Thin Client Devices: What is the Commodity?

I don’t care about thin client devices. Don’t get me wrong—I think they’re very useful, and I often think about the different “types” of thin client devices

I don’t care about thin client devices.

Don’t get me wrong—I think they’re very useful, and I often think about the different “types” of thin client devices (Linux vs. Java vs. WinCE vs. XP Embedded). However, I’ve never been able to get really excited about the various vendors’ thin client device models. To me, thin clients are just a commodity.

As I walked around the exhibit hall at iForum last month, I was approached by a lot (maybe ten) of various thin client device vendors. “Hi Brian. Come check out our stuff!” As far as I could tell, every thin client device from every vendor was basically the same. Most of them are even built with the same chipsets (Via, Transmeta, or Geode). I asked each vendor why I should buy their thin clients over another brand, and I got a lot of different answers. Some vendors said that they’ve been making thin client devices for 30 years, so they’re the most experienced. Others told me that their devices had the lowest prices.

This got me thinking. If these devices are commodities, then what’s the real difference between the various thin client device vendors? Is there even a difference, or is it just about price?

What about the management software? Is this a differentiator between brands or is all management software basically the same these days? And how can some vendors get away with not including their management software for free?

Most hardware vendors differentiate themselves based on their support and warranty offerings, but does this matter for thin clients?

Even more importantly, how can there be so many vendors in the thin client space? Will all these companies survive? What would happen to the market if Dell started making thin client devices?

Can today’s thin client makers survive without adding some significant intellectual property to their offerings? (What if someone like Neoware or Wyse bought Tarantella?)

I'm not sure what I think about all these questions, but I think it's a good conversation. Feel free to share your opinions in the comments section of this article.

Join the conversation


Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.

This message was originally posted by Ron Oglesby on November 11, 2004
Well it depends right. in almost every one of the environments I have built with thin clients, it is NEVER truly all thin. And guess what. I am ok with that. BUT in certain industries thin clients are PERFECT. Take into account healthcare organizations where 80% of their users roam the halls, but constantly use computers. In these situations their desktop (or applications) follow them from thin client to thin client. and the wyse 1200le's at 200 bucks a pop are perfect. Or manufacturing has a number of these types of users. I agree that Low cost PCs make it hard to justify a 500 dollar thin client. But a 200 dollar thin client that DOESNT run windows of any type. That is my type of setup for certain users.
This message was originally posted by Jos on November 11, 2004
To view thin clients as all the same stuff is dangerous. I have found that there is significant difference in performance of models. For example, I was involved with a company that had purchased Neoware's. And the users complained that the service offered was so slow (blaming it on the servers of course), then I showed them a Wyse terminal. Now there are two types of users, those with a Wyse termnial, who are happy and those with a Neoware who are not. In all fairness, Neoware has updated their product range since then, so this comment may be historical.
I have been asked numerous times now in the past year and always advise my clients to test products from various producers.
Most imported factor to look for: performance in graphics. Also which devices you wish to connect (USB keys can be a problem wiht Linux and older devices).
As to management tools. All the devices I have worked with can use ftp. Just a simple configuration file on a server, maybe a firmware update. As far as that goes I have found HP, Wyse, Neoware to work basically in the same way.
I have taken a look at the management software provided but found no practical use for me. So as far as that goes, yes they are all the same to me.
As to one of these manufacturers buying up a software product like tarantella. Well. I don't know. If for example Wyse (who call themselves market leaders) would do that and use their channels and support organization. That would be cool. I have looked with a client at Tarantella and would have liked to have seen this product installed, but in the end the small base (ie market spread, support staff worldwide, product continutiy risks) gave my client cold feet and brought the product out of the picture. With a company like Wyse backing them, that may make the difference.

