Portability without a sacrifice in quality
Nebula is a brand name you might not be familiar with, which is certainly forgivable since the Mars is the company's first retail product. Nebula’s parent company, Anker, is a highly regarded smartphone accessories manufacturer who makes everything from Bluetooth speakers to portable smartphone chargers, and even the cables that connect all our devices together. While the market for these types of devices is certainly flooded with competition, the portable projector market isn’t. That’s where Nebula comes in; the Mars projector isn’t necessarily one of a kind, but it combines more things together than many would consider in a projector, and aims to be your one-stop shop for on-the-go entertainment needs. How does this $599 projector fare in real-world use? Let’s take a look.
Specs and What’s in the Box
$599 is what many would consider a reasonable price for a flagship phone, but projectors are in a completely different pricing category. At around $500 you can get a pretty decent portable projector that provides good contrast ratios and a reasonable level of brightness, but most of the projectors in this category aren’t smart projectors like the Nebula Mars. Outputting a fairly standard 1280x800 resolution image, the Nebula Mars outshines competitors by upping the brightness to a whopping 3000 nits, or well above the average, and at least 3x what most portable projectors in this price range offer. The projection range is rated between 12 and 300 inches diagonally, all done via a DLP engine inside with a 1.2:1 throw ratio. The 0.45”DMD display chip inside covers 120% of Rec.709 color spectrum, and provides a 10,000:1 contrast ratio in ideal conditions with 90% rated display uniformity. Sources up to 4K quality are accepted via the HDMI 2.0 port on the back, although it of course scales this down to 1280x800.
WiFi support for dual-band 2.4Ghz and 5GHz up to 802.11ac speeds is built in, as well as Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy for wireless audio devices like headphones or speakers. Stereo 10W JBL speakers are found on each side of the Mars, and a 3.5mm audio jack is on the back for easy wired audio output. The Nebula Mars measures in at 122mm wide, 178mm long and 138mm tall, weighing 66.7oz/1890g. A 19,500mAh battery sits inside, running alongside a quad-core 1.15GHz ARM Cortex-A7 processor, 1GB of RAM and 12GB of internal storage, with the ability to expand this storage via regular USB Type-A sticks at up to USB 3.0 speeds. Android 4.4.4 KitKat runs the software side of the house, with a very transformative skin atop that looks strikingly similar to AndroidTV, and uses the Aptoide app store for managing apps. Inside the box you’ll find the projector, user manual, remote control and the 19v/3a wall outlet power cord that’s needed to charge the battery inside the Nebula Mars. The Nebula Mars comes with a standard 12-month manufacturer’s warranty.
Hardware and Design
The Nebula Mars is primarily designed to be a portable projector, and as such the overall design and aesthetics of the product reflect that. Prominently displayed up top is a large leather strap, which is well built and feels incredibly sturdy. I never felt like I had to worry about the strap breaking off the unit, or something equally dubious. This is good since the Nebula Mars is fairly heavy; a side effect of having a large 19,500mAh battery inside the unit, not to mention the rest of the projection components of course. The unit is more or less a high cube design, taller and longer than it is wide, and sits flat on a rubber ring base at the bottom. A standard tripod-type mount is also found on the bottom, giving rise to the ability to effectively mount the projector anywhere you’d like. For the review I used a tripod, in fact, but any standard projector mount will work too.
The body itself is made entirely out of plastic, although it’s pretty heavy grade stuff, and doesn’t feel even remotely cheap or flimsy at all. Along the top you’ll find an LED battery indicator in front of the leather strap, which helps you know, in 25% increments, how much battery life is left on the projector. All the controls are behind the strap, including a directional pad, which is shaped like a ring, and an OK button in the middle of the ring. Below this sits a row of four circular buttons, from left to right: Home, Back, Volume Up and Volume Down. All of these buttons are incredibly solidly built, and require a nice firm press to click them in, adding to the overall quality feel of the projector’s build. Along the back are a row of ports, situated near the top section of the back, from left to right: power, HDMI 2.0, USB 3.0 Type-A and a 3.5mm audio jack. Below these jacks is the IR blaster receiver, for the remote control functionality, and a large portion of the back features grilles for heat exhaust. There’s another section of heat exhaust grilles underneath, and both sides feature grille holes for those 10W built-in JBL speakers.
