Please prepare me for every possible office AV situation
May 31, 2015 4:37 AM   Subscribe

I often have to give presentations at offices I don't work at. There is usually some form of AV equipment available, however, the local staff often don't know how this equipment works. Cables are not necessarily plugged in where they should be (or even there at all) and there are no on-site IT staff to help out if there's a problem. What do I need to a) know and b) buy to be able to waltz into a new office, hook up the doohickeys to the whoozawhatzits and deliver a PowerPoint presentation (or show a video) with a minimum of fuss?

I have:

A 2011 MacBook Air (my own) with a Thunderbolt port.
A USB thumb drive with my presentation on it.
An iPhone and iPad - I don't expect they'll be relevant in this context but maybe you know a trick I don't.

The office conference room might have any or all of:

- An ailing PC laptop that won't let me log on unless I plug it into an Ethernet port, and sometimes not even then.
- A wall-mounted flat screen TV with various wires hanging out the back.
- A projector that's mounted on the ceiling, with assorted mystery ports on the walls or in the boardroom table.
- A projector that sits on a trolley and gets wheeled in from elsewhere, usually with none of the required cables.
- Generally, no wifi.

I am generally technologically competent, but haven't owned a TV for many years and have never owned a projector, so am not all that familiar with the various cable types etc. Please tell me which adapters and/or cables to buy, and what to look for to make eveything is hooked up correctly.

(I don't over-rely on PowerPoint, and if things don't work I'm quite happy to present without it, or if the group is small, to use my laptop. But it would be really nice to put the AV equipment to good use when possible and appropriate. My employer is a non-profit, so getting pissy and expecting someone else to fix things for me is unlikely to be a helpful strategy).
posted by embrangled to Technology (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When I had to do this, we ended up carrying around a small projector. You can find one for $500-800 these days; this Epson, for example.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:59 AM on May 31, 2015 [12 favorites]

Yeah, portable projector is the way to go. Give one person one chance to show you how their office system works, then say, "You know what, it'll probably be easier for me to use my backup." Odds are that everyone in that presentation will be silently thankful that you're not wasting their time with "Hm, maybe this cable..." and won't care that you're projecting onto a blank piece of wall.
posted by Etrigan at 5:03 AM on May 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

There is no way to buy cables and connectors that will flawlessly work in every situation. You really need to carry your own projector so you know it will work with your own laptop, all the time, everywhere. And if your presentations are stored on your machine (not online somewhere, and not on a shared network back at the home office), then you'll never need wifi.

The list:
Your laptop
Your own projector with the cables it comes with
Your presentation stored on your laptop
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:10 AM on May 31, 2015

You might consider getting your own projector. Pocket projectors can be the size of a book, but may not be bright enough. Check out some reviews and also demo some in person. Prices can be as little as $200 USD, but at that price, you'd be getting limited brightness and resolution. I'd think $500 to $1000 would get you one that'd work.

Barring that, do you have enough notice to email a sample presentation and have them verify that they can show that one adequately? Then just use their equipment. Maybe produce it at a couple different resolutions (800x600, and 1280x1024 - resolution is, iin my experience, the most common headache). Be sure to have some text or image at each corner to test whether your entire slide can be seen. Quiz them: "One slide 4, what logo shows in the upper left, and what is the final word in the lower right?".

Barring that, ask them in advance whether their projector is VGA or HDMI. Buy a thunderbolt to VGA cable, and a thunderbolt to HDMI cable. That should suffice for 99% of projectors. Also ask the what resolution the projector is; "native resolution" is the best usually. Or ask them the brand and model of the projector and you can google to find the tech specs or user's manual and find what cables it takes and what resolutions it supports.
posted by at at 5:10 AM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Ditto on the VGA & hdmi adapters. Don't ever take them out of your bag unless you use it, then put them back in the bag in the same place. It also helps to write your name on them with a Sharpie or label maker so people don't run off with them.

Always keep a copy of your presentation saved as a PDF (again, as others recommended) on a thumb drive.

I've done a lot of presentations on weird AV equipment at hotels, universities, etc. over the years. This protocol has served me well.
posted by amy27 at 5:22 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

A 4 way power extension lead would be a good idea too, since you won't know where the nearest power socket(s) will be.
posted by kenchie at 5:37 AM on May 31, 2015

