Average user rating
- Lets you access a host PC wirelessly via a stylus-driven touch-screen
- can also function as a desktop monitor with the optional docking station.
- Expensive, especially with the optional docking station
- unnecessarily complicated and restrictive install process
- poor image quality
- full-motion video not supported
- host PC is locked when Smart Display is in use
- moderate battery life.
Perhaps it was the sight of Captain James T Kirk scribbling away on his executive starship tablet. Maybe it's the recurring dream of reducing computing to its simplest, starkest elements -- a screen, an input device, perhaps some sound. It could even be the thought that with the technology now just about able to do it, a wireless PC screen is a really cool idea. Whatever the thinking behind Microsoft's Smart Display technology -- a battery-powered notebook screen without a notebook, linked to a PC by wireless networking and taking stylus input -- it doesn't seem to have included what users actually want.
Within the V150's 38.9cm by 30cm by 4.57cm casing, there's a 15in. 1,024 by 768 resolution LCD, a 400MHz Intel Xscale processor, cut-down Windows CE (the unit does nothing except be a display, though), 32MB of ROM, 64MB of RAM and an 802.11b wireless system. The V150 comes with a USB wireless hub for the host PC, in case you don't already have 802.11b wireless networking. This is a bad idea: one of the biggest headaches for network security people is the proliferation of 'rogue' wireless access points, and there's nothing in the Smart Display specification to encourage consideration of security aspects.
Installation & setup
Nevertheless, we decided to install the V150 on a system with no wireless networking but that was already running Windows XP Professional. ViewSonic includes a copy of that operating system in case you're running anything else (including XP Home) and need to upgrade: the box for the display comes festooned with warning stickers saying that with anything other than a factory-installed XP Home being upgraded, you'll need to create a dual-boot system and reinstall all your applications. We consider any peripheral that requires a major operating system installation to operate for no apparent reason -- remote control is neither difficult nor uncommon on many other systems without Microsoft's restrictions -- to be inherently flawed. However, even given that we omitted the OS reinstallation, things did not proceed smoothly. To get going, you must plug in the V150 via its USB port to the host computer; this is then used by the host to configure the panel's wireless networking for its own private LAN. After some hours of following the instructions to the letter and getting nowhere (everything appeared correct, but no connection could be made), we found that the display had found another wireless network in the building and was trying to log onto that. Moreover, the default settings for how the display handled multiple networks ensured that it would always try and log on to anything else it found first, which we found inexplicable.
Ease of use
That fixed, things progressed. You can plug a mouse and/or keyboard into the USB ports at the top of the device -- but without Bluetooth, your choice of wireless devices is limited. We tried it with Gyratron's wireless mouse and keyboard, which worked well but needed a large transceiver flopping about on a cable, thus defeating the object of the exercise. There's also a PC Card slot atop the display, which would make things more flexible were it working -- but in the current version of the hardware it's not. A small variety of buttons let you do things like activate the on-screen keyboard, simulate left and right mouse clicks, move the cursor around the screen and connect and disconnect from the network. Around the back there's a flip-out stand; there's a hole for storing the stylus, while a row of gold lands on the bottom of the unit provide connections to the optional £179 (inc. VAT) stand -- this provides a direct VGA link, as well as extra ports for mouse and keyboard, and also charges the unit. The stand doesn't allow you to tilt and swivel the display, which contravenes the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, which state: "The screen must swivel and tilt easily and freely to suit the needs of the operator or user". However, the stand does allow you change things like colour balance, contrast, brightness and so on -- without it, you can only change the brightness. One of the most notable drawbacks of the Smart Display system is the way it locks out the host PC when in use. Microsoft has said variously that this is a licensing issue and a resource management problem. The full version of Terminal Server, the underlying technology behind the remote control, has special protection to stop multiple users from updating the registry or overwriting files in ways that interfere with each other, but Microsoft hasn't seen fit to include that with this solution. As people have been making multi-user Windows installations for many years -- to say nothing of the operating systems that predate Windows and don't seem to have these problems -- this may be more a political issue within Microsoft than technical ineptitude. But one cannot be sure.
As a display, the V150 is unimpressive: the touch-sensitive layer on the front necessarily reduces the brightness and sharpness of the image, whether it's acting as a wireless device or on its stand, acting as a normal display. It's also very tempting to use it as a proper touch panel, eschewing the stylus and prodding away with your finger. Don't. The surface picks up fingerprints better than the FBI, and although it may be a novel method of biometric identification, it looks horrible. Audio through the small loudspeaker is in mono and tinny. It's fine through headphones, although there's so much buffering in the audio streaming protocol that changes to volume, programme or other aspects of the sound take around two seconds to become apparent. The system also fails to consider playing audio as being a use of the panel, and in the absence of other activity will shut down to save power in mid-song. We found that battery life was around the same as a notebook's: between two and three hours. The range of the wireless was also identical to other 802.11b installations -- we got around thirty metres from the base station before the green in-range LED on the unit started to wink orange. However, we didn't often want to wander that far away as the VS150 weighs 2.6kg and is a bit of a beast to lug around.
To alleviate the steady steam of negative experiences, it must be noted that the V150 does work. You can easily browse the Web, tap out short notes (it has some rudimentary handwriting recognition) and do other Windows tasks that don't need streamed video. It's good for looking things up in meetings or while watching TV -- but no better than doing the same with a cheap notebook, and in many ways worse. Tablet is the wrong medicinal analogy: suppository more adequately describes the Smart Display experience. Most of this is due to the failures of Microsoft's basic idea, although ViewSonic must bear some of the blame for not really trying to ease the pain. It is entirely possible that future Smart Displays -- brighter, lighter, with decent battery life, streamed video, better connectivity and some handheld-style functionality when away from the host PC -- will be able to justify their existence better than this sorry excuse to market old technology.