We have been testing two of the new ViewSonic wireless networking devices based on Microsoft's "Windows-powered Smart Display" technology. The smaller airPanel V110 has a 10" LCD touchscreen; the larger V150 has a 15" screen. Both work through our Wi-Fi network to extend the screens of our Windows XP Pro PCs.
The V150 is equipped with a pre-release version of Universal Electronics Nevo for Smart Displays product, which turns a Smart Display into a universal remote control for consumer electronics devices.
Our first report on testing a V110 said we "have been very impressed with it. It has done nearly everything we expected and some things we didn't think it could do." While we've encountered some problems, we continue to be impressed. These SD devices were easy to install, work just about everywhere inside and near our house, and do what they claim to do. Add-on applications like Nevo extend their value and make the current high price more bearable. The biggest single problem is that you can't use the SD and the primary display at the same time, and switching back and forth--while fast--is inconvenient. We're sure that as Microsoft addresses this problem, prices come down and more add-on applications become available, more and more people--including us--will buy SDs.
WebPADs, "Mira" and Smart Displays
We have been enthusiastic about wireless touchscreen devices since we first saw a WebPAD four years ago and we're certain they will play a major role in the "broadband home." In writing about broadband products from Taiwan in the very first issue of this report we said "Our personal favorite ... was the line of wireless WebPAD tablets from Tatung. Their small, lightweight WebPAD sits on a keyboard base and moves wirelessly from kitchen to bedroom to patio, making unconstrained access to content and services a part of everyday life."
But the industry has had a very hard time figuring out the right combination of technologies, form factors and human interaction. The original "WebPAD" devices were positioned as competitors to PCs - an Internet appliance that would "replace" the PC. Several companies introduced these products, with little success. The problem with this approach is that providing all the processing power and memory of a modern PC in a hand-held touchscreen device would result in a very high-cost device with a short battery life.
In his keynote address at the January 2002 Consumer Electronics Show, Bill Gates described an initiative called "Mira" which we saw as a much better approach. In our report "The Power of the PC and Microsoft" on Gates' speech we wrote:
We thought the most interesting part of his talk was the announcement of two new technologies -- code-named "Freestyle" and "Mira" -- that will be added to Windows XP. ... "Mira" is designed "to extend Windows XP experiences" to smart displays "anywhere in the home." One demonstration of Mira showed the user undocking the LCD monitor and then carrying it to the living room couch and using it as a touch-screen to continue running applications.
A year and a half later, we have been testing two "Mira" wireless touchscreen displays. The ViewSonic V150 is a good example of the "primary monitor" format Gates described; with a 15" display and 1024x768 resolution, it's comparable to many desktop LCD displays. The V110 is an example of the "small format" secondary display with a 10" screen and 800x600 resolution. Both are based on a 400MHz Intel XScale processor and include 32MB ROM and 64MB RAM. They include built-in 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless networking and are shipped with an 802.11b USB wireless adapter for those users who don't have operational wireless networks.
We've used the V110 for several months, and the V150 for about a month. While they run a version of the Windows CE. NET operating system, they do not include the usual PocketPC applications (scaled-down versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, etc.). Instead--as Gates promised at CES--they leverage the "horsepower" and applications stored on the primary PC. They require Windows XP Professional, and are shipped with an upgrade to XPPro.
Optional docking stations provide a convenient place to store and charge the SD when it's not in use, and include connections for a USB keyboard and mouse to use the SD like a conventional LCD display.
We've also been testing Nevo for Smart Displays on the V150. Nevo is an add-on application and hardware from Universal Electronics that turns a Smart Display into a universal remote control for consumer electronics devices.
Installation and Operation Smart Displays are based on a Windows feature called "Remote Desktop" available only with Windows XP Professional. Since that version of XP is not installed in many homes, Smart Displays typically are packaged with an upgrade to XP Pro.
We already have a working wireless network, so we used our own network rather than the wireless USB adapter shipped with the V110. We did not run into any problem setting it up this way. We were conducting our Wi-Fi tests at the same time, and kept changing between four different wireless access points; we were delighted to see that the SD had no trouble transparently changing from one to another (a very different experience than with our Win 98SE portable).
