This content is part of the Essential Guide: Comprehensive guide to using cheap thin clients for VDI

Thin client market loses luster, thanks to inexpensive PCs

The value thin clients bring to businesses has dropped off, as new, inexpensive PCs dampen the appeal of thin client devices and offer better computing power.

Thin client devices may still have a bright future, as virtualization continues to grow, but the value these devices...

provide VDI shops isn't what it used to be.

Thin client shipments are on the decline, and market leaders Dell and HP Inc. are feeling the pain. One of the major benefits of thin clients over PCs in the past was their cheaper cost, but the gap is shrinking, said Jon Booth, IT director at Bear Valley Community Healthcare District, a healthcare facility in Big Bear Lake, Calif. 

"A lot of the advantages for thin clients are diminishing," he said.

Booth's previous company used thin client devices, but Bear Valley, where he manages about 250 employees, does not. It's too difficult to manage VDI in an environment where each endpoint runs different applications, Booth said.

"Thin clients work better in a call center or sales office, for example, where all the machines are identical," he said. "Any minor change in software from workstation to workstation can be difficult."

VDI thin client pros and cons

Despite PCs closing the price gap, the hardware savings from deploying thin client devices in a large office can still add up. IT departments also see savings, because they don't need as many PC support technicians on staff, Booth said.

The lifecycle of thin clients is about five years, compared with the typical four years for PCs, which is another benefit, said Todd Knapp, CEO of Envision Technology Advisors LLC, an IT services firm in Pawtucket, R.I. One of the firm's customers even held onto their thin clients for more than seven years, Knapp said.

Entry-level endpoint prices



HP Inc.

Business laptop






Thin client



Thin clients do have their downsides, however. For one, they will have to increase their computing power and functionality to make their cost savings more appealing, said Steve Greenberg, CEO and principal consultant at ThinClient Computing LLC, a services provider in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"[Thin clients] are underpowered, especially when it comes to high-graphic media," he said.

What's next for the thin client market?

Worldwide thin client shipments dropped by 6.8% year over year in 2015, and Dell and HP Inc. saw their shipments drop by 13.8% and 15%, respectively, according to research firm IDC. Many businesses refreshed their thin client devices in the past two years, so some of the sales slowdown was expected, IDC said. 

Despite the down year in the thin client market, these devices will grow in popularity as VDI matures, IDC said. Other experts agreed.

The technology in thin clients is only getting better every day.
Todd KnappCEO, Envision Technology Advisors

"The technology in thin clients is only getting better every day," Knapp said. "It's a smaller management footprint. ... It's a no-brainer to switch to them."

Large thin client vendors could also make pricing adjustments to their products to make them more attractive, he said.

One product that experts speculate could influence the thin client market in the future is Raspberry Pi. The device, which has yet to gain widespread adoption, supports Microsoft Remote Desktop, VMware Horizon and Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp. IT shops can use the $35 circuit board made by Broadcom as a thin client. The cheaper price tag undercuts other thin client devices on the market.   

The Raspberry Pi could slow thin client market sales from vendors such as HP Inc. and Dell, because IT will be hard-pressed to find more affordable options, Greenberg said. But Raspberry Pi devices are missing features, like webcam, smartcard and dual monitor support, and they deliver low-quality performance in certain areas, such as playing audio files. Customers might not want to give up quality for a lower price, Knapp said.

"I haven't found a client of the hundreds we work with that uses Raspberry Pi to run their enterprise or corporate office," he said.

Next Steps

How to pick out the right VDI thin clients

Compare thin clients vs. zero clients

Are zero clients the way to go?

Dig Deeper on Virtual desktop infrastructure and architecture