilities, and are not suited to much more than viewing a display about the size of a TV for a short period time, as their built-in batteries lack the power needed for extended sessions. Sure, you can use USB wired power, but even then, pico projectors have lots of limitations as they’re not meant for true large format, big screen viewing. 

How are Portable Projectors Different?

The innards of pico projectors are very different from those of portable projectors. The pico category almost universally uses simple single panel LCDs to show images, meaning they’re essentially the same as smartphones in terms of projection power. The really cheap ones are more on the level of a calculator screen. But unlike phones and other LCD-based devices, pico projectors don’t settle for showing images on a small screen, they try to project a large image. But they lack the power and brightness to do that properly. Pico projectors are also essentially useless for good quality outdoors use.

Portable projectors, at least the good ones, use DLP technology, which is related to cinematic projectors and even movie theaters. The mirror-like components and lamps within a DLP-based portable projector have very respectable illumination power, resulting in bright images, rich colors, and flexible positioning. Pico projectors have to be placed very close to whatever surface they’re projecting onto, otherwise the image gets diffused very quickly.

In addition to the light source and projection technology, pico and portable projectors differ in terms of battery power. A good portable projector will go for over three hours on internal battery, while pico projectors can barely do a third of that without having to recharge through a wired power source. Additionally, portable projectors give you extras like integrated, powerful Bluetooth speakers for an all-in-one design. Pico projectors either have no speakers or feature basic, tinny sound. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Pico Projectors

Beyond a compact and light design, pico projectors appeal to potential buyers with low prices, typically starting at a modest US$25. They fit in your pocket and don’t hit the wallet too hard, therefore seeming like an easy fix. But they’re not, especially with current technology. 

That’s because on the downside, pico projectors have mediocre image quality that gets hazy towards the edges. Brightness is very limited (100 lumens in most cases), and so is resolution (480p if you’re lucky). Add short battery life and you get devices that aren’t suitable for any kind of serious projection. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Portable Projectors

As display products, the most important end-goal of projectors is to project. Sure, it’s nice to have a compact and portable device, but if the image is subpar, then what’s the point? That’s like having a really compact car that can only go five miles an hour, carry one person, and travel ten miles before running out of power. Might as well take the bus!

Pluses for portable projectors with DLP technology are obvious. Brightness starts at 100 lumens, with 500 lumens possible as well, meaning indoor and outdoor usage are both covered. Resolution is usually 720p with support for 1080p content. Battery life goes to 2.5 hours or more. DLP projection in portable projectors is essentially the same as that used in full-size, professional projectors. It’s a proven technology with a reliable lifespan of at least 100,000 hours. You’re not going to get that with the nearly-disposable design of cheap pico projectors.

Minuses for portable projectors are likewise inherent in their design. They’re bigger and heavier than pico models, and of course cost more. They don’t fit in your pocket, but your bag will do fine. 

Bottom Line

You may find yourself enticed by the obviously cheap price of pico projectors. That’s why we decided to write this article, to let you know that cheap prices come at hefty costs if you end up getting a product that doesn’t do what you expect it to do. For serious projection in entertainment or productivity, portable projectors offer a superior experience in every possible way, and are worth the investment. 


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