PenLab Roundup

Wireless Presentation Controls (March 2003 issue)


It's very likely that the majority of you, our readers, have given presentations sometime during your working life. It's even more likely if you're directly involved in the mobile computing industry. Yet the use of wireless presentation controllers is still not very common. The reasons generally are that they're difficult to install and not very reliable. This is especially true for PS/2-based infrared controllers. Thinking back, how many times have you seen a speaker struggling with a non-responsive clicker?

In the last year or two a new generation of wireless presentation controllers has become available that should solve these problems. These new devices all use a USB interface and radio frequency (RF) rather than infrared. The advantage of USB over PS/2 is clear - you plug it in and it just works. No software, no conflicts with laptop touchpad drivers, no rebooting, no complexity. The advantage of RF over infrared is that you don't have to aim the remote at the receiver - it works in a 360* radius of the receiver, through anything except metal walls. It frees the presenter to become more mobile and more focused on the message and the audience rather than presentation tools.

In this article we review nine USB-RF presentation controllers. These nine products represent every device we could find after scouring the Internet and numerous articles on giving presentations. If you know of any other USB-RF presentation controllers, let us know - we'd like to hear about them.
To Mouse or Not to Mouse
One of the most basic characteristics of any presentation controller is whether it includes mouse (cursor control) capability. The first five products in the comparison table are mouseless - they just have buttons for controlling your presentation. These devices are good for inexperienced or nervous presenters who need the absolute simplest device. On the other hand, if you need to do anything other than go forward or back, such as switching from slide-show mode to normal mode in PowerPoint, you have to use the keyboard. The simplest controller of the five (from L3 Systems) has only two buttons - Forward and Back. Bill Gates used this controller in his Comdex 2002 keynote speech.

The Logitech controller (fifth in the comparison table) has the unusual capability of being used as a desktop optical mouse as well as a presentation controller. A switch on the underside controls whether the remote is in presentation controller mode or optical mouse mode.

What's In the Button?
The next level of complexity is whether the buttons on the remote are programmable. The fourth and fifth controllers in the comparison table allow programming the keystroke sequences that are sent when the buttons are pushed. In the case of the L3 Systems controller, you could (for example) program it so that the screen is blanked when you press both buttons. The Logitech controller allows assigning a wide range of keystrokes to either button. An example of use might be reversing the Forward & Back button positions if you're left-handed, so that the Forward button falls naturally under your thumb or index finger (depending on how you hold the device).

The left-right position of the Forward and Back buttons varies between controllers. When using PowerPoint on a laptop, the left mouse button advances the slide, while the right mouse button backs up the slide. Logically this is the opposite of most western culture, where going to the right means going forward. Some controller vendors choose to match the laptop/mouse button convention, while others choose to match the cultural convention. The best situation is a controller with programmable buttons so that you can choose the positioning yourself.

Another characteristic that varies widely between controllers is exactly what keystrokes are sent by the Forward and Back buttons. Since PowerPoint works with a variety of keystrokes (for example, LeftClick, PageDown, DownArrow, RightArrow, SpaceBar, Enter and "N" all advance the slide), there's no standard and these nine controllers use at least four different sets of keystrokes. For the programmable controllers, that's less of a potential problem because you can set the buttons to send whatever keystrokes you want.

Everyone Has an Opinion
In the comparison table you'll find five characteristics identified as "Editor's opinion." The first of these is Hand Comfort. This is a qualitative judgement on how the remote feels in your hand. This rating is based on such observations as too small, too big, too slippery, too heavy, unbalanced, uncomfortable due to an odd shape, buttons in strange positions, etc. To be "excellent", a remote has to feel perfectly natural, sort of like cradling a baseball in your hand when you're a ball player.

Accidental Button Press Protection refers to whether the buttons can be depressed accidentally while transporting the device, thus unintentionally discharging the batteries. Protection ratings include "Excellent" for devices that include a power-off function, "Good" for devices with recessed buttons and "Fair" for devices with raised buttons and no power-off function.

Battery Door Latch Security refers to how easy it is to accidentally open the battery door and possibly have the batteries fall out (that's really embarrassing during a presentation!). The best battery door latches have a spring clip that's just about impossible to open accidentally, yet is easy to open with a fingernail.

