This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

Rumors about Microsoft’s MIRA technology, now named Windows Powered Smart Display (SD) technology, have floated around for over a year. The devices are finally available, with more on the way from a variety of vendors. It’s possible that this portable “intelligent” touch screen monitor that communicates with your PC over a wireless connection has a place in your business. Or you may decide it’s just a neat toy to allow home users to check e-mail from the kitchen or patio. I’ll compare it to its fellow “go anywhere” device, the Tablet PC, and help you determine where the Smart Display concept might fit into your business environment, based on available products and cost factors.

What’s so smart about the Smart Display?
The concept behind the Smart Display is solid: Untie computer users from their desks, while allowing them to use their desktop computers. The monitor is flat and compact and has advanced touch screen capabilities so that you can do most computing tasks without the need for a keyboard or mouse. Because PDA users are familiar with the art of navigating using a stylus, getting used to SD input should not be a problem. (For an overview of available SD device brands, see Comparing Smart Display devices.)

The SD devices are built on the Intel StrongARM and XScale processors—the same processors used in the Cassiopeia, the Ipaq, and the Dell Axim handheld devices. Memory configuration—32 or 64 MB of RAM—is also similar to modern Pocket PC devices. The writing pad supports handwriting recognition, so you can jot notes and have them converted to text. If you prefer, you can tap out text letter-by-letter using the on-screen keyboard. Tapping takes practice, but you should be able to develop surprising speed.

If you want to roam away from your desktop system, but you have a task that demands the use of traditional input devices, you can plug a mouse and/or keyboard into the SD device’s USB ports or use wireless peripherals, although this strategy does limit portability.

Smart Display hardware and software
Smart Display devices use the popular 802.11b wireless technology to communicate with desktop computers. The desktop system must be running Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 or above. You don’t have to buy a new desktop system to use the SD, as long as your system is capable of running XP Pro. Also, you’ll need a wireless adapter for the PC (included with some models of Smart Display).

Limited access

The SD device can access any variation of XP Pro, including XP Tablet PC Edition and XP Media Center Edition. However, the SD device won’t be able to access special features such as the Media Center interface.

The SD device runs on a special version of Windows CE.NET called Windows CE for Smart Displays. Although the SD is not really a full-fledged computer, it is capable of running some stand-alone CE applications without being connected to a PC. These CE applications are called local applications, and some SD vendors include these applications with their products. So, although many of the articles about Smart Display make it sound as if these devices are merely monitors, they are actually limited-function computers that are designed primarily for accessing a more powerful computer. The SD device is intended to function as a portable “thin client” machine with your desktop computer—instead of a terminal server—acting as the server.

Remote Desktop client included
The CE operating system on the SD device includes Remote Desktop client software that is used to access the Remote Desktop feature built into Windows XP Pro. You can’t use SD with XP Home Edition because Home doesn’t include Remote Desktop. Also, the XP Pro computer needs to be configured to allow Remote Desktop connections; such connections are not allowed by default. Once Remote Desktop is enabled, members of the administrators’ group can connect, and you can add other nonadministrative user accounts to the list of users who can connect using RD.

Remote access limitation

A Windows XP Pro computer can be accessed by any computer running Remote Desktop client software or the Windows terminal services client. Only one computer (or SD device) can access the XP Pro Remote Desktop at a time.

Comparing Smart Displays to laptops and Tablet PCs
Businesses now have several options to choose from if they need to provide employees with mobile computing. Perhaps the first question to ask when considering the purchase of SD devices is this: Would your employees be better off with laptop/notebook computers or Tablet PCs?

Despite similarities in appearance, the Tablet PC and Smart Display serve different purposes. In fact, the Tablet has more in common with the traditional notebook, function-wise, than with the SD device. That’s because both Tablet and notebook are powerful, fully functional computers that you can use anywhere—on a plane, in a hotel room, or sitting in your car in the middle of a desert. Modern notebooks and Tablets run some version of Windows XP or an equally powerful OS, which means you are able to run all the common productivity applications in a stand-alone environment. While the SD is in fact a “real computer,” it’s not a very powerful one and to have full functionality you must be within about 100 feet of a wireless-equipped XP Pro desktop system.

To determine which mobile solution is best for your organization, ask the following questions:

  • Do users need on-the-road computing capability?
  • Do users simply need computing mobility within the office?

The bottom line: With any choice, there is always a tradeoff. The SD device typically costs less but provides more limited portability (or much less computing power as a stand-alone). The notebook computer is a “go anywhere” machine but is more cumbersome in some situations (such as when you need to input data while standing up). The Tablet PC combines the extreme portability of the SD with the “go anywhere” aspect of the notebook but costs more than a notebook (with less computing power on some models).

Using the Smart Display in the business environment
If a Tablet PC can do just about anything the SD can do, and can function as a full-power stand-alone computer on the road, are there any good reasons to choose the SD for business use? The answer is yes. The following factors might make the Smart Display the right solution in certain business situations:

  • The SD costs about half the price of the typical Tablet PC. Users who need in-office portability but don’t travel with their computers may not want to pay the premium for the Tablet.
  • The SD’s limited functionality can be a security advantage. Because it has no hard disk, data is stored on the desktop system (or a server on the network). If the SD is lost or stolen, that data won’t be available to unauthorized users.
  • Also because of the lack of a hard disk, data created with the SD is in a more centralized location, which makes it easier to back up regularly. A common problem with notebook computers is the need for users to back up the data (or transfer it to a file server).
  • There are no synchronization issues. With a notebook or Tablet PC, it’s easy to get confused with different versions of documents on the portable machine and the desktop machine. With the SD, the actual work is done on the desktop even when you’re using the SD, so you don’t have to worry about file synching.
  • The lower power of the SD device means batteries may last longer than with a full-powered notebook or Tablet PC.

Of course, the SD has disadvantages, too. It isn’t appropriate if you need access to graphics-intensive applications. Usually this means video games and so is not relevant to the business environment. However, it also applies to full-motion live video for conferencing, etc.

The thin client that could
The new Smart Display technology is basically a portable thin client that can connect to any XP Pro-based desktop computer. Processing is done on the desktop system through the portable display, so the SD device itself can be low-powered, small, and lightweight. Although much of Microsoft’s advertising for the SD has been aimed toward home users, if users need in-office portability but don’t need full-fledged portable computing power outside the office, the SD will fit the bill nicely.