PuppyCube Review: Turn Any Surface Into an Interactive Touchscreen
The hardware is straight out of a sci-fi movie, and the touchscreen projection actually works. Unfortunately, with dodgy third party app stores and a host of compatibility issues, the OS is unusable at the moment.
PuppyCube is an ultra-short throw projector with a built-in camera to detect touch gestures, from a company called Puppy Robot. It turns any surface into a 23″ touchscreen; and when flipped on its back, acts as a regular projector too. Having recently finished crowdfunding, it’ll be shipping shortly on Amazon for a cool $1000 price tag. We’ve got our hands on one of the final devices, so read on to find out what we thought of it. At the end of this review, we’ll be giving our test unit to one lucky reader, so keep reading to find out how to win it!
- Ultra-short-throw projector @ 1280 x 720p, featuring auto-focus and auto-keystone
- 300 ANSI lumens brightness from 0.3-inch DLP
- 23-inch tabletop projection; limited by ambient light in regular projector mode
- Battery: 2.5 hour
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi b/g/n
- Input: External HDMI input (though you lose touch capabilities), USB OTG port
- Output: 3.5mm Stereo Audio out
- CPU: MStar 6A938 quad-core ARM
- GPU: Mali T820
- RAM: 4GB
- Storage: 32GB
- Extras: Remote control, mains charger
Inside the box, you’ll find the PuppyCube projector itself, an AC charger, microUSB cable, and remote control. The PuppyCube is a simple looking box, measuring 5.2 x 3.4 x 8.1 inches, and weighing around 3.5lbs. The entire front of the device is glass, protecting the camera and mirror lens.
A back panel slides off to reveal the ports, while a speaker grill on either side hides the dual 5W speakers. They’re not bad speakers, but they’re not great either–functional enough for use on the tabletop, but you’ll find them lacking for movies. You can of course plug external speakers into the 3.5mm stereo out, or use Bluetooth.
In terms of raw power, it’s a little disappointing. The processor is underpowered and backed by a paltry amount of RAM and only 32GB storage. Antutu scores the device at just over 88,000.
As a Magical Touch Surface
We’ve seen projected touch surfaces before, mainly in the form of virtual keyboards, but this feels almost magical. Out of the box, it just works. Turn it on, and the system automatically resizes, adjusts focus, and the touch system requires no configuration. As with any projected image, you’ll get the best visual quality when using it on a white or grey surface.
It is still functional on other surfaces, but not as visible. My kitchen worksurface is a somewhat glossy oak, and even on an overcast day, I had trouble viewing anything when it placed right next to the window.
Away from the windows, it worked fine. 300 lumens seems like a good brightness at this size.
Unfortunately, you can’t increase the size of the image by raising the device up. I tried placing it on a shelf about 4 inches above the surface, and apart from projecting an image far too big to even fit on the work surface, it lost the touch features.
Still, in terms of hardware, the PuppyCube is one of the most intriguing, unique and innovative devices I’ve seen lately, and that’s saying something.
I Hope You Like That Homescreen
A custom UI is built on top of Android 6.0 (yes, you did read that correctly), and seems to consist of two screens of apps, neither of which is user configurable. The first screen presents you with Twitter, Netflix, Facebook, and Firefox.
The second screen has a selection of games that demonstrate the system capabilities nicely, but again, can’t be changed. The games are demos, some with in-app purchases, and some with “watch a video to get more coins” nonsense, which I find a little disgusting in anything aimed so obviously at kids. They’re fun for a short time though and demonstrate the multitouch capabilities through the use of split-screen multiplayer mini-games.
To access other apps, tap the small nine dot icon for the full app list. This will be your primary navigation if you’re not interested in the home screen apps.
How’s The Projection?
Rated at only 300 ANSI lumens, you’ll have trouble seeing anything in daylight when used as a projector.
