Pen Computing Issue #6

August/September 1995

Pen Lab Review

Symbol PPT-4600

Symbol unveils an ergonomically shaped 486 pen computer with an integrated scanner.

There was a time when "traditional" pen slates dominated pen computing. No more. Today, virtually all innovation comes from a number of hard-charging vertical market hardware manufacturers and systems integrators. This spring and summer saw a virtual deluge of hot new machines from every one of the major players. After the impressive rollouts by Telxon (PTC-1134/1144/1184) and Norand (PEN*KEY 6100 and 6600), it was just a matter of time until Symbol, the Bohemia, NY, based world leader in bar code data transaction systems would roll out its own heavy artillery. Or, in this case, light artillery, as Symbol's brandnew PPT 4600 486-based, Windows-capable, scanner-equipped, ergonomically perfected pen computer weighs in at just 1.9 pounds, as far as we can tell lighter than any other 486 system in this class. The PPT 4600 is a strikingly attractive design, yet it is equally practical. And this is no accident: Two years ago Symbol Technologies started worldwide surveys and interviews with clients in order to develop the specifications for a state-of-the-art pen computer that would fulfill clients' needs. What they found was that clients wanted PC compatibility, a 486 class processor, and a VGA display. They also wanted to be able to run Windows­p;the primary standard in desktop and notebook computers­p;because this would result in lower development costs and better integration into existing systems. And finally, they wanted a lightweight, ergonomically shaped design that could be held in one hand for an extended period of time. With that information in hand, Symbol's engineers went back to the drawing board, spent the better part of a year developing, testing, and finetuning a variety of ergonomically proper designs, and finally came up with an entirely new and different form factor. From the front, the PPT 4600 looks purposefully handsome, with an innovative rotating scanner eye built into its top. The backside, however, consists of a pear-shaped grip with integrated laser triggers both for right- and left-handed users, and an adjustable strap to accommodate large and small hands. This design, combined with a weight of only 30 ounces, less than two pounds, make the Symbol PPT 4600 a pleasant, unobtrusive assistant for its users.
It should also be noted that this design is flexible as well as ergonomically correct: Symbol actually offers two variants of the 4600, the "Half Screen" version shown above, and a "Full Screen" version that has the same pear-shaped backside and handle, but is three inches wider and accommodates a full 640 x 480 VGA screen as compared to the smaller version that displays only 320 x 480 pixels. Both available versions have backlit VGALCDs with 16 gray scales, a 180 dots/inch resistive digitizer, and use the same 3.3 Volt 486 SLC processor running at 20MHz. Both use advanced power management and 1,400 milliamp Lithium Ion battery packs (actually standard SONYCamcorder cells mounted in special packages) that recharge in about two hours. According to Symbol, battery life should be six to eight hours of intermittent use, and about two and a half hours of constant heavy use. One difference between the full screen and the half screen version is that the smaller unit can withstand a drop from 6.6 foot to concrete, whereas the larger model, due to its bigger screen, can only handle half that distance.
Symbol designed the PPT 4600 primarily for public safety applications ranging from foot patrols and mobile law enforcement to commercial vehicle and customs inspection to fire and medical emergency services. The unit is optimized for accepting violation codes, inspection data, meter readings, badge and DOT numbers. The 4600 can handle 1-D bar code and PDF417 scanning, as well as magnetic stripe reading, making it perfect for a large variety of data capture needs. PDF417, by the way, is a 2-D encoding system developed by Symbol and adopted by the Department of Defense and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
Physically, the PPT 4600 is roughly the size of the Telxon PTC-1134 we reviewed in our last issue. Its measures 5.4 x 9.7 inches, and is 3.6 inches deep, primarily because of the pear-shaped handle. The paper-white touch/pen input screen is very sharp and at 5.5 inches diagonal just large enough to read comfortably. At this point it is difficult to predict whether customers will prefer the full-VGA version (it only weighs six ounces more), or the smaller and handier "half screen" unit. Presumably, those who want full Windows functionality will opt for the larger version while those who purchase or develop applications optimized for the half-screen may not miss those extra pixels.
It should also be mentioned that the PPT 4600 is quite expandable, with a PCMCIAType II and a Type III slot, accommodating a variety of wide area network, modem, and cellular options, or Symbol's own Spectrum One or Spectrum24 wireless networks. The IEEE 802.11 compliant Spectrum24 option is especially interesting, shipping in a slender PCMCIAType II card.
What does this plethora of new vertical market pen computers mean?Primarily that this technology is taking off big in field force automation and that customers have more and better options than ever before. We have no doubt that Symbol's new PPT 4600 will be very well received. Symbold can be reached at 1-516-563-2400 or 1-800 SCAN 234.