Viewsonic Airpanel 150pDec 22, 2004
What Is ItThe 150p is a so-called Smart Display, a Microsoft-coined term to describe devices that on the one hand work like a regular LCD monitor, and on the other that let you unplug them from their host PC and use wirelessly, seamlessly. Introduced in 2003, Smart Displays seem to have not been very successful, as few vendors produced them and of those that did, none have updated them. Part of the reason was no doubt their cost: the MSRPs were crazy, about the same price as a full-featured laptop with similar screen size. However now these devices are being remaindered, their prices have fallen to something sensible.
IntroductionThe Viewsonic airpanel v150p looks a lot like a regular 15" LCD monitor, except you can literally pick it up from its stand and take it anywhere within your wireless network's range, using your PC as if you were still in front of it. I got mine because I wanted a way of using my main desktop PC, which is downstairs in my office, from upstairs in the general living area of the house, especially when I am busy keeping an eye on my young daughter. I finally gave in and bought it when its price was reduced 50% of the original MSRP, to a sane value.
Installation (Hell)Let me start out by saying that setting this up was the most frustrating hardware experience I have had in many years. What is worse is that a couple of key pieces of information would have saved all of the frustration and hours of time. I will spare you the detail of the hell I went through, but I will summarise my advice in two key bullets:
Configuing the display is a matter of telling it about your wireless network and which users you want to configure. If you get the Setup right this information can be done for you via the USB connection, but if all else fails (as it did for me) you can use the Expert option to set it all manually. When configuring users you can set it so turning on the device automatically connects and logs into the PC, which means abut five seconds from power on to PC access: very cool.
How Does It Work?In essence a Smart Display is a custom Windows CE device that is a Terminal Server (aka Remote Desktop) Client. You don't get access to the Windows CE desktop, so you cannot install or run any CE programs on it, but you do get 802.11b wireless built-in. When you turn it on it will display the machine/user pairs you have configured, and you have the option to auto-attach with one pair. If you don't want this, you will quickly see the normal Windows logon screen and type your password. When you are done, just switch the Airpanel off. Your PC will still be in the same state you left it, but your Smart Display will be off. You don't get any of the usual startup/shutdown delays you are used to on the average PC.
Use as an LCD MonitorI have a plethora of displays already so I didn't get this for use as another LCD monitor, though I did briefly test this on a normally headless domain controller. You need the optional docking station to do this, and you just drop the display into the dock, having connected power and VGA cables. It works fine as a 1024x768 LCD monitor, though you cannot change the viewing angle. When in this mode the USB connectors on the display itself are switched off and the touch-screen is disabled. The rest of this review will deal with the display in stand-alone mode i.e. not in its docking station.
Software CompatibilityAs it is a Terminal Server Client, not all software will work when you are in wireless mode. Some video software will refuse to work (Power DVD 4.0 says it is "running thru Remote Terminal Services, Media content playback will be prohibited" when you try to play any video), games that use DirectX will likely fail, and Windows Media Player 10 will randomly complain that there is an error playing audio (WMP9 never had a problem). Even when WMP plays video, it does it at a few frames a second, too slow to be useful. All other software should work just as it does on your PC.
In UseThe device is completely quiet, with none of the background noise associated with a PC: no fans, no hard drive, nothing. It is eerily silent in fact. I actually miss the hard drive noise on some slow operations, as I use it as a cue to explain why some program is takig its sweet time to do something. With the Smart Display that cue is gone. The screen is a touch-screen and it comes with two stylii. Unlike a tablet PC you can also use your finger to operate it, but it leaves grease marks on the screen if you do. Your PC sound is redirected to come out of the display so you hear all the usual things. There is a headphone socket on the display (and also a mic socket) though I tried neither. If you misplace your stylus you can control the 'mouse' via a 4-way pad and left- and right-click mouse buttons in the display's border.
The display has two USB sockets which can be used for keyboard and mouse. It comes with a small keyboard, but it is hard to type on as it has a smaller than normal pitch, plus I will swear that it actually misses keystrokes. In theory you can plug in any USB keyboard, but I had mixed results. I bought a replacement tiny keyboard, a BTC 9118H but it did not work, though it worked perfectly when plugged into my PC. On the other hand I also tried a Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro (the last decent keyboard Microsoft ever created IMHO) just to check my sanity, and it worked perfectly. Viewsonic support were not helpful. My theory is that the USB hub in the BTC keyboard is not supported by the firmware in the Smart Display. You can also plug in a USB mouse though I have not tried this. There is also a popup 'soft' keyboard so you can always type things even without a physical keyboard to hand.
Windows XPIn theory the Smart Display requires Windows XP SP1, but this is not strictly true. If you can live without the little Taskbar applet, you can use it as a Terminal Server client against any operating system that supports it, and I have used it against my domain controller that runs Windows 2000 Server. If you do use XP it does require at least SP1. I installed my Smart Display right before upgrading my office machine to Windows XP SP2, and had no issue after the upgrade, once I checked "Remote Desktop" and "File and Printer Sharing" in the Windows Firewall applet.
Living with a Smart DisplayTo solve my original problem (using my office PC remotely while keeping an eye on my daughter) the Smart Display was successful, but at a cost: my daughter (now 19 months) wants to use it herself, and in fact it turns out to be very handy indeed for kids' PC usage. I can set her up with, say, Noggin.com (in full-screen Kiosk mode in Internet Explorer) and she can use her finger to press the screen to play the Flash games on that site. She doesn't need a keyboard or a mouse, and the PC can be in an entirely different room and out of harm's way. She is too young to understand what she is supposed to be doing, but she still gets a huge amount of enjoyment by pressing the pictures with her fingers, hearing the sounds, and seeing her favorite TV characters move and talk in response.
Battery life is not great, a few hours of usage, but what is really weird is that the battery will be used up even when it is switched off (albeit at a lower rate). Mine can't go for more than a few days when turned off if I forget to plug it into the charger.
The device itself is not very well designed from an ergonomic standpoint. It is awkward to carry (by its metal stand), quite heavy, and doubly awkward if you are trying to carry its keyboard at the same time.
The are various flavors of the Viewsonic Smart Display, there is a smaller 10" version (110), an MPlus version (which includes some home control software) and the 150. I cannot figure out the difference between the 150 and the 150p.
Additional InfoMicrosoft Smart Display page
J&R where I bought mine, ignore the listed 800x600 resolution
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