Aside from the conspicuous hump on the back of the device, the U7 looks like almost every other 7-inch tablet on the market. At 7.9 by 4.6 by 0.43 inches (HWD) and 13 ounces, the U7 isn’t unwieldy in the slightest—it’s about the same size as comparable tablets like the HP Slate 7 and Google Nexus 7. The projector hump measures about 0.57-inches thick and features a thin rubber strip that helps keep the tablet in place when propped up for projection. The device is sturdily built, with a metallic back plate and a plastic band around its perimeter.
Along the long edge, you’ll find the pico projector lens, a Focus slider, and an On/Off switch for the projector. On the same edge are Power and Volume buttons that are too flush with the tablet, making them difficult to hunt down. Along the shorter edge are mini HDMI out and micro USB ports, a microSD card slot, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a power input for charging with the included AC adapter. The U7 doesn’t charge over USB, which is a bit annoying, but the micro USB port supports syncing and USB OTG for plugging in peripherals like mice and keyboards.
The U7 features a 7-inch, 1,024-by-600-pixel IPS LCD, which boasts a respectable viewing angle but somewhat disappointing 169 pixels per inch. It looks good on the small slate, but competitors have been stepping up to sharper 1,280-by-800-pixel displays and offering them for a lower price.
This is a Wi-Fi only tablet that connects to 802.11b/g/n networks on the 2.4GHz frequency only. You also get Bluetooth 4.0, which worked fine with a pair of Bluetooth headphones. The tablet comes in a single 8GB model, but Smart Devices also sells the very similar 16GB SmartQ U7H ($349 list), with the biggest difference aside from memory being a newer and faster processor.
Android, Projector, and Performance
Smart Devices loaded Android 4.2.1 “Jelly Bean” onto the U7, which is a pleasant surprise, as even most major manufacturers are stuck a version behind on 4.1. It’s not quite a stock experience, however, as Smart Devices went with the Cyanogenmod Trebuchet launcher to customize the U7’s appearance. This gives you granular control over things like home-screen icon grid layout, lock screen appearance, and various tweaks to the status bar.
Beyond that, Smart Devices loaded up the requisite custom settings for controlling the built-in pico projector. The DLP projector outputs 35 lumens with a maximum resolution of 854 by 480 pixels. Just flip the switch next to the lens and the projector will fire up and start beaming a mirror image of the U7’s display onto any nearby wall. Smart Devices says the U7 can throw a 5 to 50 inch image onto walls, and in well darkened rooms that claim is accurate, if even a bit conservative.
I tested the U7 in our pitch black photo testing room, and I found that I could easily see a clear picture at around 60-70 inches with the U7 set up about 10 feet away from a wall. Keep in mind, this isn’t HD resolution, and image quality quickly diminishes with increasing room light. Still, this is totally usable for sharing quick photos or videos, and if attached to external speakers, I’d be comfortable watching a movie using the U7’s projector—definitely a neat and useful trick. In the Settings menu, you’ll be able to control projector brightness (though I recommend leaving this at maximum) and also enable or disable the simulated pointer, which could be useful for presentations. Pressing the Power button while projecting an image turns the tablet’s display off, but keeps the picture projecting—a nice feature when watching movies with the tablet. My only complaint is the focus slider, which is a bit too stiff and difficult to lock into a perfectly focused position.
While the projector is a great feature, the internal components of the U7 leave a bit to be desired. It’s by no means a sluggish performer, but the dual-core 1GHz TI OMAP 4430 processor is a bit dated at this point, turning in performance closer to the original Amazon Kindle Fire rather than the Kindle Fire HD. That means graphically intensive games like Real Racing 3 show stuttering frame rates from time to time. Browsing performance is reasonably quick, but I did notice the U7 took longer to load and play back embedded videos online than the Nexus 7.
For media playback, the U7 supports MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC, and OGG audio files, but not WMA. Video support includes MPEG-4, H.264, DivX, Xvid, and WMV files at resolutions up to 1080p.
In our battery rundown test, which loops a video with screen brightness set to max and Wi-Fi turned on, the U7 lasted 4 hours, 27 minutes. Compared with the 10 hours turned in by the Nexus 7 and the 7 hours by the Kindle Fire HD, the U7 falls well short of those results.
There are also front- and rear-facing 2-megapixel cameras, but these should be a last resort for snapping photos. The images are soft, grainy, and generally devoid of fine detail in pretty much all lighting scenarios. Video, too, is basically unusable, though the front-facing camera is serviceable for Skype video chats.
Unlike the rash of me-too Android tablets, the Smart Devices SmartQ U7 actually offers something truly compelling that no one else can match. Get the SmartQ U7 for its projector—it’s more than a novelty—but know that you’re otherwise paying a premium for last year’s hardware. It’s a full $100 more expensive than the Nexus 7, which has a faster processor, sharper display, and longer battery life. On top of that, the U7 ships from China, so you’ll want to factor in at least an additional $20 for shipping charges. That’s a bit steep for my taste, but if you’re sold on the built-in projector, you can rest assured that the U7 delivers as promised.