FX160, Deeper look

Now that I’ve had a chance to play with the FX160 a little more, here are a few things I’ve discovered:

When the service manual tells you to remove the two screws from the back of the unit and then “slide the cover toward the front and lift off”, what they really meant to say is “Give the cover a good glancing whack with the palm of your hand toward the front of the unit and then lift it off.” The reverse is also true when putting the cover back on. It needs more than mere sliding, it needs a good whack.

Under the cover, we find that Dell has indeed done a great job with this unit.

  • Flash interface is SATA and held in place with an actual screw, compared to HP’s really lame locking plastic tab that makes it a pain in the butt to swap the module on and off its PATA header pins. SATA FTW.
  • There’s an additional SATA port on the board, as well as a power connector for said SATA. Dell could make this even better by providing an optional eSATA port on the back (and maybe even go all Apple on us and make a matching eSATA chassis!)
  • There’s another power header on the board for a CPU fan. I’m guessing this is for the dual-core units.
  • Despite its teeny size, this little guy uses standard desktop DIMMs. It came with one of the two slots populated with a 1GB module. The system supports up to 4GB acccording to the technical guidebook, but I’ve seen elsewhere that it can handle 8GB. Given that the CPU options support EM64T, this is an interesting prospect.
  • Mini-PCI slot for wireless. The Technical Guidebook says Dell 1397 only (802.11g), but I’ve seen other mention of the Dell 1510 card (802.11abg) also being supported.
  • Jumper #5. From the factory, this comes unjumpered, locking out BIOS setup. Since the lid can be locked in place with a standard cable lock or even a small padlock, Dell’s done a very good job with security.
  • Front USB ports (mounted on the board with all die blinkenlights , audio, and the power switch) is connected through a standard 2×5-pin system board connector, as is the audio. If your application requires a USB security key, it should be easy to mount on internally by disconnecting the front USB ports and adding a little pigtail. Props to Dell for designing it this way, rather than a single cable for the entire front panel. Dell could take this a step further by adding an internal USB port on the front panel board for mounting such a key. There’s plenty of physical space for it. This would be a huge bonus for POS systems that require these keys.

On the software side:

  • I can add and remove programs with… the Add/Remove programs control panel application. What a novel idea. HP, You fail at this. Having Altiris be the only mechanism to add or remove packages is… sub-optimal.
  • XPe is still Service Pack 2. Microsoft does have a SP3-based version of XPe out there, and that would be a good thing.
  • Administrator account has Start->Run disabled. Booo! Luckily, I can just as easily start up IE and type the command there.
  • .NET Framework installed is 2.0, no service pack. In order to install 3.5, I have to install .NET 2.0 SP1 first. There’s no real reason these can’t ship with .NET 3.5 from the factory.
  • I just checked free space on the flash… 60 MB. Yikes! I can see why Dell pushes the 2GB flash option for these. Some of that may be due to the .NET install going on.
  • The system ships with a software reload DVD. This is good. I hope Dell will provide frequent OS image updates through their support site. HP does this, and it’s a happy thing.
  • Altiris agent on the unit isn’t playing nice with my existing Altiris Deployment server set up for the HP thins. Hopefully this will be easy to resolve.

Dell support for Altiris: Doesn’t exist. They flat out told me they don’t handle support and that I need to call Altiris directly. I’m not sure how this is going to go. The process with HP (I’ve had to explain it to HP support agents enough times) is that the call to Altiris has to originate from HP. This process sucks, but it is what it is. The first thing the folks at AltirisSymantec ask you for is a contract number or customer number. Altiris has already kicked the ball back to Dell. Not looking good so far. Back to Dell support, and they really don’t know what the process is.

Definitely would recommend the 2GB flash if you’re buying one of these. the OS alone takes up almost 70% of the flash. This is clearly a much more substantial install of XPe than what’s on the HP machines.

Dell Optiplex FX160 – first impressions!

(Edited at 4:45pm to add some additional information about power supplies)

Today, I got the FX160 demo unit from Dell that I’ve been salivating over for several weeks now. We’re looking at buying a number of XPe thin clients next year, and, while I like the HP thin clients, HP support alone is worth making the jump to Dell. Despite being pretty sure that this was our next thin-client platform, I still wanted to try one out, and our Dell rep was able to get approval for a seed unit to help solidify the decision to buy the Dells. These hit the market at the beginning of December, and they fit in a number of niches in Dell’s desktop product offering. Our particular niche is light-duty computing and kiosks.

