ZTE Spro2 (Verizon) review: A smart projector for your on-the-go lifestyle

ZTE ups the Spro line in all the right ways

[dropcaps]It’s always fun to play with a niche device.  With regard to Android in general, we default to smartphones.  But we shouldn’t forget that the flexibility of the platform allows for some interesting products.  I was fortunately able to review such product, the ZTE Spro2 smart projector.[/dropcaps]

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I’m sure most of us knew about portable projectors by now, most certainly if you’ve walked by a Brookstone store in a mall.  However, we’re not talking about child’s play here.  The Spro line of projectors are meant to be robust, functional, and capable of keeping up with your demands, whether for work or play.

The Spro’s 2nd iteration takes ZTE’s first crack at a portable Android projector and makes improvements all across the board.  It also adds 4G LTE and Mobile Hotspot capability.  Let’s take a look at what you get.

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Design

When I took the Spro2 out of the box, I couldn’t help but think “high-end”.  The material, construction, and heft worked in unison to straight-away justify the price tag.

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Now, this isn’t a slim or light device, it comes in roughly 1″ thick and weighs about a pound.  But I don’t think you want to look at it like you do a smartphone.  I welcome its robust feel.  I want it to stay put when I place it down.  I want a great grip when handling it.  Kudos to ZTE, I always love to see a well-built device.

I must mention that while promo images of the Spro2 make it appear like it has a metal build (such as those chamfered edges), it is in fact plastic.  Although, it’s not a cheap plastic.  I don’t get a feeling of cheapness whatsoever.

On the top of the projector, we’re greeted with modest 5″ LCD screen.  There’s a single button under the screen, which I initially thought was a home button.  It’s actually the power button.  It has an illuminated ring on it, which is a nice touch.  For software navigation, there are KitKat-style capacitive buttons under the display (Back, Home, and Menu).

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On the left side, we have round volume buttons.  These actually appear to be metal, and have chamfered edges as well.  They shine with a high-end look.

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On the right side, there is nothing but an airflow vent to keep the projector’s heat at bay when it’s fully running.

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The front side contains all of the I/O.  We’ll run through all the specs later.  You can see that the SIM tray and microSD tray are accessible via SIM removal tool.  The power input is on the left.

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The bottom of the device is fairly standard.  We have more ventilation, rubber feet at each corner to keep the device put, a screw hole for mounting on a tripod, and a kickstand to prop the projection up.  The external speaker outputs through the bottom.

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Lastly, the projector lamp is located at the rear of the device.  Next to it is a sensor (more on that later), and a ZTE logo on the opposite end.  These components sit behind a glass panel.  Fortunately, ZTE thought to seat the glass inward slightly, in which the chassis serves as a lip to keep the glass from getting scratched.

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Functionality

The Spro2 comes well equipped, with smartphone-level of specs.  Here’s a breakdown:

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  • Display: 5″ LCD touchscreen display with 720p resolution
  • SoC: Snapdragon 800 (2.0GHz quad-core processor)
  • Memory: 2GB of RAM
  • Storage: 16GB on-board, expandable up to 64GB with microSD
  • Audio:  External mono speaker and 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Battery: 6,300mAh capacity (rated at 2.5 hours of projection time)
  • Connectivity: WiFi (802.11 b/g/n) and Verizon 4G LTE
  • OS: Android 4.4.4 (KitKat)

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You may be thinking that these specs are yesteryear, but again, the Spro2 isn’t meant to compete with smartphones.  It has the specs it needs for its purpose.

The projector itself is capable of a 720p projection.  This is really the only spec that’s a bit bothersome to me.  We know that the Snapdragon 800 is capable of 1080p from its past uses in smartphones.  Also, the projection can reach a massive 120″ screen size (recommended max), and spreading the smaller pixel count over that larger area is not ideal.

 

ZTE has done a great job to provide the user options to get their content passed through.  While Spro2 has its own storage and ability to stream content, you also have a HDMI port to hook up an external device.  There is also a full-sized USB port to use a flash drive as a source.

Furthermore, support for Miracast is on-board, if you want to project your smartphone/tablet.  And ZTE threw in wireless control of projector via an Android app.

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This particular version of the Spro2 is made to be used with Verizon‘s network.  Access to Verizon’s 4G LTE data speeds bolsters the usefulness of the device when you’re out and about.  In addition, the Spro2 can serve as a Mobile Hotspot for your other devices.

Performance

The Spro2 navigates without a hitch.  It’s as fluid as you would want for basic Android navigation.  Apps open and close in a snap.  Web browsing and scrolling is smooth.  I have no complaints on the choice of SoC or software optimization.

The projector lamp turns on quickly.  There’s a permanent projector widget on the front homepage, which lets you turn the turn the bulb on/off on the fly, adjust the brightness, and turn on/off the auto-focus.

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My only complaint is that the auto-focus can be finicky at times.  There were a couple times it refused to focus and I had to move the device for it to try again.  I don’t know what throws it off sometimes, maybe it’s the environment’s lighting.  But this only happened a handful of times.  Most of the time it focused spot-on, within a couple seconds.

Display and Projection Quality

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The display quality is fine and dandy.  720p resolution is okay for a 5″ screen.  No, it’s not the clearest and best ppi, but I don’t look at the screen and resent it.  It works.

