TechLAB Shootout: 6 Document Cameras
You can be forgiven for being just a little satisfied and complacent after successfully outfitting a school with rooms full of computers, projectors and a school-wide network to tie it all together. Unfortunately, your work isn’t quite done yet. Sooner or later, every effective digital classroom needs a document camera to project physical things – like a newspaper article, a page from an atlas and even the class pet.
Also known as visualizers, document cameras are for when you need to show the class something that goes beyond a digital image. It’s all about teaching with items that exist only in the real world. Every teacher has found that there are plenty of times when you either can’t find the right digital image of a flower petal or a video of sodium burning. That’s where a document camera comes in.
As the name implies, think of a visualizer as a self-contained digital camera that can turn anything from a piece of paper to a petri dish into a lesson that the entire class can see with a projector. While it might make sense to use a cell phone or digital camera, don’t bother.
That’s because a doc cam has something ordinary cameras don’t: a long arm that holds the camera steady so that it can be bent, rotated and swiveled to aim it at a variety of objects.
GANG OF SIX
The good news is that document cameras are not all that expensive and you only need one per room or projector. In fact, many districts get one doc cam for every three or four classrooms that are shared, moved around and used as needed.
The bad news is that there are so many doc cams available that it’s hard to decide which is right for your classrooms. To cut through this, we’ve gathered together six of the newest, coolest and most capable document cameras available and ran them through the digital wringer at Scholastic’s TechLAB testing facility.
Over the course of 6-weeks, we subjected them to a variety of tests, doing to them what you would in a typical school day. After looking them over, measuring every aspect of their operations and trying out their key features, we used them in several mock lessons to see how they perform in the classroom.
These visualizers vary from large systems that take over a desktop to ones that are so small that they can be folded up and put in a drawer or a jacket pocket to take to the next classroom. They all have their own lighting for use in a darkened classroom, but they vary greatly as to how bright they get. They can all zoom in and out on a detail and have a variety of special effects, but the output of some look better than others. In other words, they all are able to put sheets of paper or physical objects on the classroom screen.
One does a cool educational trick. Using sophisticated 3-D modeling technology, Smart’s Document Camera 330 allows the teacher or student to manipulate a little cube whose moves are mirrored with a 3-D image on the screen. It can be an image of a flower, a geometric figure or just about anything and is the closest thing to classroom magic.
It stimulates curiosity and opens pathways of understanding, but cool as it is, many teachers and administrators will find this technology overkill. What they really want is the ability to inexpensively put a physical object on the classroom’s projection screen.
While none of these devices hit a grand slam, they are all solid hits. The best overall performer was Samsung’s SDP-860, which put the sharpest images on the screen and was extremely flexible in what it could show. It’s not perfect because the SDP-860’s black-on-black color scheme is hard to use in the dark.
Still, Samsung’s SDP-860 can turn just about anything into a lesson.
Size matters, and Elmo’s MO-1 is not only small and inexpensive but it can do several things that that larger and more expensive document cameras can’t. It’s the perfect visualizer for schools that want to get a few units that go from classroom to classroom as needed.
At 1.1- by 8.9- by 4.0-inches and weighing 1.2 pounds, the MO-1 is the smallest and lightest of them all, and is on a par with the power adapter of some of its competitors. It’s so small that it can be slipped into a drawer or jacket pocket when the lesson’s done.
It takes seconds to unfold it, plug it in and start teaching. When the bell rings, fold it up and be on your way. For the fashion-minded, it comes in white, red and black.
The MO-1 has a simple interface, although it’s more complicated than the MimioView’s four control buttons. In addition to a power switch, it has buttons for focusing, adjusting the brightness, zooming in and out as well as turning the light on, rotating the image and capturing a screen, but does without a remote control. Underneath is a switch for selecting output resolution.
The camera is supported by a three-element articulated arm that has a maximum height of 14-inches and can be adjusted to view anything from a calculator to a paper document. The camera can be angled at the target but the arm doesn’t rotate. It can take in a 13.5 by 10.1-inch area, which is skimpy, compared to the Epson’s ability to work with nearly double the viewing area.
Inside the camera is a 5.0-megapixel sensor that creates sharp stills and video, tying with the DC11 for the top resolution of the bunch. The MO-1 can put a full HD 1,920 by 1,080 video stream on the screen and its autofocus is smooth and quick.
