by Steve Wildstrom

The need to do presentations is one of the declining number of reasons to to carry a laptop around. Research In Motion has come up with the BlackBerry Presenter to do for PowerPoint what the BlackBerry has done for Outlook. Unfortunately, it’s no more than a partial success.

BlackBerry Presenter The $200 Presenter is a shiny black and chrome box a bit smaller than a pack of cards that serves as a link between a BlackBerry smartphone and a standard office projector or monitor and let’s you run PowerPoint presentations the handheld. Setting it up is very simple, but also reveals some poor design decisions.

You start by downloading the Presenter software to your BlackBerry (operating system version 4.6 or later is required). You have to connect the BlackBerry to a Windows computer that has BlackBerry Desktop Manager installed, though the actual download is from a Web site. Unfortunately, the installer an ActiveX control and therefore requires the use of Internet Explorer, not the happiest combo for folks who worry about security.

The Presenter is connected to the projector or display (it supports NTSC or PAL video) using either a VGA connection or an S-video cable. VGA is obsolete, but given its legacy as the connector of choice on millions of video projectors, including it was a necessity. But I find the choice of S-video mystifying. It was never a very popular method for use with either monitors or projectors and produces mediocre video at best. The real estate could have been much better used for a digital connection, either HDMA or DisplayPort.

One thing RIM did right was the Bluetooth link between the BlackBerry and the Presenter. When you start a presentation, the BlackBerry automatically finds the presenter. Type in the key code you see projected on the screen, and the two devices are paired and ready to go.

How you load the presentation onto the BlackBerry depends on your setup. As with nearly all things BlackBerry, it works best if you’re on a system using BlackBerry Enterprise Server. Then you can just send the presentation as an email attachment. Otherwise, you have to download the presentation from a computer to the BlackBerry’s memory card using a USB link.

The actual presentations worked fine, with some limitations. Maximum screen resolution
is 1024×768 (800×600 with S-video). That’s at the limit for most office projectors, but your slides won’t look their best on a big-screen monitor. PowerPoint animations and transitions worked fine, but video embedded in slides displayed as a static image. There’s no audio out connection, so music or other audio won’t be heard.

While running a slide show the BlackBerry acts as a full-featured remote, offering such tricks as the ability to view speaker’s notes on the handheld while showing slides on the big screen. It works best if you do a run-through of your show before the actual presentation; otherwise there can be a substantial lag between the time you hit the “next slide” button and the time the image changes.

With its compact size and relatively low cost, the Presenter is an attractive option to find a corner in your briefcase–or a permanent place in a conference room. But a few relatively minor improvements would make it a lot more useful.

One big change, which is being considered by RIM, could greatly enhance the usefulness of the Presenter. That would be to build a version with a pico-projector right in the box. The combination would not be a match for a regular projector on a big screen, but for a small group, you would have a a go-anywhere presentation tool that could slip into your pocket.