From digital video and data projectors to interactive whiteboards, educators today face a daunting array of presentation tools. In this Special Feature, eSN illuminates the key features and new innovations in technology that can help you zoom in on the right choices for your schools.

Digital projectors

With nearly 600 digital projector models on the market today, choosing the right system for use in your school or classroom can be difficult.

To help you sift through the choices, we spoke with Dave Dicklich, president of ProjectorCentral.com, a web site that brings together buyers and sellers of presentation equipment. Dicklich outlined several points to consider when weighing your options:

Budget. How much money do you have to spend? If money is tight, which it probably is, there isn’t much point in looking at the high end. While projectors today start at just under $1,000, Dicklich said high-end machines have been known to exceed a quarter of a million dollars. And while you’re probably not planning to purchase equipment for the local planetarium, it still helps to know your limits. Establishing a reasonable price range will help narrow the field.

Mobility. “If you need more projectors than your budget allows, getting smaller and/or lighter projectors will allow you to share them more easily,” Dicklich said. Although smaller projectors generally cost more than larger projectors with comparable functionality, the convenience of mobility should save you from having to purchase one for every room.

Projectors in the mobile class range anywhere from two to 15 pounds. When making your choice, consider whether you’ll need to carry the machines by hand or wheel them through classrooms and hallways on a cart.

Room size. According to Dicklich, the size and shape of a room directly affects the type of projector and viewing screen that will work best. In a classroom, if the length of any row of students is greater than its distance from the screen, you’ll want to consider a wide-angle screen. The distance to the last row of students will dictate the screen size and the brightness, or lumens, of the projector needed. Keep in mind that the first row of students should be no closer than twice the screen width (see sidebar).

Applications. Will the projector be used primarily for text and data presentations, or graphics, or both? If text, a minimum resolution of 1,024 x 768 (XGA-quality), should be considered to improve readability, Dicklich said. However, if the primary use is for presentations consisting of large text and graphics, an 800 x 600 (SVGA-quality) projector would be fine. On the other hand, if the primary use is video, then resolution can vary considerably.

In general, a higher resolution will make for more readable data and better video. Nearly all data projectors produced today will support high-definition television (HDTV) and lower resolution video, Dicklich said.

Lighting. “A lot of schools don’t have the ability to block all of the light in a classroom,” Dicklich noted. When there is competing light in the room—whether it’s from room lights that cannot be turned off or window light than cannot be blocked—a higher-lumen projector is required. And although lumens are important for good viewing, contrast ratio is equally important. The higher the contrast ratio, the greater the ability to show detail and compete with ambient light.

Security. Projectors are “expensive devices,” Dicklich noted. “And theft is not altogether uncommon in the classroom.” That said, most projectors today offer a cable locking option that allows them to be physically secured, an optional password to prevent unauthorized use, and/or a network detection function that will signal when a projector is disconnected without authorization.

Total cost of ownership. Consider not only the purchase price, but also hidden expenses, such as the cost of replacing projection lamps that burn out. According to Dicklich, projection lamps can be expensive and should be factored into the cost of ownership before your initial purchase.

Lamp life is shown in hours and can range from 500 to 10,000 hours, depending on the type of lamp and the projector used, Dicklich said. Technically speaking, lamp life is expressed as a “half-life,” meaning that the lumen output will diminish by 50 percent over the life of the lamp.

Dicklich recommends finding out the cost of replacement lamps for the projector you intend to buy. Keep in mind that most projectors today offer what he called an “economy mode” for the lamp. Using the economy mode will reduce the light output by about 20 percent, prolonging the life of the lamp while also helping to reduce fan noise.

Another item to consider is the warranty offered. These range from one to five years and “are an important consideration for a school,” Dicklich said.

LCD vs. DLP technology

The two main technologies that drive the vast majority of digital projectors today are LCD (liquid crystal display) and DLP (digital light processing). Each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses.

According to Evan Powell of ProjectorCentral.com, LCD is more light efficient and can deliver a somewhat sharper image than DLP at a given resolution, making it ideal for data-intensive displays. But the contrast of LCD is not as sharp as DLP, making DLP the preferred choice for video applications. In addition, because the DLP light engine consists of a single chip instead of three LCD panels, DLP projectors tend to be slightly more compact than their LCD counterparts.

Of course, these are only generalities. You should test both kinds of projectors under the conditions you expect to use them in before deciding for yourself.

Recent developments

A quick tour of the digital projector market reveals four significant trends and recent developments:

1. ‘Multi-use’ projectors

A new category of digital projectors is emerging, designed to bring the benefits of projection technology from the clasroom or office to the home. Called “multi-use” projectors, these portable systems are aimed at small business customers, home office users, and educators. They not only can be used in the office or classroom, but also can be taken home for watching DVDs, playing video games, or viewing life-size images of digital photos.

Examples of this kind of multi-purpose projector include InFocus Corp.’s X1—which features a DLP engine, 3,000-hour lamp life, and 2,000-to-1 contrast ratio for SVGA-quality images—and Boxlight’s H2O (Home to Office) line of projectors, which range from 1,700 to 2,000 lumens and project SVGA-quality or XGA-quality images.

2. Wireless and networked projectors

A large selection of projectors today can be plugged directly into a network for remote access and management. New wireless projectors also are available that allow users to access the projector from any wireless computer or handheld device in the classroom, as long as they are within range of a wireless access point.

