Rugged computer maker Xplore Technologies used the MobileBeat 2013 conference in San Francisco this week to unveil its latest tablet model and, as our dependence on computers grows, we find they increasingly have to be hardened for the harsh environments in which we now work with them.
Xplore introduced the RangerX, with a starting price of $1,349, as what it calls a “fully rugged” tablet running Google Android. The company’s top-of-the-line tablet, the iX104C series, is dubbed “ultra rugged” and is intended for military use. But the RangerX can hold its own as well as its big brother.
Among its specs: it weighs 2.2 pounds, versus less than 1.4 pounds for an Apple iPad, but lighter than the tank-like Xplore iX104C at 5.5 pounds. Also, the RangerX claims battery life of up to 10 hours, offers up to 192 gigabytes (GB) of storage, Gigabit Ethernet connectivity for fast connections and a brightly lit screen for visibility outdoors.
But what makes rugged computers truly tough is the way they are designed and built, said Jim Plas, vice president of marketing for Xplore.
“It starts with a magnesium alloy frame with just the right tensile strength and flexibility to allow us to place our electronics on top of it,” Plas explained. “The electronics are suspended within the frame so that when you drop it, the frame absorbs all the vibrations and the shocks so it doesn’t have any impact on the device.”
You can drop the Xplore tablet from four feet up without any consequences, he said. I can’t tell you how many friends have showed me their smartphones with a shattered screen. My own tablet has a crack on the screen but, luckily, on the edge of the device, not the viewable area.
What’s interesting to me about rugged computers is how they are increasingly becoming essential for so-called “field service workers,” people who spend their workday out and about and now almost always need a computer along with them. The conventional image of a construction project manager is of someone with blueprints they spread across the hood of a pickup truck at a construction site. Not anymore, said Plas. The RangerX also includes an HDMI input, the same input on the newest TVs. This jack, Plas explained, is for field workers for cable TV and Internet providers (often, now, the same company) who can check the phone, video and Internet connections of their network out in the field.
Plas cited industry figures that the rugged computer market is roughly $2 billion, but headed for $5 billion given growing demand. VDC Research said this about the market in a March report: “Rugged tablets was the only form factor that did not contract in 2012 and we expected it to continue to represent a growth catalyst.”
Xplore has competitors, of course, chiefly Panasonic, which has long sold the Toughbook line of notebooks and now offers Toughbook tablets. Other major players in the market are less well known to consumers but include Motion Computing and Mobile Demand, said Plas. In materials describing the RangerX, Xplore compares its newest model to comparably priced hardened tablets from Panasonic, DRS Technologies and Getac. Most of these vendors, along with Xplore, also offer customized ruggedized devices along with ruggedized versions of consumer-familiar notebooks and tablets.
Some consumers (like me) think they’ve ruggedized their devices with an aftermarket rubber cushion around it, but they probably won’t be protected as well as a device built from the ground up to take a licking and keep on ticking. In fact, there’s some recent evidence that consumer device makers are protecting their gadgets more. Recent TV ads for the Samsung Galaxy S4 show it being spilled on, dropped in a fish bowl or fished out of a pile of sand.
MobileBeat 2013 was hosted by the tech news Web site VentureBeat.com.