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NComputing Virtual Desktop U170

People who own multiple PCs at home and small businesses are continually faced with the problem of maximizing their workspaces without putting a dent on their expenses. NComputing offers a solution with the U170, a USB-connected virtual desktop kit that hooks up as many as 10 users (with multiple U170 units) into a single PC. Yes, 10 users. But is it worth the expense?

The NComputing U170 targets large households and small/medium-sized businesses that don't have the IT knowhow (and the funds) to maintain multiple desktops. The only things required to get it up and running are a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. It also uses only 2W of power and has no need for a separate power adapter, making it a "green" device.

According to NComputing, the U170 is also the easiest device to install in their virtual-desktop range. Of course, there are several things you need to keep in mind when you do install it.

First, the device requires the host computer to have a dual-core processor with at least 1GB of memory. That's not a problem because most of the desktops and laptops being sold in the past few years have those as basic specs as well. Naturally, better specs on the host PC will mean better quality for the other connected PCs.

The "Supports Windows and Linux" line on the installation CD and in their marketing collaterals caught our attention; a company declaring support for these 2 computing rivals is a rare thing, and we wanted to see if we can hook it up to a desktop running Ubuntu Linux 9.10 (Karmic Koala).

Unfortunately, NComputing currently doesn't have a Linux installation package for the U170 in its bundled CD or Software Download Center, and a technician stated that the device can be used only with version 8.04 (Hardy Heron) – although without a compatible installation package available, we don't know how that can be done (and no, we didn't use Wine to run it).

Ubuntu outed version 10.4 (Lucid Lynx) back in April and has replaced Hardy Heron as the latest long-term release, so if we take the technician's word for it, NComputing is actually 4 versions behind. We're hoping that NComputing makes a 10.04-compatible installation package for the U170 soon. It would also be good if the company specifies which Linux release is supported by its products in order to avoid misleading consumers.

Here's another limitation for U170 users: You're in luck if you use a host computer with a 32-bit OS. If you've got a 64-bit system, then it's "game over" for you.

A formal study isn't needed to know that a lot of people don't read the installation guides or release notes after buying a product. They simply go ahead and use them, then ask questions later. The U170 reminds us why going through the guides and release notes is a must. They clearly state that the vSpace software should be installed before hooking up the device to the host PC and additional units and that there's some system reconfiguration to be done for the U170 to work properly on all units, among other things. But what wasn't mentioned in both the installation guide and the release notes is that your PC's antivirus must be disabled before installation, too.

In our case, we had to completely uninstall our antivirus software to get the U170 to recognize the additional peripherals, then reinstall them. According to the technicians, the free versions of antivirus programs like Avira and avast! are known to have problems with the U170, so if you're using these programs, you'll need to disable them first.

So we now have a dual-core 32-bit Windows 7 PC with disabled antivirus software. We're officially ready to rock and roll!

Installing the vSpace software takes just a few minutes. A separate user account is needed for the added virtual desktop, and if everything is done correctly, the new desktop will be good to go after a system restart. All of the programs installed on the host PC will be reflected on the virtual desktop, which saves users from the hassle of reinstalling everything for each unit. Other handy features include auto-logon and the option to adjust display resolution and rotation. We suggest registering the device right away, as unregistered devices and software will give you a usage time limit of 1 hour before it's forced to shut down.

Working on documents on the additional desktop was a cinch, and for the most part, it doesn't feel as though it's piggybacking on the host PC. However, you'll see the difference when you play videos and games; these have to be set at lower resolutions to give you the speed you want. Here lies another catch: If you're really particular about taking the legal route, hooking up multiple desktops and having multiple users would require individual Microsoft licenses for each unit. This restriction might make using the U170 seem more trouble for what it's worth for small businesses and home users.

In the end, NComputing's promise of "plug-and-play" computing and convenience doesn't really hold true for typical consumers. It's nice on paper, and it would really benefit households and businesses with many PC users, but not everyone will have the time or patience to put up with a lot of conditions for the U170 to work.

Click here to see the NComputing Virtual Desktop U170 in the Buyer's Guide.

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