Computers can be in all the wrong places sometimes. When you need to consult a recipe in the kitchen, read a friend's e-mail on the porch or listen to some MP3s from the sofa, where is the stupid PC? Chained to a desk in the den.
Microsoft's remedy for this situation, as codified in its old mission statement, has long been "a computer on every desk and in every home." So the launch today of something called a "Windows Powered Smart Display" is a radical departure.
Instead of throwing more PCs at the problem, Microsoft is offering a different beast entirely. A Smart Display is basically a battery-powered flat-panel monitor, with a WiFi wireless radio link instead of cables and a touch-sensitive screen instead of a keyboard and mouse. It's the sort of thing Microsoft is unfairly accused of never developing -- an innovative, groundbreaking design.
Unfortunately, like many groundbreaking products, the Smart Display is itself broken. It costs too much, it's too hard to set up, and even when coaxed into the right configuration, it performs worse than anybody should expect.
ViewSonic, the first manufacturer to ship a Smart Display, offers two models: the $1,000 Airpanel V110, built around a 10-inch LCD (which I've been trying out for the past two weeks), and the $1,299 Airpanel V150, with a 15-inch screen.
Those numbers alone sink this concept: A regular 15-inch LCD goes for $300 and change, as do Pocket PC-based handhelds with the same processor and memory as ViewSonic's Smart Displays (a 400 MHz Intel XScale chip and 64 megabytes of RAM). Wireless networking doesn't come free -- especially when ViewSonic insists on bundling a WiFi adapter for the host PC, something many people already own -- but charging $1,000 for this glorified flat-panel screen is nuts.
The setup experience of a Smart Display was hideous. In most cases, the fun will start with a mandatory upgrade to the operating system on your PC, since the Remote Desktop Connection server software used by a Smart Display runs only on Windows XP Professional instead of on the more common Home edition (an upgrade CD comes in the box).
On my laptop, the Smart Display host software required multiple uninstall-and-reinstall cycles and subsequent detours through a quarrelsome troubleshooting utility before things worked. When the troubleshooter wasn't whining about a Symantec firewall program (even after I disabled that), it was demanding yet another reset of the laptop's built-in WiFi circuitry (that external WiFi adapter never worked). It also crashed XP once.
On a second test machine, with a brand-new installation of XP and no preexisting firewall or WiFi conditions, I still had to run through the Smart Display installer more than five times -- once to install things, the others to repair the installation again and again -- and take still more detours through the troubleshooter to get the XP Pro log-in prompt to materialize on the V110's screen.
Entering my password via an on-screen keyboard or handwriting-recognition software brought me the same desktop I would have seen on the host PC's own monitor. (It also locked the host computer's screen, preventing any use until I logged off; you can't use a Smart Display to share an Internet connection.)
WiFi's peak real-world bandwidth of maybe 5 million bits per second, good for up to 150 feet from the host PC, made data-intensive uses such as DVD playback out of the cards. Simpler tasks such as Web browsing, reading e-mail, listening to music or working on this review were feasible but visibly slow.
Dialog boxes didn't pop up instantly but instead bloomed into existence, the cursor trailed slightly behind movements of the V110's stylus (making fine positioning impossible), and when I lowered a song's volume, it took a moment to hear the change.
Entering text may be the V110's biggest stumbling block. The on-screen keyboard worked only for keying in passwords and Web addresses, while its handwriting-recognition system (a version of the Transcriber program on Pocket PC handhelds) choked on rapid writing, either mangling words or ignoring them entirely. It's far easier to plug a keyboard into one of the V110's two USB ports.
The V110 recognized a new Apple iMac keyboard, although an older, smaller Apple iMac keyboard didn't work. But then geometry intruded: There's no comfortable way to type on an external keyboard and still hold the almost three-pound V110 in place.
The V110's battery life -- considering it lacks such power-intensive components as a hard disk, optical drive, fast processor and cooling fan -- is atrocious. With the screen at roughly 80 percent brightness, it expired in less than three hours. Dimming the screen to 50 percent brightness added only an hour and change to that life span. Even with the device shut off, the battery lost about a quarter of its strength per day.
Fortunately, we all have alternatives. If your home PC already is a laptop, a WiFi network allows sofa-based Web browsing for less than $200. For not much more than the V110's cost, you could buy a laptop that actually does something useful outside the house. With a copy of XP Pro on your first PC, you could even duplicate the V110's remote-access tricks on that laptop.
Or you could do what people have always done when the PC's in the wrong place: Take the data out of the computer. Burn the MP3s onto CD, synchronize the address book with a handheld organizer or just print out a copy of the page.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.