On the downside, the doc cam lacks an optical zoom lens. Instead the MO-1 has a digital zoom that can magnify an object 8 times. At its limit, the images are nearly worthless because noise and movement overwhelm what you’re looking at.
The Elmo visualizer has a single LED light next to the camera that puts out a puny 96 lux, the lowest light level of the six, making it barely usable. This pales in comparison to the QD3300’s 2,352 lux of illumination. There’s often an annoying hot spot on the items being projected.
The doc cam can connect with a projector directly via either VGA or HDMI ports, the only one of the bunch that has both; it has an SD card slot for saving items. Like the others, it can connect with a PC (but not a Mac) with the included USB cable and ImageMate software. The software is competent, but contains nothing in the way of content to help teachers put a lesson plan together.
In our simulated lesson plan, the MO-1 performed well, with a fastest set-up and the ability to create sharp images and video. It put out blurred images under quick movements, though. Unfortunately, its capture area was the smallest of the bunch and wasn’t enough to hold a full page of our atlas, but its field of view can be enlarged by putting the visualizer on a stack of books. It’s awkward but it works.
Elmo’s $400 MO-1 is tied with the Epson ELP DC11 at the least expensive of the bunch and comes with a 5-year warranty, matching the best of the bunch. The only one of the six doc cams with get up and go, the MO-1 is the one to get if you need to move them from room to room.
+ Great price
+ Tiny and light
+ Quick Set up
+ Available in white, red or black
- Digital only zoom
- No content software
- Low light level
- Small capture area
EPSON ELP DC11
If resolution were the only thing that mattered in a classroom document camera, then the Epson ELP DC11 would be a runaway hit. There are other considerations when it comes to visualizers, and the DC11 excels at some and falls short on others, making it a mixed bag.
While it can’t touch the Elmo MO-1 on size, weight and portability, the 4.8-pound DC11 can be carried from room to room as needed. It would be easier to move if the entire device folded up, but the DC11 takes up only 4.6- by 10.6 of desk space
The camera head is on a three-piece articulated arm that is easily bent to accommodate a variety of targets or put out of the way for a traditional stand-up lesson. It has a maximum arm height of 17-inches and has the biggest capture zone: 16.4- by 13.0-inches.
With a resolution of 5-megapixels, its camera ties the Elmo doc cam for the best resolution of the six. Oddly, the LED light switch is next to the camera head, making it awkward to turn on and off while teaching. It puts out 261 lux of illumination, much less than the QD3300 but more than enough for most school uses. It can suffer from hot spots, though.
The layout is logical and its black-on-white large buttons make the DC11 the easiest to use in the dark. There are controls for capturing stills and video, focusing, zooming, adjusting the brightness and working through its Menu choices. The doc cam comes with a mid-sized remote control that mimics the features on the doc cam’s base.
It has ports for connecting the visualizer to a computer or a projector via VGA or Composite Video cables, but lacks an HDMI port; the box includes VGA and USB cables along with a microscope adapter. There’s an SD card slot on the side for saving captured material, although the unit has 1GB of its own memory that you can fill with images and video.
Its 12.5:1 combo digital-optical zoom can’t touch the QD3300’s for range but it can bring the view in close enough for most uses. Rather than a smooth transition as you zoom in and out, however, the DC11’s image goes black and then enlarges the scene in distinct increments. The only one of the six to do this, it can be disconcerting while going through a lesson and often the view is either too far in or not quite enough. At the extreme close-up, the images are noisy and not as good as those from the SDP-860.
It all came together nicely in our mock classroom lesson with the DC11 projecting our material. The extra headroom made working with the tortoise easier and the base has marks for lining up the material in use.
While the DC11 comes with a 2-year warranty and lists for $550, but Epson discounts it for schools to $400, making it a bargain that should work well in most classes.
+ High resolution
+ Remote control
- No content software
- Zooms in increments
- 2-year warranty
MIMIO MIMIOVIEW DOCUMENT CAMERA
Small and sleek, the white MimioView Document Camera wins the prize for the simplest interface with only four buttons. It could be the classroom antidote to technophobia, but it can’t connect directly to a projector and everything is done through a computer.
