Five Windows-Based Terminals
TEST TRACK: Windows-Based Terminals
The first defined desktop alternative came along in August 1996 when Apple Computer Corp., IBM Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Computer Co. introduced the NC Reference Profile, which defined the network computer (NC). This was taken to be as much a challenge to Microsoft as it was a computing advance. But the savings potential of centralized administration stimulated enough interest to create other entrants in the broadening thin-client arena. The combatants now include a Microsoft-backed variant -- the Windows-based terminal -- in addition to NCs and NetPCs.
Thin clients are generally considered to be diskless workstations connected to a network. Windows-based terminals, on the other hand, enjoy the clearest defining characteristics of all the sub-classes of thin clients. To be a Windows-based terminal, the device must be able to display Windows applications running on a server, using either the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or Citrix Systems Inc.'s Independent Computing Architecture (ICA). NCs incorporate a browser and the Java Virtual Machine. The more important distinction, however, is that NCs typically download data and applications and process them locally. The Windows-based terminal passes keyboard and mouse input one way and displays information the other, with all processing taking place on the server. NetPCs are a catchall category for stripped-down PCs, typically with tamper-proofed chassis, that might employ local or remote processing, depending on the operating environment.
As a follow-up to our recent review of Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition, we obtained samples of five Windows-based terminals to see how the hardware side of this operating protocol was being brought to market. All of our test terminals are very new creations: A sixth possible participant, the Visara from Affinity Systems (Lansdale, Pa., www.affinitysystems.com), missed our testing deadline due to unexpected delays in its certification process. A definite variety exists in the offerings, although in operation they are, as could be expected, virtual clones of each other.
Viewpoint TC 320
Boundless Technologies Inc.
Price: $649 with ICA, keyboard and mouse
CPU: 5x86, 133 MHz
RAM: 16 MB
Boundless Technologies positions the Viewpoint TC 300 series as the upper-range of their lineup, which also includes the Model 100 text terminal and the Model 200 for ICA applications. The 300 models include Windows CE and built-in support for the RDP protocol, along with the capability to accept additional software modules. Our test unit used Windows CE and had connection-type options for RDP and ICA. Pericom terminal emulation is available as an option for $99.
Boundless aimed high in its design goals. At $649, the Viewpoint had the lowest cost in our group and offered some nice extras. For example, it was the only member of our test group to include a Smart Card slot, which could be an attractive option for companies that already use Smart Card employee IDs. It also was one of two machines to offer resolution up to 1,280x1,024 and link-indicating LEDs on the network connection.
The back panel carried an almost PC-like array of connections and slots, with two serial and one parallel port connector, along with the unique availability of one PCI and one ISA expansion slot. With all this, it was mildly surprising that there were no audio connections.
The 5x86, 133-MHz CPU was the fastest unit in the group. Interestingly, even though Boundless makes a point of mentioning that it has the fastest processor of any WBT on the market, all of the participating companies seem to agree that CPU speed and RAM are less of a concern than in a PC. We tried a few basic stopwatch tests to see if we could find any difference between the Viewpoint and the Neostation from Neoware, which has the slowest processor -- a 50-MHz RISC chip -- and only 8 MB of RAM. It was no great surprise to find that the time lapse between an "Open" command and the disappearance of the Windows hourglass on our test spreadsheet was affected far more by the amount of network traffic than by the hardware of the terminal in use. In fact, since it was the Windows Terminal server that was performing all of the actual processing, disk I/O and caching, this result was to be expected.
The Viewpoint we tested was an early beta unit that had a few foibles that struck a slightly sour note with our testers. The main area of operation in these terminals where differences existed was in Terminal Properties, a hotkey-selected window that shows various configuration options. All of our machines showed tabs for General, Input, Display and Network properties. All but the Viewpoint added one or more additional tabs with extra options. The Viewpoint not only had the fewest tabs, but also had the fewest selectable options. For example, the Display tab offered choices for different screen resolutions, with some units including a choice for "best available using DDC." The Viewpoint's only choice was "best available," which could be annoying for any user whose vision might dictate a different choice. There was also no keyboard language option, although there was a drop-down box for it on the Input tab.
