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Using the HP T5710 Thin Client as an Internet Appliance

The HP T5710 is an ideal web browsing device, otherwise known as an internet appliance. Although intended as a remote terminal for the corporate market, this device is extremely well suited as browser-only appliances, and even for running "thick client" applications. Used models are available on ebay for a fraction of their original price, and offer a variety of features making them ideal for people who make extensive (exclusive?) use of online services, such as Gmail, Yahoo, YouTube, del.icio.us, or even Salesforce.com.


Background


The HP T5710 thin client is a perfect internet appliance - and more - for those cases where you don't really need a high-horsepower PC. The device is dead-quiet, having no moving parts, thanks to its low power requirements (no fan) and its use of a 256MB Flash memory as its primary storage (no hard drive). In fact, were it not for a front-panel green LED indicator, you would be forgiven to think that it's a book taken off a shelf.

Wikipedia defines an internet appliance as "a consumer product which accesses services on the Internet, such as the World Wide Web or Internet telephony, but which is not a general-purpose computer and does not have a hard drive in general" and noting that (paraphrased) "Internet appliances were promoted by a variety of technology companies during the 1990s but, as the price of full-featured computers dropped, never met the market expectations. The concept would later be described as one of the "eight biggest tech flops ever".

However, for those of us who spend the vast majority of our time at a computer accessing internet sites and services, the internet appliance's lack of market success is no deterrent. The internet graveyard is littered with the bodies of those who rushed to be first to this market. It includes the 3Com Audrey, Netpliance i-Opener, Sony eVilla, and Virgin Webplayer, among others. Interestingly, while these products did not make it on their first attempt, they have a developed a cult following in a variety of internet appliance hacking sites.

The HP T5710 is intended for use in corporate environments where it is sometimes uneconomical to run hundreds or thousands of full-fledged PCs - each with its operating system, installed applications, user definitions, etc. Instead, large enterprises host powerful, central servers which are capable of providing those hundreds' or thousands' of users' computing requirements concurrently. To access those servers, users use thin clients like the HP T5710.

Software like Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection and Citrix Network Neighborhood runs on the thin client, sending user keystrokes and mouse movements to the server and receiving monitor updates in return. All of the computation is performed on the remote server. Some actions, such as web browsing and media playing, can be performed locally, to avoid lag conditions between the thin client and the server. And this is exactly where the thin client's functionality as an internet appliance begins.


HP T5710 Features that make it useful as an internet appliance


HP T5710

  • Quick startup
  • Built-in web browser
  • Fully solid-state device
  • No hard drive to wear down
  • No moving parts susceptible to breakage
  • No noisy fans on the CPU, power supply, or video board
  • Quick boot with Windows XP Embedded operating system
  • Familiar Windows XP look & feel
  • Enough power to perform most desktop computing tasks
  • Very secure - designed to satisfy humorless network security sysadmins
  • Impervious to viruses and trojans - in the worst case, reinstall the system with a USB key
  • Bonus feature: Expandable by simply installing Windows applications


Applications you wouldn't use the HP T5710 for


  • Graphics-intensive applications, such as games.
  • Computationally-intensive applications
  • Javascript-heavy (really heavy) web sites


HP T5710 Specifications


There are three versions to the device (differences highlighted):

  • Low end - Transmeta Crusoe 800 MHz, Microsoft XP Embedded, 256 MB main Flash memory, 256 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 7000M video with 16 MB RAM
  • Mid-range - Transmeta Efficeon 1.2 GHz, Microsoft XP Embedded, 256 MB main Flash memory, 256 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 7000M video with 16 MB RAM (<- My machine)
  • High end - Transmeta Efficeon 1.2 GHz, Microsoft XP Embedded, 512 MB main Flash memory, 256 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 7000M video with 16 MB RAM

The chassis is quite small - about the size of a computer manual. It can be enlarged slightly to accept a single PCI plug-in card. This requires replacing one side's cover with a PCI Expansion module, giving it a somewhat less sexy and more bulging look. However, this enables the insertion of a wireless LAN card, for example, giving the freedom of using the device away from a LAN cable.


