Coming to a screen near you

Digital projectors may have improved recently but they all do much the same thing, don't they? Not any more. Charles Arthur puts a cute, quiet and - most unusually - wireless projection system through its paces
Click to follow
The Independent Online

With Christmas on the way, a number of people will be looking at the possibility of creating a home cinema system - especially by means of a projector linked to their computer. Since I last looked at projectors, a couple of years ago, things have moved on. Not in every area: you're still going to be looking at £1,000 for something that will please (rather as PCs hardly ever seem to fall below the "magic grand" number, it seems also to be a sweet spot for projector retailers), and you are still going to be overwhelmed by choices.

With Christmas on the way, a number of people will be looking at the possibility of creating a home cinema system - especially by means of a projector linked to their computer. Since I last looked at projectors, a couple of years ago, things have moved on. Not in every area: you're still going to be looking at £1,000 for something that will please (rather as PCs hardly ever seem to fall below the "magic grand" number, it seems also to be a sweet spot for projector retailers), and you are still going to be overwhelmed by choices.

Last time, it seemed to me that the projectors' biggest problem, and the distinguishing feature between the good and the average, was not the luminance of the lamps but the noise of their fans. That and the size of the beasts created a product-sector in which one would expect to see only incremental change: slightly longer lamp-life here; better luminance there.

The NEC VT46 is a good example of such progress. Costing slightly more than £1,000, it's quieter than the previous generation I looked at, and produces a pleasantly solid picture, with good colours. You plug the cable in and start watching; if you're using it in a professional context (ie, boring people to death with your latest piece of PowerPoint recycling, using some of those slides from that talk last year, with the stats changed) you'll barely notice the sound. If you're sitting in your living-room, watching something really quiet, even the roaring silence of Dolby isn't going to hide the fact that there's a fan doing its level best to stop your lamp dying from heatstroke. It's a good projector and the cheapest in NEC's latest range; but, with the best will in the world, I don't think you're going to be showing it off to your friends.

By contrast, my interest was piqued from the start by InFocus's LiteShow, which the company proudly says is "the first wireless digital projector solution that delivers on the promise of wireless projection". We could dally on the surplus words in that phrase (it's a "solution" inasmuch as it's not just a projector, as we'll see, and I can't say I've heard many people "promising" me wireless projectors), but it's much more fun just to use it.

The idea behind the LiteShow is that everyone who uses a laptop - the main engine for professional presentations - will have 802.11b ("WiFi") reception on it, through a plug-in card. Ever since Apple introduced 802.11b functionality in its iBook in 1999, the sector has boomed as people have realised the benefits of being unwired.

On its own, that is an interesting example of the second half of Nicholas Negroponte's belief (promise, even) early in the 1990s that "things that are now wireless will go wired and those that are wired will go wireless". You used to need a cable to get Ethernet or dial-up; now you can let radio waves do the connection.

Yet you may also be asking yourself, as I certainly was while I set up the equipment, why on earth you would need a wireless link between your laptop and your computer. A cable costs a few pounds; the Wi-Fi plug-in and a PC card for the LiteShow together cost - yeow! - £349 excluding VAT (£410 with VAT), and that doesn't take into account the cost of the projector.

I pondered that while I tried it with the InFocus LP120 projector (pictured above), which, I have to say, was the cutest one I've seen. Usually, I hate cute, but in this case it's positive. It's very small, very light and very quiet. The light it puts out is not going to fill a hall, but it would happily fill the average room. For home cinema with a good sound-system, you could feel very satisfied, especially since you would have a product that could be pushed under the sofa at a moment's notice. (Those who are dedicating an entire room and want to have something like a small cinema at home are looking much farther up the scale than this.)

Plugging the LiteShow into the projector and then turning it on soon produced a new wireless signal, to which I was easily able to connect, using an iBook (though it works on Windows, too, and has plentiful drivers and instructions for it). You need to instal the LiteShow software on your computer, too, because you aren't just creating a network; you're also pushing over the display signal. Again, that program is available for any operating system that can handle 802.11b. At the moment, it works only from a computer with an 802.11b card and the LiteShow-connected machine, but InFocus says it will have an update later this year, so that anyone on a local area network that has a wireless endpoint will be able to link to a LiteShow machine.

So, you press a button, and - pop - there's your computer display (or recycled PowerPoint show) on the projector's screen. I managed it in three mouse clicks: one to log on to the LiteShow network; one to start the program; one to start projecting. Look, no wires! Even better, it is sent with 128-bit encryption, so there's no risk of someone outside the building copying your wonderful presentation.

Though I liked the idea, I was still wondering the next day how it could be useful, when I walked into a conference at which a number of speakers were presenting. There were the speakers at the front; and there was the projector, about 50ft away from the podium, with a long, long cable trailing from it. And there was my answer. Those long cables are expensive, and the gaffer tape you need to cover them up is most inelegant. Stick in a wireless link instead and you've got an elegant solution, especially if people want to present from different machines. (I'll plead guilty, since I would want to do mine using Apple's Keynote presentation software, as the transitions between slides are marvellous.) It's another illustration of how wirelessness can set us free. Keep looking for wires to cut and you're thinking like an innovator. That has to be a good thing.

What do you want to see reviewed or discussed here? Send your thoughts to network@independent.co.uk

Comments