I've always had a certain fascination with projectors. They've been in use, essentially, since the camera obscura of the 16th century, and arguably even earlier. And yet, innovation in the product category continues to this day. Whether it's the best possible image quality or the smallest possible form factor, both high and low-end sectors are never boring.
And yet, projectors... have a problem. Since the advent of HDMI, virtually every device on the market has advertised compatibility with 1080p and even 4K input, but actual output resolution is a different story. These days, online retailers such as Amazon, Ebay, and AliExpress are flooded with 480p and even 240p projectors masquerading as high-definition TV replacements. Worse still is the way advertising materials constantly misrepresent lux as lumens—both measures of brightness, but very much not the same, as any unwitting customer is sure to discover. I guess the only saving grace for the pathetically low resolution is the fact you won't be able to see the dim image anyhow.
With so many deceptive products out there, it can be difficult to spot the standouts: projectors that really push the industry forward and make their competitors' fiction a reality. Evolution tends to be slower here than many other tech departments, but still, innovators do exist—and sometimes in the unlikeliest of places, as the CRE CR35 Mini Smart Projector perfectly demonstrates.
A Projector by Any Other Name
For one thing, you probably won't find the CR35 referred to by its actual product name. CRE (Chuangrong Electronics) is a Chinese projector company who seems to manufacture white-label products exclusively—in other words, products sold to other businesses who then slap their own branding on the box instead. For CRE, this includes companies like Epson and Philips, who are no slouches when it comes to projectors, themselves. But as a Chinese company, CRE's real bread and butter is the massive market of Alibaba resellers all over the world. (You'll find the CR35 here if you'd like to become one yourself.) Many businesses refer to the CR35 as an ET30, but you'll also find the same thing listed as a P56 or even catchier PR57023.
It Runs… Android?
Whatever the name, the specs are immediately eye-catching: the projector comes in either white or black at a svelte 4.3 x 5.4 x 5.5" (110 x 138 x 140mm), weighs in at just 3lb (1.5kg), and yet outputs a native 1080p image at approx. 500 ANSI lumens with 75% NTSC coverage. Now, those last two might seem like a bummer… until you consider the price. CRE sells the CR35 to resellers at about $65/piece, meaning you'll find retail units for around $80-120 depending on the exact features chosen.
Yes, there's more than one variant here, with a selection of options that seem to be especially popular among Chinese projectors. The basic version supports video in over HDMI and USB (for basic media files and documents), with an additional 3.5mm jack for audio output. There's also a pair of 3w speakers built-in, meaning you do get stereo audio out of the box—a step up from the typical mono output of CRE's competitors—but you'll really want to take advantage of that external audio support whenever possible, nonetheless.
Additional variants include a streaming version with built-in Miracast and Airplay support over integrated WiFi, an Android version that functions similarly to a smart TV, and even a battery-operated version that should provide just enough cordless play time for a feature-length movie. Unless you really need that battery, though, you're probably better off saving a few bucks and sticking with the basic version. The integrated WiFi here is so bad that you'll be lucky if you can get any streaming done with it at all, and that Android? Yeah, it's stuck on ancient 6.0 Marshmallow with measly specs that make it feel even older. You get a quad-core Cortex A35 CPU clocked at 1.5GHz, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage. Now, don't get me wrong: for the price, it's amazing something like this can be tacked on at all, but in reality it's more of a novelty than a feature. App support is abysmal, navigation is sluggish, and crashes abound thanks to that limited RAM space. Take my word for it and invest the extra cash in an Android TV stick instead.
"Smart" for "Smart Compromise"
So it's a mixed bag, then, but a smart one. The price is the star of the show here: it might not be a top-of-the-line home theater experience, but how good an experience can $100 get you?
As it turns out, pretty good. The 1080p image is crisp and clear with only the slightest of edge blurring and chromatic aberration to speak of. Since it's not using DLP technology, you also don't get the characteristic rainbow effect some projectors produce in motion. Focus is controlled through a single dial on the top of the unit, with digital zoom and keystone correction accessible via the included remote. This also is upgradeable, with the basic version supporting just vertical keystone, while other variants support adjusting all four corners individually. But again, this is digital correction. You should really only use it when absolutely necessary since every adjustment will cut into your screen resolution and produce uneven pixels. On that note, you should also avoid non-native input resolutions whenever possible, as I found that upscaling 720p sources, for instance, produced noticeable screen tearing.
Other digital options, however, are much more welcome. The CR35 offers pretty decent color and contrast calibration settings, and you should definitely use them. While there's only so much you can get out of a 75% NTSC color gamut and 2000:1 contrast ratio, you can certainly get more than the defaults. There's also a decent number of projection modes for different mounting scenarios, and a variety of translations to boot. Navigating the menu in English was no problem.
What really lets the projector down is just its limited brightness. As an LED projector, this isn't surprising, but it is tantalizing to consider how good the experience would be if only a more powerful bulb were inside. That said, 500 ANSI lumens is generally good enough for a dark room, especially if you throw a reflective projector screen into the mix. Colors will never pop as they would on an OLED… but then, that's not the point. Even much more expensive projectors can't truly compete with the TV or monitor you probably already have. But are they 100" large? That's right, I didn't think so.
A New Threshold for Portable Projectors
As I write this, I'm staring at a gorgeous 4K IPS display with vivid color, contrast, and brightness. It's a better image in every way than the CRE CR35. And yet, I can't stop reaching for this tiny projector any time I want to kick back and enjoy content for leisure. There's just something magical about a really big screen enveloping your entire field of view, and even a VR headset can't compete with the comfort of tossing it up on a wall to be shared with others.
I've long awaited the day projectors truly made the leap out of the office and into the living room, and with the CR35, those days seem closer than ever. The specs still require some level of forgiveness, but CRE has proven 1080p is achievable on a budget, and for the price, it could hardly be more accessible. Though not perfect, it's impressive just how many things they got right. The CR35 very nearly crosses an important threshold where someone with no knowledge of projector minutae can easily get up and running without any complaints. Ironically, frustrations are more likely to occur with its "premium" features that simply come off as gimmicks.
Once those kinks are worked out, though? Perhaps a big name like Philips or Epson will come knocking at CRE's door again to do the product marketing justice. It certainly deserves the attention.