First Look at the Smart Display
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Nov 11 12:00:00 GMT 2002

TheFeature takes a quick look at the first examples of Microsoft's Smart Display concept.

I've been using a notebook computer with a Wi-Fi card for nearly three years and I'm hopelessly hooked. I love the fact that I can effortlessly log on to the Net in airports, coffee shops, and hotels to check my email and surf the Web. The best thing about having a wireless connection, though, is being able to use my laptop anywhere in my own house or yard. I bring my computer with me on the porch, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, and while I'm parked in front of the TV. I've even been known to check my email in the bathroom. Hey, it beats reading the two-year-old Sharper Image catalog in there.
It turns out that I'm exactly the kind of person that Microsoft is targeting for its new Smart Display, a two-handed gadget that sports a color, touch-sensitive, screen and an 802.11b connection. Think of it as a portable monitor for your PC. The Smart Display will be manufactured by a number of major hardware manufacturers in the first quarter of 2003, but I got a peek at an early model when Megan Kidd, product manager for Microsoft's Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group, paid a visit last week.

No, It's Not a Tablet

Kidd arrived at my door dragging a large suitcase on wheels. Once inside, she pulled out a laptop PC equipped with a Wi-Fi card and two different Smart Display units, both manufactured by ViewSonic. One had a screen about the size of a regular laptop computer; the other one was about as big as a paperback book.
At first glance, they looked like the Tablet PC Microsoft is touting. But there's a difference: a Tablet is a computer in its own right, complete with a hard drive and its own set of locally stored applications. You can take it anywhere and it will work like a regular notebook computer. A Smart Display, on the other hand, has no hard drive or applications. It runs the Windows CE OS, and is utterly useless unless it's in the range of the particular standalone PC that it was configured to run with. Once you get farther than a hundred feet from the mothership PC, your Smart Display goes braindead.
But Smart Displays aren't supposed to be anything other than home use devices. They may not be able to do everything a Tablet can do, but they cost a lot less. Entry-level Smart Displays will run about $800, compared to a couple of grand for a Tablet PC. Plus you don't have to buy extra applications or an additional OS license for a Smart Display, because you'll be using the ones installed on the PC.

Touch Me

I took the smaller of the two Smart Displays in my hands and punched the power button. Instantly, the screen came to life, exactly mirroring the Windows XP screen of the laptop. I pulled out the stylus and opened Word and Outlook. The applications opened very quickly, and the touchscreen was a breeze to use. I played around with the pop-up touchscreen keyboard, which works better than I expected, and would be perfectly suitable for dashing off brief emails. But if I wanted to write a long message or a story in Word, I would want to connect a keyboard to the Smart Display via the USB port. (Of course, that means the convenience and portability factor of the Smart Display would be diminished).
I also tried the handwriting recognition, which worked about as well as I expected - that is, pretty lousy. The time it took to process each word was unreasonably long, and it had a hard time deciphering even my neatest penmanship. I'll stick to the touchscreen keyboard.

Sign Me Up

The Smart Display will do for the computer what cordless handsets did for the phone, explains Kidd. In other words, these things are meant to be used everywhere you go around the house. I love the idea of using it to read the New York Times at the breakfast table, saving myself a whopping $600 a year in subscription fees.
As appealing as the Smart Display appears to be (based on my very brief test drive) there are a couple of things it needs before I fall completely in love with it. First is the ability to run several Smart Displays off the same PC simultaneously. The current version won't do that. That means while I'm reading the Times on my Smart Display, my wife will be reading the print version, and the $600 dollars I was hoping to save will go up in smoke. Kidd explains that the reason you can't use multiple Smart Displays is due to licensing issues. If you only pay for one Microsoft Office license, then only one person is allowed to use it at any one time. Kidd said Microsoft is working on ways to allow multiple Smart Displays to run simultaneously, but it'll happen in a subsequent release.
The biggest problem with the Smart Display is that you can't watch video clips on it. I was really hoping to be able to pop a DVD into a PC, and watch a movie on the Smart Display while lying in bed. Kidd says I'll have to wait until round two for that. Until then, I'll be taking my laptop to bed with me.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles. (And recently starred in an Apple Switch ad!)