How to Buy the Best Mobile Projector - Page 2

By Jamie Bsales
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Microvision SHOWWX; mobile projector
The Microvision SHOWWX is a pico-projector that weighs about the same as an iPod Touch -- and can project from one.
(Click for larger image)

Resolving Resolution

The proper size/weight and brightness for your needs are the easy attributes to nail down. Where things start to get a little more convoluted is the discussion about resolution. Just like an LCD monitor or notebook PC display, the image engine inside a projector has a native resolution (that is, the number of pixels wide by the number of pixels tall the image is) that it was designed to deliver.

Many projectors let you select a different resolution than the engine’s native setting, but just like a computer screen, the image quality will suffer. Some projectors scale to non-native resolutions better than others, but in general it’s safe to assume the native resolution of the engine is what you’ll be running the projector at for most of its life.

In the past, all you had to do was pick between SVGA (800x600) or XGA (1,024x768) resolution and be done. Not anymore. The high-def revolution that visited TVs and then notebook PC screens has found its way to projectors, too. And many models support the widescreen resolutions to match today’s wide-aspect laptop screens. In today’s market, you’ll find some low-cost projectors that support 800x600, high-end models that deliver full 1080p HD (1920x1080) resolution -- and just about every stop in between.

Getting this decision right is crucial: Just like a PC screen, the higher the resolution, the smaller on-screen objects will appear. If you are using a presentation program (like PowerPoint) that’s less of an issue, since the templates will account for viewability. But switch over to project a website or an application on your PC, and with a high-res projector you run the risk of on-screen text that's too small for your audience to see.

If budget is your primary concern and all you ever need to project are PowerPoint presentations, you might be able to make due with an 800x600 model. But given that a projector is likely a 5-year purchase, it’s more prudent to be forward-looking and opt for a higher-res model. These days, 1024x768 is the minimum most buyers should opt for (it helps that most websites are designed to suit this resolution). If projecting video is your primary reason for buying a unit, then step up to 720p (1280x720) resolution. Frankly, only people in the market for a home theater projector need a full 1080p model.

Mitsubishi XD95U; mobile projector
The Mitsubishi XD95U packs 2,200 lumens into a 3.3-pound package.
(Click for larger image)

To 3D or Not To 3D

And speaking of forward-looking, another consideration is whether to opt for a 3D-capable projector. As the technology migrates down from the home-theater industry, more projectors aimed at the business and education markets feature 3D capabilities. You can use such models as a traditional 2D projector, but (and it’s a big “but”) when paired with the right equipment and content, they can also deliver a 3D image.

To make that happen, you need to pair the projector with a PC equipped with a 3D-capable graphics subsystem (putting out XGA resolution at 120Hz), and you need to have content designed to be projected in 3D. And yes, your audience will need to wear 3D glasses -- and not the ones you took home from the theater after Avatar, but high-end glasses with active LCD shutters.

If all this sounds like a bridge too far, a plain old 2D projector is a good fit for you. But seeing how quickly movies switched over to 3D, it is not inconceivable that with the 5-year lifespan of your projector you’ll wind up wishing you had opted for a 3D model. And reps at projector makers -- the ones who will be driving the market -- agree.

“Three-D is here to stay, and more and more applications are being developed to take advantage of this technological advance that is now available and affordable,” said James Chan, senior marketing director, Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America. He reports that Mitsubishi is embracing 3D technology completely, and the company now has several projector models for the education market supporting 3D. Studies have shown that students retain material better when it's presented in 3D versus2D, and the business case for 3D in the business setting -- for training purposes or making a more lasting impact -- can be compelling.

NEC NP216; mobile projector
The NEC NP216 boasts 3D capabilities and long lamp life.
(Click for larger image)

Other Considerations

Once you’ve gotten past the weight, brightness, resolution and 2D/3D decision points, there are other things to consider before settling on the right projector model. For example, do you need a standard-throw or a short-throw model? Short-throw models use impressive optic arrays to produce a large image when place just 18 to 24 inches from the screen, as opposed to standard-throw models, which typically need to be placed 8 to 12 feet from the wall to deliver the same size image. Short-throw models cost more, but you also avoid the all-too-common situation of people (most often the presenter) crossing in front of the light path.

Another handy feature is instant-off. With some projectors, after the lamp is turned off there’s a cool-down period when the fan runs to cool the bulb. That means a couple minutes of awkward small-talk before you can pack up and gracefully leave. With instant off, you can unplug and pack up the projector as soon as you turn it off.

You’ll also want to keep maintenance issues in mind, especially lamp life -- and cost. Projector bulbs last for thousands of hours, but they typically cost hundreds of dollars each. When you buy a projector, make sure the warranty covers the bulb for an acceptable amount of time -- say, a year or 2,000 hours of use. And speaking of warranties, since a portable projector is meant for the road, be sure to get a robust warranty -- ideally 3 years -- and think about opting for next-business-day replacement if your presentations are crucial to your business success.

A Sampling of Mobile Projectors for Small Business

Vendor/Model Price Weight Resolution Tech Brightness Special Features
Acer X1261 $529 4.9 lbs. XGA (1,024 x 768) DLP 2500 lm 3D-capable; Maximum image size: 300 inches
Epson EX51 $649 5.1 lbs. XGA (1024 x 768) LCD 2500 lm PC-free presenting via USB memory key; Auto-image alignment
HP Notebook Projection Companion $499 0.9 lbs SVGA (858 x 600) DLP 100 lm LED light source (no bulb to replace) rated for 10,000 hours of use; 3.6 x 1.6 x 4.4 inches
InFocus IN2116 $999 7.0 lbs WXGA (1280 x 800) DLP 3000 lm BrilliantColor technology; Maximum image size: 300 inches
Microvision SHOWWX $549 0.25 lbs. WVGA (848 x 480) Laser 10 lm About the size of a smartphone; Project from an iPhone, iPod Touch or notebook (with optional VGA adapter)
Mitsubishi XD95U $999 3.3 lbs. XGA (1024 x 768) DLP 2200 lm Auto power off; Quick cooling
NEC NP216 $1,199 5.7 lbs. XGA (1024 x 768) DLP 2500 lm 3D-capable; Long lamp life

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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This article was originally published on August 16, 2010
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