Best answer: The evil spirit called NO SIGNAL is hard to placate. The following amulets/spells can help:
  • Thunderbolt to (SVGA, DVI, HDMI) cables. Shun anything involving composite or component video.
  • Arrive ten minutes early to fiddle with cables.
  • Take notes on the local setup for the next unfortunate. Remember, that unfortunate will be you if you're not back on site within a couple of weeks. (Note that this ruse can fail if one of NO SIGNAL's most ardent devotees, often known as “Darren from Purchasing”, has performed the foul ritual called ‘Hey I'll just borrow that cable from the boardroom for my daughter's laptop no-one will miss it’ in the interim.)
  • PDF and PPTX on thumbdrive AND Dropbox.
  • If all else fails, NO SIGNAL flees from the true light of your own projector.
  • If NO SIGNAL is feeling particularly malign that day and knocks the power out, handouts and interpretive dance …
Does the applesphere allow an idevice to be a bluetooth/non-wifi remote control to a laptop? I don't do that ecosystem any more. I do know that my bacon has been saved too many times by my (old, clunky, huge, ugly) ATI Remote Wonder RF USB remote, which works as a cruddy USB keyboard/mouse at a decent range on everything newer than Y2K.
posted by scruss at 5:38 AM on May 31, 2015 [9 favorites]

The iphone and ipad can both output video to a projector with the right dongle, which frees up the laptop for other work if that helps. Another option is to get an Apple TV and connect that to their TV, or you could velcro it to your own projector and avoid any wires with ad-hoc networking:
posted by nickggully at 6:19 AM on May 31, 2015

I know this may not be feasible, but try changing your presentations to not rely on PowerPoint/Keynote so much. There's nothing deadlier than sitting in a conference room while people drone on, reading bullet points from slides. The best presentations I've attended recently eschew projected visuals altogether.

If not, then always have a portable projector with you and a full set of cables (and dongles...Mac tends to need dongles that hook up between the computer and projector outputs...folks in our office who use Macs have a big bucket o' dongles at the ready for this) so you always look like the person who's prepared, even if they don't necessarily work right away.
posted by xingcat at 6:49 AM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know several programmers who carry an AppleTV around for the sole purpose of ad-hoc presentations in rooms that can't be relied on to have the right adapters, or cables of the appropriate length to reach the lectern, or whatever. An AppleTV, an HDMI cable, and an HDMI-DVI adapter should be enough to connect to many, if not most flat screen setups.
posted by fedward at 8:52 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think bringing your own self-contained setup is the safest bet, but not always the best.

You want to be getting the expectations clear before you show up. As part of the agreement to come present, you can list the things you will need provided. "Please have a person knowledgable of the AV setup available" is a perfectly reasonable request. Also, you can have them tell you what they have "so you can optimize your presentation." Often that means they will be prompted to figure out who knows what all that shit is and test it so they can tell you the answer. (And find out that a cable is missing before you get there.)

We've got some conference rooms with elaborate rack-mount AV setups controlling TVs, projectors, sound, lighting, etc. They're pretty impressive. I can't count the number of times I've seen people using their own projector on a smart board as just a flat surface, because they didn't make contact beforehand and get the right person who knows how to operate all that to either a) be there or b) show them what to do the day before. It looks ridiculous, even though the presenter was well-prepared with a backup solution.
posted by ctmf at 9:29 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Guys, I work for a non-profit. There is existing AV equipment at every office, bought presumably at great expense. Ignoring it and bringing my own projector would be seen as wasteful and tremendously inappropriate, which would in turn affect my ability to influence the staff I'm visiting. It's not going do happen.

I know I don't *need* PowerPoint. My use of it is pretty minimal and I don't "speak to" the slides, it's simply a visual learning aid. I know there are expensive alternatives that would make the problem go away entirely (while creating a bunch of other problems that would dilute the effectiveness of my message). That's not what I asked.

I am looking for some pretty specific advice about cables and adapters and where to put them.
posted by embrangled at 10:00 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, but there are so many possibilities that you can't really carry around an entire Radio Shack in your briefcase. For maximum assurance, you need to be able to either do recon of the setup beforehand (leaving you time to get missing parts, etc), or recruit an accomplice on the inside who knows what equipment you have and who will be there to make it work for you.

I'd think the vast majority of cases will be covered by being able to supply a signal in VGA, component (RCA cables), and HDMI. For RCA cables, be able to deal with either male or female ends exposed to you. VGA is going to cover the huge majority of cases. That's without having to troubleshoot the system they have and how to operate it. Most of the issues I have are with the setup on their end, not how I hook up to it.
posted by ctmf at 10:20 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am presenting to frontline staff. They're not going to take time away from client work to poke around at the back of a projector on my behalf. It's up to me to make it work or do without. Sorry, but that's how my job is.
posted by embrangled at 10:33 AM on May 31, 2015

Best answer: As someone who's often been on the opposite end of this (I'm the tech guy with a projector/TV, someone shows up with a laptop and says, "Halp, I need to hook this up!"), here's my take:

What do I need to a) know

1) How to set your laptop to mirror the display/extend the desktop when you have an additional monitor hooked up. (In OSX this is Apple Menu -> System Preferences -> Display)

2) How to change the screen resolution (expressed as two numbers - 1280 x 720, 1024 x 768, like that.) In my version of OSX (10.8.5), it's Apple Menu -> System Preferences -> Display -> "Scaled" button gets you a list of options.

