Peripatetic portables

For mobility, tablet PCs have an edge on notebooks'with a few caveats

What is it?

A tablet computer is a full-blown PC contained in a touch screen. Slate versions operate entirely with a stylus, while convertible versions, using a flip-over display, can be used as a notebook PC with a keyboard or a slate-style tablet.

When selecting a tablet, what's the prime consideration?

The physical environment that the tablet needs to handle, including vibration, water, dust, rough handling and temperature extremes.

How do you choose between types of input?

The required tasks and the user's situation define the input methods. Applications requiring detailed input need keyboards, so you might look at a convertible tablet. Bear in mind that a user wearing protective gloves can't type.

What kind of CPU and RAM should the tablet have?

Whatever is necessary to run the required applications.

How will the tablet interact with the existing network?

Choose tablets whose connectivity'wired or wireless'matches your network.

How do I recognize a good vendor?

Willingness to customize, ongoing feature updates, reasonable warranty and good support.

Motion Computing sells the slate-style LE1600 tablet PC for $1,999. It comes with 512M RAM, a 30G or 60G hard drive and two USB 2.0 ports.

DUAL USE: Fujitsu's LifeBook T4210 can be configured with an XGA indoor/outdoor display and sells for $1,729.

The $1,849 convertible Compaq tc4400 tablet PC from Hewlett-Packard features a 160-degree viewing angle and adjusts brightness automatically, which saves battery life.

Tablet PCs are more portable than portables. Sure, notebook PCs are portable. But you wouldn't want use a notebook when delivering a package, doing inventory, making a medical notation or jotting down an idea while waiting in line for a flight'working a keyboard in such situations is just too cumbersome. These are all jobs for slate-style tablets, which operate entirely with a stylus.

Tablets are appropriate for use in the mission areas of many government agencies, including education, defense, intelligence, law enforcement, medicine, utilities, telecommunications, transportation, distribution and public safety. The common element is the knowledge worker who needs easy data input, computing power and, increasingly, wireless connectivity'away from a desk or office.

But the same element of mobility also limits choices in tablet selection. For example, physical environment may involve extremes in noise, heat, cold, vibration, bumps, shocks, humidity, moisture, dirt, dust, corrosive chemicals, radiation, weapons fire, brightness and darkness, all of which might limit tablet use.

Defining the nature of the physical environment in which the tablet will be used will help you zero in on how rugged the device needs to be. And given where you're expecting tablets to perform, it's crucial to pay attention to warranty options.

Another important consideration is the desired task of the tablet. It's important to remember a counterintuitive point about tablets in the field: You don't want them capable of more than is necessary. Here's why: Suppose that your user is a manager in a factory-type environment who has to wear protective work gloves while tracking materials or processes on a portable PC. A keyboard-based device would be a waste: Your heavily gloved worker can't use it. Besides, the worker doesn't need to enter a lot of complex information on a high-powered PC; he simply needs to enter data by poking at choices on a touch screen. Thus, the tablet should closely match the task at hand in complexity, and limit bells and whistles that just make using or maintaining the device more difficult.

At the same time, the tablet must be capable of running the necessary applications. This means that the tablet vendor should offer CPU and RAM chip sets comparable to desktop and notebook machines. Vendors whose devotion to ruggedness keeps them a generation behind in processing power are not what you're looking for. Instead, you want a vendor with a clear record of internal upgrades, even while preserving a winning, ruggedized exterior.
Connectivity options for tablets are extensive and should match the rest of your network. There's no need to have to integrate disparate technologies just to add tablets to your inventory. Many tablets support multiple technologies, including wired (RJ-11, RJ-45, VGA, S-video, Ethernet, FireWire and USB); infrared; and wireless (WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS and various flavors of 802.11). PCMCIA slots are common, both for memory and peripheral attachments.

Power supply can be a major concern. Lithium-ion batteries are the standard for tablets. Power-saving tricks'such as automatically reducing screen lighting in bright environments or spinning down idle hard drives'are helpful. Most tablets come with AC adapters, and some with car-lighter adapters.

But what you really want is a dual-battery configuration that permits hot swapping. This lets you use two batteries while a third recharges. After the battery recharges, swap it for the next battery to fail and you can keep working all day.

Given that mobility is the key with tablets, it's surprising how important docking systems are. Some vendors offer a variety of docking options for their tablets, and there are also third-party suppliers. Here again, considerations of the environment in which the tablet will be used are important.

While government agencies often strive for off-the-shelf purchases, you should realize that what you want in a tablet might require considerable customization to perform properly. Most vendors don't offer customization at all, while a few genuinely are open to customer needs and suggestions. Don't cripple your deployment with a tablet that almost fits, when a perfect fit is possible.
On-site trials are practically essential for successful tablet deployment. Nothing is better for establishing whether a given tablet will work than a few days on the job. Then you'll see if your tablet system can stand on its own.

Edmund X. DeJesus is a freelance writer in Norwood, Mass.

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