15 Differences Between a Thin Client and Zero Client

Finding out if using a zero client device was better than using a thin client device, makes a lot of sense. As this will make it easier to be able to see whether the differences would make choosing a zero client more appropriate over a thin client.

What is the difference between the thin client and zero client? The main differences between a thin client and a zero client are the zero client doesn’t have a CPU or an operating system like traditional thin clients do, instead zero clients have a special processing chip that allows them to render information sent to them by remote servers using decoding technology.

There are other differences to and the list below highlights the main differences along with the other differences between thin clients and zero clients.

  1. No operating system
  2. No CPU
  3. No flash memory or storage
  4. Remote peripheral processing
  5. Remote Biometric Security
  6. Remote Smartcard Security
  7. Single connection types
  8. Simpler configuration
  9. Lower power consumption
  10. Lower cost
  11. Simpler adminstration
  12. Security is not built in
  13. No processing offloading
  14. Limited feature support
  15. Increased server load

Let’s take a detailed look at the points in this list to see how the differences stack up between thin clients and zero clients.

1. No operating system

Zero clients don’t have an operating system like traditional thin clients do. Thin clients will have an operating system like a slim down version of Microsoft Windows (CE, IoT), Linux (ThinStation, OpenThinClient). Zero clients use a special chip to decode information sent to it and render this to pixels to display on the screen.

By not having an operating system, zero clients don’t have to do what thin clients need to do, where they require configurations to be locked down, so users can’t change settings.

2. No CPU

Zero client don’t have a traditional micro processor chip called a CPU in the same way thin clients do. Instead they have a special chip capable of creating a screen render by decoding information sent to the zero client and then displaying this rendered information on the user’s display.

Thin clients need to have a CPU for their operating systems to function, as they will be responsible for dealing with the communications sent from and to the remote servers.

3. No flash memory or storage

Unlike thin clients which can have flash memory or some form of limited local storage to store configuration settings as well as the operating system. Zero clients don’t need to have any storage as there is no operating system involved and there are no configurable settings to store either.

4. Remote peripheral processing

Any peripherals plugged into the zero client ports like a USB device won’t be identified by the zero client and will require the remote server to identify and handle the USB operations on behalf of the zero client.

In comparison the thin client device’s operating system is capable of identifying devices plugged into it’s various ports and accepting these for use.

So when a printer is plugged into the USB port, the thin client device can recognise the printer and with it’s operating system, pass any printer jobs sent from the remote server.

5. Remote Biometric Security

Thin client devices can come with built in biometric security features like fingerprint readers. As zero client devices don’t have operating systems, biometric functionality can be severely limited.

Workarounds using USB pluggable finger print readers and reliance on the remote server required to do the biometric assessment is one possibility.

6. Remote Smartcard Security

Zero clients with built in smartcard readers will rely on the remote server to validate the smartcard unlike thin client devices which can authenticate users to the network using smart cards before allowing any connections to be made to the remote servers.

Thin clients can also pass through authentication made to the remote server, saving the user from having to authenticate twice, once at the thin client and then again at the remote server.

7. Single connection types

The connection type (including VDI) is limited to the decoding and rendering chip used by the zero client. Zero clients with VMWare PCOIP enabled chips will only be able to connect to systems capable of understanding this type of communication.

Likewise those with Citrix, RDP or Parallels RAS Zero Client, will be limited in their connection capabilities, so a Zero client with Citrix decoding (ICA traffic) won’t be able to connect to VMWare systems expecting PCOIP type communications only.

Thin client on the other hand can deal with multiple connection types and VDIs, as these are based on software and not hardware like the Zero client devices. Thereby, thin clients can have software added for different communication types from PCOIP (Vmware), ICA (Citrix) to RDP (Microsoft).

8. Simpler configuration

There’s very little configuration required on a zero clients as they will only deal with a single connection type like Vmware PCOIP or Citrix ICA or Microsoft RDP. Thin clients which will require more configuration to set them up to deal with the right communications (Citrix, Vmware or RDP) however, this can still be done remotely.

9. Lower power consumption

As there’s less hardware than a thin client device, with no CPU processing unit, flash memory and there’s no software to run, like an operating system. The overall power consumption of a zero client is far less than a thin client.

10. Lower cost

Zero clients can cost less than thin clients, as there’s less hardware components involved. There’s no software like operating systems to license either and the license costs involved for the special decoding and rendering chips is minimal.

Thin clients on the other hand need some processing power, local storage like flash memory to store configuration settings, operating system costs (some may be free, others require licensing like Microsoft Windows based ones).

11. Simpler Administration

Any changes to zero client configuration are immediately applied when the zero client boots up, so making any changes at a management computer won’t require these changes to be pushed to the zero clients.

Compared to a thin client where any changes need to be sent to the thin client and then applied otherwise when the thin client reboots, the new changes will be ignored.

12. Security is not built in

Many of the security functionality thin clients have built into their operating systems are not available to zero clients. This can include authentication and being able to integrate with authentication systems like Microsoft Active Directory.

Operating systems can be hardened too by restricting what they can be done by unauthorised users. Without an operating systems these type of restrictions tend to fall to the remote server to take care of.

13. No processing Offloading

Some Thin clients have the capability to leverage offloading whereby they can use their multi-media redirection features to use some of their processing power to ensure a much better user experience when displaying multimedia. So a YouTube video for example, actually uses the thin client processor and video chip to play on the thin client device.

Instead of being played on the remote server and the screen changes sent down to the thin client device. This helps the thin client play multimedia without having to sacrifice the quality or speed of how the multimedia is displayed, as sometimes .

Zero clients are unable to offload the multimedia processing from the remote server, and all the processing of multimedia is done remotely and not by the thin client.

14. Limited Feature support

Zero clients may not have the additional features thin client support like multi-monitor display support, a local web browser, a USB redirection to a voice over IP integration. These features increase the configuration and complexity of the thin client.

15. Increase server load

As zero clients rely more on the remote servers they connect to for all their processing needs with limited options to offload any of this processing like thin clients can do with multimedia redirection or identify as well as handle any peripherals connected to the zero client.

The overall load on the remote servers can be higher than with thin client devices.

Purchase cost savings

Using zero client as against using thin clients brings significant cost savings in overall zero client procurement costs. If you’re running a business or operating a workplace with many desktop computers or laptops then transferring to a zero client system rather than thin clients could save you money.

The savings are significant but more importantly for you going forward is that the incontrovertible fact that the savings are cumulative and as time goes on you’ll see the difference in your bottom line.

Zero client and Thin client benefits

Both zero and thin clients are secure as users are unable to install any applications themselves, thereby not introducing viruses and malware.

No data is stored on zero client or thin clients, so organisations are protected against data and information theft should either type of device be stolen.

There’s nothing to cut and paste to, so no data can be cut from applications and pasted elsewhere outside of the remote connection. Traditionally PCs could allow if not configured correctly, to copy data out of remote sessions into local documents and notes. This can be problematic if users are using their own computers or laptops to connect to company systems.


Zero clients also known as ultra thin clients are a lot simpler than thin client devices. They don’t have the processing power and instead rely on a special decoding and rendering chip to display the remote desktops.

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