Network Computing Devices (NCD) recently introduced its vision of what a portable thin-client device should be: the ThinStar Voyager, a Windows CE 3.0-based device with a wide variety of peripheral connectivity options and network access via USB or Type II PCMCIA cards.
I took a look at the Voyager in our Real-World Labs® in Green Bay, Wis., and was impressed with the clarity of its 12.1-inch active-matrix color TFT display as well as with its portability. Not only is the Voyager light, weighing in at a mere four pounds with the battery, but it also offers a swivel handle, making it easy to carry to the office and back home again. Also included in the hardware design is a retractable stand, which allows the unit to be placed in an upright position without the need for extra equipment, such as a cradle.
Beauty and Brawn
The Voyager is built on a 206-MHz Intel StrongArm processor with 64-MB RAM and 32-MB ROM, making the device quite snappy in its responsiveness. XGA (Extended Graphics Array) resolution (1,024x768 pixels) and 16-bit color coupled with the ability to connect the unit to an external display via its XGA 15-pin Mini D-sub make the Voyager an excellent platform for display of presentations when you're on the go. Backlighting is provided and is user configurable. The display can be rotated 90 degrees, 180 degrees or 270 degrees for optimal display of graphics and presentations.
NCD ThinStar Voyager, starts at $1,695. Available: Now.
Network Computing Devices, (650) 694 0650, (800) 800-9599; fax (650) 961-7711.
The downside to changing the display rotation is that you must put the device into suspend mode and restart it before the change will be applied, so you'll need to recalibrate the screen each time you restart the Voyager after a change. Although this is annoying, once you find an orientation you're comfortable with, you should not need to change it very often.
NCD provides 802.11b network access via preinstalled drivers for Avaya Orinoco, Cisco Systems Aironet 350 and Proxim RangeLAN2. I dropped a Cisco Aironet 350 in one of the Voyager's two Type II PCMCIA slots and was instantly on the network. The Voyager's list of preinstalled software includes Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0, so I was able to browse the Web as soon as I got on the network. Connectivity can also be achieved via dial-up access, and a modem or external network connection can be hooked up via USB or a serial connection. No support for VPN is provided, which is something I'd like to see before the Voyager becomes an integral part of the mobile-computing experience.
Unlike some of the Web pads I've reviewed (see "ProGear's an Easy-to-Swallow Tablet"), the Voyager includes both a Citrix Systems ICA client and a Microsoft Terminal Services client out of the box. To test the Citrix client, I had a lab technician in Green Bay take the Voyager to a local high school that uses Citrix for access to several applications. The only complaint that could be made about the experience is that the configuration includes the ability to enter a lengthy key for access to the Citrix server, but when the unit went into suspend mode, the key would disappear, making it necessary to re-enter the data.
Handwriting recognition, something we have come to expect from PDAs, is also provided on the Voyager. To my delight, the handwriting-recognition software is quite accurate -- no need to learn graffiti! Using the installed version of Microsoft Pocket Word, I was able to compose documents much faster than if I had used the virtual keyboard provided.
The virtual keyboard is of a one-size-fits-all variety, so it does not allow for resizing. That said, it was a bit small, and for adult-sized fingers, the stylus was necessary for input. On the plus side, the keyboard indicated whether it was in shift or caps-lock mode by changing the alphabet on display from lowercase to uppercase -- several of the Web pads I've reviewed didn't have this function. The keyboard is configurable as well, offering the option to turn on or off the display of function keys, a 10-key numeric keypad or standard keys.
Add-Ons and Utilities
If you're interested in using a "real" keyboard, the Voyager supports a standard North American USB keyboard as well as a PS/2 mouse. I was able to hot-plug an Alps Glide Point into the unit and use it as a mouse. When I unplugged the Glide Point, however, the device refused to allow input via the stylus, and I had to power cycle the Voyager before it would respond again. It would be nice if the device supported a PS/2 keyboard, as PS/2 is still the primary choice of keyboards in an enterprise.
Synchronization from the Voyager to the desktop is achieved via a USB cable through Microsoft's ActiveSync software. Files and e-mail can be synchronized easily, and installation of applications is achieved through this process. Automatic updates of software can be done directly via the network as well.
Battery life, one of the most important aspects of any portable device, is excellent. NCD claims the Voyager's lithium-ion battery has a life of up to five hours. After putting it to the test, I found that the device provided almost three hours of continuous use while connected to the network via an 802.11b card. Your mileage may vary depending on the type of wireless card you use, as each card consumes power at different rates.
For those who'd like to use audio in their presentations (because we'd never use these for play, would we?) the Voyager offers an audio in/out jack. Don't get too excited, however, because basic sound support is not included. There's no MP3 player included, nor can simple Windows-based WAV files be played, though they are included with WinCE 3.0. You'll have to install those yourself.
The NCD ThinStar Voyager is a responsive, competitively priced Web pad that provides almost all the mobile applications and connectivity options needed to ensure remote access when your users are on the go. I'd like to see full PIM support as well as the ability to view PowerPoint presentations, but these could easily be installed after delivery via the network or the ActiveSync process.
Technology editor Lori MacVittie has been a software developer and a network administrator. Most recently, she was a member of the technical architecture team for a global transportation and logistics organization. Send your comments on this article to her at email@example.com.