If you, like me, spend a lot of time shouldering the nagging anxiety of an ever-depleting phone battery, you’ve probably heard of Anker. The company, a Chinese accessory maker that’s grown into a consumer electronics juggernaut these past few years, is the leading maker of portable USB battery packs. But CEO Steven Yang has big ambitions: he wants Anker, with its reputation for high-quality and low-cost products, to be just one brand of many in a sprawling and trusted ecosystem covering every big electronics category. The company has already launched the Eufy smart home brand, and more recently it introduced the Zolo headphone line.
And now there’s Nebula. Anker is marketing Nebula and its very first product, the Nebula Mars portable projector, as a home entertainment line capable of competing with LG, Sony, and other big names in display technology. That’s a huge gamble, as the most spend-thrifty consumers — the ones who buy home projectors — tend to go expensive and brand name when it comes to home entertainment. But with Nebula, Anker wants to suggest a better, cheaper way to enjoy what has typically been an extravagant luxury. The question now is whether the Mars, which retails now on Amazon for $599.99, can keep up.
What is it?
The Nebula Mars is a portable, DLP-based projector running an admittedly old version of Android. That means you can hook up any device via HDMI — be it a smartphone, tablet, streaming stick, or even game console — and project a crisp image on a flat surface that scales up to about 150 inches. Or, because it runs Android and also has Wi-Fi built in, the Mars can run apps like Netflix and HBO Go without requiring an external device. The Mars itself is rather nicely designed, with a slidable cover for the projector, easy-to-use navigation buttons on the device itself, and a handy handle for carrying it around. It also comes with a remote that lets you perform all of these functions on top of adjusting the focus and controlling playback features.
The resolution maxes out at 1280 x 800, which isn’t great but still passable at smaller screen sizes. I found the Mars to be perfect when projecting a display at around 45 to 60 inches, which is great for a medium-sized living room. The device also clocks in at 3,000 lumens, which is an impressive level of brightness for a portable projector of this size and cost. Most pico projectors max out with a lumen count in the low hundreds and some standard cheap projectors — almost none of which run Android or have an internal battery — can still fall low into the 1,000- to 2,000-lumen range.
Anker says the Mars’ battery lasts around three hours and, in my experience, that’s a bit ambitious, with the exceptions being when you plug a device like a streaming stick or game console in via HDMI. (I usually got around two and a half hours.) You can keep the Mars plugged into the wall with a DC adapter, and it has an audio out port for connecting it to a home speaker system or even a portable Bluetooth device. But the projector itself sports 10-watt dual JBL speakers, which sound fine in a quiet room, but would likely not work well in a crowded setting or anywhere with any kind of ambient noise.
What’s special about it?
There’s not a single feature of the Mars Nebula that makes it stand out. Rather, it’s a collection of perks and qualities that combine to make a well-rounded product. The addition of Android and Wi-Fi capability makes it so you don’t always need a jumble of dongles and other adapters to make an iPhone-to-HDMI setup work (or a USB stick loaded with MP4 files).
The internal battery means you can take the Mars outside. But perhaps more importantly, the battery means you don’t always need to consider where the closest outlet or power strip is when using the Mars indoors. You can just pick the most ideal location for the projector so it’s facing the biggest, most bare wall at the proper height, without fearing that you’re stretching the power cable too far for comfort.
Then there’s the design. The Mars just looks and feels like a nice, premium gadget. For a projector, which typically costs in the thousands, the solid build quality for a product one-fifth the price is reassuring. The Mars is also light enough to trek around the house, into the backyard, or from the car to your camping spot. While the Android software is very clunky — for some inexplicable reason, the Mars has a customized version of 2014’s Android KitKat — you can always simply plug in a Amazon Fire TV or Google Chromecast and get a far superior streaming experience.
Is it good?
Having used the Mars Nebula in a variety of scenarios over the last three weeks, I can safely say that it’s a surprisingly capable TV replacement. It’s fantastic for plugging in a Nintendo Switch, NES Classic, or PS4 / Xbox and gaming on a blown-up 80-inch display, even if the quality is lower than usual and the setup requires the shades be drawn and the lights turned off. I was also able to take the Mars outside in a friends’ backyard and throw a movie up against a bed sheet. The portability, design, and ease of use make this a stunningly simple and powerful product for what it’s designed to do.
Its biggest flaw is the outdated version of Android. Not only is KitKat now more than three years old, but the Mars comes with the the third-party Aptoide TV store, which is an alternative app marketplace to the Google Play Store. That means you only have limited app selection. You’re pretty much only going to get YouTube, Netflix, HBO Go, and playback apps like Kodi and MX Player, and even then there’s some restrictions to how you can use that software because the Mars isn’t going through Google Play. For instance, you can’t sign into the YouTube app if it doesn’t have Play Store support. Even sideloading apps doesn’t work all that well, because many, like Netflix and YouTube’s official Android TV apps, require a more up-to-date version of Android.
That said, none of this really matters all that much when you can plug a streaming stick in. The apps would be useless without a Wi-Fi connection, which means you’re already likely in your home with access to those better streaming devices. Plus, the Android interface is more useful for its built-in file manager, which makes it easy to play media in a variety of different file formats off a USB stick.
Am I happier or more fulfilled?
A projector isn’t going to change your life. It doesn’t make any viewing activity particularly more immersive or theatrical, unless you’re willing to spend a large amount of money on a proper wall-mounted unit. So what you are getting is more of a TV alternative for the home, and a tablet alternative when you’re on the go.
If you’d rather have a screen that can move around the house and change its size, the Mars is great for that. And because it’s portable, you can put away the iPad and have a nice, reasonably bright, and high-quality display on the wall of, say, your hotel room or against a white backdrop in your yard. But don’t expect this to be something you’ll use every single day unless you actively want it to replace your living room television, which I wouldn’t recommend given how cumbersome it is to keep devices plugged in all the time and how clunky the Android software is as a replacement.
Should you get one?
When considering whether to buy the Mars, you should ask yourself why you’re interested in a projector in the first place. Is it that you like the idea of variable screen size, and not needing a stand or suitable viewing area is a plus? Do you want something to plug your Nintendo Switch into on the go, that can also stream stuff from apps or a Chromecast? Or are you looking for a device with absurdly high image quality that can give you a movie theater experience in your living room?
The Nebula Mars isn’t capable of the highest resolution, not even for its price range. And its internal software is old and, frankly, bad. But you’re not buying this because you want image quality or a pristine UI. You’re buying it for versatility and cool factor. It’s hard to explain how satisfying it is to plug a NES Classic, Nintendo Switch, or even PlayStation 4 or Xbox One into the Mars and play a tight but crisp projected display against your bedroom wall or, as Anker’s marketing material suggests, the side of a camping tent.
So what the Mars lacks in quality it makes up for in its portability, brightness, and considered design. Because it runs Android TV, you don’t always need a device to hook up to it (although you probably should use a separate streaming device) and, because it weighs only six pounds and has a battery of three hours, you can reasonably make use of it without a power outlet.
There aren’t very many competitors in its price range, and few that run both Android and have an internal battery. But if you’re looking for comparisons, the AAXA P700 is cheaper but far less bright and requires you plug a device into it to stream video. The Optoma IntelliGO-S1 is also cheaper, but it too falls short on brightness and doesn’t have an internal battery. The Sony MP-CL1A is also cheaper and only the size of a smartphone, but its two-hour battery life is lacking and its lumen count doesn’t come close to the Mars. So if you’re in the market for a low-cost projector that you don’t expect to deliver theatrical-quality 4K images at scale, then the Nebula Mars is a solid buy with perks its competitors cannot match.
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