Monday, November 16, 2020

Unbranded Battery-Operated LED Projector Light (Dollar Tree)

UPDATE (Nov. 2020): Our local store finally got in a new shipment of these: I picked up one of each design (four total). We'll have an updated review in a month or so as we see how long these manage to last!
Cool when it works, junk when it breaks after a day.

This review doubles as both a look at the product, and a heartbreaking tale of childhood innocence lost; a tale of one three year old's sudden realization that the world can be a cold, heartless, cruel place, where happiness can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. (And yes, the titular product does play a large role in this story.)

My wife and I were “on vacation” in Cincinnati (more a weekend getaway, celebrating our anniversary), when we decided to check out the local Dollar Tree for a reason that escapes me at the moment (I'm sure to grab something we forgot to pack). The closest one to our hotel was rather large—we live within 2 miles of two small DT stores that are frequently short on inventory—so I decided to wander around a bit and see what kind of things they had that neither of our stores carried. And there, in the electronics aisle, is where I saw something that caught my eye: a small LED projector that projected the included image on a wall, ceiling, or any other surface you might have lying around. There are four images to choose from: a dinosaur scene, a starry night sky, a solar system, and fish in an aquarium. While our son would have been happy with any of them, after a little bit of deliberation, we decided on getting the “solar system” design, figuring it would be the one he would like the best.

Honestly, the product itself is kind of pointless—I expected the image to move, or do something besides just sit there, but I suppose that would require moving parts that would push it out of the dollar price point. Also something that apparently would drive up the price: including batteries. It requires 2 AAA batteries to operate, which are not included. That one wasn't a biggie for us, though, as we have a few of those lying around. 

Terrible picture, but you get the point.

The image is actually pretty clear, under the right conditions...namely complete darkness. Unlike “real” projectors, which obviously are larger and infinitely more powerful, even the smallest amount of light can render the projected image hard to see, assuming you're projecting it from a distance of about 7 feet away (roughly the distance from our floor to ceiling). If you're closer to the surface than that, the image tends to be much clearer, but also much smaller. Beyond eight or so feet (maybe a little bit longer), the image starts thinning out, becoming hard to see in even pitch black conditions. Depending on what you're going for, it can be a pretty tough balancing act trying to get a large, crisp picture, but it's possible with some noodling around (and, perhaps, a tempering of expectations).

One good thing about it, which the packaging curiously touts, is that it has “manual” functionality...that's apparently marketingspeak for an “on/off” switch. I wasn't aware that being able to turn something off and on was a special feature, but I guess anything can be considered an amenity when it only costs a dollar. 

Anyway, we showed it to our son, who immediately took a liking to it. He would pretend it was the moon, shining it all over the place, and then quickly turn it off, as apparently his version of the moon liked to hide. Then he repeated that same idea over and over again, the way kids do, forcing us to look for it in the darkness, and giggling as he turned it off to make it disappear again, leading us to feign shock at where it possibly could have gone.

His cackles and giggles were enough to keep it entertaining for longer than it should have been, but after what felt like 3 days (but was actually probably closer to 20 minutes), the “game” was finally over and the projector was set aside for a little bit, so he could rest and start the bedtime process. When he grabbed it an hour or so later to take it up to bed with him (he likes to pick one thing to sleep with, either a toy or stuffed animal, which continually rotates out), he was dismayed to discover that it wouldn't turn on.

I figured it was just out of batteries...while we only had it a total of about five days at this point (with only one days' worth of use), he did turn it off and on an awful lot, so I didn't think much of it. I replaced the batteries with a fresh set of rechargeables...nothing. Okay, so maybe the batteries weren't properly charged, so I replaced them with a fresh set of alkalines...still nothing. By now, this kid is flipping out—you'd think he was crying over the sudden loss of a family pet, or something. After about 30 minutes of inconsolable crying, my wife was finally able to gradually talk him down, under the agreement I would get him one on my way home from work the following day. (Little tidbit of unnecessary info: they were sold out at both locations by us, leading to even more sadness, though much more controlled than the previous night's tantrum.) 

Ignore the sloppy hotel room setting...the projector was placed on the floor in this image

Moral of the story: This thing died after just a single day of strong use. Now, to be fair, he did turn it off and on a large number of times within a relatively short time frame. Also, while I never actually witnessed him dropping it, or otherwise being rough with it, he is a young kid, so it's very possible that he was a little harder on it than he should have been. Still, there's nary a scratch on the outside of the product that would suggest something that could have caused a complete shutdown of the internal circuitry, so it's rather disappointing that it died so quickly.

At the end of the day, though, it is a cheap dollar product, presumably from China, and these things are unfortunately known to happen. We usually have pretty good luck with our Dollar Tree products, but a lot of these companies are pretty lax when it comes to things like quality control, so it's also possible we just got a faulty projector. I'm not ready to completely write these off, as we do intend to grab another one (or two, or three, like we should have when we saw them in-store), so I'll update the review accordingly once we manage to score one. In the meantime, though, all we have to go off of is the performance of this one, which unfortunately, was pretty dreadful.

Overall: 2/10. Long story short: this projector crapped out after a single day of use in the hands of our three year old son, who was absolutely devastated. He did turn it off and on an awful lot, and might have dropped it once or twice by accident, but he genuinely liked it, so it's not like he was carelessly flinging it around, or attempting to cause damage to it or break it. That being said, it was pretty cool while it did work, and he really liked seeing the image “attached” to the ceiling, or wall, or any other surface he would randomly place it on. Despite its quick failure, we're not quite ready to write them off completely just yet: there are often quality control issues with inexpensive Chinese tech (an unfortunate side effect of getting goods for such a cheap price), so it's very possible we got a faulty one. We plan on getting a few more as soon as we find a DT store that carries them (the two by us were both conveniently sold out), and will update this review once we see how long those last.

SIDE NOTE: These have apparently been available for quite some time, although I've never seen them in our local stores, and also have seasonal variants for Halloween and Christmas. That means they must be fairly popular, which probably wouldn't be the case if all of them broke almost instantly.

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