Product Review: Electronic whiteboards

When you need to transmit visual information to a group of people, don't ask them to write and listen to you at the same time. With an electronic whiteboard, you can write it down for them. Electronic whiteboards significantly add to the versatility of traditional whiteboards by automatically capturing the information that you write, converting it into an electronic signal and transmitting it to an attached computer as a graphical image.

Buying one makes the best sense if you do a lot of ad hoc brainstorming that prevents you from preparing your material in advance. However, if you can use slides or overheads, do that instead of using an electronic whiteboard. It will cost less and look better, and fewer things can go wrong.

I tested electronic whiteboards from Virtual Ink Corp and MicroTouch Systems and found both easy to use and even fun, sort of like a giant Etch-A-Sketch. Virtual Ink's Mimio and MicroTouch's Ibid boards achieve the same result, but they do it in considerably different ways.

In my opinion, the Mimio is a clear winner because of its small size, light weight and ability to transform any hard surface into an electronic whiteboard in seconds.

"Virtual Ink made using electronic whiteboards practical, especially for workgroup-level collaboration, where the users are remotely located," says Mike Comisky, an analyst at IDC. "Before the Mimio, the boards were cumbersome, sometimes difficult to calibrate and just not worth the effort."

If you travel, I strongly recommend Virtual Ink's clever Mimio because of its easy portability. It weighs about 1kg and folds into a compact, 305mm-long cylinder. MicroTouch's Ibid 50, its new 305mm x 610mm portable unit, weighs a shoulder-sagging 5.4kg and doesn't fold. For intrabuilding use, when bulk or weight isn't so much of a factor, the Ibid 50 is a suitable choice.

Millman is a reviewer and consultant in Croton, New YorkMimioVirtual Ink Corp.http://www.virtual-ink.com$US499Virtual Ink's Mimio, unlike MicroTouch's Ibid, isn't actually a whiteboard. It's a 610mm long "capture bar" that attaches to an existing whiteboard -- or any flat, hard surface -- with suction cups. I attached the Mimio to a piece of opaque glass, and it worked fine. A 3m cable connects the capture bar to a computer's serial port.

The Mimio performed well; the writing on the whiteboard is captured accurately and almost instantaneously on the screen (a surface of up to 1.2m x 1.8m) and in the marker colour you select.

If the computer is on a network, you can send the information to other computers. Or, using Microsoft's NetMeeting, you can send it to other users over the Internet in real time. For larger groups, you can route the signal through the computer into a projector to display it on a screen up to 7.3m high.

The Mimio uses infrared and ultrasonic sensors to capture your hand motions as you write on the board. You use the Mimio's special marker jackets that slip over standard coloured markers and change them into signal-generating devices. You activate the signal by pressing on the marker's tip as you write on the whiteboard. The colour of the ink depends on the colour of the jacket.

Mimio's software works much like a simple drawing program. It's easy to install, learn and use. It enables you to modify, save and print images. Installation of the software and configuration of the bar take about 15 minutes.

Ibid 50

MicroTouch Systems Inc

http://www.microtouch.com

$US499

Unlike the Mimio, the Ibid 50 is actually a board. As you write on its touch-sensitive surface, its embedded electronics capture your pen strokes and send them as commands to the computer. The unit attaches permanently or temporarily to a wall or will sit on an easel, which is optional.

Getting started with the MicroTouch whiteboard is a little easier than with the Mimio -- you just start drawing. There is no assembly required. As with the Mimio, the Ibid whiteboard transfers data almost immediately to the computer screen and allows excellent control over its appearance.

For example, you determine the color of the text sent to the computer by just pressing a colour key on the unit's control panel.

Models are available in a variety of sizes, up to a 1.2m x 1.8m unit that lists for $2499.

However, the standard Mimio can scan the same size board and costs one-fifth as much. If you plan to share the data on the board with colleagues at their computers, think carefully about how large a board you want. Yes, you can fill 2.2 square metres with text and graphics, but think how Byzantine that would look when shrunk to fit a 17in. computer screen.

The Ibid software is similar to the Mimio software. Both display the familiar Microsoft interface, with a menu bar and tools bars that duplicate the control panels on the whiteboard. You can save and print, as well as cut, copy and paste. But remember, the data you're manipulating isn't text; it's an image, which lessens it usefulness.

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