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Can a head start help the Symfony WebPAD see off Microsoft's Mira this Christmas?
Microsoft's Mira may well have stolen the thunder on wireless roaming monitors, but it's a small British company that got there first. While Philips and ViewSonic's models won't be available until Christmas at best, you can get your hands on a WebPAD (featured in our ultimate World Cup set-up on page 62) from Buckinghamshire-based Symfony right now. The big question is, can the WebPAL fully deliver the dream of a wireless home now rather than seven months down the line?
On first appearances, it looks like a rather industrial beast, more at home on a factory or shop floor than nestling between the cushions on your sofa. Closer inspection backs this up, the black rubberised grips on either side of the screen protecting the silky textured silver finish from grubby hands. Pick it up and switch it on, though, and the WebPAD suddenly comes into its element.
The technology that the WebPAL works on is surprisingly simple. First, hook your PC (there's no Mac compatibility as yet) up to Symfony's bundled Access Point, a wireless LAN transmitter and receiver that works
over a high-speed 2.4GHz radio band known as Wi-Fi. Next, in theory, you use Microsoft's RDP software to remotely access your PC, and your Windows desktop suddenly flashes up on the WebPAD. The WebPAD, which runs Windows CE in the background, should work happily with Windows 9x, Me, 2000 and XP. However, trying to set it up on Windows 98 proved so tricky that we gave up and eventually used XP, which worked a treat.
Once you've got a connection with your PC, you're free to up and go, playing music from your hard disk out of the WebPAD's built-in speakers, running a slide show of photos from your PC on your sofa and - best of all - browsing the Web wherever you want. The last, of course, is going to be the WebPAD's main use, as the stylus - your primary way of interacting with the unit - lends itself naturally to surfing sessions. Typing is possible, though, as there's both handwriting recognition and a soft keyboard that you can pop up via the taskbar and - very usefully - a shortcut button on the WebPAD itself. Although the keyboard works fine with the stylus, the unchangeable key size is just a crucial bit too small to use your fingers (unless you're, say, eight years old).
So far, so good. But it's when you begin to examine the WebPAD's build quality that it starts to come unstuck. Although the screen's picture quality is sharp and chirpily bright, it doesn't deal well with reflected light indoors. Expose it to natural sunlight and you'd be forgiven for thinking you're looking at a mirror rather than a LCD - there goes the vision of playing with your PC in the garden.
Even when working inside, there are still problems. The first is the WebPAD's 1.1kg weight, which, although half that of an ultra-portable laptop, is still enough to cause dead-arm syndrome after an hour's use. The second is that it heats up to an inexplicably high temperature after several hours of use - an issue that needs to be resolved if Symfony is to mass-market the WebPAD. Then there's the WebPAD's less-than-spectacular battery life, which, at around an hour and a half, is going to need topping up regularly.
These gripes aside, using the WebPAD and accessing your desktop remotely is really something of an insight into the future of home computing. Sure, the WebPAD's design could be sexier, the price tag is too high and yes, there are some technical problems, such as the fact that Wi-Fi - at a data transfer rate of 11bps - isn't fast enough to port games or DVD across the radio waves. Today. Not tomorrow or eight months down the line. At the moment, accessing your PC remotely is about all you can do with the WebPAD. In the coming year, Symfony plans to offer various software add-ons which will enable it to use its infrared port and start achieving those ambitions of becoming a universal control for the home.
Reviewed in T3
Issue Number 73
Original price: £1395
Contact: 01296 640715
Click to enlarge
8.4-inch 800 x 600 active matrix TFT with 4-wire resistive touch (10-inch also available), Windows CE 3.0 OS, 300MHz National Semiconductor Geode GX1, 64MB SDRAM, internal 32MB flash memory, built-in speaker and microphone, CompactFlash slot, dimensions: 244 x 201 x 28mm, weight: 1.1kg
It's not brilliantly built, but this is, enticingly, the only working wireless monitor available today, and not a bad one at that
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