Instead of rigid or articulated arms, the MimioView has three goosenecks – one for the camera and two for LED lights. They can be tilted, turned or bent in just about any angle, making for extreme flexibility in dealing with oddly shaped items, and are the easiest to aim and reduce hot spots. The LEDs put out 706 lux of light, much less than the QD3300, but more than enough for most uses.
Rather than dominating a tabletop, the MimioView takes up only 5.5- by 5.0-inches of desk space and has a capture area of 16.5- by 12.4-inches, just behind the DC11’s. Its arm has a maximum height of 16 inches.
Its minimalist interface is enhanced and limited by its four buttons. One opens the viewing software on a connected computer, while the others focus, rotate the image by 90-degrees and freeze the action. There isn’t even an on-off switch and the only way to power it is to connect it to a computer via a USB cable.
While its simplicity is its greatest strength, it’s also the biggest weakness of the MimioView. That’s because it can’t drive a projector directly and it lacks an SD card slot for saving material. In other words, just about everything has to be done through a connected computer. In some classroom situations that means that the room needs a computer and in others, it slows down the start-up of a lesson.
The visualizer’s 2.0-megapixel camera is in the middle of the pack. The images are sharp, but its video is noisy with some flicker. Unfortunately, it is so slow that the stopwatch’s second hand jerkily moves around the dial and you can move your hand in and out of the camera’s view and it looks like it appears and disappears.
Its autofocus is slow compared to the others and can take several seconds for a clear image to emerge. The system has digital and optical zooms that combine for 83:1 enlargement. At the limit, its images are noisy and not as good as those from the SDP-860.
Because it relies so heavily on an attached computer, one of the MimioView’s strong suits is its software. The unit includes Mimio’s Studio software, View, Notebook, Gradebook and the Acitvity Wizard. Happily, there are versions for PCS, Macs and even Linux computers.
The MimioView performed well in the mock lesson with bright, sharp images of the map and reasonable video although it was choppy. It doesn’t come with a remote control and I found myself wishing the unit it had buttons for capturing an image and turning the lights on and off. I got used to it quick enough, however.
Its $600 price tag is halfway between the cheap MO-1 and the expensive Document Camera 330, and comes with a two-year warranty that is extended by another 3 years when you register with Mimio. Its gooseneck arms make the MimioView a document camera for all objects, but it is limited to being used in the classroom with a computer.
+ Dual lights
+ Gooseneck arms
+ Content Software
+ No AC adapter needed
- Requires computer
- Choppy video
- No SD card slot
QOMO QVIEW QD3300
As small, light and portable as Elmo’s MO-1 is, the Qomo QD3300 is big, heavy and is best left where it is. And, that’s a good thing because it has excellent lighting and optics.
The only document camera reviewed here with a stage for holding material, the QD3300 takes up 22.4- by 20.9-inches of desktop space and once its set up, it probably won’t be moved to a different room. It’s best to move it another room on a cart because it’s a chore to carry.
Rather than an articulated arm or gooseneck for the camera head, the QD3300 has a rigid arm that has a maximum height of 15.4-inches. It doesn’t rotate but can be folded down so it doesn’t block the view of the teacher or blackboard.
While the others have simple interfaces with a handful of buttons, the QD3300 has a complex array of buttons and switches that take some experience and its manual in hand to get used to; most of the features are likely never to be used. In addition to the expected on and off switch and way to zoom-in and -out the system has special effects keys like creating a negative image or freezing the action.
It comes with a tiny remote control that can be stashed in the side of the unit’s stage. It has buttons that mirror what the doc cam does and even allows you to adjust the color balance of the projected image. The buttons feel stiff, however, and you might need to hit some of them twice to get them to work.
Its large camera head can create 2.0-megapixel images and put a 1,280 by 800 stream of video and still images on screen. On the other hand, the QD3300 has the best optical and digital zoom of them all with an astounding 192:1 range. Unfortunately, at the extreme zoom-in, there’s a lot of noise and the image is inferior to the SDP-860’s.
It has the best lighting, though. Instead of one or two LEDs to illuminate the target, the QD3300 has two fold-out arms with multiple lighting elements, which bathe the item in even lighting without glare. The arms can be moved in and out for just the right amount of light, but if they are in too close, they can block the item of interest. There’s also a 13.2 by 12-inch zone in the middle that is back lit for projecting transparent items like slides or even old overhead projector sheets.