3) How to make PowerPoint and your video playback program go fullscreen, how to control the programs via keyboard when they're fullscreen (play/pause/stop/etc.), how to make the programs go fullscreen on your second monitor (which would be your projector/TV) only, if that's even an option.

You should search the Apple knowledgebase for specific details for your model Mac, your OSX version, and possible Thunderbolt weirdness (I haven't had any encounters in the wild with Thunderbolt yet.)

Screen resolution is the big one - almost if not all modern (and by "modern" I mean "since the year 2000") projectors & TV's & video monitors will try to auto-sense the video signal resolution coming in the appropriate video port, but if your computer isn't sending a screen resolution that the end device recognizes, you get no image. And display resolution capabilities are advancing on laptops at high speed, so it's entirely possible that the native resolution on your laptop is higher (or just different, like your laptop monitor is "widescreen" while whatever you're trying to connect to is too old to do that) than the end projector/TV can deal with, so you have to "dumb down" your screen resolution. In practice this can mean that the image on the TV/projector looks fine, but your laptop screen will look wrong - things will be too large, or stretched out, or grainy/you can see the pixels, or it'll be the wrong dimensions (so you get black bars on the sides or top & bottom.) This is, AFAICT, something you'll just have to live with, I don't know of a way to set different resolutions for different monitors. You can experiment on your laptop at home, setting different screen resolutions and seeing what they look like on your laptop's screen.

If you can get info on the model of the projector/TV ahead of time you could probably look up what screen resolutions it supports, but otherwise it's just trial-and-error; select a screen resolution, see if you get an image.

Oh, and 4) You have to be willing & able to poke around the menus of the in-house TV or projector, at the very least so you can tell the device which video input it should display. Ideally there'll be a remote, but . . . . .

Menu buttons, arrow keys, and the Enter button are your friends. You should definitely give yourself time to play around with this before anyone shows up for your presentation.

b) buy to be able to waltz into a new office, hook up the doohickeys to the whoozawhatzits

Most projectors/TV's/AV systems will use VGA (VGA connector), DVI, or HDMI as video inputs. Many will accept more than one of the above, which is why you have to be willing to dig into the menus of the TV/projector to tell it that you want to display what's coming in the VGA port, or the HDMI port, or whichever.

So, you will want a Thunderbolt to VGA adapter, a Thunderbolt to DVI adaptor, and a Thunderbolt to HDMI adaptor - note that in practice the Thunderbolt connector on your MacBook is physically the same as the older MiniDisplayPort, so these adaptors will often be sold as MiniDisplay Port to whatever adaptors. And since the adaptors are just tiny little dongles, you want one of each of VGA, DVI, and HDMI cables (I'd guess 10 to 25 foot length) to go from the dongle to wherever your input is. is a good place to look for adaptors & cables that won't break the bank. (Paying extra bucks for "high end" cables from big box stores is a waste of time and money, IMO. Better to buy 2 cheap cables of each so you have a backup.)

If whatever TV/projector/AV setup you are trying to connect does not have VGA or DVI or HDMI inputs, then you are basically boned. If all you see are RCA connectors, then the AV system uses component or composite video; these formats are ancient and do not play nice with modern laptops, especially Macs. You would need an actual converter box (or series of converter boxes) to transform the video signal, and these boxes/converters will probably be at least $50 each, and there aren't many out there, and of course the more boxes & cables you have the more potential failure points. If you run into this a lot, then buying & carrying your own small $300 projector so you can at least do something starts to look like a cost-effective solution.

And then in practice, once you think you've got everything connected & set up & assigned properly, because Computers, sometimes you have to change things and then reboot/restart the laptop, or the TV/projector, or both, before you get video. And sometimes no matter what you try, nothing works - and sad to say I've had this happen more often with Macs than Windows boxes. I figure it's probably more about the user's settings, but inevitably I don't have time to properly troubleshoot, or admin access to the laptop, or I'm not even on site to poke around with the gear and I'm trying to troubleshoot over the phone with a user to whom video terminology is just Greek.

