For years, Optoma has been content to drill out fairly solid Pico Projectors. Now the company that has brought teeny tiny projectors to the masses has got it into its head to take a pico chip and stuff it into an iPhone dock with speakers.

Who would have thought that this would be a good idea? And yet, the Optoma Neo-i is a total surprise. A decent, affordable projector that defines a new category and manages to be pretty solid to boot.

The Neo-i is a 50 lumen projector that uses the same DLP guts as its upper-end Pico projector, the PK-301. It projects up to 120″ diagonally, sports a 2000:1 contrast ratio and connects to sources via a VGA or HDMI port, as well as a 16W stereo audio system. In the box you get a standard A/V Cable (RCA to Mini-Jack), remote control and a few dock adapters for different models of iPhone and iPod, although any will fit.

That’s all regular stuff, but this unit also features an iPhone and iPod dock on the top. The dock is where the Neo-i really starts to show its nature as a quick and easy home projector. Fire up Netflix on your iPhone, slap it into the dock and boom, you’re watching Star Trek on a screen, garage door or handy blank wall. It takes the fuss out of connecting an iDevice to a projector. Yes, it will also charge your iPhone while it’s docked.

neoi 2 520x346 Make iPhone movie night easy with the Optoma Neo i projector

The picture quality is great across the board and, although it uses a Pico chip, compares well to other $350 projectors I’ve used. Decent blacks, fairly sharp after you get it focused using the manual knob and bright. Very, very bright for a projector that uses a typically underpowered Pico DLP chip.

The 50 lumen brightness won’t get you full daylight projection but with a decently dim outdoor setting or ‘curtains drawn’ indoor situation, you’re going to be enjoying the picture just fine. The Neo-i has a max resolution of 1280×800 and a maximum size of 120″ or so, but I found the best projection size to be no greater than about 8 feet diagonally. That should still be plenty large enough for most viewing conditions.

neoi 3 520x346 Make iPhone movie night easy with the Optoma Neo i projector

The DLP chips used in the Optoma series of projectors are a bit prone to a ‘scaling’ phenomenon where multicolored artifacts flutter through the picture and it’s present here, although you would be hard pressed to be bothered by it as it’s very slight. You can also rear project the Neo-i if you have a rear projection screen, but I would assume that most people would be throwing a picture onto any handy surface.

The sound from the speakers is surprisingly good for an ‘integrated’ system and will fill a small 10×15′ room without much difficulty, albeit with a slightly thin sound field. You’re going to want to use the audio jack of the iPhone or iPod to connect to a larger set of speakers if you want to use it outdoors or with large groups.

neoi 4 520x346 Make iPhone movie night easy with the Optoma Neo i projector

There is also an AV-in jack and an adapter provided with the Neo-i if you’d like to connect a standard DVD or Blu-ray player to it to play movies from a source other than a docked phone. You can also purchase an optional iPad connection kit if you want to pipe movies in from your tablet. There is a supplied remote that works well, despite its cheap feel, and the onscreeen menus are well laid out and very easy to navigate. I really liked the look of the control panel as well, which features glowing blue touch-sensitive buttons that fade out when not in use.

neoi 1 520x346 Make iPhone movie night easy with the Optoma Neo i projector

The Neo-i is an interesting experiment in home projectors for sure. Instead of whittling down the features and casing of a much more expensive projector, Optoma has tucked a Pico projector into a slightly more grown up body. In the process, they made it more accessible, but less portable. At 2.2 lbs, it’s still far less heavy than any ‘standard’ projectors though, which makes it decently easy to tote to a friends’ house for an impromptu movie night.

neoi 5 520x346 Make iPhone movie night easy with the Optoma Neo i projector

Optoma makes a very solid lineup of projectors for business use and portable cases. The Neo-i is a definite departure for them into the casual home market, but a very successful one. Great brightness and picture quality brought in from their Pico lineup give the Neo-i high marks for projection. The iPhone dock, a very easy setup and stellar menus make the barrier for use very low.

If you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive projector for casual movie nights or even some light business use where portability isn’t a major problem, the Neo-i is definitely worth a look. You can find the Neo-i at various retailers like Amazon for around $350.