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>PenLab: Intermec CT60 Tablet PC

Ultra Rugged Tablet PC built on a tradition of toughness and durability (June 2003 issue)

As we predicted, once Microsoft released the Tablet PC Edition of Windows XP, it was just a matter of time until vertical market vendors either retrofitted their existing products to support the Tablet PC Edition or announced new products that could run it. Imagine responding to a RFP for a large number of rugged mobile computers and not having one that runs the operating system Microsoft specifically developed for such mobile systems.

One such company is Intermec, the Automated Data Systems division of industrial technology conglomerate Unova. With revenues of almost US$750 million in 2002, Intermec, which took over Norand a couple of years ago, is a market leaders in automated solution systems, a field that includes ruggedized handheld and vehicle-mounted mobile computers and wireless and wired data collection systems.

Industry followers know that over the years Intermec offered Kalidor pen slates under the Trakker name and later Norand's 6640/6650 series of rugged pen tablet. This time the company decided to partner with one of the great experts in the rugged computer arena, WalkAbout Computer. WalkAbout's Hammerhead computers, milled from a solid block of aircraft-grade aluminum, have earned a great reputation as no-nonsense, ultra-tough mobile systems. In addition, rival Symbol Technologies has teamed up with WalkAbout rival Xplore (see review of the Xplore iX104 on page 26 of this issue), making it imperative for Intermec to offer their own major league rugged tablet. The result is the Intermec CT60 that was announced on March 31, 2003. In the release, Intermec does not hide the origins of the CT60. In fact, WalkAbout CEO David Grainger is quoted in the release: "Ours is the only rugged Tablet PC with a milled-aluminum housing. It won't bend or flex and is so rugged you could drive a truck over it." And that may well be so.

One look at the new Intermec CT60/WalkAbout XRT reveals its heritage. Unlike most slates that come with an optional case, the CT60's sturdy, padded, and extremely well-fitting case seems designed to be part of the unit itself. It adds very little to the size of the computer, allows access to all controls, lets the computer be inserted into optional docks, makes it more comfortable to hold, and adds extra protection to boot. This has always been the best case in the industry, and it remains so on this new model. Remove the actual computer from the zipper case and you hold in your hands perhaps the most invulnerable mobile computer ever made. It is impossible to convey just how solid the CT60 feels. When you hold that piece of milled aluminum in your hands, it feels like one solid block of lightweight metal. If you took it apart, you'd see that the inside is logically designed and subdivided for maximum efficiency, flexibility, and structural integrity. However, while the original Hammerheads very much looked like industrial tools for industrial jobs, this one is not only tough, it also represents industrial design at its best. We've seen this trend towards more attractive design in other products. It's as if manufacturers everywhere all of a sudden decided, "Hey, just because this thing is tough doesn't mean we can't make it look good." Whatever the thought process, the CT60's design is just about perfect. The overall effect is one of extremes of ruggedness and efficiency, but the edges of the CT60 are rounded so it feels comfortable to hold. A slight bulge on top and on the bottom highlight the internal hinges that keep the clamshell design of the housing tightly together. The sides and the back of the unit are finned to increase the surface of the fan-less device for maximum heat dissipation. A special tool is required to open the CT60 to keep the chance of inadvertent breaks in seals at a minimum.

The CT60 indeed looks like a solid bock of aluminum. There are virtually no openings, no buttons or controls, and nothing that looks like it could break off. This means there are also none of the Microsoft-suggested Tablet PC connectors and buttons. This pen slate was designed to be as rugged as possible, and that precludes flimsy, leaky plastic doors and hinges and buttons and such. The CT60 only has what is absolutely necessary. A small on/off switch. A power jack. A small, sealed speaker. A sealed expansion connector. There are two Type II PC Card slots covered by a tightly screwed down aluminum door. The sole protrusion is a USB port, sealed of course, that is screwed onto the side of the housing like a mini air scoop on a muscle car. Everything else has either been omitted because it is not absolutely necessary (like the various buttons you find on almost all other Tablet PCs), because it can be built into the unit's internal "Flex" space (like all sorts of radios or even a GPS unit), or because it is available via one of the CT60's several available docks.

Technologywise the CT60 stays closer to the standard Tablet PC format. The unit is powered by a Pentium III-M processor at 800, 866, or 933 MHz. A single 256 or 512MB PC133 SO-DIMM module provides DRAM memory. The hard disk is a standard 20GB Hitachi TravelStar that sits encased in a thick bed of dense, tight-fitting foam, protected from all but the most severe shock and vibration. The hard disk cover, itself a thick, solid piece of aluminum with a ring seal and additional foam cushioning, is secured by three screws. This way the drive is very well protected, yet it can quickly and easily be exchanged with a standard notebook replacement that doesn't even require a special adapter. A 40GB disk option is available.