Along the front you’ll only find the lens and its cover, but it’s this cover that’s part of the genius design that has gone into the Nebula Mars. Aside from being an obvious way to protect the lens, it also functions as a way to quickly turn the projector on and off. Sliding the cover down to open it will turn the Nebula Mars on, and sliding it up to close it will power the Nebula Mars off. It’s this simple operation that keeps the Mars easy to use and easy to keep in good shape, and the rest of the design reminds you how thoughtful everything here is too. Being able to bring a projector anywhere you go is almost priceless, and I quickly found that it became an easy second screen for my laptop when needed, or just let us watch Netflix in any room of the house, or even outside on the porch if we wanted to.
Aside from controlling the Nebula Mars with the buttons built into the unit, a handy remote is also included in the box. This remote is long and slender, and looks visually similar to many AndroidTV type remotes out there. It features the exact same buttons as are located on top of the projector, plus a few additional ones as well. With dedicated power, menu and focus buttons, you’ll have quick access to some important functions, and the controller even works in some apps that the buttons atop the unit will not. For instance in the Netflix app, the buttons built onto the projector won’t navigate through the app at all, but using the remote allows users to move through the options on screen with little difficulty. This remote is powered by two CR2032 batteries, which are included in the remote, and likely last practically forever given the brief moments of use it’ll undergo.
Image and Audio Quality
The Mars features an auto-keystone functionality of ±40° vertically, meaning you don’t have to point the image straight on, rather it can be projected at a vertical angle. After a second or two of stillness, the projector will readjust the image to create a proper 16:9 rectangle instead of some sort of wacky trapezoid with uneven top or bottom edges. This keeps the image from having distortion, but won’t fix the image if it’s slightly tilted to the left or right. Judging on use case though, it’s more likely that you’ll have more difficulty raising the projector to the height of wherever you’ll be projecting the image on, rather than getting it straight from a left/right vantage point. It’s also worth noting that, as a projector that’s sold primarily for its portable functionality, you’ll be more concerned with brightness than anything else, and that’s where the Nebula Mars really comes in for the win. At 3,000 nits of rated brightness, the Nebula Mars is at least 3x brighter than other projectors in this cost class, and it does this all while being portable as well. Brightness level isn’t affected by whether or not the unit is plugged into a wall; it’s just as bright on battery power as it is while plugged into a wall.
The brightness level here is really incredible too. While it still remains that the best image quality is achieved in a dark room with no other external light sources, the Mars is bright enough that you could easily watch something in a room with the windows open and still enjoy the picture, provided you’re not watching something with lots of dark scenes in it. Contrast, by nature of a projector, is going to be best in a dark room and when projected on a proper silver screen, or wall painted with projector paint. This is because these surfaces are designed specifically to bounce light back to your retinas the way a regular wall, or other hard surface, simply will not. It could be the difference between seeing characters lurk through dark hallways, and simply looking at shadows of shadows in a movie. Even with these limitations, however, the Nebula Mars does it better than most projectors in this price range, and it does so while being completely portable too.
The Nebula Mars features a 1280x800 resolution, or 800p, resulting in an image that’s sharp enough to get the job done. This resolution seems a bit low for modern standards, especially considering that Nebula rates the projector at up to 300 inches diagonally with autofocus. This puts the relative pixels-per-inch (PPI) anywhere from 125PPI when projected as a 12-inch screen, down to a whopping 5PPI when at the largest 300-inch size. That’s not exactly massively high fidelity, but what you’ll quickly learn from a more “analog” output like a bulb is that this doesn’t really matter as much as it would on something like an LCD screen. Part of this is because a bulb makes the pixels softer and less pronounced, and the other part of this is that the DLP engine inside helps alleviate these types of constraints when compared to a fixed pixel display like a TV or smartphone screen.
There’s no need to worry about that dreaded “rainbow effect” or any of those old DLP issues; there’s no color wheel here like on an older DLP projector, and as such you’ll get a clean, crisp picture every time. While I found the ideal size of the projected image to be around 60 inches, smaller images will appear brighter and of higher contrast, especially if you’re not using a proper projector screen or painted wall to project onto. 3D movies may have become something that’s waned a bit in the minds of consumers, but the Nebula Mars still supports DLP 3D side-by-side or top/bottom for those that have compatible glasses or content. Unfortunately the projector doesn’t ship with the needed glasses though, so your mileage may vary depending on whether or not you’ve already got a pair of shades, or are willing to shell out more to get them. This effect works as well as you would expect any side-by-side solution to, however it’s going to be a less pronounced effect if projected on a surface that makes the image darker or less contrasty.
