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Rugged Handhelds and PDAs

Ruggedized vertical market handheld computers and rugged PDAs are the unsung heroes of the mobile computing revolution. They are tough tools for the job, and their impact on productivity and the financial bottom line can be tremendous. (by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Not too long ago it was unthinkable to expect computing power away from the desk, and then a time when it was unthinkable to have it where you need it most: out in the field and on the job. As a result, field force workers had to make do with pen and paper that often resulted in errors, delays, and an inability to access and forward data when it was needed most.

About two decades ago, some companies began using pen computers for such field work, and some of those applications were quite successful. But full-fledged pen computers cost a lot, and thus computer penetration in field force applications remained low. That is now changing with the emergence of tablet computers and relatively low cost handhelds that benefit from the great advances in consumer market smartphone technology.

Most of the devices you see in this section use the same electronic components you find in a conventional Pocket PC or PDA, but they are packaged in tough, rugged shells and designed for the job at hand. They come in several form factors. Some look just like slightly larger PDAs. Others carry on the convenient "flashlight" style of earlier generations of data terminals. Some have pistol grips for easy handling. Others are small-size tablets. Many have integrated bar code scanners or lasers. And they may use anything from minimal technology to state-of-the-art CPUs and displays.

There are also those that were designed from the ground up for use as rugged devices, with all of their components carefully selected to hold up in much more demanding environments in terms of sealing, vibration, shock, resistance to heat and cold, and other criteria.

The right display

Most rugged handheld devices will be used outdoors, and so an outdoor-viewable display is especially important. Unlike commercial notebooks where outdoor readbility was/is not considered important, PDAs and Pocket PCs have had sunlight viewable displays for many years, and so finding a device with a good display is generally less of an issue. However, technology moves on, and we're less and less inclined to accept low contrast displays or excessive reflection and glare.

Resolution can also be an issue. For years, Palm and Pocket PC devices used fairly low resolution displays (mostly 240 x 320 pixels), but as handhelds are being used for more sophisticated applications like mapping or browsing, many devices now have full 480 x 640 VGA displays. And if industrial handhelds follow smartphones, which some undoubtedly will, we'll soon see resolutions once thought unthinkable for handhelds.

Designed to take a beating

Handhelds are not immune to the laws of physics, but their generally smaller size and weight, and the absence of hard drives, makes them more able to take extreme punishment. We have tested devices that can survive drops from six feet and more, and they not only continued to work, they didn't even get scratched or dented. Some are so well sealed that they can be used in driving rain or even submerged in water. We have actually tested some underwater, in full Scuba gear. The image to the right is real. It was taken when we tested a TDS/Trimble Nomad handheld computer underwater. It continued to work.

As with all computers scheduled to be used in tough jobs out in the field, picking the right one is the difference between success and failure of your project. So do your homework carefully. Handheld computers are designed with deployment in certain types of environments in mind, so matching equipment to application is essential.

This page contains access to full reviews or capsule reviews/specs for hundreds of rugged terminals, rugged PDAs, rugged Pocket PCs, and other rugged mobile handheld computing devices.

Operating systems

Most vertical market handheld computers run one of Microsoft's compact operating systems, either Windows CE or Windows Mobile (essentially a friendlier user interface on top of Windows CE). This is interesting as in the 1990s the market was initially slow to switch from DOS or proprietary operating systems to Windows CE (some early industrial handhelds ran the Palm OS), but now that the traditional PDA/Pocket PC has largely been replaced by smartphones running Apple's iOS or Google's Android operating system, virtually all vertical market handhelds still run Windows CE.

This presents some uncertainty as the projected capacitive touch screens used in smartphones have fundamentally changed user interface expectations, and also because Microsoft itself split Windows CE into the mutually incompatible consumer-only Windows Phone side and the vertical/embedded market Windows Embedded Compact side.

Where are handhelds headed?

