Anker Nebula Solar Portable projector: More white dwarf than supernova

The Anker Nebula Solar Portable is a 1080p projector with a built-in battery and Android TV. It’s a complete package that lets you enjoy movies and TV with a huge image just about anywhere. You can even use it as a Bluetooth speaker. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s similar to another Nebula projector, the Mars II Pro, which we reviewed a few months ago. The Mars II Pro is our favorite portable projector overall and while the Solar has its (ahem) bright spots, it’s just not as good.

LikeSleek, compact design1080p resolutionBuilt-in battery lasts 3 hours

Don’t LikeFairly dimMediocre contrastAndroid TV is wonky

On paper, the Solar Portable addresses two of the issues we had with the Mars II Pro: resolution and its app store. The II Pro is only 720p, and uses a “curated” Google experience called Aptoide. Unfortunately, fixing those two problems comes with decreased light output. No projector this size is particularly bright, but the Solar is about 40% dimmer than the Mars II. Android TV beats Aptoide, but it still has some quirks that mean you might be better off attaching a streaming stick anyway. Yes, that flat design is unique, but Anker’s own Mars II Pro is a better choice.

Little Anker Nebula Solar Portable projector, big pictures
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Basic specsNative resolution: 1,920×1,080 pixelsHDR-compatible: Yes4K-compatible: Yes3D-compatible: NoLumens spec: 400 ANSIZoom: NoLens shift: NoLamp life (Normal mode): 30,000 hours

The Solar accepts HDR10, but is not HDR. It accepts 4K, but is not a 4K projector. Since this projector is incapable of actually displaying these higher-resolution and high-dynamic-range signals, their inclusion seems more like something to beef up a features list on a website than anything else.

There’s no lens shift or zoom on the Solar, but neither is expected in this price range. There’s autofocus, however, which works pretty well. A pivoting foot on the bottom tilts the front of the projector upward for a bit more flexibility in placement.

There’s a claimed three hours of life from the 20,000-mAh battery. This is a bit odd since the brighter Mars II Pro has a smaller battery and yet the same amount of play time.

Speaking of brightness, Anker claims 400 lumens. I measured about half that. The Mars II Pro had a claimed 500, and I measured over 300. No projector in this size and price range is very bright, but side by side the Mars II Pro’s picture looks significantly brighter, which allows it to look better on bigger screens.

You can use the Solar as a Bluetooth speaker. The two 3-watt speakers sound pretty good, which is always a bonus in a portable projector. They’re not as loud as the Mars II Pro’s dual 10-watters, however.

If you want to download some content to watch offline, there’s 8GB storage.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET
Connectivity and convenienceHDMI inputs: 1PC input: NoUSB ports: 2Audio input and output: NoDigital audio output: NoWi-Fi: 802.11a, b, g, n, ac12-volt trigger: NoRS-232 remote port: NoMHL: NoRemote: Not backlit

The Solar’s HDMI input is capable of accepting HDR and 4K, but since the projector is neither, this is a six-line highway connecting two small towns with no cars.

The USB-C connection is for charging, and included with the Solar is a fast-charger you could use for your phone or tablet when you’re not using or charging the projector. The other USB connection can accept files or charge a streaming stick. The power rating isn’t specified, but I was able to get a streaming stick running on it, so it should be enough.

I like the Android TV app store but unfortunately some apps, like Vudu, would only send the standard-definition versions of their content. This is disappointing, to say the least. It makes the resolution of the projector less relevant. Others, like Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu looked fine, however. 

Then there’s Netflix, which requires several steps to get installed on the Solar. You need to install the Nebula Manager app, which then allows you to download the mobile version of the Netflix app. To watch Netflix after you install it, you need to go to the Manager app and then Netflix. Which, even after all those steps, looks exceptionally soft. Because it’s the mobile version, it also means it’s not designed to work with a traditional remote, so you need to use the Nebula Connect app on your phone to navigate. 

These issues spoil the goodness of built-in Android TV to a certain extent, but as I mentioned an easy solution is attaching an external streamer. 

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET
Picture quality comparisons

The Mars II Pro and the PH30N are both direct competitors to the Solar. To compare the three I ended up using a mix of internal apps, external streaming sticks and a Monoprice 1×4 distribution amplifier due to the different resolutions of the projectors, and the fact that the Solar accepts 4K (and for some frustrating reason that became the default when connected to the Monoprice). I viewed everything on a 102-inch 1.0-gain screen.

The most obvious difference was light output. The Mars II Pro was easily the brightest, followed by the Solar and the LG. Brightness is not the only important factor in a projector’s image quality but it’s a huge part. Not only does it determine how compelling the image is overall, but it also determines how large an image you can create that’s still watchable. This is one of the reasons I liked the Mars II Pro: It’s very bright for its size and price. The Solar’s picture looks dim in comparison, and the LG’s is the dimmest of the three. 

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Contrast ratio is poor across the board compared with something like the BenQ HT2050, but that’s par for the course. No inexpensive projector has a good contrast ratio. The Solar is technically better than the Mars II here, at 407:1 compared with 354:1, but that’s too close to see even side by side and is barely outside the range of normal measurement error. This low contrast ratio is fine on the Mars II, as it’s relatively bright, but on the Solar it means the image is flat. Not fully washed out, but it doesn’t impress either. The LG is lower still, but again, it’s all in the same ballpark.

With the added distraction of its undefeatable soap opera effect, I put the LG aside and concentrated on the two Ankers.

Fan noise on the Solar is far quieter than the Mars II, which is welcome when you’re sitting close.

While I welcome the switch to Android TV over the troublesome Aptoide store, there’s a glaring issue: HD. With some apps the content you get is SD-only. So what then is the point of the Solar’s 1080p resolution? This could be an Android/Google issue, but it doesn’t really matter where the problem is, the result is that the easiest way to get content on the projector means taking a hit in picture quality. 

Using an external streaming stick the extra detail is apparent. After you turn down the sharpness control, that is, which is set extremely high out of the box (as usual, massive amounts of edge enhancement mask actual detail). Now it’s the Mars II Pro’s turn to look soft, lacking fine detail on things like hair and beards. However, the Solar’s greater resolution, even when configured correctly, is not enough to win out over the Mars II Pro’s better brightness.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET
Conclusion

The adage goes “Two steps forward, one step back.” In this case, it’s more like two steps forward, two slightly smaller steps back. With their huge images, projectors certainly see a big benefit from greater resolution, so the Solar’s 1080p should be an obvious improvement over the Mars II Pro’s 720p. But with SD internal apps, that improvement is negated. Worse, the lower brightness means its image is far less compelling. The bigger battery seems good on paper, but claimed viewing time is roughly the same. Even the Solar’s speakers are less powerful.

All that, combined with a higher MSRP, and I’m not sure what the Solar has to offer over the Mars II Pro. That projector is a little gem, and the Solar is left to play catch-up.


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