By Roy Santos
September 23, 2002
If the amount of ‘cool’ were the only criterion for choosing a monitor, ViewSonic’s wireless airpanel 100 would win hands down, but you may want to think twice over its high price and potential accusations from colleagues that you own an overgrown PDA.
Model Number: VSMW22952-2M ($995)
In the quest to free us from the shackle of data wires that tether our computer peripherals to the PC, many companies are using new or existing standards to create products to engender such freedom. ViewSonic, a maker of popular CRT and LCD monitors, has introduced the airpanel 100, a device it calls a wireless monitor. Targeted towards business users, the airpanel is a Windows CE .NET device that can also substitute as a remote monitor for a desktop PC or laptop. It will not replace your regular monitor. It’s too small to do any major, long-term work on, such as spreadsheets or long text documents. However, it allows you to work more conveniently without having to carry a laptop around.
- Wireless access to remote PCs and files
- Many expansion ports and slots
- Screen only 10.4″
- Remote connection setup can be complicated
- 802.11 hardware not built in
No bigger than a sheet of letter-sized paper, the airpanel is housed in a sleek silver and black casing that’s less than an inch thick. The bright TFT touchscreen itself measures 10.4 inches diagonally and yields a native resolution of 800 x 600. Several buttons on the right side of the panel help you navigate the cursor, launch the Web browser, and activate the on-screen keyboard.
The airpanel runs the Microsoft Windows CE .NET operating system, an OS for devices Microsoft calls “mobile and small-footprint” so it’s generally found on PDAs. It’s bundled with popular Internet applications, such as an Internet Explorer Web browser and the MSN Messenger instant-messaging application. It also comes with touchscreen software for using handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard.
ViewSonic includes two styli to help you move the cursor around and write on the touchscreen. Although designed for business users who need access to their data from different locations, it’s not for those who must perform a lot of manual typing. Anyone who has used a Palm handheld device knows the utter impracticality of handwriting large amounts of text. If you insist on using it to write your next novel, you can attach a keyboard to one of its myriad ports. You will have to carry an extra keyboard around if you like this traditional text input method, or hope one is present in various meetings or conference rooms.
In addition to the keyboard port, the airpanel sports connections for a mouse, USB devices, a microphone, and a headphone. A PC card slot can house an Ethernet, 802.11b/Wi-Fi card, or modem to connect you to a wired network, wireless networks, or dial-up, respectively. It has an impressive 128 MB of RAM and a CompactFlash (CF) slot lets you expand storage for files. CF memory is relatively cheap; you can easily buy 256 MB of memory for less than $100. A peppy 206 MHz Intel StrongARM chip powers the airpanel.
The manual requires that you charge the battery for 14 hours before using the airpanel. My test unit, fortunately, was already fully charged so I was able to skip a day of waiting. The unit also requires you to calibrate the screen initially, much like you do with a PDA. The first time you turn it on, a small cross appears on the screen and, as you tap its center with the stylus, moves around different sectors.
Drivers were readily available for the Cisco Aironet Wireless LAN Adapter, which ViewSonic provided with the test unit. I plugged it into the PC card slot and it triggered Windows CE’s built-in wireless configuration software. The device found a nearby Wi-Fi access point and I was browsing my favorite Web sites in minutes. If your Wi-Fi network is encrypted, you will have to enter all encryption keys manually; the software does not provide support for password-generated WEP codes.
As I mentioned before, the screen on the airpanel is bright and its native 800 x 600 resolution works well for most tasks. I noticed reflected images, however. I was constantly distracted by the vague image of my face staring back at me when I looked screen images with dark backgrounds. The low refresh rates hindered efficient and smooth work. There was a notable pause before documents or application windows appeared fully.
ViewSonic claims that the included battery pack lasts up to 5 hours. Of course, this is only true if you don’t insert any PC cards or other devices that use battery power, and you do very minimal work. I put it under a draining test by inserting the Wi-Fi card, having the media player running an Internet radio station constantly, and turning off all power-saving features. The battery lasted about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Under normal working conditions, I estimate anywhere from 2 1/2 to 3 hours of battery life, satisfactory for what the device can be used for.
It was fun being able to surf Web pages from almost anywhere I could find a Wi-Fi connection. Although the screen is only about 10 inches, it sufficed for reading some news and other low-graphics Web pages. Loading times are a bit slow, even with a broadband connection. Windows CE’s version of IE offers no support for plug-ins or other extras, such as Java or Flash, that one takes for granted in a regular PC browser.
Even more interesting was being able to connect to my Windows XP desktop from afar using the airpanel as my monitor. This is wjere the airpanel should shine and, indeed, what it was designed for. Using the built-in remote display protocol (RDP) software, Microsoft’s remote desktop connection program, I quickly sank into a networking nightmare, a mess of IP addresses and obscure network settings that few would want to delve into. There is very little help in the ViewSonic manual (a .pdf file) and the Windows CE .NET help documentation says little about any problems you may encounter.
Although the technical support representatives I contacted were very polite and helpful in they way they knew how, they were unable to give me information on connecting the airpanel to my desktop. One representative told me that the only way to connect wirelessly to the desktop was through a peer-to-peer connection, eliminating Internet access but allowing you to open files on the remote computer. Eventually, after much tweaking and trying different wireless configurations, I was able to connect to the desktop through my wireless access point. From the airpanel, I gained the ability to control applications that were already open on the desktop, open new files, and even surf the Web using the desktop’s browser. This definitely opens new possibilities of working with your files and applications. Because this can eliminate the need to carry a laptop around, you can make your presentations sitting down, standing up, or even walking around, all while controlling a spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation from the airpanel. You can go, for example, to New York and, if you have corporate network access, control your desktop located in San Francisco using the airpanel as your monitor.
The unit also includes Citrix ICA software to connect you to corporate files, but I didn’t test it for the obvious reason that I didn’t have a Citrix server to connect to. Although you can’t use the airpanel for any heavy-duty or intensive work from a remote location, it has its practical business uses. I wouldn’t recommend it for any graphics work or even for making a presentation from scratch because it redraws windows and graphics so slowly. Kudos to ViewSonic for making such a cool business product, but shame on them for providing so little documentation on what most buyers will be using this for — remote desktop operation.
Although the ViewSonic airpanel 100 is not for everyone, it offers convenience and features useful for a few business users, albeit at a high price. The product usually retails for under $1000; I’ve seen it for as low as $860 online, a price at which you can buy a low-end laptop.
Although laptops can gain the same remote capability, the airpanel is much lighter, not to mention much more hip, and can be used in ways laptops can’t, e.g., standing. If you’re a presentation guru, this eliminates the need for running to and from your laptop to activate or switch between running applications.
The airpanel can’t be used in outdoor work settings, as required by some professions that may need such a device, e.g., house inspectors, field reporters, or police. The screen is not bright enough outdoors and you can easily drop it.
Those expecting a monitor replacement will be disappointed with the airpanel’s overgrown-PDA feel. But if you want the device for one thing alone, i.e., to connect to a remote PC or server from different locations, then it’s a good choice. If you need access to your desktop, but hate the hassle of a notebook, just leave your Windows XP machine at work on all the time and perform some light work remotely.