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Archive for the 'GeoPad' Category

The Intel Classmate Convertible As GeoPad: Conclusions From Field Tests

So I’ve had an Intel Classmate Convertible touch-screen tablet netbook for about six months now, using it out in the field as well as the office. How well does it meet the requirements listed in this post for a GeoPad, a field-capable GIS workstation?

Going through my requirements list one at a time, let’s get the bad news out of the way first:

Good screen visibility in outdoor conditions.

Nope, not really, at least under normal use conditions. It’s pretty much as bad as any standard laptop in direct sunlight, or on a bright cloudy . Under those conditions, it’s marginally useful at best, and more often unusable, particularly in tablet mode. When used in standard clamshell mode, it’s somewhat better, and if you buy a sunshade (or make one out of cardboard like I did), it’s bright and clear enough even on a sunny day to be usable. But a sunshade doesn’t really help when it’s in tablet mode; for that, you need to do one of the following:

  • Get into shade or heavy forest cover; there, the screen is more than bright enough.
  • Just turning your body so that the computer is in shade helps a bit, but you’ll still get enough scatter from the light areas behind you to make screen visibility less than ideal. If you’re willing to look like a bit of a dork, holding an open black umbrella behind your head can shade enough of the backlight to improve visibility significantly.
  • Finally, throwing a light-proof cloth over your head to shade it and the laptop will make the screen fully visible. Unless capes come back into fashion, this will also make you look like a bit of a dork.

In any case, the current display is less than ideal for outdoor use, and you should keep that in mind. For the most part, I’ve been able to work around that problem, and still be productive with it. And that’s the worst news; for all the other requirements, it’s proven to be pretty good. Given that this laptop is pretty inexpensive (< $450), if you could add a sun-friendly LCD screen to it for a less-than-exorbitant price bump, say $100-$200, you could probably sell quite a few of these. So if you’re looking for a business opportunity …


Relatively inexpensive.

I was looking for less than $1000; $450 is a lot better than I had hoped for.



Strictly speaking, this isn’t a true “rugged” notebook. But the basic specs (0.5-meter drop test on concrete non-operating, 0.4-meter on plywood operating) should be enough for basic field work, as long as you don’t abuse it too much. I’ve used mine on bumpy roads, tossed it into a backpack, and even dropped it on a rocky surface once, without any apparent ill effects. A good case should improve its shock resistance even further, and I’ll talk about mine in a future post.


Touch-screen convertible.

Works as advertised, and is quite accurate with a stylus. Palm rejection is excellent, so you can write on it with your hand resting on the screen without worrying about it mistaking the palm touch for intended input. In fact, even a finger touch won’t register unless you use the edge of your fingernail. Comes with some software for handwriting recognition; while it’s OK, there are better choices. It has a built-in sensor that detects the orientation at which you’re holding the tablet, and can automatically rotate the screen to match that; in practice, I’ve found it better to switch screen rotation in manual mode.


Windows OS

Mine came with Windows XP, but you can now get it with Windows 7 Starter Edition. However, if you want a true Microsoft Tablet PC OS, using Windows own handwriting recognition and other tablet-specific features, you’ll need to upgrade to either Windows XP Professional or Windows 7 Home Premium at a minimum; standard Windows XP and the 7 Starter Edition don’t support Microsoft Tablet PC functionality. Startup is a bit slow, but all the GIS programs I tried ran at perfectly acceptable speeds; it will even run Google Earth at an acceptable speed (after complaining to you during installation that the screen is too small). It comes with the Blue Dolphin touch-screen-friendly desktop, which I found to be a very handy way to organize and access programs so that they could be easily accessed via the touch screen.


Respectable battery life; at least 4 hours under normal use.

Intel specs battery life with the 6-cell battery at 6 hours, with WiFi and webcam off. While this is the standard “best-case scenario”, I found in normal use that it easily hit 4 hours, and sometimes even 5 hours. The input voltage is 12V, which means that with a fairly cheap auto adapter, you can charge it directly from your lighter socket (running it from the socket is possible, but you’d need a high-power adapter).


Decent memory; 1 GB RAM, plus at least 30 GB storage space for software and data.