There were a few other oddities as well. The screen saver obstinately refused to be disabled, resisting repeated attempts and reboots. Inexplicable for a diskless workstation, the Viewpoint consistently took close to 20 seconds to accept changes made to its configuration. When it then displayed a message stating, "The system needs to be restarted to enable changes - do you want to restart now?", and the Yes button was chosen, the system did not restart. Finally, as was the case with the unit used in our Terminal Server review, this one would not accept a static IP address, although it worked just fine with DHCP addressing. This may be a non-issue since most of these machines will likely be used in a DHCP environment, but Boundless' explanation that it encountered a bug in the CE network driver sounds a bit flat when our other four participants, all running Windows CE, exhibited no such difficulty.
The Viewpoint TC 320 left us with very mixed feelings, as it combined a buggy software component and a hardware package with unmatched expansion capabilities. It should be easier to resolve the software bugs than it is to alter the physical layout. We anticipate that when this model reaches commercial release status, which is expected by press time, the problems will be gone, leaving an entrant to the Windows-based terminal market with pricing and features that make it very attractive.
NCD ThinStar 200
Network Computing Devices Inc.
Mountain View, Calif.
Price: $725 with keyboard and mouse
CPU: MIPS 4300, 100 MHz
RAM: 16 MB
The NCD ThinStar 200 comes from the plain side of its maker's product line. It doesn't have the elaborate video, Intel Corp.'s Wired for Management architecture, or full array of I/O ports, including USB, that the upmarket ThinStar 300. Network Computing Devices Inc. (NCD) has a track record of some note in the world of thin-client machinery, particularly with its long-term partnership with IBM for the development and manufacture of IBM's line of NCs.
The hardware was a bit light in its connectivity possibilities, with a single serial and parallel connection and no Smart Card or PC Card slot. Maximum video resolution is 1,024x768 at 85 Hz, and there is no audio support. Our testers found the case design oddly appealing, and noticed a practical advantage in the elevated chassis: It allowed the keyboard, mouse and power connectors to be placed on the bottom of the case, making efficient use of the limited space available for external connections.
Where this ThinStar really shined was in the Terminal Properties window, which contained evidence of considerable thought and refinement. There are six tabs available, with Management and Inventory added to the basic group. Our favorite was the Inventory, which made a wealth of system information available that remained hidden on most of the other machines. There are subsections for operating software, hardware, network and graphics, which list everything from the exact versions of all the built-in software, to the system serial number and installed RAM, to the network adapter's Mac address, and more. This may not seem especially noteworthy, but our Windows-based terminal experiences were marked with more than a few frustrations in obtaining information. The ThinStar was the only machine of the group that could tell us how much memory was installed and what the Mac address was.
The Management tab had selections that primarily related to secondary setup options, such as a box for the location of the NCD ThinStar Management Service, and another to select the client configuration (RDP or ICA). A useful check box allowed the Connection Manager Configuration tab to be hidden, making it less likely that a user could fiddle with the network configuration. One noteworthy omission from these choices was the lack of any sort of password protection, which would seem to be the best way to prevent undesired alterations.
Although all our WBTs claimed to offer a variety of language support, only the ThinStar had more than U.S. English as a choice on the Input tab, giving U.K. English, French and German as options. Another small, but thoughtful, addition was the radio button option for right- or left-handed mouse operation, a point that the rest of the machines we tested missed entirely.
In a group of devices that are absolutely identical in their functionality to a user, NCD built in considerable hands-on appeal for the people responsible for the care and day-to-day operation of an enterprisewide deployment of these terminals. Everything worked well and showed the marks of good design. In a crop of very young devices, NCD's ThinStar seemed to have an edge in maturity.
Neoware Systems Inc.
King of Prussia, Pa.
Price: $799 with keyboard and mouse
CPU: Motorola 860/821, 50 MHz
RAM: 8 MB
Neoware, like NCD, has an extensive history in the world of thin clients. The company has developed and produced thin and lean client machines for almost every conceivable operating environment for several years, so the advent of Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition, and the resulting new hardware category of Windows-based terminals is a natural area for Neoware's expertise.