The same can be said for the screen quality.  The colors are decent, they match what I would expect from an average LCD panel.  Viewing angles could be better.  The image slightly dims when you look at it from an angle, but I can still see what’s on the screen clearly.

The projector uses DLP technology.  It is rated at 200 Lumens of brightness.  Although, an important factor to keep in mind is that you cannot maximize the projector’s brightness output unless it’s plugged into the AC adapter.  The max the battery is allowed to push out is medium brightness.

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If you recall that sensor I skipped over in the hardware tour, that is actually to counter “keystoning”.  If you’ve ever played around with a projector, at an angle the rectangular image can distort into a trapezoid (the keystone effect).  The sensor makes corrections as you move the projector and keeps the projection rectangular.  This is pretty neat if you’re projecting on a ceiling and want to change the angle.

You won’t find a focusing dial on the Spro2, as it has the ability to auto-focus.  But if for some reason you prefer to manually control it, you can within the projector settings.

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Despite being a 720p projection, I was satisfied with the image quality.  Of course, you’ll have to mind the size of the projection and find a good balance.  The farther you pull the projector back (larger you make the screen), the more blurry the image becomes.  Brightness is also affected proportionally.

On a well-lit room, I struggled to see the image (matching the size to my 70″ TV) on the Medium brightness.  Although, using the projector in a dark area is more practical.  I was merely testing the limits.  Switching to the High brightness, I was impressed how visible the image was.

Moving to a darker space for the real test, I got some satisfactory results.  I set the projector across my room, which is about 12 feet from the opposing wall.  This gave me about a 97″ image.  The Medium brightness setting worked fine in this situation.  The Low brightness was not ideal.  I could navigate and web browse well enough, but I wouldn’t recommend it for movie-watching.  The area would have to be close to pitch black for Low brightness to be a viable option.

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I played a movie and the quality met my expectations.  Mind you, it’s not going to blow you away with a crystal clear picture and vivid colors.  But if you’ve ever seen a DLP projection before, this is on par.  I could tell a bit of fuzzyness due to the stretched pixels, but not too bad.  The colors with projections are on the dull side, but I at least didn’t get any discoloration or uneven imaging.

Battery Life

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Although the Spro2 packs a hefty 6,300mAh battery, projectors take a lot of power.  Therefore, ZTE rates the running battery life at 2.5 hours.  However, I’m wondering if that’s at the Low or Medium brightness setting (remember that you can’t use High brightness on battery power).  Regardless, I put it to the test.

I picked a lengthy movie (LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring) and set the projector on the Medium brightness setting.  I tried two test runs:  1) Downloading the movie onto the device and playing until it died and 2) Streaming the movie (through Google Play) over WiFi until it died.

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1) Medium brightness, no streaming:

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Based on ZTE’s battery rating, I wasn’t expecting that I would have to restart the movie.  I got close to 4 hours before it quit.  Excellent!

2) Medium brightness, streaming over WiFi:

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I got an impressive result here as well (relative to the rated battery life).  ZTE may have been conservative with the 2.5 hour rating, my guess is because of the extra power LTE can pull if you’re streaming over Verizon’s network (which would also depend on the strength of the signal).  And of course if you’re doing other things (such as utilizing the Mobile Hotspot feature), I can see your battery life going south pretty quickly.  3-4 hours doesn’t leave much room in the grand scheme of things.

Bear in mind that these results were with the Medium brightness setting.  If Low brightness could work for you, that would stretch the battery life even further.

Software

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It is always a bummer when a new device doesn’t have the latest version of Android.  But then again, a projector isn’t going to see hardcore use.  Android 4.4 serves well to provide fluent, basic functionality.

ZTE of course has their own software tweaks.  This is expected so that the niche features of the projector are taken advantage of.  Upon powering on the Spro2, we’re greeted with a tile-style layout (not unlike the look of Windows Phones).  The tiles represent apps, folders, or widgets.

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Instead of Android panels, we scroll left and right through categories/tabs.  The default tabs are:  Home, Media, Office, Settings, and Apps.  With the exception of Home and Settings, you’re able to delete/add more tabs.  It can get crowded quickly, so ZTE only lets you add two additional tabs (for a total of 7).

You’re able to move tiles around to your preference, and create folders and add apps to different tabs.  The exceptions are the Projector and Google Search widgets in the Home tab and the anything in the Settings tab.

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The App drawer navigation functions the same as on the stock OS.  The notification pull-down has added projector functions.  And we have KitKat-style Recent Apps when we hold down the Menu capacitive key.

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Final Thoughts

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I was impressed with my time with the ZTE Spro2.  It is a well-built effort for folks who have a need for a projector on-the-go.  It is suitable both for work and play and doubles-up as a Mobile Hotspot when your other devices need connectivity.

However, it isn’t cheap.  This Verizon variant of the Spro2 would set you back $599 (there is an AT&T version that is $100 less off-contract, at $499).  But this is typically the story with niche devices.  There aren’t many portable projectors out there that are this smart.  Therefore, having a well-thought-out rarity such as the Spro2 can be justification enough to cough up the money, if your lifestyle begs for it.

Oh, and how else can you use Android on the side of your house?

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