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May/June 1996

Pen Lab Review

Badger GT-486N

The Range Rover of rugged pen notebooks

Business first: just as we received our Badger GT-486N, Teklogix International announced that it had acquired Badger Computer. Badger had been a business unit of Group Technologies Corporation. Teklogix is a global developer and marketer of wireless data communication systems with headquarters in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, and sales approaching $100 million. Teklogix customers had been asking for PC-based wide-area data transfer capabilities on a real-time basis, and Badger seemed a good fit.

Ruggedly handsome
The GT-486N is a clamshell notebook computer designed to meet military specifications standards for ruggedness and it shows. This is a computer that you can take just about anywhere. It's clearly a sturdy, substantial unit with sort of a Jeep-like charm, but although it looks tough and purposeful it also has the elegance and finish that you'd expect from something out of the Sharper Image catalog. The case is all black and every detail looks solid and well thought out. Even the carry strap wouldn't look out of place on an expensive piece of Italian designer luggage. Except that you could probably suspend an elephant from the ceiling with it. Gone, by the way, are any family ties with Dauphin, which had supplied the guts of earlier Badger systems.

Well sealed and connected
A quick tour around the case reveals that all ports are carefully sealed with thick, tightly fitting plastic caps. The only two connectors which are not covered with a cap are sealed with silicone so that water can not penetrate through the pin openings in the bottom of the connector. The caps which cover the ports are flexibly attached to the case and look like they can be easily and inexpensively replaced should they ever break.
The GT-486N is well connected. In the front, there is a 3-1/2 inch floppy drive, on the right access to a PC Card slot accommodating either two Type II or a Type II and a Type III card. On the backside you find a sealed 9-pin serial port connector, a 200-pin vehicle mount receptacle connector, and a sealed 60-pin peripheral I/O port. Into that port goes a special connector from which, Medusa-like, sprout a second serial port, a PS/2-style keyboard connector, and a parallel interface. The vehicle port accesses all of the Badger's peripheral ports, and also provides a SVGA monitor interface and seven programmable control lines that can be used to customize the system. The back also houses the power connector which can accommodate either one of the most substantial AC power bricks or a DC power adapter that connects to a 12V cigarette lighter. The power connector is sealed, but it seems a bit fragile. The other potential Achilles heal in the Badger's port design is that the PC Card compartment, once uncapped, offers no additional protection from the elements. You can see the circuitry inside. We'd recommend an internal housing for extra protection since some PC Cards will not allow the cap to be closed.

Keyboard and controls
The Badger's compact but standard-size keyboard has full travel keys. Cursor control-if you're not using the pen or a finger to manipulate the screen directly-is provided by a sealed, pressure sensitive joystick very similar to IBM's famous directional knob in the ThinkPad notebook series. Two sealed actuator buttons function as the left and right mouse button. The whole arrangement works well. Above the keyboard is an information strip with LEDs for power, drive activity, caps and num lock, and battery status. If you have an internal modem, three additional LEDs show modem activity. The strip also contains the power and suspend buttons and a bank of four additional function buttons which can be separately programmed. One of them-the S1 "Mayday" button-is red and links directly to the IRQ11 system interrupt. Both the red function button and the power on button are located behind a small finger locating depression so that they can be found even in the dark. Another testimony to Badger's admirable attention to practical details.

Specs and performance
Under the hood, the Badger is equally well equipped. Though no Pentium processor is available yet, the GT-486N can be ordered with either an Intel 486DX2/50, a DX4/75, or a DX4/100. Our test model came with a DX4/75, which seems to have become somewhat of a standard for higher powered pen computers (the IBM Thinkpad 730TE, the Texas Micro Hardbody PC, and the new Fujitsu Stylistic 100 all have DX4/75s). Standard RAM is 4MB, somewhat below the minimum of what's required to power a Windows system these days, but memory can be expanded up to 36MB via an additional 4, 8, 16, or 32MB internal 72-pin SIMM connector.
In our PenLab benchmark tests, the Badger conducted itself well, clocking the third fastest Ziff-Davis DOSMark result of any pen system we ever tested, and showed a good overall balance of processor, video, and disk scores. The Badger also ran a fast 4.78 in the Graphics WinMark test, quicker than any pen system currently on the market except for the Fujitsu Stylistic 1000. The Disk WinMark result under Windows was lower than expected. We suspect that a bit of buffer tweaking could significantly improve performance.

Responsive touch screen
The pen interface is actually an option on the GT-486N. It is facilitated through a pressure-activated touch screen with a 4096 x 4096 resolution and a sampling rate of 180 points per second. On the positive side, this arrangement means you can use any old passive stylus or even your finger to operate the computer. On the negative side, the touchscreen overlay is less accurate than an electromagnetic digitizer and it takes an actual tap on the screen to get the cursor to a certain point; the cursor does not track automatically after the pen as it does on electromagnetic systems. The Badger's screen is very responsive to the touch of your finger or fingernail, but somewhat less so to a pen. You can, however, customize the amount of pen pressure, the time between double clicks, etc., to optimize responsiveness for the pen. Screen contrast and brightness are adjusted via well-marked keyboard controls.
Another thing worth mentioning is the screen hinge design on this machine. It's quite possibly the best engineered (and best looking) screen hinge ever, and you'll NEVER fear the darn thing will break off.

Power: AC/DC first
Unlike most notebooks, the Badger GT-486N uses AC/DC as the default power mode. The NiMH battery is actually considered optional equipment. This is somewhat amazing since the system has an internal fast battery charger that will recharge the powerpack in about 2.5 hours. There is even a hotswap backup battery that provides a minute or two of operation while the main battery is switched. The Phoenix BIOS offers advanced power management options as has become the norm for modern notebooks. Badger deserves a special pat on the back for providing an actual suspend button rather than the often quizzical arrangements on other machines. And battery performance is actually quite good. With all power management disabled, the big DX4/75 Badger runs just over three hours on a charge in our benchmark test. With power management on, you can probably expect the battery to last a full eight hour working day of intermittent use.
The Badger is not exactly a lightweight, but considering its rugged nature and the fact that most units will probably be vehicle-mounted, 7.5 pounds (including battery) is acceptable. (Remember, the first Mac portable weighed over 13 pounds).
In an era of often incomprehensible user manuals, the Badger's is a delight. Though it's quite thin, it contains everything you need to know, it's refreshingly honest and straightforward, and there is no superfluous information (such as "Warning: Do not eat or barbeque batteries!)"

So there you have it. The Badger GT-486N was a surprise. We expected a rugged box that was perhaps a bit rough around the edges, like many field computers are. Instead, the Badger turned out to be the Range Rover of rugged computers, very elegant and stylish, but with all the performance you'd expect from a DX4/75 notebook, and good battery life to boot. Hopefully, Teklogix realizes what a treasure it has bought in Badger's rugged computer line. You should, too. There aren't many rugged pen-capable notebooks around, and none as competent as the Badger GT-486N.