Every year at the INFOCOMM show the industry gets to see just how far projector technology has advanced in the twelve months since the prior show. And this year was no different. Projectors are getting smaller and brighter at a pace that seems almost unbelievable. And while there were stunning new products being shown in every weight and price class, the most attention-grabbing newcomers were the 3-pound mini-projectors. Here are our first impressions...

NEC MultiSync LT150 and LT85

Of particular note was NEC's debut of the MultiSync LT 150 and LT85. These are identical 3.3 pound, 800 ANSI lumen projectors with the exception that the LT150 is native XGA resolution, and the LT85 is native SVGA. These two miniprojectors have two notable features that distinguish them from the rest of the 3-pound crowd. First, they incorporate NEC's new VORTEX image enhancement technology, the purpose of which is to improve color, contrast and detail in the video image. Second, they have a PC card slot for PC-free presentation capability.

Now, evaluating image quality based on a vendor's trade show demonstration is not the way to go about a review. But this is a show review, not a product review. And we can say that the picture quality from the 3.3-pounder in NEC's booth looked markedly better than the other three-pound projectors being demonstrated on the show floor. This despite the fact that these products are all built around the same Texas Instruments 0.7" DLP chip and PLUS optical engine. So it is possible that NEC's claim that VORTEX technology enables them to produce better image quality from the same light engine has some merit. A closer look is warranted, and we will get some samples as units are available.

The other major distinguishing feature between the NEC LT150 & LT85 versus competing products in the 3-pound class is that they have a PC card slot that enables the presenter to download presentations into the projector itself and leave the laptop in the car or at home. Many buyers who want a 3-pound projector to minimize total carrying weight will see this as a significant added benefit.

The good news is that the NEC LT150 and LT85 look like exceptionally strong offerings. The bad news is that you will have to wait until sometime in the fall to get your hands on them. No official release date is published, but if you think in terms of October you probably won't be too far off.

PLUS: a major driver in miniaturization

At the heart of the 3-pound projector revolution is PLUS Corporation. PLUS designed the optical engines that power all of the 3-pound projectors announced so far. PLUS was actually the first to hit the market with their announcement on May 11 of the U3-1080 and the U3-880 which are identical 2.9-pound, 800 ANSI lumen projectors with, again, the only difference being native resolution. The U3-1080 is native XGA resolution and the U3-880 is SVGA. Shipments are scheduled to commence in July.

To expand distribution and to ensure that buyers have access to these products from their nearest local dealer, PLUS has entered into OEM agreements with several other major projector companies. So you will be seeing the U3-1080 and U3-880 being sold under other labels. Sharp will bring them to market through its dealer channel as the Notevision M10X and the Notevision M10S. Philips will begin shipping them in August as the UGO X-Lite and the UGO S-Lite. And Mitsubishi has announced only the XGA edition of this 2.9-pounder as the Mini Mits X30.

Several advantages accrue to buyers by having so many sources for the same product. Not only will prices and warranty programs differ between various vendors and dealers, but more sellers means that you have more options terms of customer service and technical support, loaners during maintenance, overnight replacement service, etc. So buyers can find the best overall supplier with the best combination of price, customer service, technical support, and warranty/repair programs to meet their particular needs.

Another benefit to having a product sold by more than one manufacturer is that cosmetic design varies between models. For example, the casework of the Philips version looks quite a bit different than the PLUS version. For sales people in particular who are conscious of the image they cultivate in front of a prospect, having a variety of cosmetic design options is a benefit. (Indeed, several vendors introduced projectors in a variety of colors this year for this very reason.)

What do you give up in a 3-pound projector?

Well, not much. Some might say the zoom lens; these units all have fixed wide-angle lenses rather than manual zooms. But frankly, who cares? The manual zooms on most ultra-portables only have 1.2x zoom ratios. That's not much. With the fixed wide-angle lens on these 3-pounders, you can alter the size of the projected image by moving the projector forward or backward a foot or two. That will give you the same image resizing capability as a 1.2x zoom lens. So practically speaking it's a non-issue.

Other features of portable projectors as a class also are built into the 3-pound products. Digital zoom, digital keystone correction, SXGA compression, component video input, on-board speaker for marginal audio quality, and direct mouse control with USB support are common to all of these new products as well. So despite the radical reduction in weight, almost all of the desired functionality remains.

How good is the video?

As a result of the INFOCOMM demos there is a lingering question regarding video quality. As noted above, the NEC performed remarkably well at INFOCOMM, perhaps due to a boost from their proprietary VORTEX electronics. The same could not be said for the PLUS products and their private-label equivalents. Their image quality overall could be described as "very good for a 3-pound projector," and certainly adequate for use in a variety of mobile presentation applications. But if you intend to use them for home theater purposes, it is possible that their performance may turn out not to be in the same league as that of some of the larger portables today.

However, it's too early to pass judgment on video performance. Trade show demos tell us very little about the true capability of a projector. We need to see production units in the lab before making any meaningful assessment. Once we get a close look at them we will report back in more detail. And that shouldn't be too long--PLUS is at this moment gearing up to ship the world's first 2.9 pound projectors.