Prices


This model's retail price when it was released was around $600. At the time of this writing (Feb 2007) the T5710 can be purchased refurbished from Amazon US for around $420, and from Amazon UK for £271. But you'd be hard pressed to find a reason to buy this new or refurbished. These devices now average $200 on ebay US and one has even been seen changing hands for £40 ($80) on ebay UK.


Pre-Installed Software


Internet Explorer 6.0 - Enough has been said about this application and its problems elsewhere. However, the fact that it's already installed when you power up the thin client is what makes this device live up to its promise as an internet appliance. Literally, plug and play - connect the thin client to a power outlet, a network, and a monitor. Power it up and 30 seconds later you're on the internet!

HP Sygate Security Agent 4.0 - While I thought this firewall to be a bit of a nuisance at first, its easy configuration brought me around to its usefulness. By default, no application may call out of the thin client or into it without receiving permission from this application. This means that every piece of software installed on the computer needs to have a "Permit Rule" assigned to it within HP Sygate Security Agent, verifying that no Trojans or other programs are accessing the network behind your back. It also keeps uninvited nasties out.

Windows Messenger 4.7 - Compared to current instant messaging programs, this looks like a leftover nuclear dump from the cold war period. But its small footprint, compared to a 16MB download for the current Messenger 6, has made me reluctant to replace it. I have tried Miranda, which is a small-footprint IM client, but found its interface too clunky. Another popular IM client, which I reviewed is Trillian, but it requires 30MB installation space - way more than I'd like to allow for it.

Citrix MetaFrame Program Neighborhood 9.150 - I haven't personally used this, but it enables one of the thin client's most basic features - connecting remotely to a corporate network.

Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection - Allows you to work remotely on other Windows computers. While this is intended for use with a corporate Windows Server as the remote computer, you can access Windows XP computers on your home or office network using their 'Remote Access' feature. (This will bump off any user currently on that computer. To avoid this use XP Unlimited, a product which will give you multiple concurrent remote access users on Windows XP).



Useful Pre-Installed Control Panel Applets


HP Logon Manager - By default the thin client has two users defined - User and Administrator. The HP Logon Manager allows the administrator to set which account, if any, will be logged into automatically after boot.

HP ThinState Capture - Creates an image of the thin client, useful for cloning the operating system, applications, and settings to another thin client with no repetitive installations. The image is written to a bootable USB key which is then inserted into the other thin client. The second thin client boots from this USB key and automatically installs the image.

HP RAMDisk Manger - The thin client creates a scratchpad area in RAM called drive Z:\. This is useful for writing temporary files (such as internet cache files) that don't need to be saved permanently. The HP RAMDisk Manager allows an administrator to set how much RAM will be set aside for this purpose - from 2MB to 64MB.

USB Storage Security Options - Prohibit booting from USB

EWF Configuration - Enhanced Write Filter


Hardware I installed


512MB RAM replacement for the supplied 256MB. - This makes a huge difference to the thin client's behavior as a full-fledged XP machine. While 256MB of RAM are perfectly sufficient for running Internet Explorer and Remote Desktop Connection (the thin client's normal mode of operation when connecting to a server in a corporate environment), they aren't enough when you try to install and use a heavier application such as Mozilla Firefox.

With 256MB, attempts to install a variety of applications (or even to run them as Portable Apps from the USB Key) failed too frequently for comfort. With the 512 MB RAM module, I have yet to come across this problem, and obviously, it makes application response snappier.

HP T5710

Verbatim Store 'n' Go 1GB USB Key - This is intended to overcome the lack of a hard drive in the thin client. The thin client includes 256MB of internal Flash memory as its persistent memory, which it uses for the XP Embedded operating system and for installed applications, leaving only 20MB free for applications and data. If you intend to use the thin client solely as an internet appliance, these 20MB would probably be enough even if you wanted to install some additional viewer programs, like Flash Player, a lightweight PDF reader, and perhaps some MS Office file viewers.

However, I wanted to install a number of thick-client applications, and so needed extra space beyond the available 20MB.