However, if you accept this limitation and only use it in darkness, the ultra-short-throw ratio is simply stunning. To give you an idea, my downstairs corridor is barely wide enough to sit down at 2.5 feet wide. Yet even in such a tight space, the PuppyCube was able to project a 50 to 60-inch image onto the wall.
Granted, it’s only 720p, so things look a bit fuzzy at a certain point, but that sort of throw ratio is simply unrivaled.
However, regardless of how technically impressive that is, I’m not sure I could think of a use-case for it. If your child is kept in a cupboard under the stairs, like Harry Potter, I suppose they could at least enjoy a big screen TV experience. At 720p and 300 lumens, it won’t replace even a budget-friendly $300 home cinema projector. Consider the wall projection a bonus, rather than a main feature of the PuppyCube.
In order to use the device in projection mode, you’ll need to set up the Bluetooth-based remote control. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out of the box, and needed to be paired first. I’d be lying if I said this was easy. You’ll need to delve into the settings menu, wake up the remote by ensuring it’s fully charged then pressing some buttons, hope the gods are favoring you today, then add a new remote control in a different settings menu before the remote goes to sleep again. It took me about 3 attempts of the process before it finally worked.
UpToDown and SlideMe
Your only options for getting more apps are through the two third-party app stores included on the system. UpToDown initially appears competent enough and essentially a Google Play clone, but I experienced numerous issues with actually getting anything installed, and cannot speak to how trustworthy the APK sources are. The install process isn’t as seamless either; you need to navigate to downloads and open the APK yourself. A number of packages I tried were corrupted. Even the “working” ones were stuck endlessly on the Installation screen (though did seemingly install once I force closed the UpToDown store). Even after registering an account, SlideMe refused to actually download anything; the app descriptions were all broken too.
Not compatible with Google Play, Play Services, or YouTube
I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Apart from the obvious security implications of being forced to use an unofficial third-party app store, the lack of Play Services support means the most popular video app won’t run. Both Google Play and Play Services can be downloaded and installed from UpToDown, but you’ll immediately be bombarded by the dreaded “Unfortunately Play Service has stopped working error”. I reached out to the PuppyCube team, who confirmed that neither is actually compatible. I managed to get YouTube for Android TV to run, but none of the videos actually played. YouTube in the browser works, sometimes, but only minimized–you can’t make it full screen.
Other app experiences weren’t ideal, either. Plex is my preferred video client. In projector mode, using the included remote control, it worked fine and videos played smoothly. In tabletop mode, it got stuck in a loop of insisting I switch to mobile mode because I had a touch interface, while the Puppy OS seemed to force it into TV mode. Conversely, BBC iPlayer worked fine in tabletop mode, but was useless when projected onto the wall due to the lack of pointer. The remote control didn’t allow me to actually select anything; I could only scroll up and down. On other Android TV-like interfaces , the remote controls have had a pointer mode precisely for cases like this. Yes, these issues are all software specific and not really the fault of PuppyCube, but they’re infuriating none the less and not something I’ve faced on other systems.
Unfortunately, the web browsing experience wasn’t much better, either. Scaling felt wrong, and pages were generally sluggish. Click targets were frequently incorrect (not something I experienced elsewhere I should note, only in the Firefox browser). I wanted to test in Chrome to see if that was any better, but it refused to install.
The Worst Android Experience Possible
The PuppyCube software exemplifies everything that was wrong with the Android ecosystem five years ago. A custom UI, running on an outdated OS, with unreliable third-party app stores that are barely functional, and app incompatibilities. I just thought we were beyond this sort of sheer incompetency with Android software, but apparently not. And it’s such a shame because the hardware is really lovely. Hopefully, they stick to their promise of updating the core OS version, but there’s more that needs fixing.
Our rep at Puppy Robot told us the next generation model would be available in August, and would, in fact, be compatible with Google Play. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for the hope of any updates to this model. If you are interested in the concept, I’d strongly suggest waiting until the issues are ironed out, or the new version is released. The concept is solid, the hardware is proven, but the software just isn’t there yet.