First Click: I hate myself for wanting this tiny Android-powered projector from Indiegogo

March 30th, 2016

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Let’s get something out of the way: I don’t trust Indiegogo. I’ve seen one too many flexible-funding campaigns not deliver upon claims or pass themselves off as the inventors of something already for sale through China’s Alibaba. Yet here I am poised to write a bunch of words that might sway you into giving money to Indiegogo and a Chinese brand you’ve never heard of.

But first, some background.

Indiegogo is currently running a China Pilot Program. Whereas Kickstarter once tried to convince the world that it wasn’t a store, Indiegogo is taking the opposite approach by wooing established Chinese manufacturers hoping to break into Western markets. Right now, that’s only about a dozen or so companies, one of which is XGIMI Technology (pronounced "ex gee-mee"), or 极米 as it’s known in China. The company claims to be the "largest smart projector producer in China." I wasn’t able to confirm that, but I can tell you about its first Indiegogo product: the XGIMI Z4 Aurora, an LED projector that’s shooting this text onto my living room wall as I type.

The Z4 Aurora is pure gadget. It’s a nice looking portable WXGA (1280x800) projector with 802.11ac Wi-Fi that adorably says "hello, gimi" as it boots into its custom Android 4.3 skin. It can be controlled by the included Bluetooth remote that doubles as a surprisingly handy on-screen pointer (enabled with a vigorous shake); or by a keyboard and mouse you supply; or by a very useful app that’s freely available to download for iOS or Android. And unlike many so-called pico projectors, this one’s really bright, pumping out a reported 700 ANSI lumens while maintaining a relatively small footprint of 7.72 x 7.72 x 1.97 inches (196 x 196 x 50mm) and 2.65 pounds (1.2kg). It’s also very quiet, rated below 30dB according to XGIMI. And wow, is it versatile.

Content can be sourced over the two HDMI jacks or the USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports. Better yet, because it’s running Android you can download apps directly into the projector’s 16GB of onboard storage, and then login to Netflix, Plex, Hulu, YouTube, VLC, etc, and stream your content over Wi-Fi or built-in Ethernet. It supports Miracast, DLNA, and even AirPlay (XGIMI tells me it developed its own solution for video) to mirror or "cast" your media from a PC, Mac, Android, or iOS device. AirPlay worked fine from my MacBook, but I was never able to AirPlay from my iPhone 6 Plus.

The Z4 Aurora handled everything I threw at it without stutter. 1080p video played without hiccups over AirPlay as did a 4K MKV video stored on a USB 2.0 thumb drive. In both cases, the Z4 Aurora down-sampled the video to 720p. I even watched 10 minutes of a 1080p 3D movie served over Plex thanks to the active 3D glasses XGIMI bundled with my review unit (it created a dimly lit 3D effect which some people seem to enjoy). Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube all streamed without issue as well, though they were again limited to 720p resolution. And after an early issue with HDMI (more on that later), I was also able to use the Z4 Aurora with my Apple TV. Business users can even turn the Z4 Aurora into a Wi-Fi hotspot and then use a smartphone or other device to project or control Office documents and PDFs.

I’m not what you’d call a gamer. But Matt Furtado over at The Examiner tested the Z4 Aurora with an Xbox One and PS4 and came away impressed.

XGIMI Z4 Aurora size comparison
Size comparison: 9.7-inch iPad and Libratone Zipp speaker next to the Z4 Aurora

The first time I heard the Harman Kardon speakers I had to laugh because they were so unexpectedly loud. Not much bass, mind you, but they offered far better audio than you’ll typically find in a projector. And when even better audio is required you can just tether a speaker to the Z4 Aurora’s audio jack or pair one over Bluetooth. I paired a Libratone Zipp to create a pretty impressive movie experience.

Placement of the projector also wasn’t an issue thanks to XGIMI’s tripod mounting kit and built-in keystone correction capable of a ±35 degree vertical adjustment and a ±30 degree horizontal adjustment. You can also flip the image upside down (or reverse it) for ceiling installations. Focusing is done with a slide of the switch at the bottom of the bluetooth remote which transforms the volume buttons into focal controls. In practice, I was projecting sharp rectangular images from some fairly bizarre angles I didn’t think would be possible. The correction process is simple enough that I happily took the projector to a different room when the kids wanted to use the living room to watch TV. Not that I had much of a choice: my living room with large east-facing windows was simply too bright to enjoy the Z4 Aurora’s projected image during the day.

XGIMI touts an image of up to 300 inches. While it’s true you can go giant with the display, you’ll need a very dark room to fully appreciate it at that size. Even then, you’ll notice the pixelation of that 720p resolution unless you’re viewing it from very far away. The Z4 Aurora isn’t a $3,500 home theater projector capable of 1,800 lumens. But it’s so portable and flexible that you can always move it to a dark corner, even if the image has to be shrunk to a relatively "small" 100 inches.

I have other minor complaints, too. The review sample I received was not yet fully internationalized and didn’t come with an English manual (both should be ready for Indiegogo buyers, I’m told). Nevertheless, a little trial and error got me through the setup, as did some direct support from XGIMI. The gesture controls that let you wave your hand above the projector to control playback and audio were cute but proved to be little more than a gimmick in day to day use. There's also a disabled microphone button on the remote control that only works with Chinese language. More importantly, my unit shipped with two non-working HDMI jacks. Honestly, I didn’t even notice it until after five days of use because the Android apps provided access to all the content I needed (game console owners will feel differently). XGIMI sent me a firmware update that fixed the HDMI problem in less than a day after I reported it.

So, that brings me back to Indiegogo. As of today you can preorder the Z4 Aurora for what I consider a reasonable $449 + shipping (retail price will be $699) with a June 2016 ship date. And because this product has been shipping in China for several months, it’s likely to hit that date without any issue. But what happens when your projector ships with two disabled HDMI jacks like my review sample did? (For what it's worth, XGIMI assures me that won't happen.) Or maybe it's some other issue — what kind of support can you expect from a new company selling outside of China for the first time? That’s the risk you need to weigh. If I had to measure it, I’d say your risk with the XGIMI fits somewhere about midway between this troubled Indiegogo Sprojector campaign (high risk) and buying a new Epson from Best Buy (low risk). But those are pretty good odds for Indiegogo.

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