If you’re tired of using (and likely losing) those clunky digital markers for teaching with an interactive projector, Epson’s BrightLink 697Ui is for you. Sure, you can use the included pair of markers to write, draw or annotate on the projected image, but you can also do it all with your fingers like vertical finger-painting.
To start, the BrightLink 697Ui lives up to its first name by combining WUXGA (1,920 by 1,200) resolution with a spec-sheet output of 4,400 lumens, 20-percent more brightness than its competitors provide. It can fill up to a 100-inch (diagonal) screen, show four system screens at once and has been designed for ease of use from start to finish.
The price you pay for this is that the BL 697Ui is large at 5.0- by 18.7- x 17.6-inches – more than twice the size of NEC’s U321Hi-WK. A lot of that extra bulk is because Epson uses three polysilicon imaging targets, but the results speak for themselves with sharp, extremely bright images that are surprisingly rich.
There are five projection modes to choose from, ranging from Presentation (the brightest), Cinema (warmer images) and sRGB (more realistic) to Dicom Sim and Dynamic. You can also easily adjust the brightness, contrast, color saturation and tint to optimize it for each room and use.
On the downside, the dual-action of the BL 697Ui’s interactivity makes for a complex set up. Plan on it taking a couple of hours to complete. The reason is that there’s a lot to do with a separate control box for remotely turning the BL 697Ui on and off as well as switching between Whiteboard mode and connecting to a video source, like a notebook. There’s also a pen holder for stowing the pair of styluses.
The Touch Module is what takes the bulk of the extra time to install. It uses lasers to scan the board’s surface to sense where fingers are. It not only needs to be attached to the top of the screen or wall, but it can require reflector strips to be attached around the screen to reduce interference. It takes a sensitive touch to properly calibrate the lasers so they are neither pointed away from or at the screen. Happily, the touch unit has magnets in the back for those lucky enough to have a metallic screen. Others can use the included metal mounting bracket.
The good news is that the BL 697Ui comes with everything you’ll need, including batteries for the pens, all the cables and excellent mounting hardware for putting it on a wall. The mount allows pitch, roll and yaw adjustments; on its own, it’s a bargain at $109 with Epson’s Brighter Futures school discount.
It has every port you’d want for today or tomorrow, including a pair of HDMI, VGA, USB, RS-232 serial, three audio connections and two video-out ports. There’s built-in wired Ethernet and the BL 697Ui comes with Epson’s USB WiFi transmitter for wireless data, an option on many of its competitors. As is the case with other BrightLink projectors, Epson’s thoughtful designers have included a plastic cable cover that can hide a multitude of wiring sins.
Once everything is together, the BL 697UI pays dividends in terms of ease and flexibility of interaction that few projectors can match. When you turn it on, the opening screen shows the cornucopia of possibilities, from projecting the image of a PC or Mac and wireless transfer of a tablet or Chromebook’s display to a variety of PC-free operations, including free-form whiteboard mode, screen sharing and video conferencing.
I used the BL 697Ui to mark up a colonial map of Africa, model a couple of sentences as well as mark-up the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. It’s responsive with nearly instantaneous action whether you use your fingers or the markers. While you can use up to six fingers for an excellent group dynamic, the projector can handle interacting with two pens at once; they have a handy click button on the stylus’s side that can help navigating a connected computer.
Two things the BL 697Ui lack are the digital protractor and ruler of the U321Hi-WK that can make some classes easier to show rather than explain. The projector package does include a copy of SMART’s Notebook. Anything you mark-up on-screen can be printed or saved for future use. If it’s connected to the school’s network, the BL 697Ui can even email this material to a student home sick.
The BL 697UI’s output is nothing short of stunning with ultra-sharp images, smooth video and rich saturated colors. It was able to put 4,830 lumens on screen in Presentation mode, more than 10-percent above its spec. This drops by 8-percent in sRGB mode, but it’s more than made up for with more naturalistic flesh tones and color balance. This means that the BL 697Ui can outshine even the brightest day with the shades up.
At its highest output, the BL697Ui used 391-watts, which drops to 2-watts when the projector is idle. Its replacement lamp is a bargain at $63 and an estimated lifetime of 5,000 hours; you can stretch that to 10,000 hours, according to Epson by using the lower-output Eco mode, but at the cost of reduced brightness. Still, if it’s used for 6 hours a day during the school year, you can expect the BL697Ui to cost only $73 a year to operate, assuming that you pay the national average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity. That’s one-third the cost of using NEC’s U321Hi-WK.
Like other BrightLink projectors for schools, the BL 697Ui includes a three-year warranty as well as overnight replacement units should a failure shut it down. At $2,500 with Epson’s Brighter Futures discount, it’s worth every penny because it includes everything you need to teach, ranging from essentials (like the mounting hardware) to the ability to encrypt the data traffic and wirelessly connect 50 projectors together.
Rather than taking a short-throw projector and adding wireless markers piecemeal, the BrightLink 697Ui started from scratch with a new design that bakes in interactivity from the start and it shows. This is, without a doubt, the most versatile classroom projector made to date.
$2,500 (with Brighter Futures discount)
+ Pen or touch
+ Very bright
+ Includes mounting hardware
+ PC-free operation
+ Wireless activities
- Long set up
- Lacks some digital teaching aids