There is an issue to be aware of when using a USB key as a hard drive replacement. USB keys are normally intended for convenient transportation of data, and it is assumed that they will be used more for reads than for writes. They are normally projected to be useful for 1 million writes, which is not a large number when considering the amount of temporary files that are written by applications such as web browsers. It is therefore wise to keep write-intensive operations off of these devices. The HP thin client's RAM disk Z:\ can alternatively be used for caching files. Also, make it a point to be aware of applications' caching behavior


Software I Installed


HP T5710

Adobe Flash Player 9 - There's no getting around the fact that a lot of eye candy on the web is presented via Flash. Flash Player installs easily and flawlessly on the thin client. At first I was worried that Flash Player might bring the thin client to its knees, but that has not been the case. I can watch YouTube clips and found no noticeable difference from accessing YouTube from a regular desktop computer.

Mozilla Firefox 2.0.0.1 - This browser is hard to let go of once you get used to - then, dependent on - its amazing array of plugins. Firefox uses up 70MB of RAM when running on the thin client and takes a while longer to load compared to a regular desktop computer, but is sufficiently responsive once loaded.

This is a large application and will definitely need to be installed on an external USB key. To make the most of the USB key's limited lifespan, reduce the number of writes to the key by moving Firefox's browser cache to the Z:\ RAM drive and not keeping any history. See the "How To" section on this site for instructions.

Skype 3.0.0.216 - This application is becoming more and more indispensable for me, especially for work-related communications. Beyond the free Skype-to-Skype calls, the built-in instant messenger is very convenient; SkypeOut' calls to local numbers rates are no higher than regular landline rates and WAY less for international calls; and the presence indicators are a huge time saver. Running Skype on the T5710 worked perfectly with no reduction in call quality compared to a regular desktop computer. The device has standard audio out and mic in jacks, as in any standard PC.

AbiWord 2.4.6 - Gives you 90% of the functionality you will ever need from an Office application, in a very small footprint. Reads MS Word documents - even complex, multilingual ones (tried this successfully). Very snappy response, eminently useful. (Parts of this site were written on AbiWord, awaiting repair of an internet connection).

Foxit Reader 2.0 - A 4MB replacement for Adobe's bloatware. Quick-loading, works inside your browser or as standalone, doesn't phone home and query for updates every time it loads.

PuTTY SSH - To securely access external websites.

Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer - This became unnecessary once I installed Mozilla Firefox which has Google search built into its toolbar. But if you stay with the built-in Internet Explorer as your primary browser, the Google Toolbar is indispensable for stopping pop-up windows and offering quick access to Google Search and other goodies.

Jungle Disk - Maps a local drive to Amazon S3 offline storage. I use Amazon S3 to back up all the family photos, documents, etc. This is an excellent way to overcome the thin client's lack of mass storage.

GOMPlayer - New media player alternative to Microsoft Media player, RealPlayer and others. Has a bunch of codecs preinstalled which means it requires no downloads to view DivX, MP4, and other file formats. Works perfectly on the thin client.

HP Printer Driver - Works perfectly.

Mozilla Thunderbird - Mozilla's email client and companion software to Firefox. Works somewhat slowly, but absolutely usable.


Online Services Accessed from the Thin Client


Hosted Exchange by virtual-email.net - This is my primary work email provider. It can be accessed from Outlook, which is way too bloated to use on a thin client, or from Internet Explorer via Outlook Web Access (OWA), which looks reasonably close to a regular email client. Internet Explorer needs to be used here because OWA makes extensive use of Dynamic HTML, parts of which don't work on any other browser. OWA can be accessed from other browsers in a degraded mode, which is a much less pleasing experience.

IMAP Email by Fastmail - An excellent, paid service provider. Can be accessed through a full-featured web client or through any standard IMAP client.

Google Gmail http://www.gmail.com - for catch-all addresses

IBackup http://www.ibackup.com - for storing shared material which my colleagues and I need to access from multiple locations.

Online Pair.com Control Panel - Enables managing multiple web sites hosted with pair.com. Pair.com's control panel is developed in-house (i.e., not Cpanel, etc.) and responds quickly. Pair.com additionally allow access to site directories and files via SSH.

For a useful list of online services, see Ghalimi.


