Little tools for big business

Oct. 27, 2010

I recently had the chance to test out a couple pieces of electronics technology, and no they weren't the latest IP cameras. The business of our industry isn't simply cameras and card readers. It's also the sales process. The client meetings. The presentations. The system set-up. The follow-ups. The technology we mount on the walls is only part of our business, so here I present to you a quick recap of two relatively inexpensive pieces of technology that are good for business.

The netbook

While the iPad is all the rage these days as far as portable devices go, for standard usability and for price, the netbook still stands out as a viable alternative. The usability difference is the keyboard, and while the trend of portable computing is to do away with keyboards, when it comes to rapidly and accurately entering information, a physical keyboard still beats a smaller touchscreen keypad hands down. (Please excuse the pun.) On price, you're talking about a $300 device versus a device that starts $500.

Additionally, the netbook is an ideal -- although underutilized -- tool for installing technicians. They're small enough to be thrown in a tool bag, and cheap enough to go out in the field. They're small enough to use on top of a ladder, but I bet OSHA would cringe to see that I wrote such a thing. The presence of traditional inputs (Ethernet, USB) and outputs (e.g., VGA video display) allows them to be used for connecting to and configuring an IP video network. With a netbook on a ladder, all of a sudden you can have a single technician doing micro-adjustments at the camera, plugged in (or connected wirelessly) via the VMS client and seeing how that actually impacts the video at it would appear when recorded or in the control room. Sure, you could do this with a laptop, but the smaller form factor of a netbook seems to work better when you're atop a ladder or already lugging around power drills, screw drivers, equipment boxes and more.

As a note for those of you who want to push the netbook capabilities to their extremes, I'll let you know that I've been using the Samsung N150 Plus, which serves up a netbook version of Windows 7. The video card struggles a bit when you start talking full-frame rate HD video, but it gets by fine on lesser resolutions. The computer boots very quickly, doesn't stumble, and was one of Consumer Reports' top-rated netbooks.

Besides using it to configure cameras (you can actually load the Windows client on a netbook; you can't on an iPad), I think this netbook format is great for doing site assessments. It's small and light enough to clutch in your hand as you make notes on where to deploy cameras, how many smoke detectors you'll need, etc. Best of all, the battery life on these netbook devices will keep you working all day.

M1+ Micro Projector from Aaxa Technologies

The micro projector

As you know, the theme of this write-up is small tools for big business, and the second piece of technology I have had my hands on has been a micro projector. I've been using the Aaxa Technologies M1+ Micro Projector.

Prior the M1+, I'd used a larger Dell projector. It was powerful and still somewhat portable, but it was heavy. It had enough power and brightness to be used in front of a room of 50 people, but I found that mostly it was turned on simply for a 5-10 people. That's when it would have been useful to use a micro projector. The displayed image from a micro projector isn't as bright or as large as you might expect from a standard projector that is as big as your laptop, but then again, this M1+ is small enough to fit into a full size laptop bag along with your laptop.

To connect to a computer, you'll need a VGA cable (the only drawback to the M1+ kit is that they didn't include it in the box), but you can also use the projector to connect to common video sources using A/V in cables. The M1+ doesn't support HD video resolutions, but it has plenty of resolution for showing a PowerPoint presentation to a small group. It can also connect to devices like the iPod/iPhone and the Zune.

There's a USB port and an SD card slot on the back of the projector, so you can simply plug in a thumb drive or SD card and display those files on the projector (if they're common image formats). It can also play videos directly from the thumb drive or the SD card using a native video player that supports many common codecs.

The brightness level of the projector seemed sufficient to project the image in a readable manner in a partially lit room, even when not using a specialized projector screen. Theoretically, you can get a a 100-inch image (measured diagonally), but you better have a very dark room for that.. The projector typically sells for around $300, and if you want to go even smaller, Aaxa sells the "Pico" projector which is about half the size of the already-quite-small M1+. Oh, and two final tips about these small projectors you can find on the market: The first tip is that they generally use LEDs, so the lifespan of the "bulb" doesn't even come into play. The second tip is that you might like to find one that can be used with a tiny tripod (like this tripod). The M1+ didn't allow this, and it was, quite frankly, hard to position correctly for the right display.

All in all, I haven't been as excited about the micro projector as I have been about the netbook, but if I was doing sales presentations regularly to small groups, and living on the road, I would undoubtedly be more excited.

Well, that's it for my foray into miniature technology to use in the security sales and systems installation part of the business. If there are products that you like that compete with these or that you find very useful as a security installer or security sales representative, please post them in the comments and tell us why.


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