Just as interactive short throw projectors are getting common enough to lose their status as interestingly different, along comes the Dell S500wi with, well, an interesting difference. It ups the ante by shrinking the throw distance, from short to ultra short, making it even easier to avoid throwing shadows while interacting with the screen.

Built around TI's interactive technology, the DLP-based S500wi offers some familiar features, including an interactive wand, or pen, that doesn't need to touch the screen plus the ability to set up the projector quickly without having to calibrate it. Beyond that, however, it offers 1280x800 (WXGA) resolution, a bright image with a 3200 lumen rating, and a surprisingly low price for an ultra short throw, at $1599.

Advantages

Ultra short throw. Anything truly in the ultra short throw category should be able to throw a big image from a few inches. The S500wi passes that test with ease. At the native 1280x800 resolution, we measured a 75" diagonal (63" wide) image with the front of the projector just 5" inches from the screen.

As with other ultra short throw projectors, the S500wi actually projects the image from nearly the back of the projector, bouncing the image off a mirror that was about 19" from the screen in our tests. That's consistent with Dell's stated range for the projection distance of 1.6 to 2.15 feet (19.2" to 25.8") for an image size of 77" to 100" diagonal.

For an interactive projector, the payoff for an ultra short throw is that you can interact with the screen without having to worry about shadows. Granted, you may cast a small shadow, but it won't be much larger than whatever's causing it, and you won't hide much of the image.

Interactivity with almost everything you need. As with most interactive projectors, the S500wi comes with almost everything you need, including an interactive wand that will work with virtually any annotation software. The wand also lets you control your mouse pointer and give left and right mouse button commands. In case you don't already have an annotation program, Dell also includes InterWrite Workspace software. Also worth mention is the laser pointer in the projector's remote, which can come in handy when you're not in interactive mode.

Fast Reaction Time. One minor issue with earlier TI-based interactive projectors was a slight lag between moving the wand and seeing the result on screen. The sluggishness isn't bad enough to hurt usability, but it takes a little practice to adjust to. The S500wi didn't show any lag at all, which makes it feel natural from the instant you start using it. Count this as a small, but significant, advantage over projectors with a lag.

No calibration. One highly welcome feature in TI-based interactive projectors is that they don't need calibration. The projector overlays a grid on the image, which the human eye can't see, but the wand uses like map coordinates to tell the projector where it's pointing. Not needing calibration is a major advantage if you need to move the projector around -- most likely on a cart, given the 15.6 pound weight. Set the projector in place, and it's ready to work.

No need to touch the screen. One of the more important benefits of not needing to touch the screen with the wand is that you can use literally any surface, including rough surfaces that could harm a stylus, sensitive surfaces that a stylus might leave marks on, and surfaces without a solid backing, like a screen hanging freely from a support.

In addition, because the wand works from a distance -- well over 30 feet in our tests -- you can move around the room. In a classroom, for example, you can move to a student's desk. As you might expect, however, it's hard to control what you're pointing at from a distance. I find that trying to click on a menu command from even 10 feet is usually enough to move the pointer off the item I'm trying to click on.

 

Bright enough to leave the lights on. The S500wi was a bit brighter than its 3200 lumen rating on our tests, at 3390 lumens in its brightest mode. That makes it more than bright enough to stand up to typical office lighting for the 75" diagonal image we used.

Even better, turning on interactive mode doesn't lower the brightness by much, something you can't say for most interactive projectors. With interactive mode, we measured the brightness at 3173 lumens, or essentially the rated brightness. Eco mode drops the brightness by only about 15%, to 2929 lumens in the brightest mode with interactive mode off. Finally, various presets offer a range of levels for lower lighting conditions, with 1695 lumens for the least bright setting by our measurements.

Acceptable Brightness Uniformity. Ultra short throw projectors often have problems maintaining uniform brightness across the screen. The numbers for the S500wi come out to a relatively poor 61%, but the brightest and least bright areas are far enough apart and the brightness changes gradually enough so the difference is only noticeable on a solid white or light colored screen. Break up the image with text or other details, and the difference is almost impossible to see, making the brightness uniformity more than acceptable, despite the numbers.

Good data image quality. Data image quality was easily good enough for any conference room or classroom needs. Colors were a little dull (or dark in terms of a hue-saturation-brightness color model), with a slightly mustard-colored yellow, but they were well saturated.

The projector also handled text well, with black text on a white background easily readable even at the smallest size we test with. White text on black was unreadable at the smallest size. However, this isn't a serious problem, since most text is black on white, and the smallest sizes we test with are smaller than you're likely to run into in any case.

With an analog connection we saw some slight pixel jitter that we couldn't get rid of. But again, this isn't much of a problem, since it only shows on screens that tend to bring out jitter, and you can get rid of the jitter entirely by using a digital connection in any case.

Good Connectivity: The S500wi includes all the connectors you're likely to need, starting with an HDMI port for either a computer or video source. In addition, there are two VGA inputs for computers or component video, a pass-through VGA port for a monitor, both composite video and S-Video inputs, and support for a WiFi connection.

For audio, in addition to the HDMI connector, the projector offers a stereo minijack and a set of stereo RCA phono jacks. Menu settings let you choose any audio input to use with the current video or data source, but you can't set the audio ports to switch automatically when you change the video source. In addition, there's a minijack for microphone input and another for stereo output.

Additional connectors include a type A USB port to let you read jpg and ptg files directly from a USB key, a type B USB port to let you send data to the projector, and a mini USB port to connect for the interactive feature as well as for firmware upgrades and controlling the projector from your computer. Finally, there's a LAN connector for both data and control, an RS-232 port for control, and a 12v trigger to let you lower and raise a screen automatically.

Excellent quality audio. The S500wi's stereo audio system, with two 5-watt speakers is excellent for a projector this size, with good sound quality and enough volume to fill a large conference room or classroom. If you need to, you also have the option of connecting the audio output to an external sound system.

BenQ EH600
1080P Conference Room Projector
BenQ EH600
1080P Conference Room Projector

Limitations

Slightly below par video quality. Few data projectors handle video well, but the S500wi's video is below par even for a data projector. In particular, it did a poor job handling shadow detail in challenging scenes, merging detail into a solid black area. Overall, the quality is usable for short clips, but better avoided for extended video sessions.

Obvious rainbow artifacts for video. The potential for rainbow artifacts, with light areas breaking up into little red, green, and blue rainbows when you shift your gaze or an object moves on screen, is always a potential issue for single-chip DLP projectors. The good news for the S500wi is that the artifacts show fleetingly enough and infrequently enough with data screens that even those who are sensitive to them should rarely notice any.

With video, unfortunately, the artifacts show up often enough so that some people will likely find the projector annoying to watch for anything but short clips. That's an important point to keep in mind if you plan to show video.

Limited 3D. The S500wi is 3D ready. However, as with most 3D projectors today, you need enough pairs of DLP-Link glasses (currently $70 each) for your audience, and note that you can't use the 3D in interactive mode. In short, as with competing products, being 3D ready may help guard against obsolescence, but you may or may not ever be able to actually use the projector for 3D.

Conclusion

The S500wi shares many of its strengths, including not needing calibration and being able to use any surface as a screen, with other TI-based interactive projectors. However it goes beyond most of those competitors by offering 1280x800 native resolution and an ultra short throw. It also earns points for its fast interactive response time, high quality data images, and excellent audio. The ultra short throw lens adds a little to the price compared to the competition, but it adds even more to the S500wi's usability, making the projector a highly attractive choice for the price.

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