We encountered some problems using the V110, and after a few phone calls found that there was an updated software release. Since the SD is a programmed device, it was fairly straight-forward to upgrade the V110 to the latest software--just a matter of downloading the new firmware to our PC, attaching the SD to the PC with a USB cable, and starting the "new firmware" process. The only problem was a confusing message on the SD at the start of the process, which required a phone call to support.
Smart displays can support multiple users running on multiple PCs, and we decided to test this feature. So we initially set up the V110 to support each of us at our desktop PCs, both already running XP Pro. We found that we could set up the V110 to "remember" our passwords, making login fast (it's slower entering the password from the on-screen keyboard).
This may sound a little complex, but it took us only about an hour to set up the V110, plus about another hour one month later to upgrade the software. Since we were already running XP Pro on both desktop PCs, we did not have to install the XP Pro upgrade--which probably would have doubled the installation time.
The V150 arrived a month later. It came pre-loaded with the latest software, and SD support was already installed on both desktop PCs, so it took only a few minutes to set up the V150 with login accounts for our desktop PCs and start using it. Since we were also using Nevo on the V150, we had to set it up. We downloaded the newest Nevo software release from UEI and installed it on Dave's notebook PC (also already running XP Pro) and the V150. Then we added a third account (Dave on his notebook PC) to the V150.
With the software installed and the SD set up with user accounts and passwords, it's very fast--perhaps 30 seconds--to switch over to either SD from the primary display. What you see on the SD is exactly what you see on your PC screen--with windows resized if the SD has a smaller screen resolution than the primary display.
You use a plastic stylus or a set of "mouse-like" controls to select icons on the touchscreen, and an on-screen "soft keyboard" and handwriting recognition software to enter data. (You can also connect a regular keyboard and mouse, but that rather defeats the purpose of a portable display.)
Switching back to the primary display is also fast, but it's a little inconvenient to get the windows back to the proper size if they were resized. Since our primary displays are both 1024x768, and the V110 is 800x600, we had to resize some windows every time we went back to the primary display. And there's an annoying software bug that resets the "Num Lock" key each time you switch back.
SD Applications -- How We Used Them
We've used the two Smart Displays for lots of things--both business and pleasure--over the past two months:
Availability and Price
ViewSonic has recently upgraded its SD line; the current models are the V110p and V150p. These appear identical to the older models and we assume they will perform the same as the ones we tested. The street prices for the current models range from about $750-850 for the V110p and about $930-1050 for the V150p; many online retailers report that they are "in stock." These models do not include a wireless USB adapter but do include a full-size wired keyboard. The dock adds about $150 for the V110 and $200 for the V150.
We like these Smart Displays a lot, and think they will play a major role in the future. But we did run into several issues that get in the way.
Since it takes a lot of bytes to transfer the screen image to the SD, network speed is a major factor in SD performance. The current Smart Displays are based on the 802.11b "flavor" of Wi-Fi, which operates realistically at about 4.5 Mbps and can be much slower when far from an access point--see our test results on 802.11b and .11g.
We sat out on our deck--location 17 on our Test Locations page--using an SD to look at the photos from our Spain trip, and we certainly noticed the significant delay between selecting the next picture and seeing it paint on the screen. Several times we pushed the "next" button twice thinking it had been ignored.
Then we tried to get the weather outlook using the weather.com Weekly Planner. This didn't work at all--it's a streaming video application and the video was very broken up while the audio was inaudible.
Our measurements show that we'd get more than twice the speed from 802.11g than from 11b, and we assume that future SDs will work with 11g. We also assume that Microsoft will figure out how to make video work better.
Windows XP allows only one user to be logged on at a time, so moving back and forth between the primary display and the SD implies logging off the primary display (done automatically) and vice versa. Not only does this take a little time, but it can cause a lot of problems if you inadvertently "steal" the PC from someone else who's using it. This happened to us when we tried to use an SD to show a web page to Dave's brother, and our nephew came charging up the stairs wondering what had happened to the online video game he was playing on Dave's PC.
Allowing both displays to be used simultaneously will require Microsoft to implement a Windows feature they call "concurrency". While Microsoft has acknowledged that users want this very badly, they have not said when it will be available. Based on Web information, we reported earlier that "Microsoft has just announced that they will be addressing this problem in the fall with a new Windows XP mechanism permitting two users to be logged on simultaneously." Microsoft denies this report and says that they haven't set a date for "concurrent sessions".