This message was originally posted by Oliver on November 11, 2004
My opinion is that ThinClients are waste of time and money in almost every terminal server installtion. O.K. there are maybe some situations where you can put TC like public access etc. But for normal work load these hardware is not quick enough. As Jos says the biggest problem is graphic power. TC have Geode or VIA CPU. You can´t compare 300MHz Geode with 300MHz Intel CPU. The graphic power is poor on all TC i have seen. Let´s take an Fujitsu Siemens Xs PC. This one hast 866HMz / PII, integrated Graphics, no CD-ROM and very smal case. Put an OS on this machine, install ICA Client and lock the Desktop. This machine will cost you now about 100$ without licenses. This hardware will be much faster than TC and can run local applications anyway. So let´s discuss this here. My opinion: TC are to expensive for the given power. Another problem is that this hardware is not flexible enough. You ever tried attaching a USB Cam or handheld ??? Best regards, Oliver
This message was originally posted by David Caddick on November 11, 2004
At a clients site we did test a number of devices and settled on the above. Good performance, good manageability, easy to add and use USB devices (but only allowed if you were an admin). Now these devices with a 17" LCD are distributed through out 2 large call centres, makes it very simple to support - any problems, go to the cupboard and plug in a new one - send the old one back to the IT dept.
This message was originally posted by Chris B on November 11, 2004
I dont agree that all TCs are the same and basically reflect a WinXP Embedded environment with published apps. What about the WYSE 1125SE? This uses the BLAZER (Wyse produced) very very basic operating system and is ideal for environments using published desktops who want fast start up, easy configuration and login.
This message was originally posted by ScottV on November 11, 2004
Imagine the cost and headaches of patching 6000 + desktop PCs vs. 70 Citrix servers + 6000 WBTs. WBTs are GREAT!
This message was originally posted by Jos on November 11, 2004
Oliver does have a point. I find it very frustrating that the most basic of thin clients costs as much or more than a fat pc. But on the plus side, if the only thing you need is a box that connects you to a remote desktop then thin clients do not need the development of an image, security policy and are cheaper to run because they use less energy which should make the accounts department happy as well as the environmentalists.
And yes, the Wyse with Blazer (my favorite is the winterm 1200LE) boots faster than any pc and graphics are nearly as good as a fat client. Thin clients that run on windows CE on the other hand never have impressed me.
This message was originally posted by Vince on November 11, 2004
I did a fair amount of research when I did a Citrix deployment for a client that was going to be using thin clients in multiple remote locations. I've found that Neoware provides the best features for the price point. Their current models start at $199 for a device with the ICA client, USB, parallel, PS/2, etc. Wyse devices are usually priced higher for a device with similar connectivity. For a Citrix or Terminal Server deployment where users are simply going to be using standard office applications I think thin clients are really the way to go as they're inexpensive, easy to manage, and will generally last much longer than a PC.

This message was originally posted by Andy Smith on November 11, 2004
They all look alike when they are being marketed, but once you get them in-house and start testing there's a big difference in product quality. Wyse and Neoware offer the best bet, IMHO.
This message was originally posted by Ruud on November 11, 2004
Is this nothing more than a flavor (related with bulk price reduction) issue. This seems to be with the cordinairy desktop, they are all the same
This message was originally posted by Jim Kenzig on November 11, 2004
I have been saying for the last 8 years that "it is the management piece that makes a thin client usable." Otherwise it is just a boat anchor. I have led the fight with every vendor I have ever talked to on this. I've written about it for years. Some of them get it others still don't. In fact I am even quoted in this article at ACPthinclient stating such:

I coined the phrase! Because of me some vendors did "get it". Thats my story and I'm sticking to it.
Jim Kenzig
This message was originally posted by an anonymous visitor on November 11, 2004
Brian, you asked: "Why not just buy a bunch of cheap devices, set them to use DHCP and to automatically connect to a published desktop and forget about management?"

Yeah, sure. And if you´d like to change the configuration or update the ICA client (or any other client software) on the devices, you go out and update every device on your own. Have fun updating hundreds (or maybe thousands) of thin clients manually, without any management software... :)

Are you serious about this? A good (working) Management software for Thin Clients is VERY important...

