A tablet (PC) that's easy to swallow

GCN Lab Review: The Motion Computing F5's semi-rugged design, good performance and security features suit it for the field


[IMGCAP(2)]When I first laid eyes on Motion Computing's new semi-rugged F5 Mobile Tablet PC, I had what I call a paper-clip moment. These moments happen when I come across an innovation so clever I can't imagine returning to life without it, yet so simple and obvious I can't believe someone hadn't thought of it before. In this case, the innovation was the tablet's integrated carrying handle.

To be fair to other tablet vendors, the handle is integral to the F5's niche functionality as a mobile radio frequency identification reader and bar code scanner. To scan a bar code, for example, you hold the tablet by the handle and push a button on the top with your thumb while aiming the lens at a bar code.

Without this functionality, the handle would take up valuable real estate and add weight without adding features such as a larger display that are more important to typical tablet users.

[IMGCAP(1)]But even when not using the RFID reader or bar code scanner, a tablet intended for field workers benefits from a sturdy handle as a secure way for users to tote it around, quickly grab it off a table or easily remove it from its docking station. There are not many pure slate tablets that have not been displaced from the market by convertible laptop PCs. But the design of the F5 proves that slates might still have some life left.

The RFID reader and optional bar code scanner combine with a 2.0 megapixel camera and fingerprint reader to make this an extremely versatile tablet that can, for example, scan tagged equipment to determine the model information, take a photo of a damaged part or read a worker's RFID badge for authentication. The F5 lends itself especially well to forms, such as building-inspection forms and field service and maintenance reports.

I filled out a sample field service report that included taking a photo of an object to simulate photographing a damaged part. One push of the camera button activates the camera and initializes the photo software, which takes a few seconds, and a second push takes the picture.

The photo quality is good.

I filled out another form using a sample bar code provided by Motion. Scanning was a snap. When I pushed the bar code button, a tone sounded to alert me that the scanner was active. I zapped the bar code, and another tone sounded to let me know the information had been successfully scanned. The information appeared in the form in a couple of seconds.

If no information is scanned, the scanner automatically shuts off after about seven seconds.

The same is true of the RFID reader, although I did not have an RFID tag for testing.

Sealed and delivered The F5's semi-rugged features, which meet or exceed the Ingress Protection 54 rating for vibration, water resistance, humidity, dust, temperature and altitude, will help it survive somewhat rough environments.

For a good grip, a textured, rubberized coating lines the handle and covers the back and sides of the unit. The coating seals the screen, speaker and buttons, and the only port ' A/C power ' is covered by a rubber gasket. The fan assembly is sealed off from the rest of the unit, and you can easily clean it by popping the cover off ' a feature that makes a lot of sense if you use the tablet in a dusty environment.

The lack of ports is by design. Motion wanted to offer a tablet that users can wipe down and disinfect without fear of damage. I understand the reasoning behind this design, but I'd like to see at least one USB port for data transfer or peripheral use in a pinch. If you want to use peripheral devices such as a keyboard, you can buy the optional $350 docking station, which includes three USB ports, an Ethernet port and a VGA port in addition to a Kensington lock. It also contains a battery-charging bay so you can keep a second battery fully charged and ready to rumble. An extra battery costs $159; a keyboard, $50.

For desktop use, the docking station offers three viewing angles: 15, 25 or 38 degrees. You mounting arm. A large eject button makes it easy to remove the tablet from its docking station.

To further toughen the F5, Motion has housed it in chemical-resistant resin so it can withstand liquids such as cleaners and disinfectants.

It also features a magnesium-alloy internal frame, shock-mounted hard drive and liquid-resistant coating over the dual microphone inputs.

In addition, an accelerometer protects the hard drive from damage when the system detects sudden movement, such as a fall or harsh vibration. It does this by moving the read/write heads to areas of the drive that don't contain data, and it also can stop the disks from spinning. The hard drive automatically resumes when the system detects a stable environment.

I was impressed by the fact that the accelerometer system, called Motion Data- Guard, can be customized using a simple software interface accessible from the convenient Motion Dashboard, which serves as a control panel for the tablet's settings. You can set the DataGuard sensitivity to low, medium or high, or you can disable it completely. That makes good sense if you know you'll be working in, say, a bumpy truck and you don't want the hard drive freezing every few seconds.

The 10.4-inch, 1,024 x 768-resolution display is crisp, bright and easy to read in bright light. As with all digitized screens, however, you have to deal with glare. Although the screen is on the small side, it helps keep the overall size and weight of the tablet down, and we found it sufficient for the tablet's intended uses. At just 3.3 pounds, the F5 is easy to carry ' especially by the handle.

For navigation without the stylus, the front of the tablet features a five-way navigation button, function button, Motion Dashboard button and two programmable buttons. Another button on the side opens the Windows Task Manager.

Or, if you prefer, you can just talk to the F5, thanks to the included speech-recognition software.

My review unit was loaded with Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition and powered by a 1.2 GHz Intel Centrino Core Solo U1400 ultra-low-voltage processor with 2M of Level 2 cache and a 533 MHz front-side bus. It also came with 1G double-data-rate RAM 2, synchronous dynamic RAM and a 40G hard drive.

Ordering options include Windows Vista Business, 2G of memory and a 32G solid-state drive.

Partial scores I tested performance using the Performance Test 6.1 benchmark suite from PassMark Software. This benchmark breaks down results into 25 categories that show why systems perform the way they do.

Unfortunately, I could only obtain a partial final score because Performance Test evaluates optical drive performance, and the Motion F5 does not have an optical drive.

Even so, the partial result was 222.9, which is quite respectable considering that Fujitsu's LifeBook P8010 ultraportable laptop PC turned in a full score of 244.2 in GCN's recent roundup (GCN.com/1116). The Motion F5 racked up strong scores in all of Performance Test's subcategories, but its standout result was the excellent processor performance. Its hard-drive read/write speeds were also strong.

To evaluate battery life, I ran a near-worst-case scenario by disabling all power-saving options and setting screen brightness and volume to about 80 percent. I then played a movie clip continuously until the battery died. The battery lasted 2 hours, 31 minutes, which is about average for a laptop. This was extreme-case testing so you'll most likely get longer life during normal use.

The tablet is packed with excellent security features, including Softex OmniPass software, which offers single sign-on and file encryption capabilities.

The software can also manage multifactor authentication that could combine, for example, passwords, fingerprints and smart cards.

In addition, the F5 contains Trusted Platform Module hardware- based encryption to prevent unauthorized data transfer, and you can order it with optional Computrace Complete tracking software from Absolute Software, which can help recover a lost or stolen tablet.

Motion also has wireless communications covered, offering 802.11a/b/g, Evolution-Data Optimized wide-area networking and Bluetooth.

At $2,699 with the optional bar code reader, the F5 is a good value considering all its features, including the ruggedization and RFID reader. The lack of ports is a potential handicap, but even so, I'd want this tablet if I were a field worker because it would make my job so much easier.

Motion Computing, (866) 682-2538, www.motioncomputing.com


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