Nebula ships the Mars with a number of different display modes. The default standard mode features good contrast and color settings with high brightness. Battery mode is automatically activated when the battery hits 60%, and all other modes except for Battery and Eco are disabled. Battery mode brings the brightness down just a tad bit from standard mode, helping the battery last a few minutes longer, while Eco mode brings it down fairly significantly. Highlight mode is a bit of a mystery, and user mode lets you customize every facet of the output. Options in user mode consist of color temperature, overall brightness, RGB LED projection brightness, contrast and wall color. For those not wanting to simply project the image onto a wall, Nebula offers a number of other modes as well. For more dedicated home theater solutions, a rear-projection mode is selectable in the display settings, flipping the image horizontally so that it’s viewable from the front of a projection screen. There are also modes for projecting on the ceiling if you’d rather have the unit pointing up, with toggles for flipping it vertically so that it doesn’t need to be physically adjusted.
Audio quality is out of this world for a projector, let alone one of this size and price. The built-in stereo 10W JBL speakers deliver crisp, clean sound with loads of bass that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a portable system. This isn’t some overpriced Bluetooth speaker we’re talking about, this is real, quality sound coming from the same projector that powers both the movie playing experience and the speakers you’re hearing it from. The volume is simply fantastic too, measuring in at around 80dB at its loudest volume levels, and keeping from crackling or popping even while turned all the way up. Since you’ll likely be sitting near the unit during projection, there’s no worry about not being able to hear what’s going on. Setting it up further away might prove to be an issue, but this is likely only if you’re using it to project to a group of people in a very large room or outside, in which case an external sound system may be preferable. Since output is done via a single 3.5mm audio jack, you can expect good sound quality on any system that accepts such an input, however don’t expect advanced surround sound from such a source, even if it does support some form of Dolby technology.
Software and Compatibility
Software is the weakest link in the Nebula Mars’s repertoire, and that’s mainly because there’s no Google Play Store support for the device. In fact the Nebula Mars ships with Android 4.4.4 KitKat; a version of Android that’s now 3 years old. It’s likely Nebula/Anker won’t leave the unit this way, but launching a product near the tail end of 2017 with KitKat is questionable. It’s not just the fact that this version of Android is “old,” rather the fact that it’s basically unsupported at this point. Many apps, including newer versions of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others, simply don’t support KitKat at all any longer.
Not having the Google Play Store severely limits the number of apps that can be run on the Mars; in fact at the time of writing, the Aptoide app store that ships with the Mars only features a dozen apps in total. Lack of Play Services also means you can’t sign into your Google account, so no personalized YouTube channel or other things like that. Even the release of Kodi is old (v1.6), since the newer versions require a newer version of Android to run (Android 5.0 Lollipop and higher). Many apps can be sideloaded, but even then, most apps require a newer version of Android to run. It’s pretty limited when coming at it from this angle.
Thankfully in this list you’ll find three apps that are absolutely necessary to merit any kind of streaming device: Netflix, YouTube and Kodi. While others would certainly be appreciated, the inclusion of these at least gives the Nebula Mars some good base streaming functionality out of the box without the need of an additional streaming stick to get the basic necessities. The problem is that even these apps are a bit limited, and it’s mostly because it seems like they’re running tablet versions of the apps rather than an AndroidTV-type version of them. The limitations here aren’t due to lack of display density or visual organization, rather the inability to navigate properly through the UI. Since tablet apps are meant to be controlled with a finger on a touchscreen, it’s not very practical to try moving the highlighted click point with a controller’s d-pad. Until Nebula gets the version of Android updated or gets Play Store certification, there’s no getting native updated apps though, as they require deeper hooks into Google’s APIs.
Ironically enough, the main interface doesn’t suffer from these issues, and looks visually identical to what you would expect on an AndroidTV powered system, for instance. Apps and settings are grouped together into categories, which are then spread across the screen in horizontally nested tiles. Navigation is done just as you would expect; navigate up or down through groups vertically, then scroll horizontally to move through all the tiles of apps in each group. It’s very user friendly and makes it that much more disappointing that there isn’t a wider range of app choices. In fact, so far as content goes, it makes more sense to stream media from your phone, or use a streaming stick to deliver media instead. The Mars ships with two native screen streaming apps; Miracast built in for Android-based streaming, or an app called AirPin that works with Apple’s AirPlay to send media to the projector.