The Neostation 220 is similar to the NCD in its single serial and parallel connection capabilities and 1,024x768 resolution, but adds audio connections and a single PC Card Type I/II/III slot. Depending on how this terminal is used, that slot may not be available for use, due to the fact that Neoware provides ICA compatibility in the form of flash ROM "personality modules." If the terminal needs to operate in a Citrix environment, the slot will be filled and unavailable. Other terminal emulation modules are available, but for the target market of Windows application environments, it would be useful for Neoware to incorporate ICA internally, as most of its competition has done.
In this comparison, Neoware suffered from much the same beta-level blues as the Boundless terminal. Our first sample just quit working altogether for about 15 minutes after our initial setup, then came back to life. More seriously, we could not get the Neostation to locate its Windows Terminal Server host by host name or fully qualified domain name: It only worked if we used the IP address. After consultation with Neoware, a second unit was supplied with some OS tweaks applied. The second sample worked with a fully qualified name, but still failed with only a host machine name. Once again, we were told that the cause was a previously undiscovered bug in Windows CE, and once again we must observe that four other machines -- all running Windows CE -- from four different sources, did not have this trouble.
When a static IP address was used, we discovered another small problem. The Neostation accepted the address information, but when the "OK" button was pressed, there was no prompt to indicate that a reboot was needed to implement the change of address. This was very annoying when attempting to troubleshoot network connectivity problems: We assumed that the network address configuration had changed when it actually hadn't. Once we rebooted, though, the address changed.
The Terminal Properties window had one very useful addition to the basic layout, and one that needed some clarification. The useful feature was password protection, which all of these machines should have. With a password in place, no changes of any kind can be made to the setup or configuration. This seems like such a basic feature for this type of machine that it is difficult to see why it is not universally used.
The feature in need of clarification is the Reset to Factory Defaults button, which seemed to be duplicated by a check box on the General tab. There actually is a difference: The button on the Security tab resets everything, while the check box only resets the Setup Wizard to run on the next reboot.
Neoware can certainly be expected to resolve fairly quickly the operational problems we encountered. The company is engaged in some aggressive promotion for the Neostation that should result in its Windows-based terminals popping up in places where PCs are uneconomical to buy, or administer, or both. Neoware stresses that the same hardware package we worked with in this comparison is already on the market. The commercial release for our particular configuration should occur before the end of 1998, which allows time for its developers to fine-tune the interface with Windows CE.
Price: $899 with keyboard and mouse
CPU: NEC 4300, 100 MHz
RAM: 16 MB
In technical circles, Tektronix measurement devices in general, and oscilloscopes in particular, have always enjoyed a Rolls Royce reputation as the best of their kind. With expansion into color printing, and most recently into a variety of video and network terminal products, Tektronix is entering this market from a different direction and with a different reputation than most other participants.
The Thin200CE is definitely at the high end of the price/features range of our group -- combining the highest suggested price for the terminal alone, with a skimpy connection set. There are two serial ports, but no parallel port (optional), sound connections, PC Card or Smart Card slot. This could restrict the appeal of a Tektronix terminal in locations where peripherals will be a necessary part of the configuration.
Our sample enjoyed trouble-free operation during our tests, which may be a reflection of Tektronix's claim to have shipped the industry's first fully certified WBTs on Sept. 14. Early development enabled any kinks to be ironed out.
The Thin200CE has a fairly spartan set of Terminal Properties tabs, with just one addition to the basics -- a Utilities tab. We hoped this would yield system information in the manner of the NCD Inventory tab, but it contains just one button for the Flash Manager function, to be used for OS updates. There is a wealth of display resolution options -- 23 in all -- on the Display tab, but for some reason we could not discern if they were specific to different screen sizes.
Tektronix may have stolen a march on the rest of the field with an early entry, but we suspect that its high price may have to be offset with real-life discounts, superior service, or both, to establish the Thin200CE as a major contender for business desktops.
San Jose, Calif.
Price: $1,299 with 15-inch monitor, keyboard and mouse (3715SE)
$799 without monitor (3315)
CPU: AMD SC400, 66 MHz (486 equivalent)
RAM: 16 MB
The world of computer terminals has been the home base of Wyse for a long time, so its presence here is to be expected. If only because of name recognition and replacement business from millions of aging Wyse terminals now in use, the company will certainly be a force to watch in this market.