So if buying a projector is out of the question for budget/company culture reasons, honestly your next best option is time and experience - as in beg, borrow or steal other people's TV's and projectors (OK, don't steal them) and try to hook your laptop up and run a presentation, and thus start to get familiar with the different connectors & concepts of getting around a variety of TV & projector formats & settings. Also giving yourself enough time on site to try a few different things before your presentation, not just so you can give the presentation, but as a way to experiment and gain experience with different connectors and settings.
posted by soundguy99 at 11:46 AM on May 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

Best answer: You should plan to run your presentation from your MacBook Air. All but the oldest of displays and projectors should include at least one of a VGA, DVI, or HDMI port (depending on age). If you want to carry a bag of adapters and cables to connect to these, you would need:
  • A Mini DisplayPort->VGA adapter
  • A VGA cable of sufficient length
  • A Mini DisplayPort->DVI-D adapter
  • A DVI cable of sufficient length, and then EITHER
  • A DVI->HDMI adapter (of the appropriate DVI gender to connect to the end of the DVI cable above) OR
  • A Mini DisplayPort->HDMI adapter and an HDMI cable of sufficient length
The Thunderbolt port on your MacBook Air is pin-compatible with Mini DisplayPort devices, cables, and adapters. Apple's Mini DisplayPort support includes VGA and DVI-D (digital) support (available through separate adapters), but not DVI-A (analog, which is equivalent to VGA) or DVI-I (integrated, which includes both digital and analog pins and wires). Thus you cannot use a Mini DisplayPort->DVI adapter and then a DVI->VGA adapter to connect to a VGA display; you need the separate VGA adapter.

On the other hand, DVI-D and HDMI are signal compatible, but not all DVI-D displays include support for HDCP, which is a copy-protection protocol (there's no technical reason they can't, except age). Whether you choose to adapt DVI to HDMI, or carry a separate HDMI adapter and cable, is up to you and your access to the backs of various displays. For presentations it should not matter that some DVI-D devices don't support HDCP; if, however, you are showing copy-protected video content (e.g. a movie downloaded from the iTunes Store) you will not be able to display it on a big screen over a non-HDCP-supporting DVI link (but you could over VGA).

If you run into a display or projector that is so old as to have only component or RGB inputs, though, you're screwed.
posted by fedward at 11:47 AM on May 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Man, I must have hit preview mere seconds before soundguy99's post.
posted by fedward at 11:51 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Emergency backup: Copy a copy as a PDF as well. That will at least open on everything, and almost always look the same.
posted by Canageek at 1:25 PM on May 31, 2015

At the space my company sometimes uses there are two conference rooms with two different systems.

One uses some flavor of wireless HDMI — half the time when we plug everything in we also have to restart both the wireless receiver and transmitter.

That conference room always has the TV set to the correct input, but it's pretty common for a TV or projector to be on the wrong input for what you're plugging in. You'll want to know how to switch inputs on whatever device you're displaying with.

The other conference room uses an (obnoxious, over-designed, feature-bloated) Polycom system that we have yet to get to work with our Macs. We've tried multiple inputs, all the resolutions, etc. etc. No dice. I've heard that it's possible to get working with a Mac but I haven't seen it.

They have a PC we can use if we really need to use the screen: definitely carry your presentation in PDF format for situations like this.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:44 PM on May 31, 2015

An AppleTV with a recent vintage iPhone, iPad or Macbook (iphone 5 or later) is a really good solution for this, if an HDMI input is available either directly on the flat panel/projector or through a room input. In the 2 months since we started doing this none of the folks in my office had to go to plan B (in the case of pc laptop, VGA/audio or DVI; fedward, soundguy and others have already suggested the appropriate cabling for a Macbook), or plan C, which in our case usually involves handing an iPad around.

All you need is your phone (I think phone is better than iPad in this case because it becomes a small handheld remote), the Apple TV and the HDMI and power cable it comes with, and ios Powerpoint or other app. No WiFi is required since the Apple devices communicate through Bluetooth and peer-to-peer WiFi. So all you have to do is plug in AppleTV power, connect the HDMI connector and select the HDMI input using the display’s remote. Then swipe up on your phone, select Airplay, activate mirroring and voila your phone is displayed (turn sideways for full screen).
posted by cilla at 6:39 PM on May 31, 2015

Best answer: Nthing and elaborating on what Amy27 wrote: you'll want to procure a nice bag to hold all of your cables and adapters and bits. And it's important that your adapters etc, each one of them exists in one of two possible states: deployed, or in your bag. Other states (such as "lent it to Bob") do not exist.

You may also want to consider carrying a few adapters and cables that are for audio: 1/4" <> 1/8" male and female adapters, stereo and mono, and maybe RCA audio adapters, too. A pair of headphones w/ microphone (or even earbuds w/ mic) can come in handy. An audio splitter cable (one audio in to two sets of headphones, for instance) has saved my bacon at a large venue that didn't really have its projection and audio systems integrated well.

Finally, don't forget power: there are "mini" power strips that have one plug and two or three sockets (plus maybe also USB power) that can be very handy to possess.

One last time: it's either deployed, or it's in your bag.
posted by doctor tough love at 9:10 AM on June 1, 2015

« Older Sporty lightweight robust car recommendation   |   Should I stay or should I go: volunteering edition Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.