Self-Hosted Applications


HP T5710

Cerberus Helpdesk http://www.cerberusweb.com - This manages all of our email communications related to customer service and technical support in the business. Response time with the HP thin client is no different from using any other computer.

eZ Publish Content Management System http://ez.no - An flexible, powerful, multilingual content management system. I only noticed how heavy this beast was when I started accessing it through the HP thin client. eZ Publish uses javascript extensively to create a desktop-like multiple-pane user interface. Its weight becomes especially apparent when it creates a tree-view of all the files it manages, making for an excruciating wait.


How-To's


How to login to the HP T5710 as an administrator - Log out from the 'User' while pressing the Shift button. Once logged out you will be presented with Windows' standard login screen. Enter username 'Administrator' and password 'Administrator'.

How to prevent future login as 'User' - Once logged-in as an administrator go to the Windows Control Panel and select 'HP Logon Manager'. Remove the check box marked 'Enable Autologon'. Click 'OK'.

How to force automatic login as 'Administrator' - Once logged-in as an administrator go to the Windows Control Panel and select 'HP Logon Manager'. Verify that 'Enable Autologin' is checked. For 'Default User Name' enter 'Administrator' and for 'Default User Password' enter 'Administrator'. Click 'OK'.

How to reinstall or update the operating system - Go to the Microsoft Windows XP Embedded T5710's support site, click through to Download Drivers and Software, select Microsoft Windows XP Embedded and download the most recent version of "HP Compaq Thin Clients Microsoft Windows XP Embedded Image". This is a regular Windows executable file. Once downloaded, insert a USB key into a USB slot and run the program. This will cause the USB key to turn into a bootable device capable of installing the Windows XPe operating system onto the T5710's internal Flash drive. You will receive notification once this is done. Then plug the USB key into a free USB slot on the T5710 and reboot it.

When the device restarts it should directly boot into an installation screen, asking you whether you wish to install the operating system. If it does not, see below on how to force the thin client to boot from a USB key.

Once the operating system has been reinstalled, remove the USB key and restart the thin client.

How to force the T5710 to boot from a USB key - restart the thin client and hit the F10 key during its boot-up sequence.

How to move the Mozilla Firefox browser cache - If you install Firefox on a USB key, this procedure will reduce the number of writes to the USB key, extending its life. In Firefox, enter 'about:config" into the address bar. Right-click the mouse anywhere on the page and select 'New -> String'. Enter browser.cache.disk.parent_directory into the text box that pops up and click 'OK'. Enter Z:\ into the next text box and click 'OK'. Firefox will from now on write all its temporary files into RAM Disk Z:\.

Optionally, to keep Firefox from hogging the Z:\ drive, enter the following text into the 'Filter' field above the settings list: browser.cache.disk.capacity. Double-click the appearing row to change its value. Enter 10000 to limit the Firefox browser cache size to 10,000 Kbytes.

How to avoid keeping history in Mozilla Firefox - If you install Firefox on a USB key, this procedure will further reduce the number of writes to the USB key, extending its life. In Firefox, under Tools -> Options -> Privacy: 1.) Uncheck 'Remember visited pages for the last [] days', 2.) Uncheck 'Remember what I enter in forms and the search bar', 3.) Uncheck 'Remember what I've downloaded'.

How to set up a Windows XP computer to allow remote access with a thin client - This section refers to an action on a separate XP computer, not the thin client. It will enable you to access a separate XP computer from the thin client and work on it as though you were sitting next to it.

Go to the Control Panel and click 'System'. Select the 'Remote' tab. Check the checkbox indicating 'Allow users to connect remotely to this computer'. Click 'Select Users...'. Verify that the username with which you login is listed. If it isn't - add it.

How to change user passwords - The T5710 does not have a 'Users' applet in the Control Panel.


Thoughts About the HP T5710 as an Internet Kiosk


  • Definition of "Internet Kiosk" from Wikipedia
  • Unsupervised operation possible
  • EWF keeps changes from being made to the system, unless administrative access is available (which can then disable EWF).
  • No access to control panel, therefore "Internet Options" cannot be changed.
  • No email client to abuse.
  • Can't write to any place in system so can't place rogue scripts, keyloggers, etc.
  • Internet settings are by default set not to keep history, form fields, passwords, etc. Can be locked down even further if required.
  • When logged in as 'User' user has almost no control over the system, and can anyway not perform any permanent changes if EWF is enabled.


If I ever get round to this:


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