PenLab: Xplore iX104 Tablet PC

Impressive rugged pen slate for vertical markets from the experts (June 2003 issue)

Once it became clear that Microsoft was serious about the Tablet PC version of Windows XP, it became a no-brainer for makers of rugged touch screen slates and notebooks to start upgrading their existing products to Tablet PC status or developing special Tablet PC products. With a separate pen version of Windows available, one that is optimized for tablets, has digital ink, and can be operated with a pen, it simply made no sense not to offer it to clients. You may have noticed that some vendors began calling their slates "Tablet PCs" even before Microsoft officially announced the platform last November. Technically speaking, anything resembling a tablet and containing PC functionality could be called a Tablet PC, but we're going to reserve the term for computers running the Tablet PC version of Microsoft Windows XP.

On the surface, retrofitting a pen slate to run Windows XP Tablet requires no more than replacing the touch screen with an active digitizer. While Microsoft issued a set of minimum requirements and directives as to what constitutes a Tablet PC, it was really more like a guideline. Windows CE once had some pretty rigid rules, but those were quickly abandoned in favor of a search for a winning formula. Some of that is happening with the Tablet PC. The original spec suggested a Transmeta processor to provide a good balance of performance and battery life. As it turned out, few could resist the temptation to switch to Intel chips, trading battery life for more speed (and heat). However, Microsoft's proposed spec also did away with a lot of legacy device support and mandated/suggested a variety of hardware buttons to increase the functionality of a slate. All of this made retrofitting an existing product to Tablet PC status a bit more complex than simply placing an order with Wacom or FinePoint Innovations for some active digitizers.

Xplore, a veteran of the rugged pen slate arena, realized that and that's why the iX104 is an entirely new machine, one that is designed from the ground up to be a Microsoft-spec Tablet PC rather than a retrofit. Though good looks are among the least important aspects of a tough tool for tough jobs, that's the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the iX104. "Damn, what a fine looking piece of equipment!" Xplore apparently felt that a generous dose of good industrial design never hurts, and the results are astonishing. The iX104 has a multi-layered, all-magnesium chassis/housing that's complemented by some tough plastic and rubber parts (not rubber, actually, but an optimized high-tech compound called ISODAMP). The result is a device that looks less like it is milled from a solid block and more like it was purposefully designed on a computer and then manufactured and assembled with Lexus-like precision and attention to detail. While rectangular, the iX104 is heavily contoured and each of those artfully designed curves and ridges has a purpose other than to just look good. The four corners of the iX104, for example, are protected by rubber bumpers, but those bumpers don't simply sit on the corners. No, the corners have been specifically designed to accommodate the bumpers, hold them in place, and better integrate them into the overall design. Another example is that the 1.6-inch thickness of the iX104, by itself quite acceptable, is visually reduced by clever design. A bottom plate, perhaps a third of an inch thick, is inset by half an inch so that you barely notice it. Yet it provides room for a truly massive 9,000 mAh/56 watt-hour Lithium Polymer battery and a generously sized heat exchanger with a tiny fan for the 866MHz ULV Pentium III-M processor. And while other machines are adorned with all sorts of stickers and labels, most of the iX104's info items are molded right into the magnesium housing. Xplore has always been a proponent of good industrial design, and this time they partnered with Wistron, the experienced manufacturing arm of Taiwanese giant Acer, for truly superior execution.

In terms of size and weight, the rugged iX104 is thicker and heavier than a business-class Tablet PC. It has a roughly 8-1/2 x 11 footprint, is 1.6-inches thick, and weighs about 4.5 pounds, a good pound and a half more than the Fujitsu Stylistic or Motion slates. 4.5 pounds, of course, is still much less than your average full-function notebook, and the iX104 puts the extra weight to good use. This Xplore tablet is solid as a rock.

Like most slates (and all Tablet PC slates), the Xplore can be used in portrait or in landscape mode. It is handy in both modes, though it always takes a bit of getting used to having the buttons in different locations when you rotate the unit. In portrait mode, which the iX104 was primarily designed for, a hardware control panel sits below the display. A five-function (up/down/left/right/enter) mini-joystick is flanked by an escape button on one side and a "Windows" button on the other, plus three more rubber buttons on either side. On the left are Alt/Ctrl/Del, screen rotation, and Function, and on the right are three programmable function buttons. All are sealed and have easy-to-read white labels. Pushing any of the buttons activates a bright blue backlight, another cool design element, and a useful one at that. In case that you want to listen to stereo music via the iX104's AC97 Sound Blaster Pro audio subsystem, two nicely integrated 1-watt speaker are built into each corner, right by the rubber bumpers.

