A GeoPad is a field-capable portable PC workstation configured for use with geographic applications (GPS/GIS); see yesterday’s post for more details. The GeoPad website has a full page on what to consider when selecting hardware, and is definitely worth a look. Much of that site is oriented around the purchase of standard field-ready laptops, none of which you could really call cheap. To put together a budget GeoPad, I concentrated on finding one that would meet as many of the following requirements as possible:
1. Relatively inexpensive; less than $1000, preferably much less.
2. Durable. For standard laptops, 1-year laptop failure rates due to manufacturing defects run at about 10-15%, and 3-year at 15-25% under normal use (up to 31% overall after you factor in “user clumsiness”). It’s likely that these failure rates would be greater for a laptop that gets jostled in a backpack, or used on a bumpy road. A mil-spec “rugged” PC would be the optimal choice, as it meets US military requirements for shock resistance, temperature, dust, etc.., but these are way too expensive. A Panasonic Toughbook would be a great choice, but it’s $3000+ for even the most basic configuration. And you have to be careful about the word “rugged”, as there’s no standard definition. For example, the HP Elite 2730P calls itself rugged because it passes the military tests for temperature, dust and altitude, but not the impact/drop tests that reflect the kind of abuse it could see in the field.
3. Touch screen convertible PC. The GeoPad website emphasizes the utility of a touch screen interface for use in the field, and I totally agree. I’ve tried using my Acer Aspire One netbook in the field, with a clamshell configuration, and it just doesn’t cut it. To use it, you have to open it up, and enter data with the keyboard and mouse, something you can’t do standing up unless you have 3+ hands. A touch screen allows two-handed use at a minimum; combine it with a good working tablet case, and you can easily use it without dropping it.
Convertible means that you can use it either in standard clamshell mode, or rotate the screen and fold it down to use it in tablet mode. I wanted the option to use it in standard mode as well as tablet for added flexibility in data entry. You can get “slates”, tablets with no built-in keyboard, and then attach a keyboard via the USB connector; IMO, too clumsy and inconvenient in the field.
4. Good screen visibility in outdoor conditions. Most laptop screens don’t do well in outdoor conditions, especially in direct sunlight; the contrast gets washed out. Some rugged PCs come with special transmissive or transflective screens that will work well in outdoor conditions, but they can be very expensive. To reach my price range, I expected to have to compromise somewhat on this, but still wanted to find one that could be used under some outdoor lighting conditions.
5. Windows OS, because of the larger selection of free software available under this platform.
6. Respectable battery life; at least 4 hours under normal use.
7. Decent memory; 1 GB RAM, plus at least 30 GB storage space for software and data.
8. Light weight and compact size.
9. Plus as many typical notebook features as possible (USB ports, VGA output, wireless, Bluetooth, webcam, memory card slot, etc.)
The cost restriction narrowed down the field immediately; I couldn’t find a single “rugged” laptop available below $1000. Some standard touch screen laptops are available in that price range, in particular some of the HP tx2 models which are just under $1000. But HP has the worst record for 1-year and 3-year failure rates in the industry (15% and 25%), and reviews have complained about the mediocre battery life. I was hopeful that some netbook touch screen convertibles might do the job, like the Asus T91 or Gigabyte 1028 series. While not “rugged” laptops, they offer a touch screen, 5-hour battery life, low weight, and fairly low cost ($500-700). But while they’re “touch screen” PCs, they have a drawback that would make them hard to work with in the field. A touch anywhere on the screen of these netbooks, even if it’s an accidental brush by your finger or palm, is registered as an input; if you’re trying to enter data on-screen, this can result in a lot of mistakes and frustration. More advanced tablet PCs get around this problem in one of two ways:
– A “digitizer” mode, where the only input recognized is that from a special stylus pen.
– “Palm rejection”, where the touch screen driver can recognize and reject minor contact from your palm or finger touches, but recognize firm contact.
So these cheap netbooks might not be a good choice because of this touch screen issue. The Hp tx2 models offer the option of being used in either basic touch screen or digitizer mode, but are much more expensive and might not be durable enough; at $1000, it seemed risky to go for this model. I almost gave up on the idea of a cheap GeoPad until, by accident, I found a fairly inexpensive laptop that seemed to meet most of my requirements. But that’s the next post in this series …