Thick, Thin, and Zero Clients: Pros and Cons

In a remote desktop environment, clients are software or devices that enable access to cloud-based applications and stored data. Depending on your needs, there are various ways for these portals to be configured.

There are three common types: thick, thin, and most recently, zero clients.

Thick Clients

Thick clients are essentially your traditional office desktops. These computers are self-contained systems in their own right. They can independently host software and operating systems, which means that they can operate separately from the central server and without access to the Internet. Out of the three types, thick clients often are the most powerful–and have the most moving parts.

Thin Clients

Thin clients are devices dressed down to the bare minimum needed to launch the applications that connect to virtual desktops. That means low-power processors and no hard disk drives. Data storage and processing happens on the server-side, allowing computers to shed most of the ‘fat’ thick clients need to operate.

Zero Clients

The main difference between thin and zero clients is that even operating systems aren’t directly found in zero devices–maybe ‘hollow’ would also be apt to describe them. Zero clients provide the portal to access the central server that hosts the apps and operating systems. These devices, often about as big as your Internet router, are essentially just the physical bridge that transmits end user input onto the central servers. That includes everything, including mouse clicks and keystrokes. All these are processed using basic firmware and a rudimentary processor whose sole purpose is to beam up the information to your data centres.

What Clients Should You Use?

Response Speed

When it comes to how fast requests are processed and executed, it’s hard to compete with a device that already has all it needs to carry out the work. Thick clients don’t need to continuously fetch and send data to central servers to operate. This kind of set-up is apt for businesses who have to crunch large amounts of data, have multiple databases, or who work with sensitive information that can’t be kept remotely by law.


With little to no attack vectors, zero client products are by far the easiest to secure compared to thin or thick clients. No operating system or storage means no software to be corrupted, or no data that can be lost when devices are stolen or individually compromised.

Thick clients, with their bevy of moving parts, have the largest attack surface. Security relies heavily on the end-user and ensuring each device is kept patched and updated–easier when you only have three to four employees, harder for corporations with hundreds of staff.


Thin and zero clients can be used on a wide variety of devices, from desktop computers to mobile phones. A working Internet connection is all you need to access your work apps and files. However, that kind of flexibility requires a trade-off in capability. Zero clients are specialised devices. Many are proprietary, which can lock-in users to one provider and consequently, features. Most thin clients are built compatible with third-party integrations, but you typically have to pay for new functions.


Thin and zero clients appeal to many business owners because of the considerable difference in pricing. HP’s thin clients can cost as low as £485, while their more capable workstations are priced at upwards of £700.

Ease of Use

Here is where thin and zero clients have full advantage over thick or fat clients. Because all software is hosted on the server-side, businesses can roll out updates or patches centrally. In contrast, thick clients have to be configured one-by-one, which is time consuming and more prone to human error. Thin and zero client devices, by virtue of having fewer parts that can malfunction, are also much easier to maintain and troubleshoot. You don’t have to worry about updating the drivers of each part, or switching out the fans when they start to fail.

Which Client-Server Architecture Fits My Company?

As for most IT resources for businesses, the answer to that question will depend on the needs of your users. For instance, sales associates who are constantly on the move are a better fit for thick clients, which give them the control and freedom they need to work from anywhere, even without a broadband connection. Meanwhile, office-bound employees who only use one or two applications to perform tasks will do perfectly fine with leaner thin or zero clients. But even that rule isn’t absolute. Thin and zero clients still struggle to handle intensive tasks such as 3D rendering.