Documentation refers to the completeness of the User Guide and/or Quick Start Guide. If the Guide has neither troubleshooting nor specifications, it rates only a "Fair."

Finally, Overall Rating refers to a subjective evaluation of all the factors. Although it wasn't planned this way, the ratings form a typical bell curve. One controller is rated "excellent" and one is rated "fair"; two (physically identical) are rated "very good" and the majority (five) are rated "good." The numbers in parenthesis after each Overall Rating are a rank-ordering of all nine controllers. Read the individual product comments later in this article for some of the reasoning behind the ratings.

Is PS/2 Dead?
Three of the products in the comparison table offer both USB and PS/2 interfaces. In general, our recommendation is to avoid PS/2 unless you absolutely have to use it. When might that be? With Windows 95 and NT, neither of which support USB. Otherwise, stick with USB, since the ease-of-use benefits are significant.

Several of the USB receivers look like "USB keychain hard drives"; these can be plugged directly into a PC's USB port. Two of these also come with extension cables. Why would you want to use an extension cable? Apart from convenience, the major reason is to be able to position the receiver away from the metal in the PC in order to increase range.

Home on the Range
The receiving range of these nine controllers varies from 30 feet to 100 feet. How much is enough? In a typical conference room, 30 feet is plenty. In a big presentation hall, typically the presenter's laptop is nearby, so again 30 feet is plenty. However, in some presentation halls the laptop has to be located next to the projector, which in turn could easily be 50 or 75 feet away from the presenter in a big hall. Range is one of those characteristics where the specifics of your application should guide your choice of device.

The radio frequency used by these nine controllers varies by a factor of 60, from 40 MHz to 2.4 GHz (2,400 MHz). Between 40 and 1,000 MHz there really isn't any perceptible difference in performance; it's only when you get above 1,000 MHz that transmission begins to be more affected by walls and other obstructions (e.g., with Bluetooth at 2.4 GHz).

All of these controllers have multiple channels or addresses, which (depending on the product) means that either they incorporate a means of resisting nearby RF interference, or they allow multiple remotes to operate from a single receiver.

Life with the Battery
Battery life specifications for presentation controllers are relatively meaningless figures. Are you a marketing manager who presents once or twice a week, or a trainer who presents for six hours every day? The battery life resulting from those two environments will be very different. The most realistic battery life specification in the comparison table is probably Logitech's, at 100 hours. From this number and your presentation profile, you can figure out how many weeks or months your batteries will last.

With the exception of the L3 Systems controller, all of these remotes use batteries that are easily obtainable in most modern supermarkets. The L3 System's battery is a 12 volt "photo" battery that is often used in garage door openers; a home hardware or electronics store is more likely to carry it than a supermarket.

Laser Light, Laser Bright
Seven of the nine controllers include a laser pointer. Our opinion is that it's a nice touch, but the red spot generated by any laser pointer is just too small and dim to stand out unless you move it around rapidly - but doing so can quickly drive the audience nuts! Two of the lasers had a dimmer red spot than the others; these are noted in the comparison table as "dim". Laser Timeout refers to an auto-off feature that turns off the laser after a set period if you keep the button continuously depressed.
Mousing on Your Feet
The last four controllers in the comparison table all include the ability to control the cursor position from the remote. Why would you need to do this? One of the most common needs occurs when a presentation includes some live screens such as web pages. With a mouse-capable remote, you can navigate the web pages without missing a beat. Another need is to launch and control a media player or any other Windows application.

However, doing this isn't as easy as it sounds. Three of the four controllers use a large multi-directional rubber button (like a big track-stick) to control the cursor. (Technically, what's underneath the mouse button is a Force Sensitive Resistor, or FSR.) Using a handheld mouse button confidently, smoothly and accurately during a presentation requires quite a bit of practice. It also typically requires significantly reducing the speed and acceleration settings in the Mouse Properties, since it's a much more sensitive device than a standard mouse or a touchpad. Some mouse drivers, such as Logitech's MouseWare, allow maintaining different profiles for each pointing device.

