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OtterBox Armor

Make your PDA a rugged computing tool for just US$100

by Shawn Barnett

Posted November 20, 2003

There are many applications where you'll only want one of the truly rugged handhelds regularly reviewed here in Pen Computing Magazine. But there are plenty of instances where a rugged housing around a standard PDA will do just fine, and meet the company budget, often even stretching that budget to include more handhelds.

The folks at OtterBox have come up with a new case that takes after-market ruggedness to new heights. It's the Armor 3600, designed to work with all PDAs. Its rather large rubberized body is hourglass shaped, which maximizes impact resistance while still allowing the case to fit in most hands. Across the back is a neoprene handstrap that further enhances your ability to hold the case in one hand.

It is a two-shell design, held together by four cam-lock clamps situated at the four corners. A silicone gasket, if kept clean, keeps water out. The front opening measures 4 7/8 inches by 2 7/16 inches, enough to fit the full screen of a Sony CLIE NX device, plus buttons and camera. A clear, flip-up plastic door guards the opening, and moves out of the way to reveal a clear write-through membrane that keeps the case water-tight while offering normal access to the touchscreen available on most PDAs.

I tested it with several PDAs, and it worked better with shallow-mounted screens like the NX80. I had trouble in the corners with PDAs like the Tungsten T, whose screen is mounted more deeply in the front bezel. Tungsten C and W owners will find that the screen opening is not quite big enough to prevent the outer keys on the built-in keyboard from activating. Were it made just a little wider it would be no problem to activate the keys with a stylus.

An empty stylus slot is molded into the rubber left of the screen.

The four cam locks can be secured with a screw for extra security. Opening these latches allows the back shell to come away, revealing the soft foam pad that is used to hold the product securely in place. Removing this foam doesn't allow the device to fall free, however, as is possible in other models. The PDA is instead held in place by two velcro straps that crisscross one another.

It is an impressive case. But there's a lot more. Many field applications require more than just the PDA. Some require external GPS units, laser scanners, battery packs, and hard-wired connections to external devices. The 3600 is ready.

The optional Deep Box kit comes with an additional back shell for accommodation of thick battery packs, like the Compaq iPAQ sleeves, for an additional US$50. Top and bottom of the unit are clear plastic doors that can be used for beaming, and can be removed to allow attachment of case extensions. The big, clear CF POD provides extra room for a radio, GPS, or laser scanners.

Two other expansion modules are available, one that allows cables of various sizes to pass through and connect to the PDA, and one that offers a blank plate for users to add their own connector type, called the Through-the-Box Connectivity Kit (US$39.95) and the Through-the-Box POD Kit (US$34.95) respectively. As an example of what's possible with the POD Kit, they offer a Serial POD Kit with a DB9 connector built in (available in October 2003).

The most obvious necessity is that Connectivity Kit, because it allows you to attach a car charger and keep the PDA working in the roughest environs. Just two allen screws open the adapter, and you select from the bank of sizes to fit the cable just right. The only problem can be when your PDA connector is too big to fit through the opening. I couldn't fit most charge-n-sync connectors at my disposal; however, some of them connect to a car charger module via a standard USB connector, which does fit through the opening, so users would just need to try a different cable and route it this way.

Other accessories include the Neck Lanyard Kit (US$29.95), a well-padded OpTech strap that makes the Armor 3600 feel surprisingly light around your neck. There's also a belt clip (US$19.95) and even a sealed Otter carrying case called the Armor Travel Case for both your Armor 3600 and the devices you use to protect it. Price for this relatively big box is US$69.95. Not bad.

The one weak link is also a replaceable item: the write-through screen membrane I mentioned earlier. Naturally this is going to wear out, so it and its locking gasket can be replaced for US$12.95. With the exception of PDAs like the NX80-which pretty well covers the entire opening-direct finger pressure can push this membrane open, releasing the light pressure offered by its O-ring retainer. It makes me wonder if changes in altitude combined with weather change might work the membrane loose with an increase in pressure, as is offered by a quick drive from the Sierras to the San Francisco Bay (an easy three to four hour trip). This just reinforces the need to re-check your armor when you enter a new environment, because much can change. I don't think it's a big issue, but users should be aware of the possibility. Opening the case and pressing the O-ring back in reseals the box.

The good news is that it's an inexpensive replacement item, as is true of all the accessories in this Armor system. Even the various mounting kits are reasonable, including a handlebar mount for US$15, and a permanent mount kit for US$20.

If you're at risk of a minor fall or of dropping your device while occasionally collecting data in the field, you might look at the OtterBox Armor 2600 as well, which offers reasonable protection in a smaller package; but if your PDA is subject to abuse and the data is critical, you need an Armor 3600. It's the first serious protection for PDA use in the real world.

-Shawn Barnett

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