Interactive or overactive? Chris Drage checks out Dell's incredibly versatile S500wi projector
Dell S500wiIn action at Dell Camp 2011: projector beneath screenNeed an interactive whiteboard but don’t actually own one? Or, want to be able to set up an interactive presentation or lesson but have been timetabled into a learning space that that doesn’t have one?

The Dell S500wi Interactive Ultra Short Throw Projector promises to solve both those issues, and offers a host of features besides.

The Dell S500wi is able to project a 2-metre (approximately) diagonal image from just half a metre away from the screen, and it offers a truly interactive projection on virtually any surface while providing off-surface interactivity from up to 9 metres away using a bespoke wireless stylus. With little between the projector and the image, the problem of shadow is relegated to a thing of the past. However, it’s the S500wi’s interactive whiteboard mode that makes this projector of particular interest for use in educational establishments.

The Dell projectors allows presentations with the lights on

With an optimal brightness of 3,200 ANSI Lumens and an excellent contrast ratio, the S500wi allows lights-on presentations in large spaces, throwing large, bright and sharp images on to any surface and takes advantage of 3D projection capability thanks to the amazing picture quality you get from DLP technology. It has WXGA1 (1280x800) native resolution and a widescreen (16:10) aspect ratio, which supports 720p HD resolution. A full range of connections is provided including dual VGA, HDMI, S-Video, RJ45, USB (USB Display) and microphone socket complete what is a very impressive package.

Among the more esoteric features are: wireless functionality, Multi-PC session, 4-way split screen, USB plug-and-show and USB viewer. The ability to project from up to four different sources on the same screen simultaneously is probably the most useful aspect for schools. The projector can support up to 10 styli (pens) and so, in theory, involve more students during an interactive session.

With network management control for remote access to the Dell S500wi, either via the school’s network or through the integrated Crestron Roomview software, permanently installed projectors are easily managed by network administrators. The projector can be secured with password protection while an integrated security cable slot and lock on the chassis provides physical protection.

The mirror system adopted does make the S500wi heavy and bulky and, at more than 7 kilos, it’s definitely not a portable unit. It’s designed primarily for ceiling installation (at an extra £119 ex VAT). Bulbs are said to give 1,000 hours of normal use, and cost £250 each (ex VAT) to replace. The projector is protected by Dell’s two-year advanced exchange and limited hardware warranty.

Dell S500wi projectorDell S500wi: sleek designThis evaluation did not get off to a good start when the projector was delivered minus a UK power lead. When I did eventually source a suitable lead, powering up the S500wi revealed that it was designed for ceiling mounting and none of the literature provided explained how to rotate the projection for desktop use. Dell explains that it should be wall mounted above the space you want to use as board, ideally with the wall-mounting arm. If you decide to use it on a desk the ‘throw’ distance will not change and you will be constrained to reverse the projector, putting the table or desk very close to the wall. It can be set, I eventually discovered, through the projector's Advanced Settings menu.

The picture quality is excellent and the menu system is easy to use, either from the small remote control or the basic keys on the projector. The four-way split screen function should prove very useful in video conferencing over a network, or for projecting four slides simultaneously.

The interactive wireless pen is much better than most I have seen, being less bulky (ideal for younger fingers), and is rechargeable via USB connection which does away with the need for batteries.  It can be used as a mouse in any Windows display, although a USB cable (supplied) has to be connected between the PC/laptop and the projector. The stylus provides a device where control moves naturally from student to student and this does assist management during collaborative projects; whereas with multi-touch on an IWB can prove problematical if not well managed.

Stylus allows interactivity wherever it is needed

Another bonus is that use of the stylus is not restricted to the display at the front of the class. It can be used in the middle of the room or at the back, wherever the need is. I am not convinced that it is robust enough for a DDT (Drage Drop Test) and whether it is moisture sensitive (or when little children put them in their mouths!).  At a cool £150 for a stylus replacement, the system does perhaps rely heavily on a single point of failure. I would strongly advise schools to purchase a spare. It would be a step in the right direction if Dell were to ship two styli with each projector.

Currently, only one stylus will work per projector but Dell has hinted that a multi-styli system might become available at the end of the year for those who want full multi-touch collaboration.

For classroom interactive whiteboard applications, there’s a single-user copy of Interwrite's Workspace included. This is essentially IWB software produced by Interwrite a US-based IWB company. It includes lots of sample templates and tools and website access is offered for teachers, globally, to share their lessons. Workspace has a range of modern IWB tools, for example line snap to a virtual ruler etc, but  compared with equivalent software from Promethean or SMART Workspace pales as it not as intuitive nor easy to use effectively.

'Very good picture quaity': Dell S500wiIn use, once you have calibrated the stylus with the projection, you may find that the calibration varies over the surface of the projection, being ‘out’ by as much as 1cm or more at the corners – despite being ‘spot-on’ at the centre. This appears to be a fairly consistent problem as I found it occurring in two separate instances including once on Dell’s own display system.

Although not a huge problem for gross motor use, if you wanted younger children to practise letter shapes or describe something in detail, requiring fine motor skills, then it could prove quite challenging. Again, Dell’s explanation is that the projector doesn’t need any calibration process but there is a difference from the nib of the pen to the centre of the camera that is capturing the pattern processed by the pen. It is about 6mm and this is due the technology embedded in the pen. However, it’s significantly better than the first generation pen and will continue to get better in future iterations of the Dell Interactive Projectors.

Overall, the Dell S500wi Interactive Ultra Short Throw Projector is something of a curate’s egg. It combines the capabilities of an interactive whiteboard with a multi-purpose, short-throw projector, permitting interaction off surface as well, for up to 10 metres. It has very good picture quality, good sound from internal speakers, is surprisingly quiet and can be positioned exceptionally close to the screen. It is well specified and sports some excellent features but for school use, I feel is let down by aspects of its interactive whiteboard functionality (though this could change with theadoprion of other software, Promethean's or SMART's for example).

Despite the reservation, the Dell S500wi Interactive Ultra Short Throw Projector is still, overall, a very impressive projector and will be of particular interest to those needing to project large displays in confined spaces.  

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose    3
Ease of use                4
Features                     5
Quality                        5
Value for money         3

Dell S500wi Interactive Ultra Short Throw Projector  

High-performance ultra short-throw transportable projector that brings interactivity to an surface via a stylus. Dimensions 30.6 cms wude x 9.9 cms high x 24.5 cms deep, weight 7.08 kg, DLP display technology, resolution 1280 x 800 pixels, contrast ratio 1:2300, brightness 3200 ANSI Lumens, lamp life 3,000 hours (in ‘eco’ mode), analogue video input – mini DIN, mini-D-Sub (15-pin), RCA, includes Ethernet (10/100Mbps) and wireless (802.11n) connectivity, price £1,449
Dell S500wi web page

Chris DrageChris Drage, a former teacher, is a consultant and journalist covering learning with ICT. You can contact him by email - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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