While consumer electronics change very quickly, industrial handheld computers have a much longer life cycle. Many models are being used in almost unchanged form year after year, with the importance being in ruggedness and convenience rather than whistles and bells. However, time doesn't stand still and there are a number of technologies that are finding their ways into handhelds and will change how handhelds are being used. Some of these technologies are GPS, wide area wireless radios, RFID, high quality imagers and scanners, and integrated high resolution cameras.

None of these technologies are new, but they are just now becoming powerful, small and reliable enough so they can be integrated into handhelds rather than being peripherals to them. Such integration, however, increases cost and complexity, so one should carefully consider what is needed and what is merely desirable.

Another interesting new development in rugged handled computers is the inclusion of increasingly sophisticated sensor technology.

Motion sensors, pioneered in smartphones such as the Apple iPhone, can be used to automatically change display orientation, engage power conservation, or interact with applications.

Light sensors can adjust screen brightness and thus safe battery power. Gyros can provide valuable 3D information. Barometric pressure sensors may provide climate data.

During 2010 and 2011, we saw a number of attempts at providing smartphone functionality in a rugged handheld computer package that could also be used for data capture, with the idea of eliminating the need of field workers to carry separate devices. We also saw the first industrial handhelds inherently capable of running Android, though the default OS usually remained Microsoft-based.

By early 2012, the difference between consumer and industrial handhelds had never been greater. While the vast majority of consumer handhelds were either iPhones or Android-based smartphones from Motorola, HTC, Samsung or LG and had large (3.5 to 5.0 inch) displays projected capactive touch screens, industrial handhelds continued to hold on to an earlier era. The majority of ruggedized handhelds remained based on Windows CE or Windows Mobile and had resistive digitizers.

There were, however, isolated attempts at offering Android-based industrial handhelds, often in conjunction with making the same hardware available with Microsoft software. Microsoft's own successor to Windows Mobile, Windows Phone, did not gain any traction or even presence in industrial handhelds, a situation undoubtedly cemented by Microsoft making it impossible to upgrade from Windows Mobile to Phone 7, and making Phone 8 incompatible even with its own Phone 7 and 7.5.

In 2013, it became increasingly clear that Android was considered a viable alternative for rugged and industrial handhelds. A number of manufacturers began offering Android versions of selected handhelds, often with the same or similar hardware as their Windows Mobile based products. Both Intermec and Motorola Solutions followed with Android platforms. On the software side, cross-platform solutions such as RhoMobile and iFactr sought to make the transition easier by enabling apps that ran on various OS platforms.

2014 saw still more new legacy handhelds with versions of Windows CE or Windows Embedded Handheld, but there were at least a matching number of new Android-based handhelds. A debate began, both with tablets and handhelds, whether it might not make sense to embed leading-edge consumer handhelds into hardened and/or value-added cases.

In 2015, most vendors of vertical and industrial market rugged handheld devices sold both Android and Windows devices. Of the latter, the majority still used Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5, due primarily to the lack of a feasible alternative from Microsoft. This will almost undoubtedly change as the new Windows 10 IoT versions gain traction.

Interesting trends were a) much wider acceptance of capacitive multi-touch instead of the resistive touch that had ruled handhelds for almost two decades, and b) rapidly increasing display sizes to meet the demands of customers used to giant smartphone screens.

In 2016, Microsoft made a renewed effort to finally offer a replacement of the old Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 with Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise (how's that for a name!). Its prime attraction is that it uses the same "universal core" as the full Windows 10 OS, which would allow developers to write code just once and then easily adapt it to various Windows platforms.

As of mid-2017, the Windows 10 IoT Mobile Enterprise effort hasn't picked up much steam, with most handheld vendors either choosing full tablet Windows or Android.

