Pen Computing Issue #11

July/August 1996

Pen Lab Review


Touchscreen PC built from the ground up for operation in hostile environments

Every time we come across another rugged mobile computer, we are surprised at the many different ways companies go about ruggedizing. The range is huge, going all the way from merely placing a regular notebook computer into a protective case, to beefing up the exterior, to special designs, all the way to truly tanklike contraptions that appear to be able to withstand a nuclear blast.

Each manufacturer seems to have a different idea about optimal design to withstand punishment, and about the materials to be used. Some prefer plastics and rubber, others aluminum or magnesium. Some mill their case from a solid block of metal while others create complex sandwiched designs with all sorts of shock absorption.


The PCMobile 486

The PCMobile computer from M3i Technologies is no exception. At first sight it looks like a circa 1990 vintage PC notebook, albeit one that weighs around 10 pounds-lighter than Apple's original "portable" Mac, but very substantial in this day and age of two and three pound rugged field units. The reason is the PCMobile's rock solid housing which is made entirely of magnesium-case, keyboard, and even the screen housing. Everything is coated with a thick layer of industrial gray paint (chosen to reflect light rather than absorb it, as black would). The whole thing looks and feels as if it were cast iron. Rubber gaskets are fitted around all connector openings and between case mating parts. All internal components are soldered and secured in place. (The only thing that feels even slightly flimsy is the plastic handle.) As a result, the PCMobile's ruggedness specs are extremely impressive.


Screen, controls, and performance

The transflective screen is very visible inside and in bright sunlight, even though it is covered for protection with an anti-glare polycarbonate shield that resists shock and scratches. The screen also has a shock dampening mounting system. As an option, M3i offers an active matrix color screen.

The PCMobile 486 has no less than nine LCDs to let you know what's going on inside. There are also an additional seven touch-membrane PF function keys, and a bright yellow key for emergency functions. There will never be a communication problem between you and your PCMobile.

Only a couple of years ago, a 486DX4 processor running at 75MHz would have set speed records among pen PCs. It's still fast enough today-and the PCMobile offers good performance-but in a system designed for vehicle operation, a Pentium class processor would be nice.


Backlit keyboard

The key-board is some-what unusual and takes some getting used to. Due to its com-pletely spill-proof elastomeric mem-brane cover, it feels a bit like one of those old chiclet keyboards, but there are advantages, too: for example, this is one of the few keyboards that's backlit! The lighting intensity is adjustable and allows typing in the dark, a huge advantage in applications where around-the-clock operation is required (like public safety or field service). The keyboard comes off and can be attached with a coil-cord cable. There is also a built-in cursor control knob. Its location on top of the keyboard is a bit unusual but you get quickly used to it, and cursor control is excellent.


Excellent docking station

The optional docking station is made of thick, solid steel and has a very clever locking mechanism that lets you insert and remove the unit in an instant. The rear docking connector features a video, keyboard/mouse, and parallel port and no less than four 9-pin COM ports.

If your field service operation requires a well-built, very rugged computer, take a closer look at the PCMobile.

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Contents ©1995-1997 Pen Computing Magazine. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction in any form is prohibited. Contact the Pen Computing Publishing Office for reprint information.