With a pair of lighting bars, the QD3300 illuminates the target evenly with 2,352 lux of light, more than 20-times the lighting provided by the MO-1. It’s back lit stage was good enough to illuminate 35mm slides for projection.
The QD3300 has the largest assortment of ports, but lacks an HDMI connection. There’re VGA connections for two computers, S-video, audio, USB and an antiquated RS232 serial port. While it comes with a USB cable, the system does without an SD card slot for saving material and lacks content software but has programs for controlling the projector via its RS232 connection.
Unfortunately, to connect it to a notebook’s USB port, you’ll need a special cable that has the flat Type A connectors at each end. One comes with the QD3300, but if you lose it, it’ll be hard to find a replacement.
During the simulated lesson plan, we were impressed with the QD3300’s image quality, particularly its ability to show an entire atlas map vividly, although its capture area is smaller than that of the DC11 and SDP-860. The video is sharp but tends to blur when there’s fast action.
The $700 QD3300 comes with a 3-year warranty that falls short of the 5-years of coverage provided by Elmo, Mimio, Samsung and Smart. In the final analysis, the QD3300 is for schools where its lighting and zooming ability will be appreciated and doesn’t need to be moved too often.
+ Dual light bars and backlit stage
+ Wide zoom range
+ Variety of ports
+ Remote control
+ Very bright
- Huge and heavy
- No content software
- No SD card slot
- Light bars get in way
With its rigid aluminum arm, it’s hard to see how the Samsung SDP-860 could get its camera to capture a variety of classroom objects. It can, however, because, unlike most of the competition, the arm and camera can rotate and it has the best imaging engine of the six.
The base of the SDP-860 is well weighted and takes up only 6.5- by 8.3-inches of precious desktop space. Its arm extends out to work with documents and has a maximum height of 13.8-inches. The arm can rotate 330-degrees and the camera can go 90-degrees in either direction, providing a way to position it for just about any object.
Unlike the QD3300 it doesn’t have a stage to work with, but the arm can be lowered out of the way for a stand-up lesson. At 8.1-pounds the SDP-860 it’s just light enough to go from class to class, although it would be easier if it folded flat.
There are a lot of buttons on the base, but they are logically arranged by function. In addition to power, there are keys for turning on the LED light, capturing stills or video, focusing, zooming, adjusting its brightness as well as working through the Menu choices.
Unfortunately, the all-black color scheme makes for potential problems during a lights-off lesson. It comes with a tiny remote control that mimics the controls on the doc cam’s base, but has the advantage of having white lettering on the black keys.
The visualizer’s camera comes with a lens cap and can capture 1.4-megapixel images. It’s a little better than the Document Camera 330’s 1.3-megapixel camera and has a secret surprise.
The proof of Samsung’s SDP-860 classroom abilities is in its output, which is the best of the bunch with sharp images, excellent color balance and a minimum of artifacts. Thanks to a special noise reduction circuit that only the SDP-860 has, the images are always crisp and free of flicker, even when fully zoomed in. Its zoom lens has digital and optical elements that combine for an overall 43:1 ratio. It can send an HD image to a projector.
It has an SD card slot for saving files, but be careful using it. You need to put the flash card in with the contacts facing up for it to work.
Happily, SDP-860’s software works with Macs and PCs. It includes drivers for a USB connection as well as a handy toolbar that is loaded on the system. With it you can select the output, capture stills or video and make adjustments to the image. It doesn’t come with content software, though.
The SDP-860 excelled during the simulated class lesson with sharp and bright images of the map, tortoise and marked-up essay, particularly when it came time to zoom in on a detail, like the border between North and South Korea. The video is a little choppy, but it should be fine for most uses.
At $700, the SDP-860 is near the top of the price range, but it comes with every conceivable cable you could need with the device and a five-year warranty. With sharp, noise-free images, Samsung’s SDP-860 is a screen gem for the classroom.
