I've always liked the idea of having a projector, but never actually owned one. It always seemed like too much work: Sure, projecting movies like in theatres would be sweet, but then I'd have to set it up all the time. Isn't there a better way?
Actually, yes: ZTE makes a projector that's also a tiny, LTE-equipped Android tablet. The movies are built in. That's better -- but I'm still not sure who this clever projector is for. Cinephiles on the go? Business men that need to be able to whip out a projected slideshow at a moment's notice? I spent a week with it to try and find out.
What Is It?
A jack of all trades and a master of none. The ZTE Spro 2 is a tiny, kind of awkward Android tablet (running Android 4.4.4, if you must know), a sort of large and bulky 4G LTE hotspot and a portable, 200 Lumen projector. It's pretty awesome, but also completely awkward and weird. It's very much a "sometimes" gadget, something that doesn't have a regular place in my day-to-day life, but can be handy to have around.
OK, let me level with you: I called the ZTE Spro 2 part tablet, but that's not completely true. Yes, it has a landscape-oriented touchscreen with an Android interface, but using it for more than a few minutes is kind of uncomfortable.
You can blame the chassis -- the Spro 2 is primarily a projector, and it's shaped like one: It's a big, heavy, inch-thick brick. You aren't going to use it to check your email, play touch games, browse the web or anything like that: this device's screen is just a means to end… and that's ok! This thing exists to project movies, and it's surprisingly great at that.
Getting started is easy: The typical viewing session consists of tapping the smartphone-sized touchscreen a few times to launch a streaming app (Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, whatever), picking your programing and tapping a floating "projector" icon that's always hovering in the screen's upper right hand corner. That's it. The projector focuses automatically, the quick menu lets you adjust brightness (between low, medium and high, although only low and medium are available if you're running on battery) and it's pretty great.
If you want to get really advanced, the options menu lets you manually adjust the focus or digitally tilt the projection to match the angle of a wall or ceiling. You can manage Android projection, Miracast or HDMI inputs -- more than enough options to provide a deeper projection experience, if you need it.
The problem I had was figuring where it fit in my life.
What I Actually Used It For
As a portable projector, the ZTE Spro 2 doesn't fit easily into my life. At home, I already have a 40-inch television and a dozen other screens on which I can enjoy content. If I'm going over to a friend's house for movie night, they probably also have a TV, a solid internet connection, or sometimes even a high-end home theatre projector. For the Spro 2 to make sense, I had to put myself into a situation where I needed a large screen and a stable internet connection in a place where I would normally have neither. That was hard.
See, the projector has its limits: It can only go up to medium brightness on battery, which makes it pretty worthless outdoors during daylight hours (though it was perfectly usable indoors, with the lights on, as long as the projector was within four or five feet of the target surface). I tried using it to watch a movie in my backyard BBQ pit, but it was pretty hard to see until the sun started setting.
The best use I can imagine the Spro 2 is camping. Maybe it's late at night and you can't sleep -- it's already dark and tent material makes a great makeshift projector screen, why not watch a movie? But... I'm not going camping anytime soon.
I did manage to watch a few movies on the Spro 2 while my TV was unplugged over the weekend (I was rearranging the furniture), but that doesn't happen on a regular basis -- and while the Spro 2 is technically a full Android tablet, it's too awkward to use for more than a couple of minutes. So what did I use it for? Well, it turns out it's a pretty good LTE hotspot. When my internet died last week, the Spro was there -- pumping fast, reliable LTE wifi to all the devices in my house. It's absurdly large for a LTE hotspot, true -- but the functionality made it useful to me on a more regular basis -- power outages, train rides, airport layovers. That's a big deal.
The projector is smart enough to know if its projecting on a slanted surface, and will automatically adjust the angle of the projection to compensate for the surface. It made watching TV on my ceiling much nicer.
Battery Life: The projector was able to Stream Netflix over LTE for 2:40 minutes, enough to watch almost any film.
In addition to mirroring its own screen and projecting Miracast devices, the ZTE Spro 2 has a full-sized HDMI input.
The audio quality is iffy at best. Yeah, you can hear everything just fine, but it's not particularly loud and there's no discernible stereo separation. I didn't expect much more from the tiny box's speakers, but the disconnect between where the screen was and where the audio coming from was noticeable. Pair it with a bluetooth speaker if you want a better audio experience.
Battery Life: The projector was able to Stream Netflix over LTE for 2:40 minutes, not quite enough to watch any movie in my library.
HDMI input (and projection) is capped at 720p. Hardly a dealbreaker, but definitely a bummer.
You know that micro USB cable you use to charge every phone and tablet you own? It won't work with the Spro 2.
Should You Buy It?
If you're, say, a film buff or live a life where you're frequently somewhere without a TV or internet connection when you'd like to have both, absolutely buy it. The ZTE Spro 2 is a decently bright little projector that runs on batteries and has access to all your favourite streaming services. It can double as a wireless hotspot in times of need, and even has HDMI input to double as a presentation projector for your laptop. It's a nice product for people who will find a use for it...but even these people probably won't find themselves using it on a daily basis.
The ZTE Spro 2 is a good sometimes gadget. It's like a inflatable pool, a hammock or a propane grill. You aren't going to use it every day, and that's ok -- because you're going to enjoy the hell out of it when you do use it. Just make sure you really really want it for the handful of times you are going to pull it out. At $US400 (on contract!), it's not cheap.