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You Asked, We Answer: Top 5 Mobile Computer Matters

In case you missed it, we joined over 100 of our industry peers last week for a very matter-of-fact discussion about the pricing structure of today’s mobile computing solutions – and the pros/cons of various PC form factors in both field service and more traditional industry work environments.

Replay Full Webinar and Download Slides Here

Unfortunately, an hour wasn’t long enough to tackle your top questions and talk about all of the mobility issues weighing on your mind today. So let’s dig into some of them now:

1. What would you recommend to someone who does need to key a lot of data in the field – walking – monitoring devices? The touch screen keyboards leave a lot to be desired.

Great question. Let’s get one point out of the way first: Professionally-focused tablets have keyboard options, almost all of which are wirelessly connected to each other (some with Bluetooth, others with a better automatic connection). So any data entry that requires a keyboard can be done just as easily with a tablet PC as with a laptop PC.

Xplore Rugged Tablet Keyboards

Taking this question more broadly: When using a tablet as a tablet, what are the various ways to input data? In fact, the argument that “Tablets are great for the consumption of content, but they fall well short of laptops when it comes to creating that content,” has unfortunately been posed for years – even though the data disagrees with that assertion, and so do our customers. In fact, there are so many ways to capture data on the tablet today – and so many advancements in that data capture technology – that the tablet is actually the best way to accommodate everyone’s data input preferences in a single PC form factor.

So before we talk about the options you have to supplement the touch screen, we have to first consider the type of data you need to input into the application: Do you just need to make a checkbox selection, craft complete sentences, capture serial numbers? Once you answer that question, then you can consider the benefits of:

  • Barcode/RFID Scanners : Either built in or available via an I/O connection on almost every rugged tablet, barcode scanners and RFID readers expedite the data capture process and can auto-fill forms for technician confirmation on screen. Not only does this speed up that type of data entry, but it eliminates data entry errors that can be costly in more ways than one.
  • Stylus and Pen Input – Either can be used to enter data on the on-screen keyboard or complete any of the same data entry functions as the finger input. But the important thing to note is that there is a huge difference between a stylus and the more robust Active Pen. Most tablet touch screens sense the presence of a finger based on how a finger changes a tiny electrical field. A stylus is nothing more than a piece of plastic that changes the same electrical field much as a finger would, but in a little more narrow area. In contrast, active pens – as used on most rugged tablet PCs – are an entirely different technology. They actually send tiny impulses into a second invisible grid under the screen, and these impulses can be read to a precise location. So, where a stylus is an incremental improvement over a finger, an active pen, coupled with the built-in digitizer, is an order of magnitude more precise. (And active pens don’t preclude using touch too. The best tablets sense when an active pen is on the screen, and when it’s not; it still takes touch input from your finger.)
  • Handwriting and Voice Input – People tend to discount the power and accuracy of both handwriting and voice recognition tools, even though tablet PCs with handwriting recognition capabilities deliver a much faster 33 recognized wpm data entry speed than any other data entry tool (on paper or any other PC). If you need to enter a couple of sentences, the handwriting recognition or voice recognition can work really well. For those that argue that “my handwriting is illegible,” the tech can spend 20 minutes to train the tablet to understand their handwriting. You’d be surprised how much this handwriting recognition software will capture perfectly. For example, did you know that doctors and other medical professionals (notorious for their bad handwriting) have used this data entry method longer and more frequently than any other worker? They use it because it works extremely well.
  • On-screen keyboard There is also an on-screen touch keyboard, useful for occasionally entering text, or typing a password.

2. For businesses that currently provide laptops to their techs, is there typically cost savings in swapping out the laptops with rugged tablets? Or does it typically cost more?

As someone pointed out, it would be wrong for us to assume that everyone is trying to decide between a consumer and rugged tablet and, therefore, only compare the TCO of those two categories. Some know they need certified rugged mobile devices and are trying to weigh the pros/cons of the laptop – which already has the keyboard built in – to the tablet – which requires some additional purchases to add the keyboard – knowing that their technicians need to type every day. So, let’s consider the differences:

  • Laptops and Convertibles all have a permanently attached keyboard. It is there when you need it, and there when you don’t. In the case of a laptop, its presence does not help in-the-field use. Entering data is almost impossible while standing, as isreading info without a table upon which to set the laptop. And though convertible notebooks can rotate the keyboard out of the way so it can be used as a tablet, the additional structure needed for the screen and its attachments makes a convertible, in tablet mode, a lot thicker and heavier than a rugged tablet. This additional structure and these additional protective parts are what make the cost higher than a tablet PC.
  • From competitive research we’ve conducted, rugged notebooks typically cost more than tablets, even with the extra keyboard purchase for the tablet. The keyboard choices for a tablet are more varied. Based on what you actually need, you can choose a USB connected keyboard mounted on a tray in your vehicle, or a wireless keyboard that you connect in the field or when back at the office.

