For the Dolphin, rough roads mean smooth sailing

GCN Lab Review | This PDA can take a licking, but it's not for everyone

Dolphin 7900 Series Mobile Computer

Performance: A

Battery life: A-

Features: B

Value: B-

Price: $3,685

Reviewer's comments: The Dolphin 7900 runs programs extremely quickly, which might help users forget the extra girth and cost of this rugged PDA.

Contact: Hand Held Products Inc., Skaneateles Falls, N.Y., (866) 686-2211;

Dolphin 7900 Series Mobile Computer

Handheld computers from companies such as Palm Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are great, but you can't take them just anywhere. Hot environments with a lot of humidity could spell doom for fragile electronics. And don't drop one on a hard floor: There's a good chance a normal personal digital assistant will shatter when it hits an unforgiving surface.

The Dolphin PDA family from Hand Held Products brings the tough nature of a ruggedized notebook to a smaller platform. We tested the Dolphin 7900 over a period of several weeks, and as you might expect, ruggedizing a PDA tends to negate some of the reasons you might want one in the first place. But overall, if your primary need is for a handheld that will hold up in the field, we liked what we saw'mostly.

First things first, though. The Dolphin isn't a cute little BlackBerry. Come to think of it, it was almost as big as one of our shoes. At 7 inches long, 3 inches wide and 1.7 inches thick, it's definitely bulky. And at 1 pound, 4 ounces, it's no lightweight among PDAs. Much of the bulk has to do with its ruggedness, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that it has three radios inside: GSM/GPRS triband, 802.11b wireless and Bluetooth 1.2.

The Dolphin we tested ran Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition, which appears very much like an XP desktop, and an Intel X-Scale 400 MHz Processor. The combination makes for a very quick, responsive device.

The screen is a 240-by-320 resolution, 3.8-inch LCD touch panel. Unlike other PDAs designed for outdoor use, however, this one does not have a robust anti-glare coating. And the keyboard isn't what you have come to expect from most BlackBerrys or Palm Treos'i.e. it's not a QWERTY design. There are actually two keyboard options. One is more phone-style, with letters crammed several at a time onto number keys. The other, which we tested, is a 36-key alphabetical design. But the lettered keys are laid out in alphabetical order, not in a traditional QWERTY layout. And three of the keys hold two letters (U-V, W-X, Y-Z). Anyone who's become good at typing with their thumbs will understand that neither keyboard layout is optimal. So don't expect to use the Dolphin 7900 much for messaging.

Basically, this device is for data access and input in austere environments. In fact, it has a built-in bar code scanner that can read 1-D codes such as Codabar and Code 32 Pharmaceutical, 2-D codes such as Aztec and RSS, composite codes such as OCR-A and OCR-B, and postal codes from various countries. We tried the scanner on various items and found it extremely quick.

The Dolphin 7900's battery life is surprisingly good for such a large device with so many radios. It ships with advanced power management software that lets you squeeze out every ounce of battery power. It does this by dimming the screen and shutting down different components when they are not being used. In our testing, when the Dolphin was completely active, running a scan every few seconds and an open radio connection, it lasted well over 10 hours and still had about 15 percent of its charge left.

Moreover the battery is hot-swappable, so you can change it on the fly. The Dolphin goes into suspend mode when the battery is changed. We did this several times and did not experience any data loss or lockups.

Rugged but pricey

While the Dolphin 7900 performs well, it's doubtful any regular IT shop will spend $3,685 for the unit we tested. The only reason they'd pay is for its ruggedness. So we tortured our unit.

The Dolphin is not specifically Defense Department 810F-certified, but the developers claimed their testing actually exceeds 810F specs. For example, they test the Dolphin by dropping it onto concrete. Military specs allow a layer of plywood over the concrete.

We tested it to military standards, starting out with a series of drops. Interestingly, in addition to surviving each drop, the Dolphin was also able to maintain an 802.11b connection.

The secret to Dolphin's ruggedness is the rubber-like coating around all vulnerable parts. When dropped, the PDA bounces. It survived falling on each of its surfaces, including the screen.

The Dolphin 7900 also did well in the GCN Rainforest environment, where temperatures reached close to its maximum rated level of 122 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity averaged 90 percent. The Dolphin handled the climate well and didn't fail, but we noticed programs slowed considerably.

The Dolphin 7900 may not be for everyone, but those who need a rugged PDA and don't mind the extra weight and bulk will be hard pressed to find a better-performing system.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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