And now, the portable desktop PC, up to a point
Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 9:40 p.m.
As I compose this text, I'm lying on the living room couch, a glass of leftover eggnog next to me on the end table. My PC is actually upstairs in another room. I'm word processing on a Microsoft Smart Display, a cordless flat-panel screen that serves as a portable window onto the main computer elsewhere in the house.
Unfortunately, it has no keyboard. It has taken me 20 minutes to write this much.
That, in a nutshell, is the blessing and the curse of the Smart Display concept, another Microsoft effort to enter the hardware design business. As with the Tablet PC and the Windows XP Media Center, Microsoft designs the hardware and then persuades computer companies to build it. In this case, "it" is a battery-powered, wireless touch screen soon to be manufactured by Fujitsu, Philips, Trigem, NEC and ViewSonic.
Microsoft may have quite a challenge explaining to the masses how this wireless screen differs from last fall's Tablet PC, whose looks, marketing language, core audience of well-heeled techies and manufacturer roster are confusingly similar to those of the Smart Display. Both devices are touch-sensitive, flat-panel slabs that let you carry Windows with you from room to room.
If you're among the bewildered, here's the difference: A Tablet PC ($1,500 to $2,200) is a full-blown computer with a hard drive. The new Smart Display, on the other hand, is only a screen. When you use it to download recipes in the kitchen or burn a CD in the bedroom, you're actually downloading those recipes and burning that CD on your main PC in the den. Your portable screen shows all the action, even when it's up to 150 feet away. (The PC's own screen shows nothing but the Windows XP sign-in screen. If somebody sits down to use it, you get bumped off your Smart Display.)
The beauty of the Smart Display concept is that it keeps you out of Duplicate Hard-Drive Hell. That's the disorientation experienced by laptop owners who can't remember which machine contains the latest version of a certain file or which e-mail In box stores a critical message. With a Smart Display, you still own only one computer (that PC in the den), so all of your stuff remains in one place.
I tested ViewSonic's AirPanel, the first Smart Display, which arrives in stores this month. It comes in two models: the v100 (10 inches diagonal, 800 by 600 pixels) and the much bigger v150 (15 inches, 1,024 by 768 pixels). The larger model accommodates an optional docking stand that turns the AirPanel into a traditional, wired screen when you're at your desk.
A Smart Display works only if your PC runs Windows XP Professional. On one hand, an XP Pro upgrade (from Windows 98 or later) is included right in the box, a thoughtful $200 value. On the other hand, the Smart Display is marketed for use at home by ordinary non-techies.
By requiring an upgrade to XP Pro, the corporate-network version of Windows, Microsoft sends a mixed message as to its target audience. (And if your PC lacks the horsepower required by XP Pro, Microsoft sends a different message: "Time to buy a new computer.")
Once you've installed the AirPanel's software and hooked up the included wireless antenna module to your PC, you're ready to enjoy the untethered life - and it is indeed liberating. Browsing the Web, checking e-mail and opening Microsoft Office files all work well. In fact, the Smart Display needs improvement in only two departments: software and hardware.
For example, the screen is very slow to repaint itself when you scroll, even if your PC is a superfast $3,000 screamer. The bottleneck is the wireless connection, which struggles to send so much what's-on-the-screen data through the air.
Video clips and DVD movies are out of the question. They, too, require too much information to be pumped through the air from the PC to the screen. (By itself, Wi-Fi, the wireless network technology used by the Smart display, is easily fast enough to transmit video - but not when much of its wireless "pipe" is busy transmitting the images of the PC screen itself.)
Here, the Smart Display misses a boat the size of the Exxon Valdez: What greater convenience could a portable flat panel provide, propped on your knees as you snuggle in bed, than playing a DVD movie?
Even with its one-inch speaker, you might also suppose that the AirPanel would make a great portable music box that lets you listen to your MP3 files or Internet radio as you clean out the basement. But here again, the wireless connection is too slow to transmit skip-free music.
Some of the software problems are conceptual.
For example, unless you've first created a Windows XP Pro account password for yourself on the PC, you can't use the screen at all. Of course, this security requirement is designed to prevent evil neighbors from crouching beside your house with their own Smart Displays, rifling through the files on your PC. But having to enter and re-enter a password is a hassle for home PC owners with little more to hide than their grocery lists and letters to the editor.
A more excellence-driven company might have devised a simple "pair once, recognize forever" system that saves you all the hassle.
And if you don't consider inputting your password a hassle, you've never tried to do so without a keyboard. You press a tiny button on the edge of the AirPanel to make an on-screen keyboard appear (it apparently didn't occur to Microsoft that this keyboard should appear automatically when typing is required). You type by punching its little keys with the hollow plastic stylus.
That's only the first time it hits you that no matter how cool a sleek, wireless slab may look, a keyboard is an indispensable part of personal computing.
Answering e-mail or even typing "www.amazon.com" into your Web browser, using the on-screen keyboard or Microsoft's imperfect handwriting-recognition system, are exercises in frustration. The ViewSonic AirPanel may be great for previewing e-mail that you intend to answer later, when you're at your desk; but otherwise, you should consider it a "look, don't touch" window onto your PC. (Some Smart Display models, like the Philips desXcape 150DM, due next month, will include a clip-on keyboard.)
The hardware could use some polish, too. ViewSonic's screen lacks buttons for screen brightness and volume; you must change these settings using on-screen controls. On a device that's explicitly designed to be carried from one environment to another, that omission makes this device seem like the Not-So-Smart Display.
But here's the kicker: The screen-sharing feature of the Smart Display isn't anything special. It's a standard feature of Windows XP Pro, called Remote Desktop, that lets you see and manipulate your home-base PC while seated at any others. The wireless feature of the Smart Display isn't new, either. It's just Wi-Fi (also called 802.11b), the most popular wireless home-networking technology.
In short, you don't need a Smart Display in your hands to find out its Achilles' heel; you need a pocket calculator.
ViewSonic charges $1,000 and $1,300 for its 10- and 15-inch screens; Philips will charge $1,400 for its model. But for that kind of money, you could buy an actual laptop. You could use it precisely the way you would use a Smart Display, tapping into your main PC using the same wireless technology and the same remote-control feature of Windows XP Pro.
In the process, you would avoid the frustrations of a missing keyboard, you would be able to play DVD movies in bed and you wouldn't be limited to tapping into a single computer.
Finally, not incidentally, you would own a true laptop - a computer that doesn't turn into an expensive hors d'oeuvres tray the minute you take it beyond the property line.
You'd spend much more time setting up such a system, and you'd lose much of the Smart Display's "oh, wow" factor. But until Smart Display prices drop by half, early adopters may not just be the first on their blocks to own cordless computer screens; they may be the only ones.
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