3. Screen glare is really hard to deal with outside, do you have a recommendation?

Outdoor viewable screens are an interesting application of physics. Doing it right is expensive and technically difficult, but makes a big difference. Let’s first look at a lesser way to solve this problem: use of only an anti-glare coating and/or increasing the screen brightness using the settings adjustment option. These can mitigate the glare issues, but often aren’t satisfactory. Using only screen brightness doesn’t help much – you are trying to “out-bright” the sun after all.

Xplore Rugged Tablet Outdoor Viewable Screens

The reason why reading a screen in sunlight is so hard is because of reflections. There are reflections at every transition – the front of the glass, the back of the glass, then the front of the LCD. Three places are all reflecting sunlight back at you. Xplore’s rugged tablet designs reduce this potential issue down to one plane: the front of the glass. We use of a very thin transparent adhesive to bond the glass to the LCD and make the assembly one pane only, so there’s only one place for potential reflection on Xplore rugged tablets. (Don’t worry, this adhesive is engineered so that service techs can remove the glass from the LCD if repair is required.)

Once the reflections are reduced by two-thirds, then increasing the backlight helps, and using anti-glare treatment on the face of the glass can make a difference. Xplore has screen brightness that is at and beyond competitors’ levels. However, when coupled with anti-reflective screen assembly, our brightness levels become much more effective in creating an outdoor viewable display.

That being said, please try every tablet PC you’re considering in your work locations before buying. There is a lot of sun in Austin Texas, so Xplore tests screen technology outside (not just in a lab).

4. Can we easily track the device if lost or misplaced? Also, what type of security can we apply to protect the data from being accessed or compromised?

Yes, these devices can be tracked with a few different techniques, and can protect data if lost or stolen.

The best method is Absolute Software’s Computrace. This is built-in to Xplore tablets, and you can enable it as an option. If a unit goes missing, IT can use a console to flag it. When it accesses the internet, it’ll check in and identify its location. Because bad guys would want to disable this, Computrace is built-in to the deepest levels of the tablet and cannot be erased. Neither a full reset or re-formatting, nor a replacement of the HDD or SSD will allow someone to remove it.

Once you have located a missing tablet, you can call the local police, send a command to erase everything on it, or you can “brick it” – that is, make it unusable ever again. One of our customers sent a manager to the house of an employee who claimed that the tablet was stolen when at work. The manager noted that the system was reporting that it was in the employee’s house. That customer tells us that no one at their place of business ever “misplaced” a tablet again.

There are other 3 rd party software tools that address this issue too, although Computrace is the best end-point protection in our view.

By the way, we find that Xplore tablets are rarely lost or stolen. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect them, as sensitive customer data must be protected.) Our customers think the reason is that there isn’t a market for stolen rugged tablets. Where iPads and Galaxy Tabs can be easily fenced, only professional service organizations would be interested in rugged tablets, and they don’t buy from the grey market.

And, last but not least, a very honest and valid question:

5. What are good sources for getting a list of the top rugged tablets in the market?

Though we would normally (very biasedly) answer this question by directing you to Xplore’s website for a complete overview of products, or to some of the recent Xplore product reviews (and rave reviews) conducted – without bias – by Laptop Magazine, PC Magazine, or CRN. HOWEVER, as an industry consultant, I asked Bob to direct you to a few third party sources that will give you straight answers about the current rugged tablet landscape (from a very neutral point of view):

Remember, though, a “top” rugged tablet list or spec sheet will only help you determine whether or not a device meets your minimum criteria. It won’t tell you how compatible it will be with the rest of your mobility solution or back office systems – or future goals. The only way to truly select the right rugged tablet for your situation is to have a very in-depth conversation with each technology provider to see how well they can accommodate you now and in the future. Most likely, you’re not in a plug-and-play PC environment. Take the time to find a partner that understands not just mobility, but your industry. If they’re right for you, they’ll know the right questions to ask to help you architect a complete mobility solution – not just sell you another computer.