XP Pro Requirement
Smart Displays require Windows XP Pro; that version of XP is not installed in many homes. It would be nice if Microsoft could enable the "Remote Desktop" feature in XP Home as well.
Size and Weight
The current ViewSonic SDs represent a compromise between size, weight and battery life. The V110 weighs 3 pounds while the V150 is about twice as heavy. With its higher resolution, the V150 has the more readable screen and doesn't have the "resizing" problem that the V110 has when used with a 1024x768 primary display. But the V150 feels pretty "clunky" on a person's lap, while the V110 is quite pleasant.
We'd love to see a smart display with the resolution and battery life of the V150, with the weight of the V110.
At around $900 for the smaller unit and $1200 for the larger one (both including the docking station), these cost more than many PCs. It's nice to carry one around and use it anywhere in or near the house--as far as your wireless network can reach. But another PC would let another person operate at the same time.
Nevo for Smart Displays
We installed and used Nevo for Smart Displays on the V150 and found it a nice way to control our audio and video equipment. It adds a card with an infrared (IR) transmitter/receiver, plugged into the available PCMCIA slot on these ViewSonic SDs. You control a device by pointing the upper side of the SD at it and selecting control icons with the stylus on the touchscreen. Nevo operates two ways - as a stand-alone application on the SD, and as a PC application coordinated with the SD touchscreen.
To set Nevo up, you select the devices in each room by category (TV, VCR, cable box, PVR, etc) and then a specific brand within the category. Then you choose the remote control "codes" that work right for your device. If your device isn't pre-programmed, you can go online to the "MyNevo" website and find and download more devices. You can also download additional codes for pre-programmed devices. While this process is pretty straight-forward, it takes a while if you have a lot of devices, and especially if some of them aren't pre-programmed.
Every so often, you use the stylus to select the "Synchronize" button, which saves the entire setup on the PC. If you re-boot the SD (when changing the battery, for example), the entire setup is reloaded into the SD from the PC backup.
Nevo is a nice addition to the SDs and would certainly let us put away many if not most of our remote controls. We found that several of our networked A/V devices--the AudioTron and PRISMIQ--were neither built into the Nevo nor on the online list. We could have used the "learn" feature to set up the device codes manually, but decided not to try since we weren't going to keep it long enough to be worth the effort.
Some of the most attractive features of Nevo integrate TV watching with Web browsing. You can set up favorite channels in the "Favorites" screen, and assign channels and Web URLs to each favorite. These channels show up in the "Teleweb" screen, where you can click on an icon to watch the channel and navigate to the web page at the same time.
We encountered a few problems with Nevo. After using the V150 with Nevo, the PC often seemed to be in a funny state--icons were missing and applications weren't working right--and we found that we had to reboot the PC each time we switched back. We did not see this problem unless we used the Nevo application from the PC desktop, so we think it comes from the pre-release status of the Nevo software we were using.
Until recently, ViewSonic had been offering Nevo PCMCIA cards and software as a free add-on application for SDs. This offer ended on June 30 and the add-on cards have been shipped to users. At press time, we were unable to find out when Nevo will again be available and whether it will again be free.
Using a Smart Display requires a change in behavior--instead of walking to a PC, you need to pick up and use the SD. We found that it wasn't second nature to think of using the SD--we would start for the PC first. In a way, this is like the early days of the Web (and online services before that): we'd always go look for a paper catalog or try to call on the telephone, rather than looking online. We've now learned that every useful catalog is online, but it took many years.
This is very different from our reaction to PVRs and the AudioTron, where a month's use showed that we could watch TV or listen to music very differently from the way we had before, and we decided it was worthwhile to keep them permanently. We haven't yet reached that conclusion with the SDs.
And there are some applications that don't work well on an SD--at least when you're carrying it around the way it's meant to be used. It's great for being alerted to and reading urgent email--but it's painful to enter the text for a reply. It would be nice to be able to enter handwritten notes while on the phone, but that application isn't provided even though these SDs appear to be based on the same version of CE .NET that's found in Windows Mobile.
It would certainly be nice to be able to use the SD and the PC without having to log on each time. This gets in the way, even with a single user. The time it takes to log on can just as easily be spent walking to the primary PC.
We're very impressed with Smart Displays, and think that they are "over the bar" (something we haven't said about lots of other new devices). But we're not ready to run out to buy one for ourselves.
Here are some things that might change our mind: