Android is a truly unique platform and one of the clear benefits of such an operating system is that if a manufacturer wants, they can pretty much include android on anything they like. Within reason of course, but the point is the availability of android to step outside of the traditional mobile/tablet design is there to be had. The ZTE Spro 2 Smart Projector is a prime example of this stepping outside the box. The Spro 2 was first unveiled back at CES 2015 and became available towards the end of last month as an exclusive to AT&T. The main purpose of the Spro 2 is to be a projector and with a price tag that comes in at $499 outright, it is an expensive unit. So is it worth it?
As this is a projector, tech specs are not as defining as they might be on a smartphone. As such, this should be kept in mind, as on paper the specs are not mind-blowing. That said, they are nothing to be sniffed at either. In terms of the display, the Spro 2 comes equipped with a 5-inch display with a 1280 x 720 resolution. Inside. the Spro 2 comes equipped with 2 GB RAM and powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor (clocking at 2.3 GHz). This is along with an Adreno 330 for processing the graphics. In terms of memory, the Spro 2 comes as standard, equipped with 16 GB internal storage. This might not sound a lot for what is essentially a media player, but there is also the inclusion of a microSD card slot which offers support up to 2 TB. Additional features on offer include WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, a 6,300 mAh battery, a Hotspot feature which allows connection of up to ten devices while everything comes running with Android 4.4.4 (KitKat).
Design & Hardware
Normally, when talking about the design of a smartphone or a tablet, the phrases you will hear most often is how sleek the device is, its thinness and general premium aspects. This is not quite the case when it comes to the Spro 2. Instead of being what one would consider an attractive device, the Spro does feel (and is) a little bulky and lacking the form factor which is now commonly expected from a device. The Spro 2 is essentially a box based design although the corners are curved which is one of the only aspects that you could relate to a smartphone. This said, the Spro 2 is anything but ugly. The device is extremely well-built and this is evident from the largely metal body and 5-inch display that takes up most of the real estate on the front of the device. In fact, the only notable hardware element on the front of the Spro 2 is the large metal power button which is nicely centered on the front side of the unit.
Moving on to the main control side of the device and here you will find all the input and outputs nicely grouped together. Again, this is where the Spro 2 highlights its compatibility. Besides the power supply input socket, there is also a USB 3.0 port, a 3.5 mm jack socket, a HDMI (full-size) as well as microSD card slot.
Moving around again and the left and right sides remain rather vacant with only the volume up and down controls located on the left side and a fan to keep the unit cool (which is certainly needed) located on the right.
Lastly, the base of the device includes the rubber feet to steady the unit, a tripod mount and a very handy small kickstand to help position the unit more effectively on a flat surface.
Software & Usage
Now, straight away the idea of software on a projector is going to be limited. This is to be understood. However, ZTE has surprisingly excelled in this particular department. The Spro 2 comes with Android 4.4.4 (Kitkat) as the base and ZTE have largely stuck to stock Android. However, they have adapted the launcher to be much more projector-friendly and it is an adjustment which works very well indeed.
As soon as the device boots up the main screen will be a step away from what you are used to on KitKat and does take a few minutes to get used to. However, once you understand the layout, it completely makes sense and makes navigating the unit far easier. The main home screen consists of much larger and flatter icon tabs which are broken down into the main features, Seemingly, their size also dictates their importance, so the projector tab is the largest quickly followed by the Hotspot tab, then by the Google suite of apps and then lastly, the Play Store has its own dedicated icon on the homescreen for quick installation of Netflix or other apps you might want.
The launcher also contains some rather neatly thought through tabs at the top which allow quick navigation to where you want. Those are group by family and therefore, you have an apps tab, an office tab, media tab, settings tab and so on. These can be arranged, not to mention you can also create your own tabs and delete when wanted.
Of course, the main element of this device is the projector and therefore it should not be too surprising that it comes with its own settings and controls. However, before we come to that, it does have to be noted that there is a floating icon which appears on all screens and this is probably the most useful feature on the Spro 2. The floating icon is the quick launch feature which immediately allows for launching of the projector and projecting what is currently on the screen. Once clicked, a small floating window appears which then adds other quick launch controls for the projector.
As this is KitKat, the software is not the quickest but by no means it is slow either. There were no issues at all in flicking between any of the software elements and generally, the software was thought of as very fast. The only amendments or inclusions ZTE have added, are ones which do genuine add benefits to the software experience and this has certainly been one of the main areas where ZTE have improved over the previous Spro design.
Battery life & Performance
Again, although battery life will be one of the sticking points for mobile devices, it is certainly less of an issue for the Spro 2. How often, you will be using the Spro 2 on the road is negotiable. This is meant to be a plugged-in unit and therefore battery life will not be a massive deal breaker here. That said, the Spro 2 does come equipped with a big 6,300mAh battery inside. According to the claims by ZTE, this is supposed to offer about 10 hours of normal use or about 3 hours of continuous video projection use. In reality, this does seem to be a very fair claim. When tested, the Spro 2 did continuously offer around the 3-hour mark for video playback. This was very slightly negotiable and sometimes you could exceed the 3-hour marker or shoot just underneath, but as an average three hours of continuous playback on battery is certainly achievable.
In fact, the only real issues with the battery was that the device has a tendency to get extremely hot when used in projector mode. At times, the level of heat was slightly worrying as the unit runs very hot. However, there was a never an issue either on battery or plugged in with the heat affecting display to the running of the unit. It just seems to run hot. So it is worth keeping that in mind, as it will be something you notice very quickly with the Spro 2.
Being designed as a projector, the projector aspect is probably the most important aspect of all. In terms of the Spro 2, the projector works extremely well. There were no issues when testing in any aspect of how the projector performs and overall the function works as reliably and consistently as you could hope for. Once the projector aspect is set and activated, the image projects immediately and there was never any noticeable lag or delay noted. In terms of coverage, the Spro 2 does not disappoint here either and does project extremely well onto wall or ceiling surfaces. Of course, the size of the display is dependent on the distance between the object and target, therefore, to really take advantage of the full size display, the Spro 2 does need to be at least 10 feet away from where you want to project the image to. From there, the image displayed, is to its maximize size. The resolution on offer is here, is certainly not the best, but again, for a projector and taking into consideration the size of the display provided, the resolution was good sufficient.
Almost immediately after activating the projector feature it will become clear that the system employs an auto focus function and once again, this works rather well. Within a second or two the system will adjust itself to the most optimum display it can.
For those who like to tinker with the focus themselves, then this is possible by deactivating the auto focus, heading into the settings and using the - and + controls. However, in reality the auto focus works extremely well and the user is unlikely to be able to adjust it any better with the simple controls offered in the settings. Therefore, the truth of the matter is that you are far better off leaving the auto focus on and letting the system do it itself. ZTE does seem to have designed the system to be this way.
Another interesting feature worth pointing out is the keystone feature which is built in. This is a very handy feature and allows for auto correction of the projected display to a rectangular view, even when the display is not perfectly horizontal. In short, it always makes sure your view is perfectly rectangular.
In terms of what content you can project, this is rather unlimited. You can of course project content locally from the device's internal storage. Not to mention, you can just as easily cast from your Google Drive account (or any Google app for that matter). During testing, this was the most commonly used feature and it worked very well without issue. However, if you do want to cast from an external device then you can just as easily. Casting can be activated from any mobile device that sports Miracast and there is also the option to plug in devices into the Spro 2 using the HDMI port. This means you can project a laptop, additional device or even the Nexus Player without issue.
One of the issues worth noting with the projector, applies to only when using the projector in the on battery mode. In these instances, the projector does not allow for projected content to be displayed at the highest brightness which is disappointing. In fact, the projector will only allow for projecting at medium or low brightness when the battery is in use and does not allow the user to override this. To be fair, this is probably for both safety reasons and to also ensure sufficient battery life. With those points in mind, the limitation of brightness is understandable but nevertheless disappointing and something that those who are thinking about the Spro 2 as a portable device should keep in mind. To utilize the full brightness mode, the device does need to be plugged in.
Lastly, another issue which is relevant to when the device is in projecting mode (compared to on-screen usages) is the speaker audio. The Spro 2 does only come with a single speaker and it is not very loud. It is fine for when using the on-screen mode and does give a typically smartphone/tablet level and quality of audio. However, when using the projector and especially for watching video content you will want to use an additional speaker. Of course, the Spro 2 is built perfectly to adapt to third party speakers and as such you can connect one via the 3.5 mm jack socket or simply over Bluetooth. At which point, you are left with a much more cinema-like experience.
The Spro 2 is not exactly a device which can be easily compared to any other. It is unique in this sense and cannot be compared to the specs of a smartphone or tablet, as it is neither. Nor can it be effectively compared to other projectors due to the inclusion of the android operating system. Therefore, the Spro 2 can only really be judged on what it claims to do and the expectations you have of the device. From this perspective, the Spro 2 is an excellent device. It is certainly an improvement on the original Spro and offers a much more user-friendly experience. The software is ever well designed for the project and its ease of use is evident out of the box. That said, the device does heat up a lot and the 3 hour battery life coupled with the lack of full brightness when on battery, does limit the Spro 2's use as a portable unit, However, if you are looking for a unit that offers a work based solution for your presentations, a media and cinema-like experience for your movie watching or just a more all-encompassing gaming experience then the Spro 2 will be more than sufficient. Is it worth the $499 price tag (or $399 on an AT&T 2-year contract)? In short, yes. If you can see the value in a product like this, then you will not be disappointed. That said, if you do not see the need for a projector in your life, even one running android, then this might not be for you.