As stated, although some vertical market clients will likely balk at it first, all Tablet PCs are legacy-free devices. You won't find a serial or parallel port on the iX104. Instead, Xplore divided up the ports into completely sealed IP64-standard ports that can accommodate snap-on modules (one USB 1.1, one USB 2.0, and a dock) and a number of IP54-standard ports sitting under rubber flap covers. Those include a third USB 2.0 port, a FireWire jack, earphone and microphone jacks, an RJ-45 LAN connector, power, and a VGA connector. We would have preferred individual rubber plugs for all of these connectors (this way the USB, FireWire and audio connectors are all exposed when you open the flap to plug in the AC adapter. What you don't see are the internal PC Card Type II slot, an internal mini PCI slot, and a field-replaceable internal OEM module bay that can accommodate a variety of options, including radios or a Bluetooth module. The iX104's dock and expansion port connectors are marvels of engineering and demonstrate the amount of thought that went into this unit's overall design. Examples are the completely sealed spring-loaded pins and gold-coated interconnects that combine for superior durability, reliability, and protection.

In terms of technology and features, the iX104 uses standard Tablet PC fare. The 866MHz PIII-M processor is complemented by Intel's 830M integrated 4X AGP graphics system. Customers can order their units with shock-mounted 20 or 40GB 2.5-inch hard disks and either 256 or 512MB of PC133 SDRAM SO-DIMM memory. The display is either a standard 10.4-inch transmissive LCD made by Toshiba or an optional hi-bright display with automatically controlled backlight. For a digitizer, Xplore chose the ubiquitous Wacom inductive system that does not need a battery in the pen. The iX104 comes with one standard Wacom pen. Ours was tethered to the unit with a black string. There is no garage for the pen. Instead, it securely snaps onto the back of the unit. The Wacom pen seems small and fragile (and easily lost) for such a tough tool for the job, and only time will tell how field workers take to this small yet oh-so-crucial part of their computer. In addition, we remain concerned about the accuracy of the Wacom digitizer along the perimeter of the display where the iX104 was as difficult to control as several other Wacom-equipped Tablet PCs.

Despite Microsoft's early efforts to convince the hardware community to stick with low-power, cool-running Transmeta processors, that just didn't happen (with a couple of exceptions such as the HP and FIC Tablet PCs). Even the iX104's relatively conservative 866 MHz Pentium III-M created a good deal of heat in the completely sealed machine. The magnesium case acts as a cleverly designed heat sink and there's that small fan in the forced convection cooling indent in the back, but all in all there is more heat buildup than we'd like. As far as battery life goes, Xplore provides plenty of it via an optional 56 Wh Lithium Polymer pack. The standard battery packs half as much, 28 Wh. The battery is "warm-swappable" as opposed to "hot-swappable." This means you put the machine into standby mode before you take out the battery and replace it with a freshly charged one.

Xplore has always been very innovative with its add-ons and peripherals, and the iX104 is no exception. There are USB-based digital camera, fingerprint scan and DGPS options that all snap onto the device. There are several docks, among them a vehicle/wall station and an office dock with a bunch of ports including legacy serial and parallel interfaces.

The best reason to consider a Xplore iX104 is its unparalleled ruggedness. The machine carries an overall IP54 rating (the same as the three rugged notebooks we reviewed in the last issue of Pen Computing) and an even more impressive IP64 rating for the core electronics. The device can be operated in a wide temperature range from minus 4 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and has been built to survive 26 4-foot drops to concrete. For detailed environmental specs (vibration, humidity, ESD, etc.) check Xplore's website. As always, your particular application will make the ability to pass some of those tests either vital or meaningless. I should mention that Xplore offers an UL 1604 upgrade option which provides compliance with the IEC60950 international safety standard.

What it all amounts that is that we're seeing the emergence of the ruggedized Tablet PC. It brings full Windows XP Professional power to the field, and it adds the special pen and ink functionality of the Tablet PC Edition. All of this is good news, but some questions remain. For example, many field force applications simply require workers to tap large buttons on touch screens. That can be done even under adverse conditions or with gloves on. Will applications that require a small active pen be acceptable for such work? Xplore answers this with plans to offer a combined Wacom/touch screen digitizer. And will the current lack of transflective screen options be a big detriment to vertical markets where equipment is often used outdoors? We don't know the answer to those questions yet, but we applaud those who blaze the trail with technological advancement.

The iX104 is available from Xplore as well as from Symbol Technologies with which Xplore has a mutually exclusive partnership. - [Click here to go to Xplore technologies's website]

Conrad Blickenstorfer

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