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Picky About Picos or Does a Little Projector Go a Long Way?
by Shepard Gorman

Small “netbook” computers have already given the traipsing teacher a way to present multimedia content when a video projector was present.  What happens when we are not near a ceiling mounted unit or a multimedia cart setup is another issue entirely. The advent of the scientific calculator-sized pico projectors has made being “off the grid” and entirely on battery power a possibility.

While several manufactures have had units on the market for more than a year, 3M  released its second generation projector, the MPro 120, in September 2009  and  WowWee,  its Cinemin swivel model,  at about the same time. Both cost about $350 list, have  low power , fixed focus beams that can blow images up to almost 50” diagonal measurements and, at least  in the projector world, are really tiny.  

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/08/27/technology/personaltech/smart.1.190.jpg                                                 http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/08/27/technology/personaltech/smart.2.190.jpg

The MPro120 from 3M.                                              WowWee’s Cinemin Swivel.

But is either ready for prime time.? If you want to be the first one on your campus with a projector in your pocket they certainly have a wow factor are and they probably will have continue to have it until these small projectors are built into more cameras or cell phones.

These little machines have several severe compromises that must be considered . First they have low powered beams, often 10 lumens or less,  compared to the 2000 lumens of  other portable or semi-permanent units. This of course means they should be projected on good reflective surface and must be seen in a relatively or entirely darkened room. This may not be a good idea for the 8AM freshman introductory course where many of the students may a darkened room as an opportunity to get some additional sleep time. Second, while they may be rated as making up to 60” images, the resolution of the units makes any projection much larger that about half that size very fuzzy, a true problem for those of us who project text.

Third, limited battery life, usually under 2 hours, suggests just one lecture and some setup time before finding the wall outlet. Fourth, any built-in speakers are not up to the task of filling a room with sound, so external, powered speakers are not really an option if the unit has an appropriate output jack ( The 3M does not). This makes any setup a bit more complicated and time-consuming simultaneously to the cost. Fifth, these units use digital light processor technology (DLP).  This means that the light from a projector lamp is bounced of the surface of a chip that has an etch surface with thousands of moveable mirrors. This reviewer has yet to find data on the durability of these chips and has been unwilling to perform any potentially expensive drop tests which might incapacitate the chip of the projector lamp.

Given all these drawbacks, waiting for less portable, line-powered units about the size of two stacked textbooks, that have 300 times brighter images,  higher resolutions, better speakers and lots of input and output jacks seems to be a the more prudent, but less wow factor way to go. Some of these units are currently more than twice the price of the pocket units, but history suggests that they get better specifications and become far less expensive if we don’t need to be early adopters and can wait a few months. The pico units are real choice for the table-top seminar conference with just a few people who need a quick way to meet anyplace but the lecture hall is not the right venue for them at this time. So they do go a far way but not quite far enough this year!


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