NComputing X300

  • Editors' rating
    7.0 Very good

Pros

  • Provides a simple and inexpensive way to hang up to six terminals off a single desktop PC
  • Terminals are low-power, secure, easy to administer and quiet
  • Works with Windows- or Linux-based host PCs

Cons

  • Performance is inversely related to the number of terminals installed, and directly related to the computing power of the host PC
  • Maximum host PC-to-terminal cable length is 7m
  • Maximum video resolution on terminals is limited to XGA (1,024 x 768)
  • Unsuitable for demanding applications

NComputing uses proprietary multi-user technology to share the use of a single host computer among multiple access terminals. The entry-level X300 uses an internal PCI card to support up to three users per card. Two £149 X300 kits can be used for a total of seven users per host PC (six on the X300 terminals and one on the host PC). The NComputing L230, which we have also reviewed, is a similar product that connects to an Ethernet network and can support up to 10 users with a desktop host and 30 users with a server host. These two products use different terminal server software, so different hosts are required for each product — although they can coexist on the same network.

Each X300 kit consists of the PCI splitter, three access units and the NComputing terminal services software. Customers will need to add cables, keyboards, mice and monitors. NComputing warns that this entry-level solution is not recommended for demanding applications like 3D gaming or 3D design; instead, it's pitched at schools, business workgroups, libraries, internet cafés and suchlike. In NComputing's biggest deployment to date, no fewer than 180,000 X300 seats are being rolled out in Macedonia's schools.

The £149 X300 kit comprises three access terminals and a PCI card, which is installed in a host PC. Terminal services software is also supplied.

Physical appearance
The three rectangular black X300 access units (which are roughly the size of a pack of cards) each carry an RJ-45 port for connecting a standard Ethernet cable to the RJ-45 ports on the PCI splitter card. Note that these are not true Ethernet ports, as the system uses a proprietary protocol (Direct Windows over IP). Maximum cable length is limited to 5 metres for CAT5 cable, or 7 metres for CAT6 cable. Next to the RJ-45 on the access unit is a 15-pin VGA connector, followed by PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports and finally a 3.5mm stereo jack for audio output. The front is bare save for a green LED to show that the unit is powered up — power for each access unit is supplied from the host PC via the Ethernet cable.

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The X300 terminal has a minimal set of connectors, no moving parts and is powered over the Ethernet cable from the host PC, using less than 5 Watts of power.

The splitter card that drives the access units is a short-format PCI card carrying one large VLSI chip and two smaller chips. Three RJ-45 ports for the access connections are mounted on the end bracket. An alternative low-profile bracket is included with the kit.

Software
The X300's software bundle is limited to the necessary driver and management software (NCX 2000-XP for Windows hosts) for the NComputing hardware. Additional software options include NControl, for controlling host PCs remotely from a 'master host' system. NControl also allows up to 16 terminal sessions to be remotely controlled from a single screen, and 128 in total by scrolling. This allows teachers, for example, to interact directly with students.

Another optional NComputing application is NShield, a backup/recovery tool for host PCs that allows hard drives to be restored to a known working state — including OS files, applications, settings and data files.

Applications and utilities have to be provided independently on the host PC. As far as licensing the programs installed on a desktop host is concerned, NComputing states, somewhat disingenuously, that: 'Application software and OS licenses for the host PC and access terminals may be required by the respective software vendor and must be purchased separately'.

Installation
Installing the X300 kit requires you to open up the host PC and plug the PCI card into an empty slot. Each access terminal must then be cabled up to the card, and a monitor, keyboard, mouse and (if required) speakers connected. Our testbed host PC was a moderately specified HP desktop powered by a 2.8GHz single-core Pentium 4 processor with 1GB of RAM running Windows XP Service Pack 2 with Microsoft Office 2003 installed. You'll need a higher-specified host if you want to run two X300 kits (6 terminals) from the same PC.

The X300 PCI card installed in a host PC.

The installation sequence must be followed exactly as described in the printed install guide. Before installing anything via the software CD menu, Windows' New Hardware Wizard should be used to install both the Bus Enumerator and three instances of the Graphic Controller, otherwise the installation will fail.

With the graphics drivers installed properly, you should see the three access terminals burst into life and display the NComputing logo. You can then use the CD to install the management software onto the host PC. During this process you are warned to disable any antivirus or firewall software and are presented with the licence agreement and terms of use.

After these formalities, the install proceeds normally, offering an oportunity to change the install location and to set an admin password if required. A serial number, activation key, name, company, email and phone number are also requested, and all must have values entered. The install leaflet says the serial numbers and activation key are to be found 'written on the back of the multi box'. This is slightly confusing as it doesn't mean the cardboard box the product ships in, but on the bottom of each access terminal. Each terminal has its own serial number and activation key, which must all be entered.

The initial install of the management software does offer an opportunity for multiple entry of serials and activation keys. If this option isn't taken then, following a reboot, unregistered access terminals are detected and the management software will display a request for further serials and activation keys. Once all these details have been entered, clicking OK will cause an auto-reboot of the host. Finally, user accounts need to be created on the host PC for each access terminal.

Although the access terminals have no USB ports (which has some security advantages), USB connectors on the host PC can be allocated to particular terminals using the management software. You'll have to provide your own USB extension cables though.

Three X300 access terminals and a 2.8GHz Pentium 4/1GB RAM host PC up and running in ZDNet UK's labs.

In use
For everyday applications, the X300 works remarkably well. We completed most of our workload test — a mixture of word processing, spreadsheet creation and web browsing — on four seats (three X300 terminals plus the host) without any noticeable performance problems. However, the final part of the test, which involved playing a YouTube video, did max out the 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor on our testbed host PC, causing many dropped frames.

Starting a YouTube video on one, two, three and then four X300 stations progressively loads the host PC's CPU until it reaches 100 percent, whereupon performance degrades noticeably.

Another drawback with the X300 is that the display resolution on the access terminals is limited to a maximum of XGA (1,024 by 768) at 16-bit colour depth. For best image quality, the displays used should have the same native 1,024 by 768 resolution.

Power consumption
Because the power consumption of the X300 hardware itself is less than 5 Watts, the power drawn by a complete installation is determined largely by the displays and host PC used. Using a typical desktop host PC such as our 2.8GHz Pentium 4 system and four 15in. XGA-resolution LCD monitors, this might add up to around 120W on average, giving each user a 30W power requirement.

In our workload test, which involved typing a short (187-word) document, creating a small spreadsheet with a graph, browsing a couple of web sites and playing a YouTube video, we measured an average power draw of 29.2W per user and a peak of 40.2W. The monitor used to calculate these figures was a 15in. XGA-resolution NEC AccuSync LCD52VM, which draws 15W with the brightness set to 50 per cent. All power measurements were made with a Voltcraft Plus Digital Multimeter VC-940.

Conclusion
If you can handle its limitations on cable length, video resolution and high-end application performance, NComputing's X300 has a lot to offer in terms of purchase and running cost, power consumption, manageability and security. Apart from anything else, a host PC and three access terminals takes up considerably less physical space than four typical desktop PCs, which could be an important consideration in many organisations.

 

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