For the past couple of years, Microsoft (MSFT) has been working on an intriguing idea: the creation of a wireless "smart display" that would offer access to the programs and data on your Windows PC from anywhere in the house. You could view Web pages or scan your e-mail while watching TV, or check and update your calendar while working in the kitchen--all on a relatively inexpensive and simple device with a long battery life.
Unfortunately, good ideas don't always turn into good products, especially on the first try. In the case of Windows Powered Smart Display, its problems go well beyond its awkward name. For one thing, prices that start at $1,000 will scare away many buyers. Worse, it's hobbled by poor software.
I tried two of the first products based on the Microsoft design: the $999 ViewSonic airpanel V110 with a 10.4-in. display, and the $1,499 Philips Electronics' DesXcape with a 15-in. screen. To the casual observer, they resemble some of the new Tablet PCs (BW--Nov. 25). The Tablets, however, are complete Windows PCs, while the Smart Display serves only as a remote screen for another computer that does all the real work. As a result, the Smart Display can get by with a minimal processor and memory and no hard drive, which helps it get four hours or more of battery life. The larger units, such as the Philips, can also double as a standard PC display when popped into a dock. Out of the dock, Smart Displays connect with their mother-ship computer over a Wi-Fi wireless network. They come with plug-and-play wireless adapters for your PC and software that sets up a Wi-Fi network if you don't already have one.
Smart Displays have the same problem that all keyboard-less devices have: Data entry is a pain in the neck. You can type by tapping on an on-screen keyboard with a stylus or print using character-recognition software that is so slow as to be almost unusable. The big on-screen keyboard makes for easy typing, but it gets in the way on the display. Microsoft could have made it easier to use by opening and closing the keyboard automatically when text entry was required. Instead, you do it manually by pushing a button. You can also add an external keyboard, but that ruins the tablet-design concept. It's best to think of the Smart Display as a device just for viewing Web pages, reading e-mail, or other tasks requiring minimal text entry. Versions due out later in the year will have built-in keyboards, probably with flip-screen designs similar to the convertible Tablet PCs.
At least as big a problem rests in the design of Windows itself. Smart Display makes use of a Windows XP feature called Remote Desktop Connection (RDC), which permits remote log-ins to a desktop. But the feature isn't part of the home version, so you may have to spend $150 to upgrade to XP Pro. (ViewSonic includes an upgrade with both the V110 and the larger, $1,299 V150. It plans to offer lower-cost versions without the wireless adapter or the Windows XP upgrade this spring.)
Then there are the limitations of RDC. An older, extra-cost program called Windows Terminal Server allows multiple, simultaneous log-ins. But RDC won't let a remote user log in if someone else is working at the keyboard. Microsoft says this was done to avoid problems with programs that did not function properly with multiple log-ins.
This turns out to be crippling for many potential uses. Say you have a Smart Display in the kitchen and someone calls to invite you to a party. You want to check your computer calendar, but you can't because one of the kids is logged on to the computer. And you can't check your e-mail while watching TV if your spouse is using the PC. Microsoft plans to remedy this in a future upgrade to Windows, but that may be a couple of years away.
I still like the concept behind Smart Display--a simple, low-cost way to leverage the excess computing power in most home PCs. But given the cost and limitations of the initial products, I can't recommend them. You can buy a Wi-Fi-equipped laptop for about the same money and get a more usable product. Prices could come down quickly, but the problems will remain until Microsoft addresses the software constraints. By Stephen H. Wildstrom, firstname.lastname@example.org