The final controller, from Gyration, uses unique new technology to provide mouse control - a solid-state motion sensor built on a dual-axis gyroscope. You simply wave the remote in the air and the cursor tracks your hand movement. However, this also takes a lot of practice to master, especially under the stress of giving a presentation. Gyration's product is the most advanced (and the most complex) of the group. In fact, Gyration has a patent on "the application of inertial sensors in a product which senses angular human motion in order to control a graphic or cursor on a display".

Keyspan's and Alpha & Omega's controllers (physically identical except for color and markings) represent a good compromise. They include a mouse button, but you don't have to use it. Otherwise these controllers are just as simple and easy to use as any in the first five. The fact that these two controllers have the lowest street price of all nine controllers is more good news.

Interlink's RemotePoint RF is a step up from the Keyspan and Alpha & Omega controllers in that it adds four programmable buttons and a "trigger" switch which acts as a second left mouse button. The mouse button on this controller is also the largest of the group, which helps make it easier to control.

Paying the Piper
Suggested retail prices in the comparison table came from the vendors' websites; the street prices are the range of prices found on Yahoo Shopping as of January 2003.
The Rubber Meets the Road
How does one go about choosing the "best controller" from these nine products? Like with any mobile computing gear, from laptops to cellphones, it depends on your needs. Consider the list of superlatives in Table 1. Depending on what's important in your environment, you could end up choosing almost any one of the nine.

The following paragraphs include specific observations from Pen Computing's testing of each controller. The devices are listed in the same order as the comparison table.

Mind Path Technologies: This controller is clean and simple - it does Forward and Back, and nothing else. It's so small that you hardly notice it in your hand. In fact, it's the smallest remote in the entire comparison table. The rubber-coated buttons are slightly recessed, which makes accidental activation during transport fairly unlikely. Finally, it has the second highest range at 75 feet.

However, the product is the most mature in the comparison table and end-of-life may be approaching. The receiver is relatively bulky and requires the extension cable to operate (that's one more piece to carry and lose). The price is above the midpoint in the comparison table, and finally, the battery door is not very secure.

Interlink Electronics (RemotePoint Navigator): This is a very elegant-looking controller that fits your hand like a glove. In addition to Forward and Back, it has a third button to blank the screen, which can be handy if your presentation is very interactive. Without the extension cable, which may not be needed given the product's 50-foot range, the remote and receiver make a nice small package. This controller has the lowest street price in the non-mouse category.

However, the buttons are on a rocking dial switch, so you don't get the clean, unambiguous feel of separate buttons. There's no protection against accidental activation during transport, the laser is dimmer than seven of the other controllers, and the documentation is somewhat weak. All of that said, though, the feel, optimization, appearance and relatively low price make this controller the winner in the non-mouse category (but just by a hair).

Atek Electronics: This controller has the lightest travel weight of all nine products. The buttons can be completely disabled, which provides excellent protection against accidental activation during transport. Finally, it's within $5 of the lowest street price in the entire comparison table.

However, this controller has two potentially fatal flaws. First, the Forward and Back functions are only on a jog dial. If you press the jog dial in, you're switched into "Application Scrolling Mode". Forward and Back stop working until you press the jog dial in again. To use the remote with PowerPoint you must therefore use a very light touch on the jog dial (to prevent pushing it in), which can be difficult to do under the stress of a presentation. Second, the front of the remote contains a button that alternatively sends Esc and F5. Esc exits from slide show mode in PowerPoint. F5's function depends on the version of PowerPoint. In some versions (e.g., '97), it does nothing. It is therefore very easy to exit the slide show and not be able to resume without the use of a keyboard. Finally, the tapered shape of this remote makes it somewhat uncomfortable to hold.

L3 Systems: Similar in size, weight and simplicity to the Mind Path Technologies controller, this device has the advantage of programmability. It has the longest battery life in the comparison table, and 100-foot range. A four-button remote is available if you want even more programmability without sacrificing any size or weight.

However, the receiver's antenna is fragile and must be unscrewed for transport (it doesn't fold down like the other antennas). The PS/2-to-USB converter and required extension cable add to your travel load. This controller is the most expensive in the comparison table, has the shortest warranty, and doesn't have a laser.