We received two samples from Wyse: the 3715SE, which is a Windows-based terminal built into a 15-inch monitor, and a 3315, which is the terminal alone.
We ran all of our tests on the 3715SE, since it represented a different configuration that we were curious to try, but the two units were twins in every functional respect. In fact, the only advantage the 3715SE offers is ergonomics. The one-piece design requires less desktop real estate than the rest of the machines we tested.
Both Wyse terminals include a single PC Card Type II slot that is available regardless of the connection protocol in use, since Wyse incorporates both RDP and ICA into the flash ROM OS. There are also two serial ports, one parallel port and audio connections for microphone-in and line-out.
Wyse mirrors Tektronix closely in the Terminal Properties window. The extra tab here is labeled Terminal instead of Utilities, but carries precisely the same function with a firmware upgrade button. One unique feature, which should be widely adopted, is the presence of a remote access service check box on the Network tab. One of the much-discussed deployment areas for Windows-based terminals is in retail or information kiosks, where the connection to the host machine would be by modem. With that background, it is interesting that only Wyse added simple remote-access configuration to its machine.
With an immense presence established by years of green-screen terminal sales and a competitive product, Wyse should grab a substantial share of WBT business, and may even lend great legitimacy with business customers who might not otherwise contemplate an all-Microsoft operation.
Through the Test Track
To test a group of Windows-based terminals, we first provided a server with Windows NT 4.0, Terminal Server Edition. We selected a Dell 2200, running a single Pentium II at 266 MHz, with 128 MB of RAM and a single 4.3-GB hard drive. In a real-world situation, the terminal server must be carefully sized to accommodate the user load, since it will be doing all of the actual processing. But for our purposes the relatively modest Dell served admirably.
We installed the Microsoft Office 97 application suite, Internet Explorer 4.0, and a couple of Windows utilities for our application base. As observed in our Windows Terminal Server review, these applications must be installed through the Add/Remove Programs applet in the Control Panel so the registry entries are handled properly. After using each application on each terminal in varying combinations, we then added Citrix Systems Inc.'s MetaFrame to the Dell server and added an ICA connection type to each terminal.
RDP vs. ICA: What is the Proper Protocol?
All of our sample Windows-based terminals (WBTs) used Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to communicate with Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition. As the native display protocol for Terminal Server, the nature of RDP dictates much of what the terminal's capabilities will be. But every machine in our test group also had the capability to communicate using the Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) protocol from Citrix Systems Inc. Originally developed in concert with Citrix WinFrame, ICA allows Windows applications to run on a central server, but be accessible from almost any conceivable client platform: 32- and 16-bit Windows, Windows CE, DOS, OS/2, Macintosh, Unix and Java.
There are some significant operational differences between the two protocols, mostly things ICA does that RDP does not. This has more to do with the relative maturity of each than with any other factor: RDP is coming into the market for the first time, whereas ICA has been around for a few years and is relatively mature. All of the WBT manufacturers that participated in this test believe that Microsoft will be adding additional supporting capabilities as rapidly as possible, with the simple goal of meeting or beating ICA's abilities in the shortest possible time.
RDP's most obvious limitation is its short client list, which covers the 32-bit Windows family and 16-bit Windows 3.11. RDP only works with the TCP/IP network protocol, where ICA has additionally capabilities with IPX, SPX, NetBEUI and Direct Asynch.
Here is a partial listing of other capabilities where ICA holds the advantage:
- Support for Windows audio (.wav files)
- Access to local printers
- Access to local serial ports
- Administrative remapping of local drives
- Cut and paste between sessions
- Session shadowing or "remote control"
- Direct dial-up connections
Server load balancing for each protocol can be accomplished with additional software, and ICA allows administrators to create preconfigured clients with applications, IP addresses, server names and connection options. There is one function where RDP has an edge: It supports multiple-level encryption of client connections natively. An ICA system can encrypt client/server communications, but it requires the addition of Citrix SecureICA Services, a $2,495 addition to MetaFrame.