Short on space and cash? Try an interactive projector

If you're in the market for interactive whiteboards, be sure to check out interactive projectors before you buy. Lower cost, easier installation, portability, and versatility make them powerful alternatives to traditional smartboards.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Interactive whiteboards (or smartboards as they are often called after SMART Technologies, the company with the largest market share among whiteboard manufacturers) have become the holy grail of classroom instructional technology. There's good reason for this. If you've ever seen one used by a well-trained instructor, you know how transformative and engaging the devices can be.

When used well in class, smartboards tend to keep students interested long after the novelty should have worn off and provides teachers with a vital tool for reaching increasingly visual learners (regardless of age - interactive whiteboards work well from Kindergarten through graduate school). All that being said, smartboards can be prohibitively expensive, difficult or impossible to share and move between classrooms, and challenging to deploy in space-constrained locations (you know, like most schools).

Enter interactive projectors. I've had some time to evaluate 2 models from Dell and InFocus and, while neither is a perfect replacement for interactive whiteboards located in spacious, airy rooms with spotless WiFi and SMART Slates for everyone, both are far more realistic for deployments of any size.

Both the Dell S300wi and the InFocus IN3916 share similar form factors (these aren't ultraportables, by any means, but aren't circa 2003 beasts either), use short-throw lenses (more on that later), come with e-learning software, have loads of connectivity options, provide widescreen viewing at 1280x800, and offer innovative ways of interacting with computers and screens. Here's a quick video from Dell on how the interactive projectors work:

As you can see, the projectors are ideally ceiling mounted to ensure that the presenter doesn't get in the way of the image. However, the ability to stand back from the screen (both projectors support this), as well as the very short throw required to get a large image allows for quite a bit of flexibility. It wouldn't be a problem, for example, to put the projector on a cart and move it between classrooms as needed.

That is, in fact, one of the greatest advantages of these projectors. Both work very well projected on just about anything. In my testing, I used everything from a standard pull-down screen to a dark-paneled wall. Because the projectors are quite bright and technically don't require users to touch the screen with the pen, it really doesn't matter. My favorite "screen", however, was a large, white drywalled wall. A very large image was available from both and the pen (or light wand, as these devices are technically called, since they rely on light sensors for interactivity) remained quite usable.

The InFocus spec sheet also reads much like Dell's:

  • Connect your collaboration and classroom tools
    • Easily connect your PC or Mac, DVD player, or document reader via a multitude of inputs. The IN3916 even lets you present from a USB thumb drive, and includes HDMI, networking (LAN), and RS232 inputs.
    • Display over USB port sends audio and video in one cable
    • IT administrators can control the projector remotely via the LAN port
    • Connect wirelessly with the optional 802.11 b/g wireless module

  • Control the display of multiple PCs
    • A presenter or teacher can connect up to 32 computers to one IN3916 projector (via a network or optional wireless connection) and control who presents from one web page.
    • Connect up to 32 computers and select the one(s) you want to project
    • Display up to 4 computer screens simultaneously

  • No special software is required, but we include some that makes interacting easy and fun
    • Education version includes drawing, math, geography, literacy, and curriculum-building tools
    • Works on top of your web browser and other favorite applications
    • PC and Mac compatible

The InFocus is wireless-compatible, while the Dell comes with wireless pre-installed. This allows any wireless computer to connect to the projectors as if they were wireless hotspots and transmit on-screen content without pesky VGA cables. However, doing so precludes wirelessly accessing the Internet, ruling out projecting any Web-enabled content, unless the transmitting computer also has a wired Internet connection.
So both are great, both work very well in a variety of situations, both have remarkably similar specs, and both live up to the claims of their respective manufacturers. They're even quite close on price (around $1500). What differentiates one from another? And is there a clear "winner" between the two?

Next: Interactive projector cage match results »

A "clear" winner is a tough call. However, if I had to be stuck on a desert island with just one interactive projector and 30 students, I'd have to take the InFocus. There were a few factors that push the InFocus over the edge. While the Dell has a longer standard warranty (5 years versus 3), comes with wireless built in, arguably has stronger enterprise management software included (both can be managed remotely if they are connected to a network via their built-in ethernet connections), and has a slight price advantage over the InFocus if you add an extended warranty and the wireless option, in everyday use, the InFocus excels just enough to make it my top choice.

The speakers on the InFocus are noticeably louder and clearer. 10 watts of stereo versus 8 watts of stereo doesn't seem like much, but the integrated audio processing and extra power make for crisp, well-defined audio at any volume that simply fills a room better. Although I'm sure it was just an anomaly in my test unit, the Dell also kept dropping audio when using an HDMI connection.

Similarly, while the two projectors had the same rated brightness, the InFocus was clearest and several users commented on its superior video when projecting DVDs, BluRay disks, YouTube video, and video games. In fact, my kids won't mind me sending back the Dell. They'll be very sad to see the InFocus go, however, since it was their gaming display of choice.

Finally, the InFocus wand was simply a bit more intuitive as an input device. This is more of a personal preference than anything objective, but the Dell light wand looked, felt, and invited users to behave as if it were a whiteboard pen. As users adapted, they stepped away from the screen, but the InFocus wand was obviously something different for the average user. Because it was different from the start, teachers and students used it differently from the start, making use of the inherent advantages of the light-based technology. Scrolling capabilities and USB recharging were also advantages in favor of the Dell.

Here's a video, much like the one produced by Dell above, showing some of the particular merits and use cases for the InFocus:

So what's the bottom line? If you're purchasing "Connected Classroom" solutions from Dell, your school already has some Dell infrastructure or management tools deployed, and/or Dell is a preferred or contracted vendor for your institution or state, then the Dell S300wi is a great choice. It's a great choice all around, actually, and just because I'd take the InFocus to a desert island classroom, there's no need to worry if Dell is the vendor of choice in your school.

The InFocus IN3916, however, has a slight edge in usability and daily livability over the Dell. All other things being equal (and, essentially, they are), the InFocus shows the company's long history building projectors and display technologies, while the Dell shows its manufacturer's expertise and experience in enterprise management and deployment. Which is more important for you? The former is probably more important for the average teacher, but the latter will be quite attractive to larger institutions, especially those that are already vested in Dell deployments and infrastructure.

The better question is really one of interactive whiteboard versus interactive projector. As the teacher in the InFocus video noted, there is a lot of classroom value in being untethered from a screen and simply being able to remotely and interactively use classroom applications. On the other hand, it's hard to argue with the value of thousands of canned lessons and activities, as well as ecosystems of interactive response systems, document cameras and other hardware that go along with SMART and Promethean interactive whiteboards.

When I'm in the classroom, whether with students or providing training for teachers, I'd prefer the interactive projector since my focus has always been demonstration using standard computer software (web browsers, mathematics software, visualization tools, etc.). Many other teachers have built entire curricula very successfully around SMART notebooks. My point is that any decision about interactive instructional tools needs to be collaborative and involve teachers, decision-makers, and IT staff. You won't go wrong with a Promethean ActiveBoard or a Dell projector, for example: both are outstanding instructional tools. You'll only go wrong in the deployment of tools in which all stakeholders are not well-trained or fully vested.

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