One of the benefits of going to industry trade shows is that you may get a first look at a new and unannounced product. You walk up to a booth and there it is, a computer you've never seen before, or one that's been rumored but no one has ever seen. It's a great feeling.
I didn't really have great expectations to strike gold at the recent PDA Healthcare Forum because it was primarily dedicated to software solutions. But the show turned out to be a hit and a veritable Who's Who in medical computing. The friendly people at the IBM booth once again displayed the tiny IBM Palmtop PC 110, the one that looks like a shrunken ThinkPad and that IBM swears will never be sold in the US (and to make us feel worse, we found that it actually has a pen option in Japan).
Just as we were ready to leave for the next booth, we noticed that a computer we had thought was a ThinkPad 730TE pen slate seemed awfully small. A closer look confirmed that it wasn't a ThinkPad 730 at all, but a brandnew IBM pen computer. The IBM folks at the booth volunteered that this was a prototype of their new mobile computer, code-named "Aruba." They gave us a few clues and we left the booth with big grins on our faces.
A couple of weeks and several phone calls later, the "Aruba"-the actual name of the unit is IBM Sure Point Mobile Computer-arrived at the Pen Computing Office in Rancho Cordova,.
Small but empowered
The IBM Sure Point Mobile Computer, despite its small size, is a full-function Windows machine with a 486DX2/66 processor. From head-on, it looks sort of like a slim PDA (or a shrunken 730TE), but that is deceptive: most of the guts of the Sure Point are actually in a handle bar with a strap that adds considerably to the unit's depth and weight.
Ergonomic, practical shape
With the Sure Point's design, IBM follows the cues by Telxon and Symbol with their PTC-1134 and PPT4600 handheld computers. Like those two groundbreaking units, the Sure Point has a design that fits right into the palm of your hand, reminiscent of a video camcorder. This layout combines ergonomics with practical aspects: The LCD screen and the motherboard easily fit into a thin slatelike housing. The bulky components-battery, laser scanner, card slots, and peripheral connector-are combined into a log-like enclosure that fits into your hand. From an ergonomic perspective, the Sure Point's squarish backside-designed to fit snugly into its docking station-cannot quite match the Symbol PPT4600's more rounded shape. The foot print of the Sure Point is just 8.8 x 5.1 inches. Overall thickness, including the hand bulge, is just under four inches. The Sure Point weighs between 2.9 and 3.3 pounds, depending on installed options.
IBM claims limited ruggedness-including spill resistance and the ability to survive a four foot drop onto concrete under certain conditions-but you should not consider the Sure Point a specifically rugged design.
There are no shortcomings on the technical side. The Sure Point is powered by a 486DX2/66, compared to the Telxon and Symbol's slower 486SLC processors. It is a 32-bit system throughout, which means it is able to run 323-bit operating systems in full 32-bit mode. The 6.2-inch diagonal (a bit larger than that of its competitors) transflective monochrome LCD offers full 640 x 480 VGA resolution and has a backlight. The resistive digitizer has a resolution of 340 x 480 dots per inch, enough-according to IBM-for handwriting recognition tasks. The inactive pen has a tether and parks in a recess in the side of the unit. Inactive pen operation, of course, means that there is no cursor tracking when you hold the pen close to the surface. This may or may not be important to you.
User controls are combined in a touch-sensitive function bar along the LCD and graphically resemble those of the IBM ThinkPad 730TE. They operate speaker volume, contrast, brightness, reverse video, and On/Off.
The base memory configuration includes 8MB of RAM and a 2MB Flash ROM which is configured to act like Drive B. RAM can be upgraded to 16MB. The Sure Point has two Type II PC Card slots, one internal, one external. The internal Type II slot is designated for an optional Symbol Spectrum 24 radio card that uses an internal antenna. There is also an internal Type III ATA slot taken up by the hard disk.
Unlike most mobile computers of this type and size, the IBM Sure Point also has SoundBlaster-compatible audio capabilities and comes with a built-in microphone, speaker, and an optional headset connector. IBM initially saw the addition of a voice subsystem simply as an "enabling technology". Now, of course, Lotus Notes supports voicemail over wireless, there is voice navigation, and a slew of other applications.
The Sure Point's electrical power comes from an intelligent 1.8 Ah NiMH battery which is supposed to provide about four hours of normal operation. There is also a backup battery which can support the computer in suspend mode for about an hour. The Sure Point has the plethora of power savings options now common on portable devices: on, doze, sleep, suspend, off, and no power. Getting used to all those states-and how to switch between them-can be a bit taxing, especially since the unit doesn't have a mechanical on/off switch. IBM claims 4 to 8 hours per charge, depending on usage and configuration.
The initially supported operating systems are IBM DOS 7.0 with PenDOS and Windows for Pen Computing. IBM says Windows 95, OS/2, and Windows NT will be available as well. At this point our obligatory gripe: a pen computer such as the Sure Point should not have to rely on Windows for Pen Computing, which leaves a lot to be desired for pen operation. What's needed is a totally pen-centric operating environment. There used to be one, EO's PenPoint. Thanks to AT&T shutting down EO two years ago, it no longer exists.
It's all in the dock
The Sure Point gets somewhat mixed ratings in the I/O department. All the connections are there, but-with the exception of the IR port-they are all concentrated in a single 60-pin connector which plugs into the docking station. The station has a (mini) parallel and two serial ports, a PS/2-style keyboard connector, and a RS-485 port used by an optional Point-Of-Sale attachment kit, something that, IBM says, no one else has. The somewhat bulky docking station also contains a battery re-charger, a security lock, and a tilt mechanism that allows adjustment of the docked Sure Point unit for easy viewing. The IR port, by the way, is programmable in seven protocols and can achieve speeds up to 1mbps.
Flexibility through options
There are options galore. Apart from the docking station, there is an optional fully integrated MSR (magnetic stripe reader) which reads ABA/ISO tracks 1, 2, and 3 on one side of the card. This covers most credit, debit, ID, and ATM card formats. A laser scanner option goes into the bottom of the Sure Point. It reads UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-8, EAN-13, CODE-39, CODE-39 full ASCII, Interleaved 2 of 5, CODABAR, CODE 128, and CODE 93. The laser has a rated reading range from 3.5 to 22 inches.
There were several demo programs on our unit, including a multimedia demo where a pleasant voice tells you all about the Sure Point. The audio subsystem is surprisingly loud and clear. There was also a demo of IBM's POSS point-of-sale software which is available both in DOS and Windows versions.
Outlook for the IBM Sure Point
The new Sure Point Mobile Computer should put IBM in the running for a leadership position in the increasingly lucrative mobile field computer market. The Sure Point, even in pre-production form, is handsome, functional, and powerful enough to handle just about any field application. Its long list of options provide great flexibility for configuring the Sure Point for different point-of-sale requirements.
The faster processor and the ability to run in full 32-bit mode give the Sure Point a performance edge over its direct competitors. Its fast and sharp VGA screen matches that of the Telxon PTC-1134. In addition, the Sure Point has a capable audio system that make it an attractive candidate for voice recognition applications. The design is handsome and functional, albeit not as ergonomically polished as the Symbol PPT4600.
Not so long ago, people were stunned when an entrepreneur named Alan Young built a 486-based Windows-capable pen PC that was barely larger than a PDA and weighed less than three pounds. With the Sure Point, IBM repeats that accomplishment and improves on it with a slew of options that make the unit a perfect tool for mobile field computing. Given that IBM built the DTR-1 for Dauphin, I can see Alan Young smiling somewhere out there.
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