Creating a slick presentation on a computer is easy, but taking it on the road has long been a nasty adventure. You can convert your slides to 35mm transparencies. But that requires waiting several days for processing, costs a fortune, and forecloses any last-minute changes. You can print the slides out on transparencies for an overhead projector, but that means standing at the projector shuffling pages. Showing the presentation on your laptop's screen works only if your audience consists of just two or three viewers.
What the world needs are easy-to-use video projectors that show computer-generated presentations on a big screen, are affordable, and don't require a pack horse to carry them around. Good news: They're here.
TINY MIRRORS. I tried three of the new breed of personal projectors--the Epson PowerLite 5500C ($4,999), the In Focus LP425 ($4,150), and the NEC MultiSync LT80 ($4,100). All weigh in at under 10 pounds and are compact enough to travel in a laptop-style bag. The latter two use a new technology from Texas Instruments Inc. called Digital Light Processing, which creates an image using more than a million tiny movable mirrors mounted on a chip. The Epson employs a variant of the LCD technology that is used in laptops. While display-on-a-chip technologies used in the NEC and the In Focus projectors could lead to cheaper and lighter machines in the future, I noticed no significant advantages in these models.
Beyond price and bulk, the units have solved the biggest hassle of using a projector. Until the latest generation, you had to match the resolution of your laptop display to the resolution of the projector or it wouldn't work right. Now, the projectors automatically adjust to the display settings of a PC or a Macintosh laptop. And nearly all laptops make it possible to see an image on the screen while also sending it to the projector, a convenience in controlling your presentation. The projectors will amplify the audio from your laptop and will accept input from a standard video source, such as a VCR.
At just 6.8 pounds--less than some laptops--the In Focus is the lightweight champ of the field. It's also the brightest, putting out 700 lumens in a standardized test. (All three projectors worked best in a darkened room but performed acceptably under moderate room lighting.) But the In Focus projector has a couple of drawbacks. It has a fixed lens, so the only way to control image size is by changing the projector's distance from the screen. And the remote control is a $70 option.
CALLING ALL BICEPS. If you're willing to trade a bit of portability for features, Epson and NEC offer good choices. The Epson is considerably heftier, at 9.4 pounds, and a bit dimmer, at 650 lumens. It offers stereo sound rather than In Focus' single speaker and includes a zoom lens and a remote control, which also doubles as a wireless mouse to control your computer. While the NEC is the heaviest, at 9.9 pounds, and the dimmest, at 600 lumens, it's also the cheapest.
All of these projectors have limitations. They are designed for a meeting room or a classroom, not an auditorium or a big ballroom. And about the best thing that can be said about their audio systems is that they are louder than those of a laptop. But for anyone whose job depends on impressive presentations, these projectors can offer a competitive edge.