How does a rugged tablet fit into the modern, consumerized tablet ecosystem?
With the iPad and Android tablets absolutely dominating the tablet discussion, and with tablet versions of Windows 8 looming, I thought it would be interesting to catch up with a few outliers in the tablet ecosystem.
First up? MobileDemand’s 7-inch xTablet T7000.
For many businesses, tablets like the T7000 are superfluous and perhaps even a little outrageous. Weighing two to three times what an iPad weighs and running modified, touch- and stylus-friendly versions of Windows 7 as the primary OS, these tablets certainly aren’t for everyone.
But for many vertical markets, including retail, manufacturing, field sales, government work, and even the military, these devices are an essential piece of equipment.
Right now, there are no truly rugged upgrade options for the iPad or other tablets. Yes, there are rugged cases that offer some protection from drops and protect screen displays, but for many buyers, the term rugged encompasses much more than simple shock absorption.
For many buyers, rugged means water-proofing, dust protection, reliability in extreme temperatures/climates, thermal signal protection, hot swappable batteries, and more. It means the greatest minimization of downtime possible, even if it comes at added cost.
For some sectors, it also means native Microsoft Office, inherent network security, native Windows applications, and input devices that make the most of Windows.
Initial Impressions: Burly, big, and surprisingly fast
Thick and beefy, the T7000 measures 8.8-inches by 5.7-inches. That’s not too bad, but the 1.5-inch thickness is almost five times that of the iPad and most other tablets.
With these dimensions, you’d expect the T7000 to weigh closer to 5 or 6 pounds than the 2.5 pounds it weighs in at. The relative lightness (it only weighs 1.04 pounds more than an iPad) is a result of the ultra-light magnesium chassis MobileDemand has fabricated as a frame for the tablet.
In true PC style, the components have been constantly upgraded over the years and, oddly enough, the end result is a device that has many of the same features and specifications everyday consumer tablets have.
The T7000 we tested had the following internals:
- 1.60GHz Atom Z530 CPU
- 2.0 GB system RAM
- 32GB storage via shock-mounted solid state drive (SSD)
- 2MP camera on the back
- 7-inch 1024 x 600 TFT LCD screen
- Windows 7 ( 32-bit Tablet Edition)
- 2MP camera
- 2 USB 2.0 ports
- Ethernet port
- Audio jack port
- 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
The T7000 also has a few extras that other tablets do not, including a four-color notification LED, full-sized SD card slot, Express Card Slot, an onboard numeric keybad and cursor keys, dual hot swappable batteries, water-proofing, and more.
Optional features include GPS, WWAN wireless via the Express Card slot, a digitizer stylus, a desktop cradle, and a mountable elastic holder that fits on the back of the tablet and allows you to attach it to the flat of your hand.
The twin 5160mAH batteries merit special attention, not only for their capacity (8 hours, with many days’ of standby), but also because you can hot-swap them one at a time without interrupting operation.
Given today’s standards, eight hours feels fairly minimal given the battery capacity—particularly when you consider that the iPad can go for 10 hours with a lot less juice. This is the downside of the PC Windows ecosystem; even though Intel and Windows are attempting to rapidly evolve, the combination isn’t very efficient from a performance/watt perspective.
The upside of this battery-draining Wintel configuration is that the T7000 is remarkably nimble in terms of responsiveness and performance. Launching applications is snappy, and the performance of those applications is a no-compromise experience. This is a desktop/notebook type of experience vs. a netbook one.
What’s the price?
All this rugged load-out and extra features come at a pretty hefty price. The base unit T7000 costs range from $2100 to $2500.
The optional office dock, which connects the tablet to a display monitor as well as keyboard/mouse, costs $275. A car version of the dock runs $445, and the optional credit card reader costs $235.
The 1024 x 600 screen doesn’t compare favorably to the new or older iPad, particularly in terms of off-plane viewing angles. This said, the screen is bright enough for direct daytime viewing, and the resolution feels appropriate for the standard Windows OS and the 7.7-inch screen size.
Optional digital pen feels like writing on paper
Three years ago, when Apple released the initial iPad, everyone assumed it meant the end of pen-based computing. This has largely been true for the consumer class, although the attention Samsung has drawn with its Galaxy Note may be an indication of a possible shift.
On the professional front, I’ve heard time and time again that pens and styluses are critical for a number of tasks, such as:
- Simple PDF documentation for legal professionals
- Kiosk entry for consumer services and travel
- Science, research, and field work
Do you need all the higher-end rugged accoutrement that comes with the stylus? For most of us, probably not.
This said, the T7000 does have one leg up on most tablet devices in terms of pens and writing. The screen is coated with a substance that, in tandem with the digitizer, creates a sensation that feels as similar to writing on real paper as you’ll ever see. The only thing I’ve ever seen that’s as tactically similar is Lenovo’s X series of convertible Windows-based tablet PCs.
The tablet is also operable without a stylus, although given the current iteration of Windows 7, hunting and pecking on tiny Windows icons is not an optimum experience.
Final thoughts on the T7000
In some ways, the entire tablet revolution revolves entirely around professionals casting out Windows-based tablets in favor of lighter, more responsive means of getting work done.
And, truth be told, even in-the-field professions such as construction are switching to ruggedized iPads instead of using truly rugged tablet PCs. Not surprisingly, software is driving the transformation. Proprietary software or adapted platforms like construction field management software Vela are making the transition to iPads a lot easier.
This said, the xTablet T7000 is an interesting and specialized piece of hardware. I remember testing Windows-based tablets when they first debuted more than 10 years ago. Sluggish, pokey, and non-responsive, those devices bear no similarity to the T7000 from an operational point of view.
I was truly surprised by how snappy an experience MobileDemand has provided. The fact that modern-day ultra-light x86 processors are capable of driving such an experience is a good sign for the future success of both Intel, both for convertible tablets and ultra books.
It’s also a sign that, for companies like MobileDemand, the Windows 8 experience might be a boon. At the very least, it’s clear that Windows 8 will allow the bulky, rugged, specialized form-factor to more fully achieve a more natural tablet experience.
Oddly enough, I’m beginning to see the rapid adoption of consumer-grade tablets as a good thing for this category as well. As iPad and Android drive more awareness around tablets in general, it’s possible that more and more vertical markets will find themselves intrigued by Windows 8 on the x86 architecture.
Microsoft has already talked up how the live tiles in Windows 8’s Metro UI can be applied to enterprise environments and existing big software platforms. After spending time with the T7000, it seems clear that this highly anticipated OS upgrade will save considerable amounts of time for workers who use this category of tablet.
The caveat here is that manufacturers of tablets in this category still need to find a way to make their tablets slimmer and lighter, however rugged they are.
That’s easier said than done, but massive enterprise opportunities exist for the company that figures out how to consumerize this rugged tablet form-factor.