Launched in April, the HP t5730w runs Windows Embedded Standard and sits in the middle of three new models in HP's Flexible Thin Clients series. Each model also has a Linux-based alternative that does much the same job but costs less and wouldn't need such frequent security patches.
If you haven't looked at thin clients recently, you might be surprised by the amount of hardware on offer. Our review model of the t5730w, the NV268AA comes with eight USB ports, integrated 802.11b/g Wi-Fi for easy connection to corporate LANs and home broadband routers, and an optional PCI/PCIe expansion port.
On the front panel there's a power switch, two USB connectors and microphone and headphone jacks. Underneath the top cover is a secure USB compartment, and on the rear panel are connectors for line-out audio and Ethernet. There are also four USB sockets and two PS/2 sockets for keyboard and mouse, plus a serial port, a 12V power socket and two monitor outputs — VGA and DVI-I.
Measuring about the same as a hardback book and weighing 1.3kg, the t5730w is lightweight and physically unobtrusive. The device has industry-standard VESA mounting interfaces for Flat Displays (FDs), and many users will probably buy the optional quick-release VESA mounting bracket and fix the t5730w to the back of their flat-screen monitor. It also comes with a removable foot so it can be safely stood on its side to minimise the amount of space needed if monitor-mounting isn't possible. Either way, the t5730's small size means it requires significantly less office space than a traditional desktop PC.
An AMD Sempron 2100+ running at 1GHz and 1GB of RAM power the main engine, and another 2GB of Flash memory provides non-volatile storage. Of this, Windows uses about 600MB, leaving around 1.4GB free for other things. For example, many organisations will want to add extra networking software to better handle multimedia or USB peripherals; and some will install a VPN client to communicate with the corporate LAN if the device is used by a home-based worker.
Users can download ActiveX controls and other software, but any such changes are lost when the unit is rebooted. If need be, administrators can store user changes, along with other configuration data such as server connection details, into the non-volatile memory so they remain in place when the unit is restarted.
Of course, the idea behind thin clients is that only the bare minimum amount of software is installed on the device. In particular, the user's data and applications are stored on a server and accessed using a network connection. To this end, the t5730w includes a Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and the Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection utility for connecting to Microsoft Terminal Services and Windows XP or Vista virtual machines, all of which come with Microsoft's RDP built in. Likewise, our t3750w also included the Citrix ICA protocol and client software for connections to Citrix application servers.
The t5730w Windows-based thin client also comes with a Microsoft Terminal Services Client Access License (TS CAL), entitling you to connect it to a Windows server using Microsoft's RDP. However, HP does not bundle Citrix or VMware View licenses, so these must be bought separately if needed.
We tested the Citrix client by connecting the t5730w to the Windows Server 2003 system in our Labs that also runs Citrix Presentation Server. We also hooked it up to a virtual machine running Windows XP.
We found that the standard Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connection from the thin client to a server-based Windows desktop was fine for office productivity software, but did not provide two-way audio for VoIP applications. The standard RDP software also proved inadequate for handling video images or even simple MP3 audio. Fortunately the purchase price also includes a license to use HP's RDP Enhancements software, which makes a good job of audio reproduction but is still some way short of the mark for handling video. These were not installed as standard in our review model, but are easy to download from HP's web site.
Although the RDP Enhancements package supports USB headsets, it doesn't support a standard microphone connected to the thin client. So for top-notch multimedia support you're probably better off buying some specialised software that's designed for the job. Most of the major thin client vendors have a suitable offering. For this review we had a quick look at HP's Remote Graphics Software (RGS), which is a paid-for extra that provides high-quality video streaming and two-way audio. Unfortunately both RGS and the RDP Enhancement package are supported only for use in Microsoft Hyper-V or VMware View environments.
It's important to note that the problems with poor multimedia performance stem from the network protocols rather than the thin client hardware. In fact, the t5730w has a fairly impressive graphics capability powered by an ATI Radeon X1250. So extra outlay on RGS or something similar is likely to be money well spent.
With no moving parts such as hard disks or fans to make a noise, the t5730w is silent in operation. And although it runs Microsoft Windows Embedded Standard, this comes with Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Media Player 11. Overall it has the capabilities and the look and feel of Windows XP, but with many unnecessary items such as Windows games removed. The device could also run some applications locally. For example, we installed the Adobe Flash Player and were able to watch video from the BBC iPlayer web site. However, Windows Embedded lacks many of the DLLs and other elements that many applications need, so most software won't install or run locally in the thin-client environment. Customers usually see this as a good thing because it prevents users from installing software that might conflict with the corporate configuration. And with less software to load, start-up time is brief. In our tests the device was ready to use about 90 seconds after being switched on.
In fact, many customers will tweak the software environment so that users don't see the Windows desktop at all. It's a fairly straightforward process to use normal Windows tools to get the device to boot up and present only the server connection dialogue box. For example, customers using Citrix servers could set a connection in the Citrix server farm and put this in the Windows Startup group or start it using a 'run once' registry key. Similarly, firms using VMware View could replace the Windows Explorer interface with some simple VisualBasic code to launch a connection to the VMware servers.