This message was originally posted by an anonymous visitor on November 11, 2004
Not sure if this has been addressed before but we just deployed Maxspeed Maxbooks for our remote users and Maxterm 8400s here in our call center and the greatest benefit we've seen for dumping our Dell PCs is no more Spyware! It's awesome - we locked the images down so that Spyware is almost non-existent - that has been one of the most frustrating issues we've faced in the past year or so in our fat PC environment. We went with Maxspeed over Wyse or Neoware because frankly they were more willing to work with us as a smaller company. Wyse and Neoware seem to focus more on the enterprise and we weren't all that impressed with their customer service skills and willingness to work with us. In regards to management software, I agree with Brian - they all talk a good game but the bottomline for me is when the product is a commodity then it really comes down to the relationship you have with the company and how comfortable you feel with their post sales support and ability to take care of you in the future. We bought back over the summer and have been pretty happy with our decision overall. (No more phone calls to India for tech support - sorry Dell!)
This message was originally posted by Brian Madden on November 11, 2004
As a follow up question, in addition to the hardware capabilities (and differences between vendors), what do you think about the management software? How important is that? Is it worth it? Why not just buy a bunch of cheap devices, set them to use DHCP and to automatically connect to a published desktop and forget about management?
This message was originally posted by Chris B on November 11, 2004
I think that it is accepted (as far as that can be the case) that thin clients in general can have huge benefits but how best to choose a TC? have an excellent pdf on comparing the clients (which Brian has linked to before - although the chip pc summary is a little boring)
This message was originally posted by Michael Burke on November 11, 2004
Thin clients are good in certain situations, probably most notably where security is a real concern. Kiosks are the obvious places, but any environment that has concerns about either infrastructure control and/or stability, thin clients can be a good choice. For instance, if a particular environment wants to explicitly control what applications can be run on the network, thin clients connected to a TS environment could help. At least you can control (to some degree) what users can and cannot do on a terminal server. If they have a complete PC, it gets more complicated and they (potentially) have access to more programs/tools. Also, how many times do users end up corrupting their PCs by getting into things they shouldn't, loading unauthorized software, etc? If they don't have a PC, they can't break it. We had one instance where a user brought in their home copy of Quicken to pay bills from work - they installed it on the PC, and then had PC problems because of it.
This message was originally posted by Greg Watts on November 11, 2004
We always seem to forget about soft costs vs. hard costs comparison. The whole idea behind thin clients is the soft costs savings. We all know we can buy a decent PC for the cost of the thin clients but having no movable parts,centralized managment and not having to have a group of admins manage them. This is the most difficult and sometimes impossible cost to measure but I can assure you it is real. It's tough tough to convince managment because they just want to see a spreadsheet and balk at the idea of thin clients. Good IT managers looks at soft cost savings. If it was my choice I would not have any PC's (except for developers and engineers..of course!)in my environment. My 2 cents!
This message was originally posted by Claudio Rodrigues on November 11, 2004
I am with Brian on this one. They are pretty much all the same. Even Wyse gets them from third party companies in Taiwan. With few exceptions (and I OPENED many of these to check what they have inside) they are the same thing.
You can achieve the same by using a very low cost PC with a small OS loaded in a Disk on Module or even a remote boot solution with PXE. This will give you centralized management for a fraction of the cost of any Thin Client. And with all the features they say are found only on thin clients like no moving parts, locked OS etc. To me, since Thin Clients were available, the main reason why they do not sell 10,000 times more is the cost. Way too expensive when compared to standard PC hardware (that as explained can be easily turned into a Thin Client type machine at a fraction of the cost). When they decide to cut their fat margins they will become more popular.
Honestly, everything and everyone connected to the Thin Client/Server Based Computing arena, always had this fat margin mentality, thanks to whom? Guess it...
This message was originally posted by JSekel on November 11, 2004
Forgot to mention, management software is everything. Wouldn't use them otherwise.
This message was originally posted by JSekel on November 11, 2004
I run a combination of Fat and thin clients and they each have their strengths.

I have thin terminals in student computer labs, they run a published desktop and can do everything we want them to do.

I run fat terminals for the part time faculty as they need to be able to install software on their machines as well as use the standard apps. But I simply use the recyled machines that come out of tenured faculties offices.

I do have to say that the thin terminals are a perfect solution for our labs. We use Neoware terminals that run Neolinux. They are fast (well not booting, but who cares, they run for months without a reboot) they have USB support for floppies, cd's and memory keys. We pay around $800 CAD for a lab machine with a LCD monitor. I think the most important thing to note about them is that I do not maintain them, they just sit there and work. I also do not have to re-wire a room as 16 seats only use 15 amps.

I do have one XPE thin terminal, it sits in a filing cabinet drawer, I refuse to use the P.O.S. If I wanted a machine that gets virus's, needs constant patching and runs slow as ass I would have just bought a cheap PC, except I would be able to use proper AV and patch management on it. I really think these types of units have no place.

As for the fat terminals, they are fairly locked down so there is not much work invloved from a software perspective, but they have fans and HDD's and CD's and all sorts of of crap that breaks.

We find all sorts of uses for thin terms every day around here, email kiosks, library machines, administrative users (to much trouble removing the webshots of the week programs they insist they need when they have full pc's). On the other side, trying to make 30 different test bank programs run on Citrix when they were written for Win 3.11 is just as painfull. Each have their place.

