A Dispatch from the Road: Margi Presenter-to-Go

by Matthew Gast, author of 802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide

Earlier this year, I finally took the plunge and joined the growing crowd of PDA owners when I purchased an iPAQ 3765. Over the past several months, it has become my constant companion, both in the office and in my personal life. What's most amazing about the iPAQ is that it is quickly becoming a general-purpose computing platform. "Home base" is still my laptop, but the iPAQ is its major satellite.

I owned a Palm several years ago. It was too limited for my taste. I stored my Rolodex in it, and attempted to keep my schedule in it, but it never replaced any of the other low-tech tools in my life. I still carried a paper notebook to most meetings. The Palm quickly became excess bulk to be carried around, so I stopped using it years ago.

The iPAQ, though, is truly mobile, not just portable. It integrates tightly enough with my main desk-bound environment that I can get rid of my paper notebook, but it has enough computing power and expansion capability to be more than a paper replacement. The iPAQ has been a success because it's a small, general-purpose platform that happens to have been brought to market as a personal organizer. I don't think we've fully begun to appreciate the effects of widespread devices with such a high power-to-weight ratio, but I see it more clearly every day. Need a wireless analyzer? The iPAQ is a powerful handheld platform to build on, and it's easily portable, which makes a great deal of sense for wireless network tools.

Related Reading

802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide
Creating and Administering Wireless Networks
By Matthew Gast

Spreading the computing power of so many StrongARM chips far and wide will make the world a much different place, but I'm drifting away from my original purpose, as you might guess from the title. My iPAQ is as important to me as my laptop these days, and I keep discovering add-ons that make me more beholden to it every day. The newest arrow in my computing quiver is Margi Systems' Presenter-to-Go card, which turns my iPAQ into a serious presentation tool.

The Problem: Laptops Have Too Many Parts

Sometimes, you do something really embarrassing, and the whole world knows about it. One of the problems with public speaking is that the audience can easily see your flaws, and they tend to be projected onto big screens so that nobody will forget them soon. (Least of all you.) I just finished up a seminar series on wireless security, which was threatened early by my own packing incompetence.

For the first seminar, I walked out the door of my house without the AC adapter to my laptop. I had intended to put some final touches on my presentation on the plane on the way to the destination. As it turns out, I got to the airport early and started fiddling with my slides at the gate. With about 15 minutes to go before boarding, I rifled through my case looking for the AC adapter to top off the battery.

That's when I realized the AC adapter wasn't there, and I'd just cavalierly used a whole lot of battery power keeping the screen nice and bright while editing my presentation, even though I really didn't need the brightness. Audiences are usually pretty forgiving, but I didn't want to test the patience of a large group of people by ending my presentation at whatever point the battery would happen to run out.

Enter the iPAQ, Stage Left

After a brief moment of panic, I pulled out my mobile phone and dialed my hosts to see if they had an AC adapter. Unfortunately, their standard laptop is a Toshiba, and my laptop is a Dell, so they couldn't help me out with an AC adapter. They did, however, offer to work on tracking down a loaner laptop for me. I finished off my presentation and saved it onto a USB flash disk for easy transfer. My situation was now the stuff nightmares are made of. Showing up for a presentation without electrical power is not as bad as showing up without pants, I suppose, but it's definitely up there.

Now, I have to go on a little detour. As part of my seminar, I'd planned to show off a PocketPC-based wireless network analyzer. Many people use Microsoft's Remote Display tool for Windows desktops, but I have always been frustrated by the update speed, especially for applications you would like to see in real-time. I went looking for better solutions, and decided on Margi Systems' Presenter-to-Go card, solely for the ability to do display. I considered other solutions, but I knew that I needed to retain the ability to display "live" data that might be gathered with a sensor on a PC Card, so I couldn't opt for a format that restricted me to one slot in an iPAQ expansion sleeve.

Sitting in the airport lounge, I realized that the Presenter-to-Go was more than just an external display tool. It includes software that will compact PowerPoint presentations into a form useful for display on the iPAQ, and I had all the components installed and with me in the airport. I also had an AC adapter for my iPAQ, which I could use during the presentation. (Since the iPAQ cradle charges it, I'm free to stash a second adapter in my bag, where it doesn't get left behind on trips.)

To make a long introductory anecdote shorter, I processed my presentation with Margi's software and gave a successful presentation the next day. After the formal question-and-answer session, I received almost as many walk-up questions on the Presenter-to-Go as I did on wireless LAN security!

Presenter-to-Go Components

In the box, you get the Presenter-to-Go card, a VGA dongle and gender adapter, software for both the iPAQ and your desktop, and an infrared remote control. The card is available in several common form factors, and the one you pick depends on your PDA and its expansion options. I bought the PC Card version, but it is also available as a Sony MemoryStick, a Secure Digital (SD) card, both type I and type II CompactFlash (CF) cards, and as a Visor module.

The card functions like a second video output, and is controlled from the software on the iPAQ. Having a separate video controller is advantageous because the VGA port can display at a separate resolution from the 240-by-320 iPAQ screen. The controller on the Margi card can display images at resolutions up to 1024-by-768 with 8-bit color (256 colors). According to Margi, the Presenter-to-Go will display in color, even if you have a black-and-white iPAQ, but I wasn't able to test it. You connect the card to a video port with an included dongle. The kit comes also comes with a second video cable so that you can connect to either male or female video ports.

Presenter-to-Go PC card and dongle
Figure 1. The Presenter-to-Go PC card and dongle.

With the included IR remote control, you can control the slide show through the PDA's IR port. The remote uses the PDA's IR port, so if you don't have an IR port, the remote does not help you. Plus, the range and performance of the remote are limited by the PDA vendor's design decisions. Most IR ports are designed for short-range PDA-to-PDA transfers or PDA-to-desktop synchronization and consequently have a relatively narrow cone in which IR is received.

Three software components are included. On your full-blown desktop or laptop, you install a PowerPoint plug-in and printer driver that create compressed versions of presentations for use on the PDA. The PDA gets the Presenter-to-Go application that reads and displays the compressed presentations, plus the Mirror application, which displays the PDA screen through the video port.

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