Mitsubishi's newest presentation projector, the WD390U-EST, is an upgrade to last year's WD380U-EST. On its surface, it's an incremental move: a slight increase in lumens in the same case, with the same contrast, using the same lens and the same resolution imaging chip. But once you get past the surface-level stuff, there are some amazing changes.
The WD390U-EST is a "cloud projector" or "thin-client projector," depending on which terminology you like more. In short, it has the ability to connect to networked servers or computers using remote desktop protocol rather than a dedicated software suite (though it has that too). It can also connect to a number of mobile apps, allowing presenters to use their phone, tablet, or other smart device instead of a laptop or other connected computer.
This review will focus on the cloud capabilities of the WD390U-EST. For a review of the projector itself, which is excellent in its own right, you can read our July 2011 review of the Mitsubishi WD380U-EST. The two machines are largely the same in other respects.
A thin client is a bare-bones computer that relies on an external server to complete most tasks. In other words, data processing and storage doesn't occur in the computer on your desk, but in a server elsewhere on the network. These kinds of computers used to be called terminals, back when proper computers took up an entire room and cost very large sums of money. A typical thin client setup consists of a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and a box with enough hardware to allow communication with the server.
The WD390U is called a "thin client projector" because it includes these capabilities on-board. Using the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), the WD390U allows you to log in to your server account using the same process you'd use on any other thin client terminal. From there, you can access all of your files. Everything behaves exactly the same way that it would on the terminal at your desk.
This has big implications in a number of different areas. First and foremost, users no longer have to learn how to connect a laptop to the projection system, which eliminates what might be the most common call to IT help desks. Instead, they can input the username and password from their existing office PC to connect remotely and access their own files, on their own computer, right where they left them.
Information technology makes modern presentations possible, to a large extent, but learning how to use that technology is a significant stumbling block for a lot of people. Plenty of people don't know a VGA cable from an HDMI cable or which buttons to push in order to make their laptop output to another display. Plenty of people don't know what file format they use to save their documents beyond "Word" or "Excel." For these people, the act of creating a presentation and somehow conveying it to the projector is no small endeavor. These people benefit tremendously from the WD390U's thin client projection features.
While the WD390U's thin client features are very useful, they still require the use of a computer. In 2013, users are increasingly relying on smartphones and tablets, and the WD390U provides a way to directly connect to these devices, bypassing the computer entirely. Using an app called WiFiDoc, a user with an Android or iOS device can display Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slide shows, PDFs, plain text files, or even images from your phone's photo library.
The use of WiFiDoc does require some forethought on the part of the user, since the app has to be downloaded and the documents you want to use have to be transferred to your phone or tablet ahead of time. You'll also need to know the ID of the projector to which you want to connect, so descriptive projector names on the network are helpful. You can do this using the included software.
Meeting rooms. The WD390U's thin client capabilities give every employee access to all of their data whenever and wherever it is needed. That means no file transfers, no flash drives, no connecting and disconnecting of laptops, no incompatible cables, no client-side software installations, and (most importantly) no more wasted meetings -- or at least no more wasted meetings on account of faulty technology.
Classrooms. When I was in school, "class project" meant a trip to the craft store and some poster board. These days, it often means PowerPoint. Students can now bring their project files on their smartphones or tablets, or retrieve them from the school network without leaving the classroom. A child might forget their homework, but chances are slim they'd ever forget their phone.
Training. If you have a common set of documents and need them to be accessible to your entire staff, stick them on a server and connect the WD390U to the network. Your staff will be able to access the documents remotely from any room in the facility.
Cost. Since the thin client functionality is built into the projector, you don't need to install a thin client in the conference room. Multiply that by however many conference rooms you have in your offices and the savings could be quite significant.
Hassle-free. The biggest benefit to the WD390U by far is that users no longer need to worry about setup. With no equipment to connect, there are fewer things to go wrong, which means fewer help desk tickets and more time for other projects.
Versatility. It is hard to think of a device that cannot be connected to the WD390U in some way. Computers can obviously use the standard video ports or connect via USB. USB thumb drives can be plugged in to the projector's USB port directly and documents can then be opened natively on the projector. Tablets and smartphones can connect wirelessly using WiFiDoc. Network storage can be accessed via RDP. If you have a copy of the document in question on some kind of device or storage media, there will be at least one way to get it onto the screen.
Architecture. If your business or school is not already set up using a client-server architecture for users' accounts, the benefits of the WD390U are less immediate. The system only really works well when user's files are all stored on a central server, as this server will link to the projector or projectors and allow use of the remote login capability. If your users store their files locally on desktop computers or laptops, you have to use the traditional LAN display solution: install custom software on the PC and point it at the target projector ahead of time.
Software requirement. The WD390U makes use of the RDP protocol to work its magic, but you or your IT department will still have to install a piece of software on the server before the system will work properly. That's much less difficult than installing and configuring software on every PC in the office, and a giant step beyond what most projectors are capable of, but it's still not true plug and play.
Optional wireless. For a projector that includes almost everything, it is surprising that the WD390U's wireless capabilities require an external adapter. The adapter is only $49, but it also takes up one of the projector's precious USB ports.
Connectivity. The WD390U has two VGA ports, one VGA monitor passthrough, one HDMI port, s-video, composite video, a slew of audio connections, RJ45 wired networking, and two USB ports. However, one of the USB ports is the B type, which limits its use to USB projection. If you want to connect a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse combo and a Wi-Fi adapter, they both require a USB-A port, and the WD390U only has one. You can connect a powered USB hub to expand USB connectivity, but having an extra USB-A port on the projector would be helpful.
Note that while a USB hub is useful for expanding USB-A connectivity, a hub should never be used between the projector and the computer when attempting direct presentation over USB. Most of the time, it simply won't work.
Speed. The WD390U's network features are remarkable, but they don't change the rules. If you want to project video, it's best to stick to wired networking; wireless can sometimes scrape by, but it's a stretch. If you want to use the USB projection feature, wherein you connect a laptop to the projector using only a USB cable, you're limited to still images. In an institutional setting, it's not difficult to set up wired networking properly, but small businesses with less existing infrastructure or dedicated support staff might find themselves using the wireless option out of sheer convenience's sake.
As a standard projector, the WD390U is fully-featured and well-made, putting plenty of light onto the screen and making presentations look vibrant and high in contrast. But it's the projector's network features that make it really shine, and it is people searching for a networked projection solution who should really sit up and take notice.
These days, the words "cloud computing" get tossed around quite a bit, to the point where most people have stopped thinking about what they really mean. As the world's first cloud projector, the WD390U-EST creates new ways to connect content and projector without spending a ton of time setting up. You can project your documents directly from a smartphone or tablet without connecting a single wire or setting up a corresponding program on your PC. You can access network storage from the projector itself, then log out and let another user do the same. Configuration problems are a thing of the past, because there is seldom a reason to physically connect another device to the WD390U.
Future models in this product line will doubtless improve on the WD390U's capabilities, but this projector is already a huge step in a new direction. For years, projectors have been little more than monitors, unable to do anything but parrot whatever was connected to them. With the WD390U, the projector takes on more of the burden of presentation, eliminating the need for external equipment and simplifying the user experience at the same time. It is a strong product that is sure to inspire generations of projectors to come.