A bare-bones approach to rugged

The Xplore Technologies iX104C5 DMSR-MIL is a tablet chocked with innovative features, including a stripped-down look that reduces weight from the standard rugged tablet load. But it seems like too much protection was taken away, especially from the battery, as the device failed even the most basic military spec rugged testing for shock.

(Editor's note: Xplore said the problem was with the mounting of the battery, so we agreed to re-test the tablet. The results of the second test, published July 14, can be found here.)

At first, the design of the iX104C5 DMSR-MIL seemed innovative. The tan tablet didn’t have the huge amount of armor plating covering it that we have seen with other tablets designed to match the Mil-Std-810G testing required for rugged certification. In fact, the battery just snaps into the back plate of the unit with no covering or other protection. This seeming lack of support takes the weight down to an impressive 5.25 pounds. The lack of obvious protection worried us, but we have seen that lighter devices often take less damage in shock testing, so were willing to give the tablet the benefit of the doubt at the onset of our testing.

Looking at the specs, the iX104C5 DMSR-MIL is impressive, with a lot of extra features. There is a 3-megapixel camera that is a lot more detailed than most we find in tablets, rugged or not. There is a 160G hard drive configured to RAID 0 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 puts it very high on the scale for all tablets.

Xplore Technologies iX104C5 DMSR-MIL

Pros: Lightweight; lots of extras; fast processor.
Cons: Battery has no protection from elements; caused failures during testing.
Performance: B+
Ease of Use: A
Features: B+
Value: B
Rugged: C
Government Price: $5,474

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The screen is a 10.4-inch touch screen and is well designed for sunlight readability. It is also the type of screen that can read the position of your fingertips, so you don’t have to use a special pen. And it’s coated with a smudge resistant material to deflect fingerprints that worked better than almost any we’ve found to date. After a lot of touching, there were very few smudges that needed to be wiped off.

In terms of rugged, years of experience have taught us to go from the tests with the least possibility of causing a failure to the most likely to damage a unit. When the military tests units for Mil-Std requirements, they are given five units to complete the testing, so if the first one fails, they can tag out and the second one can finish the testing, until all five units have been lost. Normally, we only have one unit in our lab, so we are fairly careful about the order to perform tests based on failure percentages over the years.

In terms of environmental testing, the iX104C5 DMSR-MIL did fine. It survived a near-freezing environment for three hours and made it through the GCN Rainforest Test Lab, which has temperatures averaging more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity as close to 100 percent as we can get it without making it rain. It also did well with ingress testing, with blowing dust and water droplets moving across it, propelled by high-speed fans. It’s tightly sealed despite its unique stripped down design.

Shock to the system

Unfortunately, it ran into problems in shock testing, in which we drop the unit from various heights onto two inches of plywood sitting over concrete. Here is where the seeming lack of protection really took its toll. Normally, we start at 12 inches and drop a unit onto the test surface along every one of its surfaces and the corners. The unit is booted up after each drop to check for any damage that is not obvious. Eventually, a rugged unit will ascend to a height of 48 inches. But the iX104C5 DMSR-MIL didn’t make it that far.

At the final 12-inch drop, we noticed the screen was flickering when it booted. At first, we thought the battery might have come loose given how it was configured, but it seemed to be snug in its container. We noted the disruption and moved to the first 24-inch drop.

That was the one that killed the unit. Although there was no noticeable physical damage, the iX104C5 refused to boot after that drop. We attached it to normal power in case the battery was at fault, but nothing happened. It was dead at the very first 24-inch drop, not even half way thought the testing.

For a unit to die that early in the shock testing is a big concern. You could probably drop a nonrugged laptop from 24 inches and have it survive most of the time. But the iX104C5 could not survive even a single drop from that height and refused to boot.

Back from the brink

Days later, we decided to give the iX104C5 one more chance to boot, and like Lazarus, it came back from the dead. We did some further investigation and discovered that the battery that had worried us so much before the test began could become slightly unseated. When this happens, it still looks like it’s in the proper place but, in fact, is off just enough to cause power disruptions in the unit. Several times when we performed new drops where the battery hit the ground first, it would slightly unseat again, which led to either a blinking screen or another failure to boot. The fact that originally it did not boot when plugged in could be explained by the fact that the battery was not completely unseated, so the shorted connection could have still prevented the system from powering up.

Other than vibration, shock is the No. 1 risk a rugged unit needs to be protected against. How often will someone be stuck in a rainforest? Probably a lot less often than their notebook or tablet will slip off a surface and smash into the ground. Its poor showing in shock testing means we really can’t recommend it until the battery is better protected. There is too much of a chance that the iX104C5 will let you down when it’s really needed. And because the battery is only partially unseating, users might not know the source of the problem. We only discovered what was wrong several days later.

The list price of the tablet is a little high at $7,299, but government buyers can get it for $5,474 as configured for our testing, which is a better deal. If you are willing to put up with a quirky battery in the name of reduced weight savings, the iX104C5 performs well otherwise. However, we think most people would probably rather deal with another pound or two if it means their tablet is fully protected from things that can hurt it, including gravity.

Xplore Technologies, www.xploretech.com

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