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Viewsonic Airpanel mini review

So I’ve been playing around with one of these here Airpanel devices from Viewsonic for a few days, and thought I’d share some thoughts about it. This is not a ‘real’ review, but in true Ferret style is more of a touchy feely kind of look at the product, so don’t take it as authoritative or anything will ya? :-) I opted to look at the V110 10″ model because I thought it sounded more useable than the hulking great 15″ model, and I think that I was right.

The Viewsonic Airpanel is the first smart display to be produced by a major manufacturer. The smart display is not to be confused with the Tablet PC, OK? The Tablet PC is a full blown PC in a LCD screen format (think laptop without keyboard) whilst the smart display device is essentially a portable, battery powered touch screen LCD monitor which has just enough electronics to connect to a proper nearby computer using a WiFi connection.

The idea is that you can access your main PC from anywhere in the home using this very thin client. That’s the theory and one which Microsoft thinks will be a market winner judging by their marketing blurb – ‘Any Room, Any Time’. But what’s it like to use in practice?

The Airpanel V110 that I have been using features a 10″ LCD screen with integrated 802.11b WiFi. The box contains the panel, a USB WiFi adapter to connect to your main PC, power chord, software drivers and an extra stylus for the touch screen. There’s also a quick start guide and a copy of Windows XP Professional OEM Upgrade for those who only own Windows 98Se or Windows XP Home.

Yes that’s right, you need XP Pro in order to run the Airpanel. This in itself may be enough to put most people off buying an Airpanel, especially when you read the sticky label on the box which tells you that if you’ve previously upgraded your Windows 98 machine to XP Home, you’re going to need to re-install all of your applications after upgrading again to XP Pro. Bad luck eh?

The airpanel features a load of neat touches on the device itself however. Like handwriting recognition (not great but workable under duress) and a neat pop up keyboard with shortcuts like http://www. and and last but not least a cool gesture navigation feature to let you move around from screen to screen and task to task without a mouse. Nice!

First impressions
I’m getting a bit fed up with having to charge up device batteries for huge lengths of time every time I open a new box, and the airpanel has not improved my humour. OK, so it’s only 5 hours, but I do think that now we’re in the 21st century they could come up with a better solution. Anyway the wait does give you time to install the thin client drivers (or Remote Desktop Protocol in Win XP parlance) on to your home PC.

My install was fairly simple, the only glitch being that the USB WiFi adapter wasn’t recognised at first because I plugged it into a non-powered USB hub. A quick switch to my mains powered Belkin hub and all was dandy. Total install time – 15 minutes. So far so good, and all helped a lot by an excellent Quick Start guide which runs through the main steps in detail.

One thing that may come as a surprise is that the install requires you to create a password for your home PC, in order I suppose to install some sort of security protection for the WiFi network. This is no big deal, but it does mean that from there on in you will have to enter a password every time you boot up your main PC.

In use
So to power up my freshly minted panel. The unit powers on instantly (nice!) but then you have to wait a few seconds for the system to locate and boot into your PC. This can take a minute or so depending on how far away you are from the adapter. Anyway having booted into the machine and given the correct password, lo and behold you end up looking at the desktop of your main home PC. Oh coolness.

The first impression is ‘wow, neat, I can surf while sitting on the living room sofa’, and so you can – with restrictions which I’ll come to later. However it soon becomes apparent that there’s lots of other stuff you can also do with this little doozy. Like keep a watchful eye on your email client all the time from anywhere in the home (especially if you’re running an always on broadband ADSL account eh?). The wife used it for reading up on a few Web forums she belongs to while keeping one eye open for the Friends program to start on telly.

It is only once you begin exploring the lengths to which you can go – literally – that one big problem rears its head. The WiFi range. No matter what they tell you in the mags or on the box, Wifi’s range stinks. At least it does if you have any walls in the way. I had trouble getting the thing to keep connected from the office to the bedroom which is a mere 20 feet as the crow flies. And even when it held the connection, it ran sooo sloowly whilst trying to keep from losing signal.

This is a huge crimper on the functionality of the thing to my mind. I love the idea of surfing or answering email from my sofa, but I also think that taking it out to the garden or other areas of the home would be super cool too. This clearly is not a possibility unless you knock some walls down – which could upset the neighbours.

The other restraint is the battery life. The marketing blurb will tell you that the battery life is 5 hours. I reckon – very unscientifically mind you – that you’ll be lucky to get 3 at full working. I ran it down to 50% charge after 90 minutes of hard surfing and playing. This really means that you’ll get around an evening’s worth of use from one charge only if you keep to simple tasks such as checking email as it arrives and surfing a TV Guide (I kept and running in a browser window which was cool) and the like.

First up it’s a neat idea that actually works quite well. The performance is really good when you think that it’s accessing your normal desktop without wires. The pop up keyboard, and general navigation using the stylus and touch screen is fab, and you really don’t feel that it gets in the way of doing what you want to do. It’s light enough to keep on the lap – although it gets a tad warm – and carry around from room to room. I don’t know whether I’d want to lug around the bigger 15 inch screen mind you.

The downsides are the battery life and the range of the unit. Now admittedly this is a constraint of WiFi technology rather than anything else, but it still reduces the usefulness of the product considerably and therefore must be taken into account. The final caveat must rest with the price. At the time of writing the 10″ airpanel retails here for �800.00 ($1300.00) which is not funny.

Er… Mr Viewsonic and Mr Microsoft you can get a really neat laptop computer with screen, keyboard, pointing device, WiFi card and all for quite a bit less than that, you know. PC World stores here in the UK are selling 1.7GHz, 14.1 inch, 20GB hard disk, DVD/CDRW combo laptops for �700.00.

OK I understand that connecting up to your broadband Internet connection and stuff will be a lot more hassle and more money, but still and all it’s not hard to choose is it? A fully functional laptop which you can carry around with you anywhere in the world, or a smart display which is tethered to your home PC for more money? Hmmm, let me think a second.

Anyway overall – nice try. Bring the price down a lot, boost the range and increase the battery life and it will be a real winner.

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