NComputing RX300 review: Accessing Windows 10 via a Raspberry Pi-based thin client

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Works well for general office use
  • Affordable
  • Instant login
  • Server software is easy to set up

Cons

  • Very slight lag
  • Slow to transfer files via USB
  • Can be overloaded more easily than a typical Windows 10 laptop

Despite its low price of $35, most businesses wouldn't choose the Raspberry Pi as a desktop system for work. A big obstacle to firms using the Pi is that it won't run the full desktop version of Windows -- a necessity for those whose line-of-business software requires Microsoft's operating system.

Thin client specialist NComputing solves that problem with the RX300, which packages up the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B as a device that can run Windows 10 as a virtual desktop via the company's vSpace Pro 10 virtualization software.

ncomputing-rx300-main.jpg

You can use the RX300 in two modes: for remote access to Windows desktop sessions via vSpace Pro 10, or as a Raspberry Pi 3 device with direct access to Raspbian Linux OS and local applications.

Image: NComputing

The good news is that the RX300 runs Windows 10 without significant issues, offering a user experience that's almost indistinguishable from my Intel Core i7-powered Windows 10 laptop when performing everyday office tasks like word processing, email, and web browsing.

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The bad news is there's a very slight but perceptible lag when using the RX300 -- nothing major by any means, but I did notice a sliver of delay when typing or alt-tabbing between Windows.

To be fair, the lag was so minor I could probably get used to it, and it wasn't pronounced enough to interfere with my ability to work for several days while testing the RX300.

Your experience using the RX300 may also vary. NComputing's test setup streamed a virtual desktop instance over a 39Mbps (max) internet connection that appeared to be hosted in London on a large T2 instance on Amazon Web Services' Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Perhaps those using the RX300 via an on-premises server would find it as responsive as a standalone Windows 10 machine.

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There's a lot to like about the RX300, which is quick to boot into the login screen and logs you into the virtual desktop almost instantaneously -- certainly faster than my regular Windows 10 desktop or laptop.

I was able to install programs on the machine, and found that files saved and loaded as rapidly as they did on my desktop machine. However, copying files to and from USB sticks was noticeably slower than on a PC. Multiple USB sticks that worked fine on my Windows 10 desktop weren't recognized by the thin client. And while a 1.5GB file downloaded in about six minutes, I abandoned trying to copy that file from the Downloads folder to a USB stick -- after seven minutes it was still zero percent complete. It also took just over two minutes to transfer a 45MB file to the stick, again far longer than on my laptop where it completed in seconds. This might be understandable given this is a remote desktop, but the experience could still be frustrating for the end user.

And while general performance was good, the OS became overloaded more easily than on a local machine. For example, opening 15 Chrome tabs running ZDNet in quick succession caused the browser to freeze, and the rest of the OS to become largely inaccessible, eventually crashing the entire system.

One positive is that, unlike many thin clients running virtual desktops, the RX300 is capable of smooth HD video playback, supporting resolutions up to 1,920 by 1,200.

This is possible thanks to a premium vSpace Pro 10 feature called vCast, which streams video direct to the vSpace client (the RX300), bypassing the host vSpace server. True enough, playback of full HD (1,920x1,080) video on YouTube via Chrome was smooth, with no audio desync and only one instance when I noticed a tiny bit of screen tearing.

Unfortunately, vCast doesn't support non-YouTube content. Non-HD videos on TechRepublic and ZDNet suffered from audio drop-out and desync with the video, video freezes and screen tearing. Streaming a video on Microsoft's Channel 9 network resulted in similar problems.

vCast can also accelerate playback of videos stored on the local drive, and playback with 1,280-by-544 video was smooth, although we noticed some minor screen tearing.

Getting started

Setting up the RX300 is relatively straightforward, although I did have trouble getting the RX300 working initially. My problems were related to an option not being selected in the Network settings -- something I'm sure an admin would be able to fix pretty rapidly.

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The $99 NComputing RX300 has USB, Ethernet, HDMI, Bluetooth and wi-fi connectivity

Images: NComputing

Each RX300 thin client has four USB 2.0 ports, with full USB redirection and server-side device drivers to provide support for a range of peripherals. The Genius-branded USB keyboard and mouse I used with the RX300 worked without issue, although as mentioned not all USB sticks were detected.

For network connectivity, the RX300 has a 10/100 RJ-45 Ethernet port and 802.11 b/g/n wi-fi, alongside Bluetooth 4.1. It's powered by a quad-core ARM Cortex A53-based processor with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal MicroSD card storage. Each RX300 consumes less than 5W of power -- another factor that might appeal to organizations considering a large deployment.

The RX300 can also be switched to work as a local desktop PC, running the Raspberry Pi 3's default Raspbian OS with the Pixel desktop. This works reasonably well as a desktop computer, provided you moderate your expectations and don't try to run multiple browsers with tens of tabs open at once. However, the Windows 10 desktop on the RX300 offers noticeably better general performance than Raspbian, which is understandable given that Raspbian is running on a $35 computer, rather than a more powerful server.

The Windows 10 desktop is streamed to the RX300 using vSpace Pro 10 virtualization server software. ZDNet's review of vSpace Pro 10 praised the platform for its fast and easy installation, but also noted that its multiple management interfaces were confusing.

Unlike some competing platforms that use virtual machines, vSpace Pro 10 uses Windows Remote Desktop Services (RDS) to virtualize just the desktop. This requires a single copy of Windows on the host server, allowing for faster deployment and easier management, although users don't have as much independence and flexibility as with a full virtual machine setup. The result is a platform that's suited to use cases like schools, colleges and small businesses.

Conclusions

I found there were limitations to the RX300, including slight delays, USB performance, and the fact it's easier to overload the system than a desktop or laptop PC.

But if you want a thin client that offers 99 percent of the experience of running a Windows 10 PC there's a lot to recommend the RX300, particularly to schools and smaller businesses seeking an affordable and easy way of rolling out a centrally managed Windows desktop.

Pricing and server requirements
The RX300 costs $99, including a free one-year connection subscription to vSpace Pro 10 and a six-month trial of premium features. Each subsequent year will cost $49 per RX300 user. vCast video acceleration is a premium feature that will cost an additional $99 per year per server.

vSpace Pro 10 can stream a Windows desktop to a single client from Windows 7, 8.1 or 10. To stream to multiple clients, vSpace Pro 10 needs to be running on Windows Server 2016, Windows Server 2012 R2 U1, Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, Windows Multipoint Server 2011 or Windows Multipoint Server 2012. Organizations will also need to purchase the appropriate one-off Microsoft Client Access Licenses (CALs).

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Topics: Virtualization, Reviews, Windows 10

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