Logitech: This controller uses the latest technology (Bluetooth), is very elegant in shape and color, and has the added feature of being able to be used as an optical mouse on the desktop. The main buttons are programmable, and it has a power-off switch to eliminate accidental activation during transport. It's also tied for the longest warranty in the comparison table.

However, the laser trigger switch is a problem. It's exactly where your middle finger falls when you hold the remote like a gun, and the trigger is very sensitive, so it's extremely easy to accidentally turn on the laser. There's no way to disable the laser, since it's also used in optical mouse mode. As a result, you must grip the remote somewhat awkwardly between your thumb and middle finger (using your index finger for the buttons), or else turn it completely around and hold it backwards. However, when you do this, the weight of the batteries makes it unbalanced. As a last resort you could cover the laser exit window with a piece of opaque tape, but the batteries will probably discharge very quickly due to excessive laser use. Apart from this fundamental ergonomic flaw, the remote is relatively heavy, the laser is dim, and there's no Macintosh support.

Alpha & Omega Computers and Keyspan: These two controllers are physically identical except for color and markings (they're made by the same company in Taiwan). These are the lowest price controllers in the comparison table. They're simple to operate if you ignore the unnecessary jog dial, which puts the whole remote into "Windows Media Player mode" and/or is used for scrolling in other applications. Unlike on the Atek Electronics controller, the use of the jog dial isn't required in normal operation. These remotes feel good in the hand, have a pocket clip (a nice touch!) and have the second lightest total travel weight. They also have the most secure battery door of all the products.

However, they have no protection against accidental button activation during transport, no programmability, only a 40-foot range, and extremely limited documentation. Finally, in order to use the right mouse button as a Back button, you must set PowerPoint's Tools-Options-View so that right click does not generate a popup menu.

Interlink Electronics (RemotePoint RF): This is the "Editor's Choice" controller. It feels very good in the hand (nicely balanced, with non-slip paint), and it has an excellent "gun trigger" switch as a second left mouse button. Used as a simple Forward & Back controller, it's clean and easy. It has the largest mouse button of the four mouse-capable remotes. It has four programmable buttons that can execute keystroke sequences such as "# + Enter" to jump to a frequently referenced slide, or more than 20 different presentation effects such as spotlight, pen/highlighter, zoom, digital clock, ticker-tape message, etc. (Note that using these effects properly takes a substantial amount of skill - they're aren't for presentation novices!) All the buttons except the mouse button and trigger switch are backlit. Continuous pressure on the mouse button (the highest button on the remote) for more than two minutes turns off the power, so there is good protection against accidental activation during transport. Range is 100 feet.

However, the battery door is fairly weak, there's no travel pouch, and this controller has the second heaviest total travel weight.

Gyration: This is the most advanced, high-tech controller. Its use of inertial sensors for controlling cursor movement is leading-edge. The remote feels reasonably good in the hand. There are four programmable buttons that can be used with more than 80 presentation effects. Power can be totally shut off, providing excellent protection against accidental activation during transport. It's approved for use in the widest range of countries of any controller in the comparison table.

However, it is the heaviest and largest remote at almost 6 ounces and 25 cubic inches (more than 11 times larger than the Mind Path Technologies remote). Total travel weight is also the highest in the comparison table at 10.9 ounces. It's relatively difficult to learn to control the cursor with hand movements, and the remote has 12 buttons, which makes it overly complex. Finally, it doesn't have a laser.

The Bottom Line
There's no such thing as the perfect presentation controller. Maybe you're like Bill Gates and you need a controller that's so simple it's practically bulletproof (L3 Systems). Or maybe you secretly want to be on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and you are in love with Gyration's inertial sensors. Perhaps you're somewhere in the middle and the mouse-capable Keyspan controller with its low total travel weight, affordable street price and five-year warranty suits you perfectly. Like with any mobile computing product, you must analyze your needs, match them up against the data in Pen Computing's exhaustive comparison table, and place your bet. Happy presentations!

Click here or a features table of all reviewed products.

Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is Pen Computing Magazine's Technology Editor and a consultant with Walker Mobile, LLC. Geoff has worked on the engineering and marketing of mobile computers since 1982 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu PC) and Handspring. He can be contacted at geoff.walker@att.net.


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