Wow, fingers tired!!!
This message was originally posted by Jim Kenzig on November 12, 2004
Check out this commentary
<a href=",1759,1725175,00.asp" target="new">,1759,1725175,00.asp</a>
This message was originally posted by JSekel on November 12, 2004
There is no such thing as zero management, you still have to put some settings somewhere. I think the point is that the "somewhere" is a single centralized place. Whether the client has it locally or not really isn't relevant as you only have to enter the settings once. Neoware has the same kind of feature, every time it reboots it checks a server and if there is a change to the central settings it updates itself, no intervention, plus $100 less than Wise 1200LE.
This message was originally posted by Atle on November 12, 2004
Almost all vendors are bragging about their management software. Thin clients should be about one thing: Zero management! Only one vendor has taken this seriously; Wyse. Go for a model with blazer. Wyse will release their new Linux terminal (5150) during December with zero management adopted from 1200LE. That means you get the power of Linux managed the same way as you do with 1200LE. Everyting to a very reasonable price.

This message was originally posted by an anonymous visitor on November 16, 2004
Thin clients are not for everyone, if you need a pc, you need a pc. But how many data entry clerks, telesales reps or receptionists need all the hardware & software which comes with a full blown pc? And how long, out of the box, does it take you to configure a pc to act a like a thin client?
This message was originally posted by Trevor Fuson on November 18, 2004
1. No moving parts are great, they simply fail less than standard PC's do. In addition they are totally silent, in a lab situation the decrease in background noise is quite dramatic. When I replaced a PC lab in a library with thin clients, the patrons complained that the photocopiers were broken because they were making much more noise then they use to, in reality the decrease in PC noise just made the copiers seem noisier.

2. Windows CE is great because I haven't had a problem with a viruses, being hacked or the constant patch cycle, it just works.

3. The CE connection manager is a great way to connect to multiple sessions easily and reliably. Quick key presses (Ctrl-Up and Ctrl-Down) toggle between sessions fast, allowing task based workers to quickly work with many applications. Alt-Tab really sucks compared to this functionality.

4. The built in terminal emulation software is very good, once it is setup correctly it doesn't require constant reconfiguration to work correctly.

5. Wyse CE units have a "Single Button Connect" feature which means when you turn on the thin client it sits and waits for the user to click the button or press enter. I have had only one user not sure of what to do. In addition you can press Alt-F4 to log in for additional functionality if you are a power user.

6. Thin clients are quick to deploy and light to carry. When we have a PC failure we haul up a thin client so the user can get back to work immediately while we repair the broken PC.

The primary difference between the manufactures are as follows:

1. The management software is most important if you are doing regular configuration changes. Personally I think the Wyse Rapport sucks because of reliability issues, however the new version 4.4 addresses most of these problems.

2. Hardware quality is still an issue, many 3rd party manufactures case designs really suck. For example some power buttons are located in awkward places. Some designs have no forward USB ports. Some vertical units can tip over easy, or are constructed of cheap plastic that is easily broken. Different manufactures have different replacement and service policies.

3. Software is still an issue. Different thin clients have different levels of quality, I have tested some cheap thin clients that had spelling mistakes throughout the software. There are feature differences, the cheaper CE thin clients have very few additional feature or supported peripherals.

4. Software updates. Wyse is usually pretty good at offering the latest versions of CE and CE components. Some cheaper manufactures go out of business and you can not longer update the units with the latest versions of the components.

This message was originally posted by Trevor Fuson on November 18, 2004
Sorry about the above comment, it had some whitespace but it was all stripped out.
This message was originally posted by mike williams on November 23, 2004
Brian, you are suppose to be an industry leader, and for you to say they are a commidity only discounts your knowledge. Stick to talking about what you know which is software and not about what you don't understand. Maybe your youth has finally caught up to your lack of business sense.

I have tried most of them, in an XP and CE.Net from Wyse, Neoware, NCD, Maxspeed, HP, etc.

The huge differentiator is that almost all, give you a box with software and no customization. Maxspeed is the only leader that will customize a box for me and also customize the software at very little or no extra cost. So, the huge difference is in support and service. MAxspeed has provided my company with a personal touch and all of my TC have custom screens for each department and I use Maxspeed's MMS software to manage all of them myself. I manage 2500 TC's.

The management software is key and I see everyone here agrees to that
This message was originally posted by Andy Haigh on November 23, 2004
I have always said the management software is the most important part the thin client device. In the whole the offerings from the major players are much the same, it's the management software that sorts them out.

The devices still have a little too much profit built into them, though how much of that is the MS Windows CE licence.

The additional charge to upgrade Windows CE is a problem as well, being about 15% of the price of the devices themselves!!
This message was originally posted by bill on November 23, 2004
I've used both, but I've never been given a free PC at an event.