For example, Boxlight now offers users a free, 30-day trial of Projector Director, its wireless projector networking system that gives users the ability to control all content delivery and projector functions from anywhere in the room using a wireless laptop or Pocket PC device.

InFocus introduced a new family of installation-ready, wireless-enabled projectors in May, beginning with the 13-pound, 3,000-lumen LP820, and Epson America earlier this year unveiled a 4.4-pound wireless LCD projector, the 2,000-lumen PowerLite 735c.

3. Sub-$1,000 projectors

A number of projectors priced under $1,000 are beginning to appear on the market, such as NEC Solutions’ VT460 ($995 with an educational “grant,” or discount, from the SMARTer Kids Foundation), which weighs 6.6 pounds and features 1,500 lumens and SVGA-quality resolution, and Epson’s PowerLite S1, a 1,200-lumen, SVGA-quality LCD projector with a contrast ratio of 400 to 1 and a price of $999. Also, InFocus announced in May that its X1 projector is now available for $999.

4. Smaller, brighter projectors

Earlier this year, PLUS Vision Corp. of America unveiled a new addition to its two-pound line of DLP projectors, the V-1100. This XGA-quality projector offers 1,000 lumens of brightness and a contrast ratio of 2,000 to 1, reportedly the highest ratio in the industry for a projector this size. PLUS Vision also offers an impressive line of three-pound projectors, including the U4-131, a 1,500-lumen XGA machine, and the U4-111, a 1,200-lumen SVGA machine. Both sport a contrast ratio of 1,500 to 1.

Interactive whiteboards

Long the market leader in interactive whiteboard solutions, SMART Technologies now faces stiff competition from the likes of GTCO CalComp, Numonics Corp., PolyVision, and Promethean Corp. This competition has resulted in more choices for schools—and to help you sort them out, we turned to Jackie Mobley, a former Orange County, Calif., educator and administrator who now conducts market research.

Mobley recently completed a comparative analysis of products from each of these five companies, and her findings are detailed in the chart on page 26. For purposes of comparison, similar-size products were chosen to represent each company’s offerings, although some of the companies market an entire range of digital whiteboard solutions.

From interviews with school customers and resellers, Mobley concluded that SMART Technologies is still the best-known supplier of interactive whiteboards and ranks highest in credibility. But Promethean offers a more robust set of classroom-driven features, including testing and feedback options that are unique to the company’s ACTIVboard solution.

Feature Numonics Promethean SMARTTech PolyVision GTCO
Model IPM 2000 MM ACTIVboard 580 TS600 1077
Dimensions 63.3″w x 45.6″h 69″w x 50″h *62″h x 49.25″w 67″w x 48″h 68″w x 52.25″h
Technology Digital Digital Analog Analog Analog
Surface Hard melamine Hard formica Polyester Polyester Formica-like
Antiglare Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
98,Me,NT,2000,XP,2003
USB Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Serial Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Base Price $2,125 $2,244 $1,999 $999 $1,995
Ed Price ? $1,795 $1,399 $999 $1,397
Input Devices
Touch sensitive No No Yes Yes Yes
Dry erase pen Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Electronic pen Yes Yes No/stylus No/stylus No/stylus
# of pens ? Two Four Two Two
Mouse features Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Pen colors ? Infinite Infinite Infinite Infinite
Hand-helds Presentation Pro ACTIVslate No No SchoolPad
Multiple input No ACTIVote SyncronEyes software No SchoolPad (7)
Interface –
Infrared Yes Yes No No No
RF to devices Yes Yes No No Bluetooth RF to Pad
Operating System
Mac 8.6-9,X OS 9.2. OS X OS 9, OS X OS 8.6, 9,X OS X
Windows 98,NT,Me,2000 95,98,Me,2000
XP
95,98,Me,2000
XP
98,Me,NT,2000
XP,2003
98,2000,NT,Me
XP
Capabilities
Undo-redo Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Preset annotations ? Yes-400+ Yes Yes Yes
Customize palette Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Customize prefs ? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Add annotations Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Re-arrange annotations Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Rotate,duplicate,re-size ? Yes Windows only Duplicate No rotation
Save to MS Office ? Windows only Windows only Yes Yes
Annotate other aps Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Add backgrounds ? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tools
Spotlight tool Yes Yes Yes No No
Reveal tool ? Yes Yes No Yes
Magnifier tool ? Yes Yes Yes No
Clock tool ? Yes No No No
Screen capture Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
One click printing Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Save to flipchart ? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Save to pdf ? Yes OSX Yes Yes Yes
Export to html ? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Export to Power Point ? Yes Windows only Yes No
Testing/Feedback No Yes SyncronEyes No No
Handwriting recognition Yes Yes Yes Optional Yes
Multiple languages ? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Libraries
Image library ? Yes EdCompass Yes Yes
Flipchart library ? Yes Yes No No
Background library ? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Accessories
Wireless remote control PresentationPro ACTIVslate No Yes SchoolPad
Wireless student feedback No ACTIVote No No SchoolPad (7 only)
Home lesson creation pad No ACTIV prep-pad No No No
Warranty/Support
Warranty length 5 years 2 years/3 years online 2 years/5 years online 5 years 3 years limited
Support phone # Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
eMail support Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Website: problem Q&A Limited Yes Yes Yes Limited
Other
Education discount Yes/Grants Yes Yes/Grants No Yes/Grants
Lesson ideas online No Yes Yes No No
Online training