Thursday, 25 June 2020

UCMDA 15.6 Inch Portable Monitor

Who ever heard of UCMDA, I asked myself as I eyed up Asus ZenScreen portable monitors. Turns out that it's a Chinese company who sell a lot of stuff on AmazonUK and that actually, a lot of what they churn out reviews very well. I'm sure there are exceptions, but given the opinions on this device (and that someone else was buying it) I decided to give it a go.

I had a look at reviews on YouTube of course and the front-runners were the aforementioned ZenScreens and a Lenovo ThinkVision M14 alongside this unit. But firstly, why do I need/want one. I recently bought an all-singing-all-dancing desktop Windows PC which now sits up at basecamp and is obviously not portable. Part of that process included losing my Acer 14" laptop, so was I left with the Surface Go. Now, when I work from my Static 'Van, the screen on that is going to just be too small for anything more than casual tablet-orientated use.

I could have bought another desktop monitor to put down there as there is electricity - and indeed that would have been the cheaper option - but when I started researching these units, I started to realise that with these portable monitors, even though I didn't need mine to be portable, they can do so much more with much less fiddle and are geared up for use on-the-road - so hooking up easily to tablets, small computers and phones. I looked further.

So Many Options!
There are all sorts of differences between them of course. Some of the ZenScreens have a battery, the Lenovo has pass-through charging, some have HDMI ports, some USB-A, some USB-C - and some even two! Some have cases, some have stands, the Asus even comes with a pen which sticks through a hole as a make-shift stand! Some are mains-powered, some can be powered by the device plugged in, others you can plug in a powerbank to a USB port. Some have their own speakers whilst others rely on the source to provide that. So many options.

I decided on this one partly because I don't need to take it anywhere, but also because it seems to be the one which is most flexible with connections and options in use. It is true that going with a lower-powered unit results in a less bright screen than a 'traditionally' mains-powered monitor, but I didn't think that this was going to be a big problem in the location it would mostly be used.

The screen comes with a fabric-style cover which is attached with two easy-undo screws, but left in place, it enables the screen to be propped up at one of three angles, much like a flip-case for a phone. Fold it back on itself and the base covers the screen for transportation with protection all round. They've also nicked Asus' idea by putting a hole on the device, bottom-right, so if you don't have the case on it, you can prop it up at one angle at least by putting a pen through the hole. A simple idea which enables the pen to be the stand. Unlike Asus, however, they don't supply one in the box!

Thin, but Sturdy
It's made of plastic all around, though hard and sturdy-feeling plastic, supporting the 15.6" IPS LCD 1080p 16:9 screen with an adequate 60Hz refresh rate. The bezels around the screen are uniform and just a few millimetres - with a fatter bit at the bottom to house the aforementioned stand-pen-hole and three buttons to control the screen. It's very thin, about 10mm, so again, easy to carry around for those who need to - though by no means the average ruck-sack size. It weighs about 650g so the weight of three big mobile phones. This is not a touch-screen unit - for that it appears that a serious price-hike is required at time of writing, the ZenScreen Touch being well over £300.

Power and Ports
On the left edge, we have two USB-C ports, one for power-in (from whatever source you want) and the other, data-in/power pass-through. There's also a microUSB port which they say is so that a user can plug in a mouse or keyboard. I don't remember ever seeing/using a mouse or keyboard with a microUSB cord, but perhaps I remember badly. It doesn't power the screen, but apparently you can plug in a 'U Disk' (which seems to pre-date USB-Pen Drives) but I'm still not sure how any of that works. I don't really get the microUSB port at all, to be honest - perhaps it's a far-east thing! Even if I had an antiquated microUSB mouse, keyboard or U-Disk, I don't see how they could be used to control separately-connected equipment via the other ports. I can't seem to find out anything about this, nor do I have the gear to test it - but they seem to be suggesting that a microUSB peripheral plugged in there would enable pass-through control to a connected device for executable command. Find that hard to believe!

Go Charge
I have been testing this with a Microsoft Surface Go. Without the screen being powered by its own source, but the Go being powered by its own source, it tries really hard to pass the power through from the Go to the screen, but keeps failing after a few seconds. Plug in the screen's own power and all works fine - so I conclude that there's not enough power passing through the Go to power the screen as well. Similarly, plugging in a mobile phone (with HDMI-Out capability of course) is not going to work without powering the screen with its own cord, but once you do, the power is passed back down through to the phone and charges the phone's battery. This seems to work efficiently via the screen's own power so that watching a film on the screen, for example, held on the phone, increases the charge in the phone even during playback.

