Project a Better Image

By Jamie Bsales | Posted October 16, 2006

If you're still toting around a five-year-old projector or (heaven forbid) a flipbook for presentations, it's time for an upgrade. The current generation of data and video projectors will help you look like a pro, are easy to use, and are kinder to the small business budget than you might think. Best of all, as the one who writes the checks, you get to take the unit home for safekeeping. If there just happens to be a game on and you just happen to have a video source and a blank wall handy...well, you get the picture.

Who Needs It?
When done with understated transitions and effects and the right use of video, an electronic presentation can create more of an impact than a static PowerPoint printout. It can also help make a small business look more polished and professional. Any business owner who needs to pitch services, demonstrate products or update clients in person about the status of a project should consider investing in a projector.

If your sales calls or client meetings are typically one-on-one, a laptop PC with a large screen is sufficient; in fact, dragging out a projector and dimming the lights to present to one person could seem creepy. But forcing several potential clients to huddle cheek-to-jowl around your notebook's screen is even creepier. If you often present to two or more people at a time, a projector is the way to go. With that decision made, the real work begins: narrowing the field to settle on the size, resolution, brightness and features that match your needs.


InFocus Work Big IN32 projector
The InFocus Work Big IN32 is a budget-friendly portable XGA projector.

The Numbers Game
Business travelers who need to carry a projector through airports on a regular basis should limit their search to models in the three- to four-pound range. As with an ultra-portable PC you'll pay extra for the small size, and you can expect a trade-off on performance. But schlepping a larger projector in addition to your laptop and everything else will quickly become unmanageable for frequent flyers.

If you travel to client sites by car, a portable unit in the 6- to 7-pound range is the best choice. It will be brighter and less costly — good units start around $800, versus $1,500 for a featherweight — but still easy enough for toting to and from appointments.

As for the projector's resolution, you'll need to decide between 800-by-600 SVGA or a higher-resolution (and more expensive) XGA (1,024 by 768) model.

SVGA is fine for displaying a PowerPoint presentation, showing Web-based content, or projecting standard-definition video. If that's what you'll do with a projector, there's no use paying for a high-res light engine. But if your work involves showing actual software applications from your Windows or Mac notebook (say, sharing spreadsheets, demonstrating software or showing CAD/CAM projects), then you'll want an XGA projector that lets you show more data at once.

A machine's brightness is another important factor. If a projector isn't bright enough, the image will look dim and washed out. Most major manufacturers have (thankfully) adopted one industry standard for reporting the amount of light a projector delivers to the screen, measured in lumens. You'll see the spec quoted as ANSI lumens and generally the larger the projector, the higher this number will be.


Mitsubishi MiniMits XD80U projector
The Mitsubishi MiniMits XD80U is one of the smallest 1,500-lumen XGA projectors on the market.

A unit with a rating of 1,000 ANSI lumens is acceptable for use in an office or small conference room where you can control the light coming from windows and overhead. But if you typically present in a larger conference room, or you can't dim the lights and close the shades, you'll want a unit in the 1,800 to 2,000 ANSI lumen range.

Other Features to Consider
As with modern projection televisions, the two dominant technologies at the heart of portable projectors are LCD and DLP light engines. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

For example, LCD-based projectors generally deliver more accurate colors (especially yellows and reds), but can be prone to a "screen-door effect" at closer distances, where viewers can see the delineation between individual pixel elements (as if viewing the image through a screen). DLP projectors are typically smaller and less expensive than LCD models of the same rated brightness, but colors might not be as saturated and some viewers can see a "rainbow effect" (where the image seems to break up into its component colors) if they sweep their gaze over the screen.

Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of individual preference. As when shopping for a TV, it's best to see a projector in action before you buy. An in-person demo will also let you evaluate the amount of noise a unit produces. The lamps in a projector require serious cooling, and on poorly designed models that could also mean significant fan noise.

Speaking of lamps, you'll want to consider a projector that offers an "economy" mode, which lets you dim the bulb — and thus extend its life — when full power isn't required. The lamps, which typically last 2,000 hours, are expensive to replace ($250 to $400), so you'll want to squeeze every hour you can from them. Many projectors also have a counter (accessible via the menu system) that shows an estimate of the lamp's remaining hours.

Look for another helpful feature called "instant off." Many projectors require a cool-down period after you turn off the lamp, during which the projector needs to remain plugged in so the fan can cool the unit before you pack it up. That can make the end of the meeting awkward, with your hosts shuffling their feet and trying to make chitchat while they wait for you to get the heck out. The instant-off feature lets you pack up the projector immediately.


NEC LT30 projector
The light, bright NEC LT30 makes setup a no-brainer.

Finally, be sure to check the warranty and support the manufacturer provides. The projector is likely to be as costly (if not more so) than your laptop, and you need to protect that investment. Make sure the lamp is guaranteed for a set time period or a given number of hours. And if the projector will be a critical weapon in your business-generation arsenal, consider a manufacturer that offers next-business-day replacement of the machine during the warranty period.

Three from Many
There are literally hundreds of business-oriented data projectors from which to choose. You can narrow your search considerably by determining the weight class and resolution that suits your needs, and then considering your available budget. We found three models that should suit a wide variety of small businesses.

One of the original players in the data projection market is InFocus, and the company has a full range of models, including SVGA units starting at $699. The XGA-resolution Work Big IN32 ($1,099) is a 2,000-lumen DLP projector that straddles the line between stripped-down entry-level models and more expensive units.

The 5.2-pound IN32 is easy to carry (the price includes a case and remote control), and the unit's multiple color-coded inputs make setup easier, no matter what type of video source you want to use. The DLP engine's native aspect ratio is traditional 4:3, but the unit can interpolate and project 16:9 signals. The built-in, three-watt speaker is fine for a group around a conference table; for larger venues you can connect a set of powered computer speakers to the unit's audio-out jack.

If you want something even smaller, the Mitsubishi MiniMits XD80U ($1,995;) is a good choice. Measuring about seven inches square and only 1.8 inches thick, it's smaller than most notebook PCs. And weighing in at less than three pounds, you'll hardly notice it along for the ride in your laptop case.

The 1,500-lumen XGA DLP engine is surprisingly bright for such a compact projector. And unlike other micro-portables, the XD80U is equally adept for business or pleasure. The unit's "dynamic" mode uses a four-segment color wheel suitable for presentations, while switching to "vivid" mode invokes a six-segment color wheel that amplifies colors to create richer video images.

If you're worried about fumbling with settings as your meeting begins, the NEC LT30 ($1,795) is the projector for you. Unpack it, plug it in, connect your source, and turn it on. The projector does the rest. Thanks to the distance sensor located in the front of the unit, the LT30 focuses itself. The automatic keystone correction will square up the image if the projector is set up at a steep offset angle to the screen, while the AutoSense feature automatically syncs the projector to the incoming computer signal.

If that weren't enough, the XGA LT30 features a super-bright 2,600-lumen DLP light engine that can fill a large screen even with the lights on. No screen handy? No problem: The unit's built-in color correction allows you to properly display an image even on a beige or gray wall. Best of all, the LT30 has a footprint smaller than a sheet of paper and weighs just 4.4 pounds. It isn't the least expensive XGA projector, but the features and brightness are unmatched in its class.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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