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Tablets and smartphones can be thin clients, too

The experience of using a mobile device as a thin client has improved and it's no longer out of the question, but some pain points remain, such as connectivity and text entry.

Virtual desktops offer the promise of application access from all manner of devices. Rather than being tied to...

a desktop or laptop PC, staff on the move can use portable devices such as tablets and laptopsto access corporate applications.

While you can use almost any mobile device with almost any VDI software, the experience is not uniform. Differences in network speeds, screens and even touch interfaces all affect the usability of a virtual desktop. And different mobile devices suit different job roles and staff members.

If your company sponsors a bring your own device (BYOD) program where devices are provided, it's important to offer users a choice of mobile devices, including tablets and smartphones. That is the key to successful use of mobile devices as thin clients.

Mobile network

In your office, you probably have a fast corporate network, dedicated to your company. If everything is well designed, then you will have ample bandwidth to support VDI sessions.

Adequate bandwidth is crucial to a great user experience for VDI users. On mobile devices, users rely on 3G and 4G networks as well as Wi-Fi hotspots. These networks have all become much faster over the last few years but are still shared with many other users. Mobile networks are also optimized for Web traffic, rather than VDI, so using a mobile device to access Web content over these variable networks is usually OK. But when workers use those same devices and networks to access VDI sessions, the faults will show up very clearly.

Uncertainty about network performance can undermine users' confidence in their mobile device as a thin client, as well. Educating workers about the network variability goes a long way toward improving user satisfaction; they may learn to wait for a better network connection before they use their mobile devices and virtual desktops to do intensive tasks.

Screen size

The mobile device that goes in your pocket, purse or backpack cannot have the same size screen as the computer on your desk. High-end mobile devices have the same or better resolution than a PC, but in a much smaller space. This makes a virtual Windows application tiny on a mobile screen.

Text that is easy to read on a large desktop screen may require a magnifying glass to read on a smartphone. Employees will each have different levels of tolerance for minute text, so make sure to have a range of mobile device options available to suit varying users. Laptops, tablets and smartphones should all be available for users to use choose from.

Touch interface

One of the most fundamental differences between mobile and desktop devices is the touch screen. Applications on a virtual desktop usually expect a mouse and a keyboard, but mobile devices often use a touchscreen for both functions. This makes navigation challenging; opening the start menu and finding the right application shortcut can be difficult.

Luckily, some VDI clients now have a native interface on mobile devices to replicate start menu functions. These interfaces simplify launching applications and moving between different apps that are running. Another way to make navigation easier is to publish individual applications to users, rather than a full desktop. This approach gives users a single full screen application, which is more akin to how normal mobile apps work.

Of course, many mobile devices support Bluetooth keyboards. A physical keyboard allows workers to enter large amounts of text without using the small onscreen keyboards mobile devices have. Physical keyboards also let users see all of the application on screen while they enter text, whereas an on-screen keyboard often obscures much of the screen.

The ultimate keyboard device is a tablet that has a detachable keyboard. This allows one device to be both a tablet and a laptop-like thin client. Workers on non-Apple iOS devices can even use a mouse or trackpad to give their mobile device the complete Windows feel.

Choose wisely

There have been a lot of improvements to using mobile devices as thin clients. High-resolution screens reduce the need to zoom and pan around a remote desktop, faster mobile networks make the user experience much more pleasant and improved client software makes navigating a remote desktop much less frustrating. But that's not to say that the user experience is as good as accessing a virtual desktop on a full-size PC.

Using a smartphone to access a virtual desktop comes with many compromises in return for its ubiquitous availability, and less convenient options such as tablets and two-in-ones provide a better Windows experience at the cost of more weight and size. Different workers will want and need different devices to access their virtual desktops.

Next Steps

Using VDI for BYOD management

How VDI simplifies device management

App streaming and VDI help BYOD secuirty

This was last published in January 2015

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Do you supply users with tablets and smartphones to use as thin clients?
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We have a dockingstation specially made for VDI on tablets. Maybe you find it intersting to know. Take a look at Dock2Office.

LP
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This is such a good primer when it comes to using mobile devices as a thin client. DaaS can be really powerful on a mobile device -- especially one that a user is comfortable with and may even own outright. (Have to love BYOD!)

--KB

Karen J. Bannan, commenting on behalf of IDG and VMware.
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Education goes a long way in setting user’s expectations about performance differences encountered between use while connected to the corporate network and use while connected to the Wi-Fi hotspot at the coffeehouse. But that puts too much of the burden on the end user who may or may not fully comprehend the differences between the two (it’s the same internet, isn’t it?). Organizations that develop apps for which a tablet or smartphone could potentially be used for a thin client need to better support their end-users by developing for and testing against these scenarios, moving beyond mobile friendly and optimized for mobile, and towards responsive design that is device agnostic.
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Allowing 3D with thin client technology on tablets is our next step, so that 3D environments like virtual worlds can be used for education.
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They can also be accessible devices. iOS has built-in screen reader and supports voice control. Think how many potential workers and customers can be reached!
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