Many public safety and commercial customers have been looking to tablet computers recently. While laptops have been the main-stay for years, the recent popularity of tablet computers has made its way into the professional markets. While Sigma doesn’t sell computers, we do sell docking stations for computers so we’ve had many years of experience with mobile computing.
As you are aware, there is a wide variety of tablet computers available. The most widely-known is the Apple iPad, which is a low cost consumer-grade tablet. The lineup of available tablets ranges up to the Panasonic FZ-G1 which is a fully ruggedized tablet designed for heavy-duty use, and their direct competitor, the Getac line of ruggedized tablets.
We believe tablet computing in vehicles is going to quickly overtake laptops’ popularity, for a number of reasons;
- tablets are physically smaller so they can be more easily installed into vehicles
- tablets are more ergonomically friendly in that they can have a separate keyboard which allows more flexibility in mounting. The user is not forced to swivel their body towards the laptop keyboard. With tablets, the keyboard doesn’t have to be in the same location as the screen.
- tablets are less expensive than laptops (generally speaking)
- tablets can be used one-handed in many cases, while out of the vehicle
- tablets often have integrated barcode readers, cameras, etc.
- tablets have solid state hard drives which are more reliable (but have lower storage capacity) in a mobile environment than a traditional hard drive
There are a few downsides of tablets, though;
- tablets can’t be easily used with a keyboard when out of the vehicle
- typing on the tablet screen is cumbersome and won’t work with gloves, necessitating the need for a separate keyboard
- tablets, due to battery life restrictions, often have slower processors and less battery life
- tablets have a screen that is always exposed (whereas with a laptop the lid can be closed) which makes it more susceptible to getting damaged, particularly when out of the vehicle
- many rugged laptops have battery packs and hard drives that are easily swapped in case of failure. Most tablet batteries and drives are not easily removable
There are a number of other factors, but we believe that the benefits of tablets outweighs the downsides, in most instances.
Let’s walk through some of the critical things you’ll need to consider when selecting a mobile computing platform…
There are many good iOS apps, especially for fire departments, but if you have an existing system like FDM or other fire-specific software, or any other enterprise-grade software that your tablet needs to interact with, you may have trouble with an iOS or Android system.
Rugged or not ?
The biggest decision that many agencies need to make is: ruggedized or not ? Do we get a $600 tablet and if it breaks, we throw it out and buy another $600 tablet? In theory you can purchase 3 or maybe 4 $600 tablets before you get to the purchase price of a fully-rugged G1 tablet, for example. While this may be true, remember to consider how much down-time costs you. What happens when a consumer-grade tablet breaks? Is it a mission-critical device? If so, can the users function without it? What happens if it breaks on a Friday night before a long weekend, and the IT techs won’t be able to get a new one set up before Tuesday morning? Many people overlook the real cost and inconvenience of down-time. Our large utility companies use ruggedized computers because they know exactly what down-time costs.
Also consider the life-cycle of computing devices. Yes, it may be easy to swap out an iPad if it breaks, but unless you have a stock of identical iPads handy, you might run into a snag. If you break an iPad2 and now have to go out and buy the current iPad4, the connector on the iPad has changed. Now you also need to change your iPad docking station. Consumer-grade tablets have model changes every 6-12 months, and often the form factor and connectors change every year. After a few years, this means a mix of different iPad models in your fleet. This may or may not be acceptable to you. With the industrial laptops and tablets, since they aren’t in the same “12 month refresh” cycle that the consumer world is, the form factors and connectors on their computers stay the same for years. For example, we have a Panasonic Toughbook (laptop) dock that will fit the CF29, CF30, and CF31 computers – about 8-10 years’ worth of CF models. But with the iPad, we have 2 different docks in 2 years because of the new Lightning connector that Apple created last year.
