How to Buy the Best Mobile Projector

Monday Aug 16th 2010 by Jamie Bsales
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A mobile projector adds to any presentation, but new technologies make choosing one more complicated. From lumens and resolution to HD and 3D, our guide's got what you need to make the best pick.

Acer X1261; mobile projector
The Acer X1161 and X1261 are affordably priced 3D-capable projectors that weigh less than 5 pounds.
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If you’re thinking about buying a new mobile projector for your small business, be warned: Things have gotten a whole lot more complicated. A few years ago, all you had to do was pick the size model you were willing to carry and the price you were willing to pay, and be done with it.

But new connectivity options, the availability of widescreen and HD image resolution choices, and the arrival of disruptive 3D technology to business-class projectors have made the task of selecting the right unit significantly less straightforward. And considering your purchase decision is one you’re likely to live with for five years or more -- most buyers hold onto a projector longer than they do a PC -- you’ll want to do your homework.

Many business owners still consider a data/video projector a luxury item, rather than a necessity. Indeed, with today’s larger laptop screens, you could occasionally use your notebook to present an idea, proposal or product to two or three individuals grouped around a conference table. But try that with a larger assemblage and you’ll lose your audience, because some of them won’t be able to see the screen adequately.

If you can’t justify the expense based on the number of client-facing presentations you conduct, consider the in-house meetings that could benefit from the use of a mobile projector, and it could tilt the scale in a projector's favor. Need more justification? Just remember that the boss gets to take the projector home on Super Bowl weekend, for the Masters golf tourney, for “drive-in” night in the backyard with the kids and all manner of other special events.

Epson EX51; mobile projector
The Epson EX51 features a sleek 5-pound chassis and 2,500 lumens of brightness.
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Weight it Out

As when buying a notebook PC, one main decision point is what size machine you are willing to carry. Projectors come in a wide range of sizes, from pocket-size units to 8-pound models that can fill a room with video and sound. (Note that for this feature we are focusing on road-going mobile projectors, not the larger, fixed-installation conference room models.)

Generally, the bulkier the machine, the brighter it will be and the larger maximum image it will deliver. So if you tend to find yourself in large rooms presenting to an audience, be prepared to schlep a larger 5- to 8-pound unit (which, with case and cables, will actually net out to a few pounds more; the weight the manufacturer states is for the projector alone). Of course, if you typically travel by car and will only carry the unit between the car and office, that’s manageable.

If many of your meetings require a plane trip, you’ll want to opt for an ultraportable projector in the 2- to 4-pound range. Carrying a larger model through airports -- along with your laptop and everything else -- will grow tiresome after the first couple of trips. Opting for a smaller projector will save some shoulder strain, and many projector cases designed for ultraportables also have room inside for your laptop -- an important consideration now that airlines are sticking to a strict two-carry-on limit.

HP Notebook Projection Companion; mobile projector
The HP Notebook Projection Companion weighs less than a pound, and its LED light source delivers 10,000 hours of use.
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The newest class of projectors are the circa 1-pound “pico-projectors.” These units don’t have the brightness, image size or feature set of full-size portable and ultraportable models, but they are big on convenience. You can have one in your laptop bag all the time, just in case an opportunity presents itself. And some of these pocket-size marvels allow you to connect to a smartphone or iPod touch, not just a PC

Focus on Brightness, Not Technology

If you were buying a home theater projector, you would have to spend a lot of time sifting through reviews and opinions about the various image-engine technologies available -- DLP, LCD and LED -- and which is best at delivering the truest colors and best motion video with the fewest artifacts. But for a business projector, where video use will be fairly limited, you can skip the ideologues’ rantings and know that either LCD or DLP technology will deliver a very satisfactory image. Pico-projectors, meanwhile, use LED engines that deliver usable image quality on a much smaller scale (these are “convenience” projectors, remember).

InFocus IN2116; mobile projector
The InFocus IN2116 features BrilliantColor Technology for accurate color reproduction.
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Instead of the engine used, focus on the brightness rating of the projector. You’ll see the spec most often quoted in ANSI lumens (for the standard way of measuring brightness at the screen set by the American National Standard Institute). An ultraportable 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.

If you typically present in a larger conference room or classroom, you or don’t have control over the lights and window shades, you’ll want a unit in the 2,000 to 2,500 ANSI lumen range. Such units will deliver a usable image up to 300 inches (that’s 25 feet!) in a dark room. The pocket-size LED projectors typically have a lumens rating about one-tenth that of their full-size cousins, and are hard pressed to deliver an image mach larger than 50 inches before the picture becomes noticeably washed out.

Videophiles might pipe up around now and ask “What about contrast ratio?” The short answer: Ignore it. Projector makers do not have a standard way of measuring contrast ratio the way they can with ANSI lumens, so the figures presented are not comparable. In general, any projector from a name-brand manufacturer will deliver a contrast ratio suitable for business purposes.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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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