Away from mains power, a PowerBank can be plugged into the 'powering' USB-C port with mixed results. I read that this should work and people report having done this, but here, it's hit and miss. The screen tries to turn on, flickers on for a few seconds, then off again. Tried with three different PowerBanks, but none of them are more than 12,000mAh, though all fully charged. So again, your mileage may vary if out on the road. It might be that newer PowerBank units push out power more reliably, as the three here are some years old. During this process, the screen was also trying (in the same way) to draw power from the phone, but again, fell over after some flickering on and off.

I have a Samsung Galaxy Tab4 here and DeX Support, as I'd expect, is working perfectly. Throw the content to the monitor via a cable, use the tablet's screen as a mousepad (if you want to) or bluetooth a mouse and keyboard with the Samsung, and it all works beautifully. No wonder Samsung phones sell so well! Sadly, even with the Tablet's even bigger battery, it's still no-go on power pass-through from device to monitor. Though, as for the phones, with the monitor plugged in, the power passes through to keep the tablet charged up.

Menu Mayhem!
The three button controls are Menu, Up and Down. Very simple and chaotic to learn how to use and navigate with! Apart from anything else, to control the volume increase, down is pressed and to increase, up! But the menu system is woeful - like it belongs to a cheap Portable no-name Chinese DVD Player from 2005. I'm sure you've seen them! To make things worse, the brightness setting is not remembered (as the unit has no battery) as soon as you cut the power. Fortunately, the default setting is not bad for general use in most lighting conditions - though if bright sun is flooding into the room, you'll need to delve in and chance your arm!

The brightness of the screen can be yanked up, but the brighter it gets, the less defined the image seems to be. Having said that, it really is not bad - in fact, for most of us with middle-aged eyes, perfectly good. The viewing angles are not great - as you walk around it dulls and blacks out - this is really a monitor for sitting in front of, or maybe two of you at most - and for that it's perfectly viewable.

More Menu Chaos
I really can't understand how to use this menu system, so much so that I can't work out how to switch off the monitor's speakers and instead use the phone/tablet/computer's! Again, apparently that is supposed to work, so I'll keep trying, but for now, yes - it has it's own speakers. And actually, they're not bad. Certainly very loud. Fortunately, in order to adjust the volume you don't need to negotiate the menu system but just use the +/- buttons (even if they are the wrong way round)! The quality is not great, so forget bass, but for most stuff I want to do, it works just fine and I haven't considered the inability to switch sound to the device's speakers a big problem. There are two speakers but they don't appear to be stereo. Still, many of these devices don't have speakers at all, so this is a bonus! If you plug in headphones to your source device (or an external speaker) or bluetooth-out the sound to either, it works just fine - mutes the monitor and routes the sound out. I shall keep trying to work out this menu system!

The unit seems to be completely plug'n'play. There was no mention of any drivers needed or updates or software. The screen is 16:9 so in using my Surface Go I had to change the native orientation to suit, but that was straight forward in Windows - and as soon as I unplugged, the Go went back to normal. The screen also comes with plenty of cables (AC 3-Pin UK, MiniHDMI to HDMI, USB C to USB-C, USB-A to USB C). The remaining port I didn't mention was the MiniHDMI, which means that with a computer or any other device with HDMI full-sized slots (like my DVD Player or TV Set-top Box), the cable can adapt you down to the Mini size and away you go!

All in all, I'm pleased with this monitor. It is cheaper, function-for-function, than most around it, has some features that others don't, it's a good size and makes a big difference to me having to squint at a 10" tablet-sized Windows environment for work-based applications. It's great for watching films on, which can be routed from pretty much any source I fancy using, and even plays nicely with power pass-through and phones. It does have limitations, of course - and some of the other devices around it do some things it doesn't, but for the money, I reckon it's a good compromise. Last thing to note really is that it certainly seems much happier to play with a proper power supply. Other than that, cracking! Shop around for prices as I've seen this leap from £200 to £150 and back (and most places between) in a few days! Grab it from AmazonUK.

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