Using the included “Cast Screen” functionality in Android, screen streaming was absolutely perfect in every way. Not only does it display the full resolution and size of the screen without stretching or warping, but input lag is effectively nonexistent. I found playing games, watching movies and browsing the web from my phone to be effortless when streamed to the projector, and the game playing part is probably the best feature of all. Having Hearthstone, or your other favorite mobile game streamed from your device to the wall in front of you is surreal. This is an unspoken killer feature of the Nebular Mars without a doubt.
The combination of a USB 3.0 port and HDMI port around back also provide additional ways to stream media to the projector. You could of course hook up a Blu-ray or DVD player, laptop, computer or some other source via the HDMI port, as well as something like a Chromecast or Amazon Fire Stick for easier casting. The USB port around the back provides plenty of power to run a Chromecast, even with the Mars on battery power. Having Google Cast built in would have made this significantly easier of course, but it’s nice to at least have the option to use other media streaming sticks at the very least.
This of course behaves exactly like you would expect it to, providing an easy way to cast and stream content via WiFi on a device that’s rated for other, more capable app stores. The projector even automatically switches to the HDMI input when it detects a signal present; a nice little touch of automation. You can also use the USB 3.0 port to stream media files directly to the projector using the built in media player, allowing easy storing of offline movies and TV shows for those camping trips or places that don’t have WiFi.
Battery Life and Portability
Nebula rates the Mars at a 3 hour battery life, which seemed about right in our testing. 3 hours seems to be the maximum amount of time you’ll get on a single charge though, so don’t expect to finish the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings in a single charge, but a couple of Netflix shows should do just fine. Offline viewing via a USB stick will add a little bit of time to the life here, but nothing significant enough to warrant only using it in this mode. As this is a massive 19,500mAh battery, it’s going to take quite some time to fully charge, and even with the proprietary 57W (19v/3a) charger. You can expect a few hours of charging time before the projector is ready to be taken off the plug and used wirelessly again.
The biggest downside is that this is a proprietary charger, not a standard USB Type-C or microUSB port, so you’ll need to be sure not to misplace the charger for fear of not being able to use the projector at all. What’s particularly noteworthy is that taking the Nebula Mars off the charger doesn’t negatively affect the brightness level, or cause it to perform worse in any way, shape or form. This projector is just as capable on the charger as it is off the charger, and that gives true freedom to the projector’s use. The only time you'll see any reduction in brightness is when the battery drops below 60%, and even then the drop in brightness is unnoticeable while a movie or show is playing. Eco mode can extend the battery life even further too, but we're not talking hours, more like 30 minutes or so on a good day.
Being a portable projector brings so many positive points to the experience, it's difficult to explain. My son quickly grew fond of the Nebula Mars, and daily would ask to watch something on the wall in his room, or in my office, or on the kitchen wall while we cooked. Depending on your ceiling or other surface of choice (camping tent, anyone?), the Mars could prove invaluable, and the perfect way to wind down for the evening no matter where life takes you. Having enough battery life for a full movie is a thing of joy, and while it would be nice to have longer battery life, or a better way of extending it significantly, having a projector of this quality last this long without external power is simply fantastic.
Super bright picture
Lots of projection options and features
Great stereo speakers
Just the right amount and type of ports
Wide compatibility with media sources
Fantastic streaming support with many devices
1:1 screen mirroring for supported Android devices (Miracast-compatible)
Can sideload many apps
Runs a now-ancient version of Android
Very few compatible apps because of software age
Built-in apps are a work in progress
Battery life is only long enough for one movie
When looking at the competition out there, it's pretty clear the Nebula Mars is a pretty unique product. The closest competitor is the $500 ZTE S Pro 2, which runs the same Android 4.4.4 KitKat as the Nebula Mars. While it features a far more powerful processor and Google Play support, the S Pro 2 only outputs 100 lumens while on battery power, and only 200 when plugged in, meaning you're getting 1/30th the brightness that the Nebula Mars delivers. Since it's so easy to just hook up a Chromecast or other streaming device, or really anything with an HDMI output, it'd be difficult to not recommend the Nebula Mars to anyone looking for a truly great portable projector. While the internal battery will only last just shy of 3 hours, it's still long enough to fit most movies into one charge. $600 is no easy sell, but the combination of good enough battery power and fantastic brightness and picture quality make the Nebula Mars a real winner when it comes to mobile projection. This is truly a must buy for anyone that's looking for the best in class portable projector.