Xplore tablet raises the ruggedness bar – and drops from it

Sometimes, second really is best.

The July issue of Government Computer News contained a host of reviews loosely based on  a section we called Core Computing. The products we tested were basically devices with processors and featured everything from a workstation to an all-in-one to tablet computers. But there was one review that raised a bit of controversy.

The iX104C5 DMSR-MIL from Xplore Technologies is a rugged tablet that is rated to perform up to the punishing specifications the 810f Mil-Std document requires. But in our testing, it didn’t do so well.

The tablet itself was impressive, with a 3-megapixel camera, a 160G hard drive and 8G of DDR III memory. Combined with the Intel i7 processor, the tablet was able to achieve 750.2 on the PassMark Performance Benchmarks, which put it very high on the scale for all tablets.

Unfortunately, even though it passed every test for heat, vibration, water ingress and cold weather operation, it did very poorly in shock testing.

Shock is a fancy way of saying, “dropping the unit.” Notebook PCs or tablets are dropped along a track in the GCN Lab at various heights, landing on every side of the unit. They start out with very small drops of up to 12 inches, but grow until they are falling 48 inches or more, depending on the type of device. The units land on two inches of plywood sitting over concrete as required by the 810f Mil-Std specifications, hardly a soft surface.

The iX104C5 we tested for the July review died at 24-inches, barely halfway though the shock test track. It simply refused to boot, and just displayed a black screen.

As you might imagine, the folks at Xplore were not happy with the results. We had a conference call about it, and it was revealed that one possibility for the poor results could have been a mis-seated battery.

The batteries on the iX104C5 are fairly unusual in that they form the back of the unit without any special armor over them. To install one, you need to load it carefully into the proper slot and click it into place (Step One), then tighten a latch to double-lock it (Step Two). The flaw in this rather complex system is that a battery can look like its seated in Step One, when in fact it’s a little bit off. Then you can still lock down Step Two, but are essentially locking in the flaw. I don’t know if this is what happened with the original iX104C5, but it seem plausible given the results.

Xplore upped the ante in asking for a re-test, claiming that its tablet could survive a drop of seven feet, three feet above Mil-Spec. And it said the tablet could do that while powered up and running, without missing a beat. We were intrigued, so we asked the company to send several units to the lab, with the one caveat being that the company pre-seat the battery so we could rule that out as a factor should the test fail again.

The units arrived and we went to work, loading up the dropping machine, which had never been used at seven feet before. The first iX104C5 unit was powered up, though we fully expected to have to revert to others when it failed.

Bam! The unit crashed down onto the landing platform with a lot of force, putting a dent in the plywood, a dent that would begin to splinter as the tests continued. Xplore reps asked us to jump right to the seven-foot testing. They were shooting for the moon, and you have to admire their confidence. And after the first drop…the Windows screen still shined on the iX104C5. It had survived.

We continued the testing, having the tablet fall onto each corner and surface of the unit, which is 18 drops in all the way we divide the various quadrants. Each time the tablet remained powered up while it fell, something Xplore also insisted on, even though this is again tougher on a unit than the specifications require.

Once, the screen warbled a tiny bit, a hint that the battery might have lost some of its connection, but Windows stayed up. In the end, there was not even a scratch on the iX104C5, it never lost power, and we never even had to unpack the backup units.

Now, we are not into second-guessing review results. Obviously it seems as though Xplore needs to come up with a better system for holding the battery in place — to eliminate human error, if nothing else.

That said, had our review been conducted with this new iX104C5, the rugged grade would have easily been raised from a C to an A. We’ve never seen a unit go so far above Mil-Spec and survive.

The iX104C5 is an impressive tablet if everything is installed correctly. With these new test results in hand, we would feel comfortable certifying the iX104C5 DMSR-MIL for rugged duty anywhere in the world.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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