First Look: Cisco Cius

We had a chance to see the Cius tablet at a Cisco office in Boston, and while we weren't able to bring it back to our own lab and pound on it, we did get a pretty good feel for what the Cius is and what it isn't.

First off, Cius is not a consumer tablet. In fact, it's only available through the Cisco partner network at a price of less than $750 for the endpoint and less than $350 for the media station, for a total of under $1,100. In other words, if you're just looking to read a book on the beach, pick up a Kindle Fire for $199.

ANALYSIS: Cisco Cius is not a tablet

That's not to say you can't use the Cius for consumer-oriented functions, but to get the full benefit of Cius's rich set of collaboration and productivity features, the device needs to be connected to Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) on the backend.

We found that the Cius is a carefully thought-out video-phone/cum tablet endpoint with many best-of-breed internals, like 4G speed, and a docking station with purpose.

The Cius unit is based on Android, and the initial basic appearance was that of most other generic Android tablets. Based on our prior test of enterprise tablets, the Cius reminded us of the Fujitsu Stylist. That's where superficial comparisons end, however, as Cius's software payload, with collaborative emphasis and VoIP/conferencing accessorizing, is huge.

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First, the specs.

The tablet size is small, with a screen size of just 7 inches - although it supports 1280x600 HD video at 30 frames per second, and it weighs less than 2 pounds. It has front and backside cameras, and is powered by an Intel Atom CPU with a gig of RAM. The Cius docking station we saw had audio, and props the unit into an angled viewing position to fulfill one of the Cisco-stated missions of the Cius unit: Video conferencing and/or VoIP — collaboration is the theme.

You get serious WiFi, and perhaps AT&T's 4G (technically 3.8G), although we didn't get to see AT&T connectivity or use it. Soon, we were told. The display on the video conferencing demo we were shown, over a fast WiFi connection, was stunningly clear.

Cius's compatibility with Cisco's Unified Communications management layer means you can enforce security policies and manage applications. You can change the battery in seconds, we found. Differing capacities of storage are available.

We saw plenty of jacks. There's a mini-HDMI jack that was used to power large screen displays during our demo, a micro-USB jack, and an SD card jack. There's also an Ethernet jack — something that's missing from most of the "business-focused" tablets we've seen so far.

With all of the jacks, and a memory port, one questions if users can access root or violate policies that might cause compliance or conformance problems. Cisco was all over that question. Through Cisco's secure boot (not tested) and Unified Communications management, Cisco offers mobile device management with lengthy use policies, giving administrators a lot of options.

Our hacking challenge instincts were twigged. Could MDM controls be thwarted? On top of Cisco's MDM controls are ActiveSync controls which join Outlook and Microsoft Exchange administrative controls to the Cius. There are, therefore, two ways to control Cius user behavior: with Cisco's Unified Communications components and Microsoft ActiveSync.

Cius is all about collaboration, according to Cisco, and the applications we saw follow this theme. The base Cius software load includes Cisco's WebEx application, along with Jabber. WebEx is familiar to the corporate world as a heterogeneous operating systems-compatible conferencing application with VoIP capabilities.

Jabber enables a chat client, which can be used with XMPP chat clients (we use Adium as a base client) to enable single IM or group chat. The WebEx application sharing demo that Cisco set up for us was fast. We have no idea whether it was optimized for the demo, but it looked good and added voice and video interaction successfully.

Also included are calendar, email, and visual voice mail applications, although we didn't get a chance to examine these thoroughly. With ActiveSync added, the Cius ought to be Outlook/Exchange compatible, but we don't know to what degree. Storage is limited (32GB of flash), but there are external storage capabilities through USB that might assuage storage concerns.

In the Dock

The Cius docking station adds connectivity and sound. Tablet docking stations are an approach that Motorola and others have taken, although not with much success. But with the Cius, it's almost mandatory for its added functions. Cisco therefore might have more success with a docking station in this purposefully collaborative context.

A third-party Bluetooth keyboard was used with the docking station (and it could be used directly, as the Cius supports Bluetooth 3.0), and we found this "tethered" keyboard (from Logitech) to be tenable.

Unlike the Motorola docking station, the Cisco Cius/docking station combination had larger speakers and "mini-stereo system" sound. The brightness and resolution of the display made the video conferencing demonstration, coupled to the docking station audio, a compelling experience.

The bundled software applications are also designed to manage contacts with on-screen push buttons to rapidly "dial" or choose participants for conversations, a bow to the endless milieu of corporate business meetings — but these are online rather than face-to-face.

Cius apps are Android apps, although they're accessed through a Cisco Android marketplace called AppHQ. This walled-garden approach to accessing applications allows administrators to impose constraints. (See 10 compelling apps for Cisco Cius.)

We were unable, however, to find any application review or security test regimen on Cisco's Cius developer website that would restrict an "evil" AppHQ from distribution via AppHQ.

Overall

Cisco packs a lot of purpose into its smallish 7-inch tablet. This is not for consumers, although all of the typical tablet entertainment apps will probably work—if they're allowed. The Cius is a business-focused tablet that delivers mobile collaboration for enterprises.

Henderson is managing director for ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington, Ind. Henderson can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

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