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New Light on Portable Projectors

By Stephen H. Wildstrom It wasn't long ago that all a video projector had to do to be regarded as "ultraportable" was to come in at under 10 lbs. and be small enough to fit in a computer bag -- provided you didn't try to put a computer in as well. Today's ultraportable projectors are down to just a hair over two pounds and will fit alongside a laptop -- if it's a fairly roomy bag. If you do a lot of presentations out of your office and are never quite sure what sort of audiovisual equipment you'll find at your destination, ultraportables can be very worthwhile.

I took a look at two new projectors. The $2,500 sb21 from Hewlett-Packard has been available for a few months, while the $3,200 LP70 from InFocus will ship in early September. The two products are very similar in most ways. Each is about 6-in. wide, 8-in. deep, and 2.5-in. thick. The HP weights 2.2 lbs., the InFocus 2.4, though in both cases the required cables and accessories are likely to give you a traveling weight of 3 lbs. or more. And both create their images using Texas Instruments' Digital Light Processing system -- the key design component of these ultrasmall projectors.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. The InFocus has a couple of features that help to justify its higher price. Most important is its 1024x768 pixel (XGA) image, vs. the 800x600 (SVGA) output of the HP. Through both include circuitry that automatically converts a laptop's video to the resolution of the projector, the InFocus' higher resolution will generate somewhat sharper images, especially when projecting at long range. This model also includes a zoom lens. However, the zoom ratio is less than 2-to-1, so it's really just a convenience for fine-tuning the size of the projected image. You're still going to have to move the projector if you want to change the image size in a major way.

The InFocus is also slightly brighter, at 1100 lumens, to the HP's 1000. The InFocus lamp is rated at 2000 hours of use. HP rather unhelpfully claims a lamp life of "20+ months of typical usage," whatever that may be. Since replacement lamps typically cost more than $300 -- making the lamp user-replaceable means changing an entire subsystem -- lamp life is not a trivial matter.

Either of these projectors would do a very good job in most presentation settings. As detailed above, the InFocus offers some extra bells and whistles with a little more bulk and a significantly higher price. It's important, however, to remember the limitations of small projectors. These units are designed for conference-room use, for meetings of perhaps 20-25 people. In that setting, they will produce an acceptable, bright picture with normal room lighting, though a lot of sunlight coming in through windows will wash out the image.

STRICTLY NON-BALLROOM. Both InFocus and HP make absurd claims for the largest image these units can project. InFocus specifies a 22-ft. diagonal at a throw of 33 ft. I suppose that if you tried it, you would be able to see something, but creating images of that size in theaters or ballrooms is a job for a heavy-duty, 5000-lumen auditorium projector.

Products like the HP sb21 and the InFocus LP70 are personal projectors, small and light enough to carry easily -- and cheap enough to be affordable. Used properly, they are very welcome additions to the mobile executive's bag of tricks. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online

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