--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Rugged Handheld Reviews
  • HANDHELD COMPARISON TABLE
  • 2T HANDGEAR
  • 2T Hydrus (full)
  • 2T Hydrus Luna
  • 2T JETT*ce
  • 2T JETT*XL
  • 2T N4
  • 2T Safari
  • 4P FDA300
  • 4P FDA600
  • Aceeca MEZ1000
  • Aceeca MEZ1500
  • Aceeca PDA32
  • Advantech MARS-1030/1031
  • Advantech PWS-8033M
  • ADLINK IMX-2000
  • ADLINK IMX-9000
  • Amrel APEX AH53
  • Amrel DA5+
  • Amrel DA5-B
  • Amrel DB7
  • Amrel DF6
  • Amrel DF7A
  • Amrel XP7-ID
  • Arbor Gladius 5
  • Arbor Gladius 8
  • Arbor Gladius GT500
  • Atid AT911
  • BDA SwitchBack
  • BDA MTS
  • Bluebird Pidion BM-170
  • Bluebird Pidion BM180
  • Bluebird Pidion BIP-6000
  • Bluebird Pidion BIP-7000
  • Bluebird EF500/EF500R
  • Casio DT-X7
  • Casio DT-X30
  • Casio IT-300
  • Casio IT-800
  • Casio IT-3100
  • Catchwelll CW20
  • Catchwelll CW31
  • Cedar CMP1
  • Cedar CT4
  • Cedar CT4 full
  • CipherLab CP50
  • CipherLab CP60
  • CipherLab 8600 Series
  • CipherLab 9700 Series
  • CipherLab RS30
  • CipherLab RS50
  • Datalogic DL-Axist
  • Datalogic Elf
  • Datalogic Falcon X3+
  • Datalogic Lynx
  • Datalogic Memor
  • Datalogic Memor X3
  • Datalogic Memor X3 HC
  • Datalogic Skorpio X3
  • DLI 7200
  • DRS Scorpion H2
  • DT Research WebDT 410
  • DT Research WebDT 415
  • DT Research WebDT 430
  • DT Research WebDT 435
  • Elbit Systems RPDA-57
  • Elbit Systems Tacter-31M
  • Elbit Systems Tacter-31D
  • Eurotech HRC-3100
  • Eurotech HRC-4200
  • Eurotech Zypad wl1500
  • F4Devices BAP/Flint
  • GETAC PS336
  • Glacier Ridgeline Q100
  • Handheld Nautiz X1
  • Handheld Nautiz X3
  • Handheld Nautiz X3 (short)
  • Handheld Nautiz X4 (short)
  • Handheld Nautiz X4
  • Handheld Nautiz X8
  • Honeywell Dolphin 6000 Scanphone
  • Honeywell Dolphin CT50
  • Honeywell Dolphin 70e Black
  • Honeywell Dolphin 75e
  • Honeywell Dolphin 7800
  • Honeywell Dolphin 7800 Android
  • Honeywell CN75
  • Honeywell CK75
  • Honeywell Dolphin 99EX
  • Honeywell Dolphin 99GX
  • Honeywell (LXE) HX3
  • Honeywell (LXE) MX8
  • Honeywell (LXE) MX9
  • Honeywell (LXE) Tecton
  • Intermec CN3
  • Intermec CN4
  • Intermec CN4e
  • Intermec CN50
  • Intermec CN51
  • Intermec CN70
  • Intermec CN70e
  • Intermec CK3
  • Intermec CK3R
  • Intermec CK3X
  • Intermec CK32IS
  • Intermec CK70
  • Intermec CK71
  • Intermec CS40
  • Janam XG3
  • Janam XG100
  • Janam XG105
  • Janam XM2-RFID for Rail
  • Janam XM2-RFID UHF
  • Janam XM5
  • Janam XM60+
  • Janam XM66
  • Janam XP20
  • Janam XP30
  • Janam XT1
  • Janam XT2
  • Juniper Archer 2
  • Juniper Archer Longbow (full)
  • Juniper Allegro MX (full)
  • Juniper Allegro 2
  • Juniper Mesa
  • Juniper Mesa (full)