Here are my first impressions of the unit. I haven’t had a chance to do extensive testing yet, but I’ll be sure to let you know.

The Unboxing: Like most Dell packaging, the box is nothing special like it is from Apple. Dell shipped the unit with one the optional desk mount bracket. This is a good-looking unit, and the first thing you notice when you look at the connections is the dual displays (one VGA, one DVI), followed quickly by the IEC power connector, telling me this thing doesn’t have a line lump power supply like my HP thin clients. (It should be noted here that the HP 12V power supply has the exact same mechanical interface as the 20V power supply for a Zebra label printer. When you hook up the wrong one, magic smoke comes out and the unit has to be sent to HP, taking it out of service for 2 weeks). Also visible is the spot for the antenna for the optional built-in wireless (which this one didn’t have – I wonder how easy it is to retrofit? it’s mini-PCI)

Dell also was nice enough to send me a 22″ UltraSharp display (which Clif called dibs on). Mysteriously, though, it shipped without a stand. I stole one from one of the 19″ displays on my desk and hooked it all up, casting a 5720 used for Arena Check-in development onto a nearby shelf.

I hit the power button and the smooth face starts blinking. Ooo, blue LEDs. Nice touch. They turn orange if something is amiss, though, just like you’d expect them to on a Dell. The usual set of Dell 1/2/3/4 diagnostic LEDs is present, as is the network link indicator for the gigabit ethernet port.

The system boots up to a user desktop that blessedly allows me to right-click and change the display settings. I adjust to match the big shiny monitor and fire up a browser and cruise over to Hulu, where I am pleased to discover that the stock load on this beast includes a recent version of Flash. Sadly, this thing just doesn’t have the horsepower to run the Simpsons in full-screen, and definitely not the HD version of The Office. After trying its performance on video (it does just fine on lower-bandwidth stuff, but if you buy one of these hoping for good graphics performance, you’ll probably be disappointed).

I decide to log out of the user account and go poke around under the admin account so I can see more of what’s under the hood. I do the usual holding down of the shift key while I log out, so that it doesn’t auto login back under the user account (configured as “User1”).

This is where I run into problems. Dell hasn’t documented the default password anywhere with the system, so I head over to Google, which doesn’t help me much either. HP was at least up-front about its default passwords. Dell, this is highly annoying. Please correct this. I’m cutting you some slack because this is a new product for you guys.

So, the thing’s been out of the box for less than an hour, and It’s already generated a support call. Fortunately, Dell’s support on these is up to their usual standard, and I’m able to get a hold of someone at ProSupport on their support chat system.

<HP RANT>HP, are you paying attention here? This alone is enough to make me buy these. This beats the socks off of your process of having to slog through your pathetic IVR system that doesn’t know what “Thin Client” means, picking a random support group, and then having them tell me in a thick Indian accent, “let me transfer you to the correct support group,” followed by at least one (and frequently more) heavily-accented techs who can’t figure out the process of getting me Altiris support without me explaining it in detail. Especially since your chat system doesn’t know what a thin client is either, and when I tell it it’s a desktop system, it tells me the serial number is invalid. </HP RANT>

Another huge advantage of the Dell unit and the associated support is that if the system board is relieved of its magic smoke (much harder to do than the HP), I’ll get a part in my hands the following day, rather than paying to ship it in for depot repair and waiting a few weeks to get it back in service.

The Dell tech on the chat finally gave me the default passwords, after insisting on verifying ownership of the unit (??? I just want the default password, not the keys to NORAD). For those who don’t want to go through the trouble of contacting support to gain access to the box they just purchased, the administrator password is the ever-so-creative “dell” (all lowercase) and the User1 password is equally original: “password”. Apparently there’s also an “Admin1” account that also uses “dell”. I ask about the monitor, telling him it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I’m told it was ordered without one. Huh???? Gonna have to get on my rep about that.

On gaining administrative access, I see that this unit shipped with the single-core Atom 230, as well as 1GB each of RAM and flash (which Dell calls NVRAM). The performance tab on the Task Manager tells me this proc is hyperthreaded and presents it as 2 cores to the OS (confirmed by Intel – this proc also supports EM64T).