I do, however, have a number of thin client devices from various manufacturers sitting in my home office.
This message was originally posted by Brian Madden on November 22, 2004
Yeah, I know this is a problem. I'm actually working on using the same interface as the forum for the comments, and I think I'll have that online soon.
This message was originally posted by Trevor Fuson on November 25, 2004
I have actually used many Maxspeed thin clients, they were generally good but at the time they didn't have any management software and the support from Maxspeed was very poor. In addition the amount of customization you could do was very limited, in order to get software updates I had to get email attachments from technical support since there was nothing availabe for download from the website. I have no experiance with Maxspeeds current product line.

Mike Williams:
I think that Brian took a position to start an interesting conversation thread, so no need to toss personal insults.
This message was originally posted by ba ba on November 25, 2004
I agree with Chris B. Telecomputing made a good job with the thin client test.
But in my opinion its better to test the Clients. Vendors and tests can tell you so much, but find out what you really need. even test the service, support and the managment software of the vendors.
This message was originally posted by cdgeorge on November 25, 2004
I am running with a project where I have to decide how to connect 70 remote users from their homes using our provided equipment. They will all primarily be using MS Office 2003, Outlook 2003, plus have use of a browser to access our Intranet and other Web User Inter (WUI) based applications. This will all be drives by the new 'V6 powered' Metaframe Presentation Server 3 Suite. I too have tried various TCs from the Wyse Blazer 1200 to more endowed Windows XP devices. Ergonomically the Wyse Blazer 1200 is great when bolted to the rear of a flat screen vesa compliant monitor; it's looks domestically acceptable, is silent, boots quickly, and of is one neat package taking up little desk real-estate. When you start trying the more powerful TCs you notice that some are now coming with a fan (here comes the noise), some are too heavy to mount, some cannot allow you to conveniently rest a monitor on them because the need to vent from the top due to the heat coming from the heat-sink! I was considering the more powerful flexible units so I could fully use the power of locally installed browsers employing Java, Active-X and local multimedia rendering where Citrix is known to fall foul to annoying jittery browser graphics. Not so much now with Presentation Server 3 where it is possible to use lossy SpeedScreen compression and the latest RAVE technology allowing the remote terminal to locally cache graphics. So, here's the problem, knowing that the WUI is becoming more popular in the mix, and wanting a smoother rendition of the graphics means utilising PS3's new features such as RAVE – but RAVE means having a local cache, and having a local cache means having a hard disk, and having a hard disk means not having a TC. I figure a small form factor PC is probably the best compromise allowing for the flexibility required today. I still get the benefit of centralising my applications even though coping with remote PCs is a little harder – but flexibility cannot suffer. What are your thoughts?
This message was originally posted by John Hamrick on December 1, 2004
Very interesting forum. We have been deploying TC’s since the beginning and now support over 500 seats of small business/education in New England. We have discovered that the TC environment absolutely rocks for over 95% of the business user base, and yes, TC’s are a commodity. They all work pretty much the same, and when they break (very rarely) it is not worth the time to even send them back. In the trash they go. Bottom line is to provide a virtually non-stop, application rich, high performance and easily supportable environment to your end-users. The price point on the boxes barely makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. My contention is there are hordes of IT professionals that are shaking in their boots with the advent of utility computing; as well they should be, since the party is almost over.

jdh (
I have recentlly deployed ChipPC's Xtreme PC throught out our company and used thier management software called Xcalibur to do so. The deployment was pretty painless and deploying 500 devices only took us a few hours. We can now centrally manage them using Xcalibur and control all aspects of the devices. Our company uses a few web based application the performance is fine as well and people seems to be happy.
I need to find a way to get a wyse 1125se to talk directly to my linux box, there must be a way can anyone help.
It's urgent
We had a small IT staff in a 50 million dollar manufacturing company across the US. We connected via 128k frame relay using terminal services to each of the five sites. There is no way we would have been able to run JDEdwards and other apps without these thin clients unless we went with citrix, but then what would be the point?
Over the course of 6 years we went from win2000 to win2003, upgraded office 3 times and never had to touch the equipment on the desktops.
With a staff off 1 or 2 we were able to focus on business issues instead of hardware, dorky user problems. Our staff was there to do work and we had to maintain 4 terminal servers not 150 machines.
Granted there are issues with sound, multimedia apps but that is easily offset by not having to have staff work on pcs or install software on multiple computers.
I'd like to see government move this direction as I have seen dell pcs being replaced every 3 years with almost no need for high end apps in the public sector.