Many agencies who work outdoors do so in the rain…a lot. Especially here in the lower mainland of BC, it rains quite a bit so it’s not at all uncommon for public safety and utility personnel to need a computing device that’s waterproof. While you can put an Otterbox on an iPad, it may be best to consider a tablet that is designed to be waterproof. We have docks available for the iPad that will allow it to dock even while outfitted with an Otterbox Defender case.
One of the most overlooked factors in considering a mobile computing device (laptop or tablet) is daytime readability. Many lower-end and consumer grade computers do not have bright enough screens to allow them to be read in direct sunlight. If you are mounting your computer in a vehicle or, worse yet, using it for incident command where it needs to be removed from the vehicle and viewed outdoors, sunlight readability is an absolutely critical factor in your computer selection. Brightness is measured in a unit called NITS. Typically you need at least 800 NIT screen brightness to allow a computer screen to be viewed in direct sunlight, and some laptops such as the CF31 are 1000 and 1200 NIT, which is even better (1000 NITs is about as bright as a very bright flatscreen TV). Many consumer grade computers have 200-300 NITs. The iPad is rated at 400NITs. Before you buy a consumer-grade tablet, try viewing it in direct sunlight if that’s something that you’re going to experience in your daily tasks.
While a docking station for your computer may seem like a trivial matter, and is generally an afterthought when selecting a computer, we would suggest that whatever computer you get, if it’s going to be mounted in a vehicle, you ensure that there is a good docking station available for it. Selecting a computer then finding there is no docking station available for it will significantly affect your project’s success. Under most WorkSafe (OSHA) rules, you are not permitted to have the computer laying loose in the vehicle – it has to be secured so it doesn’t become a projectile in the case of a collision. In addition, you’ll want to secure the computer anyway, to help prevent theft.
Whether that’s an iPad or G1 or a CF31 laptop, we have docking stations for many computers, but not all. Sometimes we have to go with a cradle. What’s the difference? A cradle is a device that physically holds the computer, but has no electronics in it. When you place the computer in the cradle, you then need to plug a power cable into the computer, plug in any accessories via USB (or the Apple connector), etc. With a docking station, the dock itself contains connectors that mate to the computer, so when you dock the computer in the docking station, it automatically connects power, accessories, external antennas (more on that later), and other items. Likewise, then you need to remove the computer from the dock, you just pop it out and go. WIth a cradle, you have remember to unplug all the cables before you can remove the computer.
Docking stations will dramatically enhance the reliability of your computer, and make a very positive difference to the user.
This is one topic that almost no one considers when selecting a computing device, but it can make or break the success of your project. With many computers/tablets having GPS and cellular modems embedded into them, it’s really handy because you can walk around pretty much anywhere and have GPS and data connectivity. However, remember that when you have the computer mounted in a vehicle, it’s underneath the metal roof of your vehicle, so GPS reception will suffer. Also, your cell data reception level will drop dramatically because your computer (and its internal antenna) are now inside what’s essentially a metal box (your vehicle). The only way around this is to connect the internal GPS and cell data modems in the tablet to antennas that are mounted on the roof of your vehicle.
With a full docking station and an industrial computer such as the G1 tablet, the tablet has connectors on it that mate up with the docking station’s connectors. Then, on the back of the docking station, there are antenna connectors that you can connect the roof-top antennas to. This effectively routes the G1’s internal GPS and cell antennas through the dock and to the roof. We call this “RF Passthrough” (RF = radio frequency). This is a very critical consideration when choosing a computing device for your vehicle. You can have a great computer but if it can’t get cell and/or GPS data, it might be useless to you.
The Last Word
As you can see, there are a number of critical items to consider when choosing an in-vehicle computing device. Since we don’t sell the computers themselves, we’re happy to help you with any docking station or cradle that you need. However, if you are a commercial or public safety customer, we’ll always recommend you consider a ruggedized computing device such as the G1 tablet or CF31 laptop, or at least a semi-rugged computer such as the Panasonic CF53.
Please contact us if we can assist you with your in-vehicle computer mounting projects.