The XPe-based FX160 comes with the same Altiris-based  remote management that the HP thins do, but I did notice that, while it detected my existing Altiris install, it didn’t connect to it due to a licensing issue. I hope I can simply add the Dell licenses to my existing Altiris install rather than do a whole separate one. I suspect this is going to generate a call to support as well, so we’ll see how that process compares to getting Altiris support from HP. My guess is it will be a whole lot less painful, simply because it would be extremely difficult to make the process worse than HP has)

That’s about as far as I got yesterday, and I’m taking today off. I’ll report back in soon on what the factory load contains, and how well it does with some of our applications. Hopefully, Clif won’t have stolen the monitor by then.

I think Dell’s got a winner here, barring some unforeseen discovery of a major showstopper problem with the OS load. The FX160 comes with a wide enough range of options to fit a lot of business needs (the dual-core unit with a hard drive could be a good low-end desktop). The @DellServerGeeks have also been helpful and tweeted a few links about desktop streaming and the FX160.

Stay tuned. I suspect we’re going to be buying some over the course of the coming year.

Thin Clients, revisited

Well, it seems the t5720 we’ve been buying from CDW has been discontinued as of April 1st, replaced with the t5730. Here’s the skinny on the suggested replacement SKU from CDW:

AMD Sempron 2100+ (1GHz)
1GB Flash
Radeon X1250/dual-head support
Thinner (by about 3/4″)
Gigabit Ethernet.

Oh, and it’s almost 10% cheaper.

Hope to get my hands on one of these at some point and see how well it handles video.

Arena Check-In stations

Some of you (JP!) have asked me about our Check-In setup, and I promised to blog about it. So here goes.

We’re currently on Shelby V5. Until recently, we were using 1998-vintage gateway PCs running ThinStation (a Linux-based Live CD that gives us an RDP client – 2X is a good option too) that connected back to a dedicated terminal server that had the Shelby V5 application and each room printer defined. We’ve recently started installing new hardware in preparation for the cutover to Arena.

Update, May 2011: Arena check-in rocks.

Thin Clients
We chose the HP t5720, running XP embedded. This machine has 512MB of RAM, an AMD Geode 1500 processor (1GHz), VIA Rhine II Ethernet, and SiS graphics chipset. ATA Flash options are either 512MB or 1GB. We ordered the 512MB option to save about $50, but it turns out that the .NET framework requires more space than was available on the flash drives. Luckily, a 1GB module for these is about $50. We chose XPe because the check-in application has a client-side component that runs on Windows, and won’t work well in a Terminal Server environment. In January, HP released a flash image that includes IE7. Another option for us was the Wyse terminal which we could get through Dell (for some reason they won’t sell us HP gear?!??!), which were priced similarly (the 512MB units are just under $500, the 1GB units just over), but we’ve had good experience with our T5500 CE thin clients that have been in our check-in info booth since we opened our west building in 2004. The T5720 also has a PCI slot option which requires a chassis expansion kit (about $30) if you want to use PCI wireless. We’re also using the 512MB units in our training lab and will be deploying them afterward to a number of volunteer stations around our campus, to replace several aging GX260 machines. Remote management of the thin clients (both the older CE thins as well as the new XPe thins) is with Altiris Deployment Solution. It’s been a bit of a challenge getting HP to support this, as many of their India-based folks are unfamiliar with the process of getting Altiris on the line. Altiris is based in Salt Lake City and is now part of Symantec. Let’s hope their support stays right where it is, because Altiris support is quite good, once you finally get through to them via HP.

Update, May 2011 : We’re replacing the t5720 units with HP’s latest, the t5740e, running Windows Embedded Standard 7, because Arena’s latest code requires .NET 3.5 SP1 to function in the check-in module.  WES7 is a lot easier to deal with than XPe. The new units sport a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280, 2GB RAM, 4GB flash, Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet and Atheros Wireless. Dell’s FX160 thin client is very similar, but is nearly double the price.

Touch Screens
We went with the Dell E157FPT, a 15-inch SAW touch unit that has both USB and RS-232 interfaces, as well as integrated speakers. Based on the drivers, I have strong reason to believe these are OEMed by Elo. They sure are built well. The main reason for selecting the Dell unit was cost – the nearly identical Elo units were about 50% more (mainly because Dell can’t discount those as heavily as its own branded gear). Dell also has a 17″ version of this monitor for about 25% more. While we’re on the topic of touchscreens, this one is really shiny!