Power is provided by two Lithium-Ion batteries that recess flush into the backside of the CT60. A smartly designed yellow thumbwheel allows locking and unlocking the batteries. Only one can be unlocked at a time, and even unlocked, the battery still must be pried out. Both batteries together add up to 42 watt- hours, which is at the high end of what most Tablet PCs offer (one exception being the Electrovaya Scribbler with its 120 Watt Hour battery). Intermec claims about four hours of battery life. The batteries are hot swappable as long as one of them stays in. There is no additional bridge battery. Note, however, that the unit only comes with one battery. The second one is optional, and it is one option that I consider mandatory.

Like most Tablet PCs, the CT60 comes with a 10.4-inch LCD that can be used in either portrait or landscape format. You have the choice of a transflective or transmissive display. The good news is that as of this writing we are not aware of another Tablet PC with a transflective display, which means it can be seen indoors as well as outdoors. However, the transflective display's resolution is only 800 x 600 SVGA pixels as opposed to the standard 1024 x 768 XGA resolution in this class of computer. Still, that is good enough for the vast majority of vertical market applications that are primarily used in landscape mode anyway. If you need to use a Tablet PC outdoors, the choice is clear, and only Intermec/WalkAbout have what you need. If it is mostly used indoors, you must decide if you can live with the lower resolution or if you should go for the XGA transmissive option. I should point out that the CT60s creators went through great efforts to make that transflective display available to their customers. It is a costly LG Philips LCD that is painstakingly retrofitted to work with the active digitizer.

Both displays are protected by a pretty thick sheet of tempered glass and both use the same Wacom digitizer. Wacom pens do not need batteries, but, like with all active digitizers, if you lose the pen you can't use the computer anymore unless you plug in a USB mouse. This is an especially critical issue since the CT60 does not have any backups to the pen. There is no joystick or navigation disk, and there isn't a backup stylus. To make it less likely to lose the pen, the CT60 stylus is tethered to the zipper of the soft case in a clever arrangement that allows the tether to be either on the left or the right side. And while the CT60 hardware itself does not have a stylus silo, there is a loop for it on the case. The stylus itself is a standard Wacom pen but it is encased in a "suit of armor" that adds toughness and a loop for the tether. The pros and cons of Wacom-style digitizers are well known. No batteries are needed, and the pen is small and handy. But despite the 1,000 dpi resolution, the pen doesn't feel very precise and it can be difficult to make it work right along the right side of the display. This imprecise feeling of the Wacom digitizer is not Intermec's or Walkabout's fault, but it is a bit of an Achilles' heel of Tablet PCs.

The fan-less CT60 dissipates heat well, but it does get warm and sometimes hot. No big deal, but it is something that makes me miss the days when heat buildup simply wasn't an issue.

It comes as no surprise that the CT60 excels at survival in the toughest environments. As is always the case with environmental specifications, some are more important than others, depending on your intended use. Check the Intermec website for details. Suffice it to say that we've rarely seen a device as trust-inspiring as the rock-solid CT60. And an IP67 rating means complete protection of live or moving part, protection against penetration of any dust, and protection against complete immersion in water for a short period of time.

Intermec offers a wealth of options for the CT60, including wireless LAN and WAN radios from various manufacturers. You can get an integrated GPS receiver, several customized OEM modules in the device's "Flex" space which is sort of a "OEM Radio Bay," and the usual external peripherals such as floppy and optical drives, mice and keyboards. There is a choice of a vehicle dock, a desktop dock, a port replicator/office stand, a full-size and mini port replicator, and a wired LAN dock for large data transfers.

I initially wondered why the CT60 does not use Phoenix Technologies' cME Tablet PC FirstBIOS that's specifically designed for the Tablet PC. The likely answer is cost, but another one may be that the CT60 is designed so that it can use older versions of Windows as well as the XP Tablet PC Edition. The CT60's BIOS lets you enable or disable legacy device support. This means that the CT60 can support legacy ports on some of the various docks, and it won't force customers to move to the Tablet PC Edition of XP if they are not ready for it.

To sum it up, with the CT60, Intermec customers now have access to a superbly designed, ultra-rugged Tablet PC slate of the highest pedigree, one that has a hardened core in the all-aluminum CT60 computer itself, but one that is extremely flexible and expandable due to the many options and expansions available for the device. It is also the only one with a transflective display and that may make a huge difference. - [Click here to go to Intermec's website]