+ Weighted base
+ Excellent images
+ Noise reduction
+ Remote control
+ Cables included
- Hard to use buttons in the dark
SMART DOCUMENT CAMERA 330
Despite being the most expensive and having the lowest resolution camera of the bunch, Smart’s Document Camera 330 lives up to its name and has a place in the classroom. That’s because of its unique 3-D modeling technology that can turn a lesson into multimedia magic.
The gray plastic doc cam is small and light compared to the QD3300, but looks gargantuan compared to the Elmo MO-1 device. It takes up 6.5- by 11.3-inches of desk space and the unit’s articulated arm can be aimed at the target. The arm doesn’t rotate but has a maximum height of 13.3-inches tall and it folds nearly flat so that the 7.6-pound visualizer can be taken to another classroom.
Although its control panel is a bit complicated, the Document Camera 330 is a quick study. In addition to turning it on and off, the system has buttons for adjusting the brightness, taking a screen shot, selecting the camera’s outputs and a four-way control for making menu choices. Zooming in and out is awkwardly done with a knob on the camera head and the Document Camera 330 doesn’t have a remote control.
The system’s optical and digital zoom combines for a maximum 41.6:1 ratio. The action is smooth, but at the extreme close up of an object, the images are noisier than that from the SDP-860 but are usable.
Using the single LED light has its pros and cons. Like the zoom control, the light switch is next to the camera, but it has a brightness adjustment button on the base that’s a big help in reducing annoying hot spots and glare.
The camera head can be rotated but its technology is behind the others with a resolution of 1.3-megapixels, the lowest of the group and one-third the detail that the DC11 or MO-1 are capable of. It can create 1,280 by 1,024 resolution output that should be fine with most classroom projectors.
There’s an array of ports that should be more than enough for most classrooms and is between the QD3300’s overkill and the MimioView’s minimalism. In addition to VGA, Composite video and DVI, it has both Type A and B USB ports for using it as a hub and connecting with a computer, respectively. It does without an HDMI connection, though.
A big bonus is that Smart’s doc cam comes with its excellent Notebook software that allows a teacher to write on the image and create graphs. It integrates with Smart’s student response devices. The software is available for PCs, Macs and Linux computers.
It can take a series of time-lapse photos and rotate the image in software. The Document Camera 330 has Smart’s unique Mixed Reality system that comes with a small cube with cryptic symbols on it. When you move it around under the camera, every movement is duplicated on a 3-D image on screen. Raise it closer to the lens and the image is zoomed in. Rotate it and the image turns around. There’s almost no lag between the cube’s movement and the image’s.
It works with a variety of 3-D file formats, including Collada,. fbx and .obj, and is a great way to explore anything from the inner workings of a flower or geometric figures to exploring the Notre Dame cathedral. Google has a rich storehouse of models that can be integrated into lessons.
During the simulated class lesson, the Document Camera 330 both impressed and disappointed with a mix of sharp images and low quality video. Fast motion resulted in blurred images and the system can’t save videos.
It comes with a 5-year warranty that matches the coverage of the Elmo, Mimio, Samsung and Smart Visualizers. While the Document Camera 330 has a list price of $900 and Smart has an educational price of $800, it’s still the most expensive of the visualizers. It does have something the others don’t: the ability to manipulate 3-D objects on screen.
+ Content Software
+ Time lapse photography
+ Mixed reality 3-D modeling
- Can’t save video
- Low resolution
Extreme Close up
While any of these document cameras excel in putting a sheet of paper or a small object on the big screen, what about when you really want to get up close? A digital microscope, like Celestron’s $90 Amoeba, is the way to zoom in on an insect's head or a postage stamp.
Simple and easy to set up, Amoeba can be used with its stage or as a handheld. The company also makes the $50 Handheld Digital Microscope that is smaller but doesn’t match its magnification
It comes with a USB cable and software for putting the images onto a computer for small group use or working with a classroom projector, but can’t be connected directly to a projector. The Amoeba plugs into the USB outlet of a computer which moves data and powers the microscope. It works with Macs and Windows PCs.
The microscope has a 1.3-megapixel imaging sensor and creates 1,280 by 1,024 images. It can zoom in with 10X, 60X and 200X magnification when used with a 14-inch monitor. It has built-in LED lights from above and below. All told, it’ll take about 10 minutes to set it up for the first time, and less than a minute after that.