Update, May 2011: Other than a single unit that was DOA, we have had ZERO problems with these units, and they see a LOT of fingers every week. SAW was definitely the right tech for this application, as there are no overlays to wear out and they’re easy to clean. However, Dell seems to have gotten out of the touchscreen business. Even drivers for our screens were hard to come by from Dell when we deployed the WES7 terminals. Fortunately, the ELO driver package works just fine (and is identical except for a different logo.  By all appearances, the E157FPT is a rebranded ELO Intellitouch 1522, which can now be had for around $500, with 17″ and 19″ models only a few dollars more.

Receipt Printers
We’re using our existing fleet of Zebra LP2844 and LP2824 printers that we’ve been using for Shelby V5 Check-In for some time. These are currently located in each classroom and connected over Ethernet via a Trendnet parallel print server (Zebra also has a model of these that has built-in ethernet which I’ve seen at the Wal-Mart pharmacy). We’re still debating whether to keep them in the classrooms or move them to the kiosks. There are a number of arguments in favor of each option, and it will ultimately boil down to what the people in our Children’s Ministry prefer. Some of the staff are going to visit some other Arena-based churches and see how they do it before making a final decision.
The Zebras are solid printers, although we’ve had some issues with drivers. For V5, we ended up using a third-party driver from Seagull Scientific because V5 doesn’t play nice with the OEM Drivers. Strangely enough, Arena check-in (which uses SQL Server Reporting Services to generate a label) doesn’t play nice with the Seagull drivers, but does play nice with the OEM drivers. Go figure. I’m not a huge fan of the TrendNet units, but our options in that space are VERY limited. If we end up moving the printers to the kiosks, they’ll be directly attached via USB.

Update, May 2011: Zebra no longer makes the LP2844, so we’re replacing dead ones with the Zebra GK420d, which has on-board Ethernet. They’re a lot faster too, printing at 6 inches/second, and can be had for around $400.

Bar Code Scanners
Another re-used item from our existing setup. These are Symbol LS1902T scanners (Symbol was acquired by Motorola a while back). The stand has a little magnet under the logo that activates the scanning (or it can be turned on by programming the scanner). Another quirk we discovered between Shelby V5 Check-In and Arena is that the Arena application expects a carriage return following the scanned code, whereas V5 expects a tab (although a CR seems to work too), and all our scanners had been reprogrammed accordingly. We’re using these as keyboard wedges, so the system simply sees them as a PS/2 keyboard. One advantage to using these in keyboard mode (instead of a standalone USB scanner, also supported by Arena) is that I can remove the station keyboards. If I need to get into the maintenance screen, all I have to do is make a Code 39 barcode containing $M, program the scanners to do the full ASCII set, and it will read this barcode as a Ctrl-M. I now have a sticker of 72-point Code 39 on the back of my door access card. From there, it’s all about the touch screen. I can also do codes for Alt-F4 and ESC, which would be useful for V5 Check-In.

Barcode Printer
This unit is a DataCard SP35 that we currently use to print barcode tags for our families. We haven’t determined if it’ll be worth our while to keep issuing tags post-cutover, since the whole point of going to touch screens was to let people check in using their phone number without requiring a physical ID. The existing tags will still work in Arena, so those who have tags can continue to use them if they wish (hence the barcode scanners) In the V5 world, this was a lifesaver – the previous method involved printing a sticker with a barcode and attaching it to a name tag. The life expectancy of these tags was abysmally short (a few weeks) and caused heavy load on our info booth volunteers. This unit lets us print a V5 ID Card onto a set of keychain tags. The life expectancy of these is considerably longer (months/years – they’re wash proof!), they scan better, and they cost us pennies per tag instead of dollars. Even with the printer costing around $1400, this setup paid for itself very quickly. A box of 1000 cards runs a little over $100, and a monochrome ribbon good for 1500 cards runs about $20. Our old nametags used to run us about $2.50 each. In the Arena world, we could use this to print ID cards for our volunteers. We use a similar (older) ID card printer to print our facility access badges. One major downside to this unit is that it REALLY does not like to be connected to its host machine via network print servers. It manages to crash both the host machine and the print server. There is an Ethernet option available, but it’s really spendy.

Update, May 2011: We stopped using barcodes about 6 months after converting to Arena. We’re searching by phone number now.

In a future post, I’ll blog about the layout of the check-in areas and the information booth. Sadly, we don’t have the ubercool furniture JP has.