Comes with 1 GB RAM, expandable to 2 GB, plus a 60 GB shock-mounted PATA hard drive. The hard drive isn’t the fastest in the world, and I wouldn’t mind replacing that with a faster, low-power solid state drive at some point.


Light weight and compact size.

With the 6-cell battery, it weighs in at about 3 pounds (1.45 kg), and it’s a standard netbook size, maybe even a bit smaller than most.


Plus as many typical notebook features as possible.

Adequate on this score with one exception: the keyboard is very small, really designed for child-size hands. With small hands, you should have no problems; I have medium-size hands, and it definitely takes some additional effort to touch-type on this at a reasonable speed. If you have large hands, you may find it impossible to touch-type at all; hunt and peck may be the only practical method.

Comes with two USB ports, Ethernet port, VGA output, headphone/microphone jacks. The latter is useful, as the built-in microphone doesn’t work very well. There’s a SD-Card slot protected by a rubber plug; getting cards in and out can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. You can actually boot from the SD card, but when I tried installing booting from Linux on a 4 GB Class 4 SDHC card, it was unusably slow. The 1.3 megapixel camera works well, and it rotates so that you can use it either pointing towards you or away from you, in either clamshell or convertible mode. So you can snap a photo of something in the field in tablet mode, then annotate the picture directly in the tablet.


My final conclusions? I really wish the screen were more visible in daylight conditions, and if that’s a dealbreaker for you, then you shouldn’t consider it. But even with that limitation, I’ve found this to be a useful field companion. Over the next few months, I’ll be posting my experiences and recommendations on configuring this system with the right hardware and software to make it a full GeoPad.

Here’s a positive review video of the Intel Classmate Convertible from G4TV:

The Intel Classmate Convertible: A Cheap GeoPad?

A few years ago, the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC) created what some consider to be the original netbook concept: a small, light-weight, rugged low-power inexpensive laptop, with a target price of $100. It had its own custom operating system, Sugar, designed to be easy to use for its target audience of young children. Perhaps because they felt a bit threatened by the OLPC concept, Intel came up with a competing line of small laptops that ran Windows XP, the Intel Classmate line. Earlier models were strictly standard clamshell laptops, but early in 2009 Intel introduced the Classmate Convertible, a touch-tablet model that seemed to me to meet at least some of my requirements for a GeoPad, a portable GIS workstation:

  • Long battery life (Intel specs it at 6 hours with the WiFi and webcam off)
  • Lightweight (about 3 pounds with the 6-cell battery)
  • 8.9” diagonal LCD display, 1024 x 600 (standard netbook resolution)
  • Rugged. Designed to take the abuse that young children can dish out, it can survive a 0.5-meter drop on a concrete floor on all edges (non-operating), and a 0.4-meter drop onto plywood while on but not doing disk operations. It’s also described as “splash-resistant”, which means that some water splashed onto it shouldn’t cause a problem, but it’s not waterproof.
  • Impact-resistant plastic shell, with rounded corners to reduce impact effects.
  • A 60 GB shock-mounted PATA hard drive.
  • Windows XP OS, allowing for good application choice; you can now get it with the Windows 7 Starter edition.
  • Atom 1.6 GHz processor (standard for netbooks); 1 GB RAM, expandable to a maximum of 2 GB.
  • Touchscreen –convertible; you can use it in standard clamshell mode, or flip the screen around and down to use it in tablet mode. While it doesn’t come with a touch stylus, it has “palm rejection” technology, so that touching it with your palm or wrist accidentally, or even resting your hand on it, won’t register as a touch; only the stylus or hard presses with your finger will register.
  • Full network capability, with wireless 802.11g and an Ethernet port.
  • Two USB ports, VGA external monitor port, SD card slot, headphone/microphone jack, full keyboard and touchpad input.
  • A built-in 1.3-megapixel webcam that can be rotated to face towards you, away from you, and at 90 degrees so that it can be used in tablet mode. So you could use it in the field to snap a photo in tablet mode, then draw directly on the captured image. Also has a built-in microphone for use in VOIP or in-field recording.
  • Finally, reasonably priced; you can find it online for about $450.