It comes with an assortment of 8 prepared and four blank glass slides as well as tweezers, eye dropper and a probe and worked well with all sorts of objects, from a sample of pond water to a moth’s wings to Andrew Jackson’s portrait on a $20 bill. Removed from the stage, it is a portable microscope for looking at tree bark and cracks in concrete.
The best part is its price tag. At $90 it is a genuine bargain that every science classroom should have.
|ELMO MO-1||Epson ELP DC11||Mimio MimioView Document Camera||Qomo Qview QD3300||Samsung SDP-860||Smart Document Camera 330|
|Desktop dimensions||8.9x4.0 inches||4.6x10.6 inches||5.5x5.0 inches||22.4x20.9 inches||6.5x8.3 inches||6.5x11.3 inches|
|Capture area/Stage||13.5x10.1 inches/No||16.4x13.0 inches/No||16.5x12.4 inches/No||14.4x11.2/Yes||13.2x16.1 inches/No||16.0x9.9 inches/No|
|Type of camera arm||Articulated||Articulated||Gooseneck||Rigid||Rigid||Articulated|
|Maximum arm height||14 inches||17 inches||16 inches||15.4 inches||13.8 inches||13.3 inches|
|Zoom type/range||Digital/8:1||Digital and optical/12.5:1||Digital and optical/83:1||Digital and optical/192:1||Digital and optical/ 43:1||Digital and optical/41.6:1|
|Document camera image rotation||180 degrees||90- 180 degrees||90-degrees||90-degrees||180-degree||No|
|Illumination||Single LED next to camera||Single LED next to camera||two gooseneck LED lights||two multi-LED arms and backlit stage||Single LED next to camera||Single LED next to camera|
|Light Level||96 lux||352 lux||706 lux||2,352 lux||220 lux||154 lux|
|Sensor resolution||5.0 megapixel||5.0 megapixel||2.0 megapixel||2.0 megapixel||1.4 megapixel||1.3 megapixel|
|Ports||VGA-in and -out, HDMI-in and -out, USB,||VGA-in and -out, Composite video, USB||USB||VGA-in and out for two computers, audio-in and -out , USB, RS232, S-Video, microphone||VGA-in and -out, DVI, USB, microphone, headphone, RS232||VGA-out, DVI, Composite video, USB|
|Flash card slot||SD||SD||No||No||SD||SD|
Testing Document Cameras
To see how these document cameras stack up against each other, I examined each thoroughly in a classroom setting. After unpacking each document camera, I measured its dimensions and how much desktop space it takes up. I then set it up with its manual at hand. I did this with an eye towards how easy or hard it is to get the device working at the start of a class and pack it up to put away at the end.
After seeing how easy it was to extend the document camera’s arm and aim the camera, I measured how high the arm extends to see how big an object can fit below and the area that the camera can capture. I next went over the camera’s controls and connected it to the lab’s Mitsubishi WD380U-EST short throw projector and checked out the camera’s available video ports.
Then, I looked over its features, including the ability to project an image, freezing the video, rotating the image and adjusting the brightness level. I next zoomed in and out of the tabletop, while measuring the length of the area that the camera records. By dividing the smallest zoom area into the largest, I calculated the system’s zoom ratio. While I was zooming in and out, I noted if the action was smooth and if there were imaging artifacts like jitter, noise and flickering.
Each of these document cameras has its own lighting, and I measured how much illumination they each provide. I used an Extech 403125 light meter in a dark room, while looking for hot spots that translate into annoying glare on the screen.
I loaded each unit’s software on an HP EliteBook Pro 2560p and noted what the application does, how well it works and if it comes with educational content. Those document cameras that came with a remote control were tried out. I used them to change the output, adjust the resolution and take a screen shot. None have a laser pointer, though.
Finally, the last task was to put each doc cam to the test in a mock classroom with an 84-inch projection screen, teaching table and Mitsubishi projector in the front of the room. To see how smooth the video on each was, I observed the motion of a stopwatch. Then, I used each document camera to teach three simulated classes:
- a writing lesson, where I marked up a newspaper story with several different colored markers and zoomed in on individual words;
- a biology lesson on the anatomy of a reptile with a live tortoise;
- a geography lesson that included pointing out areas of interest on an Atlas’s map. Finally, I saved a screen shot of the map lesson for each.