Although Intel designed the system, they don’t actually manufacture or sell it; they released the reference design and specifications to OEMs. The OEMs in turn wholesale it to individual retailers, who sell it under a wide variety of names. While retailer software configurations can vary significantly, the basic hardware is the same from all of them, as is the basic software toolkit. So unless you’re looking for a specific set of additional software (like MS Office), the cheapest model may well be the best choice. Here are some links to vendors of the Classmate Convertible:

This was the only inexpensive touchscreen computer I could find whose specs came close to meeting my requirements for a GeoPad. But the only way to find out if would prove useful in the field was to order it, configure it with software and additional hardware, then use it for an extended period. I got approval for the purchase, and have used it now for about half a year. How well does it work hardware-wise as a GeoPad? That’s tomorrow’s post …

… But here’s a preview: it’s pretty good, but it’s not perfect. It has one major drawback that makes using it in the field less than ideal. But I still find it a useful field companion.

Choosing A Laptop For A Cheap GeoPad

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  …

A Cheap “GeoPad” – Putting Together An Affordable Field-Capable GIS/GPS Workstation

Last week, I posted my feature “wish list” for a handheld GPS unit designed for advanced fieldwork by scientists, mappers, technicians, etc.. One step up from that “dream” GPS unit are the mini PDA-like GPS devices / handheld computers already on the market from companies like Trimble, Ashtech, Leica Geosystems and many others. These typically have somewhat larger display screens, usually touch-enabled, and often run Windows Mobile. These can be a good choice for field data acquisition, but also have some drawbacks:

  • The screen size is fine for data acquisition, but can be too small for actual mapping work (both viewing and creating maps)
  • Even the cheapest units will start at over $600; more expensive units can easily run into thousands of dollars
  • The software for data acquisition and mapping is limited by the OS; there’s a lot less available for Windows Mobile than for standard versions of Windows (XP/Vista/7)
  • Windows Mobile isn’t the greatest OS in the world, and development of it has been very slow
  • The software that is available is often expensive
  • Processor speeds tend to be slow
  • Input is often by stylus only, which can be slow
  • Storage space for datasets can be severely limited

One step up (or maybe sideways) from these PDA devices is the concept of a GeoPad, a field-capable full PC running a desktop operating system like Windows XP. I’ve been keeping my eye on these for a while now, as this isn’t a new concept. The University of Michigan’s GeoPad website talks about developing the concept since 2003; they define a GeoPad as:

a rugged Tablet PC equipped with wireless networking, a portable GPS receiver, digital camera, microphone-headset, voice-recognition software, GIS software, and supporting, digital, geo-referenced data-sets.

The advantages of a GeoPad over a PDA-based solution (which the GeoPad site calls a GeoPocket) include:

  • Larger screen area, better suited for mapping, and easier for multiple people to view
  • Full Windows OS, which opens access to all Windows-compatible applications
  • Greater storage space (hard drive or SSD), for more datasets
  • More input options: full keyboard, stylus, mouse/trackpad

But it has disadvantages compared to PDA-based solutions as well:

  • Larger and heavier
  • Shorter battery life
  • Less rugged

But the biggest obstacle to GeoPad adoption might be cost. The GeoPad website lists a number of hardware/software combinations, with costs of about $4000-$5000; while the models are a bit out of data (circa 2007), costs of hardware and software comparable to the ones they list indicate that prices haven’t dropped as much as they have for other computer hardware.

About six months ago, I was asked to figure out whether it might be possible to find a combination of cheap hardware, and free/inexpensive GIS/GPS software, that would let you put together a GeoPad-type system for significantly less than the $4000-$5000 range without sacrificing too much in features. Over the next few months, I’ll be writing a series of posts on how I put together a usable GeoPad system for under $700 in hardware and software costs. It’s not a perfect system;  I’ll point out where it’s deficient, and how to work around some of those deficiencies. But you’ll find some of those deficiencies on expensive systems as well. Overall, my cheap GeoPad does most of what the more expensive systems do, at less than a fifth the cost. And even if you don’t go the cheapest route, hopefully you’ll find some of my experiences useful in putting together a GeoPad system of your own.

PS If you have no interest in this topic, don’t worry; I won’t be focusing exclusively on this. Posts on standard blog topics will continue.