  • Juniper Mesa 2
  • Magellan eXplorist Pro 10
  • Motorola LEX L10
  • Motorola LEX 700
  • Panasonic Toughbook U1 Ultra
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-E1
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-F1
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-N1
  • Panasonic Toughpad FZ-X1
  • Parvus Zypad WR1100
  • Opticon H22
  • Opticon H27
  • Opticon H32
  • QSI (Beijer) QTERM-G58
  • QSI (Beijer) TREQ-M4
  • Quantum3D Thermite TL
  • Radix FW960
  • Schweers X600
  • Schweers Ticketman
  • Socket SoMo 655
  • Sonim XP1
  • SDG Systems Atid AT911
  • SDG Systems RAMPAGE 6
  • Spectralink PIVOT
  • TAG TC-100
  • Talla-Tech RPDA-57
  • Talla-Tech Tacter-31M
  • TouchStar Hawk
  • Trimble GeoExplorer 2008
  • Trimble Geo Series
  • Trimble Juno T41
  • Trimble Juno 3B/3D
  • Trimble Juno SC
  • Trimble Nomad 900
  • Trimble Ranger 3
  • Trimble Ranger 3 brief
  • Trimble Tablet
  • Trimble Yuma
  • Two Technologies HANDGEAR
  • Two Technologies Hydrus
  • Two Technologies Hydrus Luna
  • Two Technologies JETT*ce
  • Two Technologies JETT*XL
  • Two Technologies N4
  • Two Technologies Safari
  • Unitech HT682
  • Unitech PA550
  • Unitech PA692
  • Unitech PA692A
  • Unitech PA700
  • Unitech PA700V
  • Unitech PA720
  • Unitech PA820
  • Winmate C350T (3.5")
  • Winmate 3.7" Rugged Handheld
  • Winmate E430T (4.3")
  • Winmate E430M2 (4.3")
  • Winmate E430RM2 (4.3")
  • Winmate S430T (4.3")
  • Winmate G570Z (5.7")
  • Zebra HC1
  • Zebra MC17
  • Zebra MC18
  • Zebra MC40
  • Zebra MC45
  • Zebra MC55A0
  • Zebra MC67
  • Zebra MC2100
  • Zebra MC3190-Z
  • Zebra MC3200
  • Zebra MC9190-G
  • Zebra MC9500-K
  • Zebra TC5 Series
  • Zebra TC55
  • Zebra TC70
  • Zebra TC70x
  • Zebra TC75
  • Zebra TC8000
  • Zebra XT15
  • Zebra WorkAbout Pro 4
  • Zebra WT41N0
  • Discontinued/replaced
  • 2T JETT.eye
  • Amrel HBS-2
  • Amrel DA4-M
  • Amrel DA5-M
  • Amrel DB6-M
  • Bluebird Pidion BIP-5000 Casio EG-800 III
  • Casio IT-10
  • Casio IT-600
  • Casio IT-700
  • Casio DT-X10
  • DAP Technologies M1000
  • DAP MicroFlex 2240
  • DAP Technologies M2000
  • DAP MicroFlex 3000B
  • DAP Technologies M3240
  • DAP Technologies M4000
  • DAP Technologies M4305
  • DAP MicroFlex 5000
  • DAP Kinysis 8900KS
  • DAP Kinysis 8900VS
  • Datalogic Falcon 4400
  • Datalogic Falcon 5500
  • Datalogic Formula
  • Datalogic Kyman
  • Datalogic Jet
  • Datalogic Memor
  • Datalogic Pegaso
  • Datalogic Skorpio
  • DLoG XMDA
  • GD-Itronix GD300
  • GD-Itronix GD400
  • GETAC MH132
  • GETAC PS236
  • GETAC PS535F
  • Handheld M3 Mobile
  • Handheld Nautiz X5
  • Handheld Nautiz X7
  • Handheld Nomad
  • Hand Held Products 7850
  • Hand Held Products 7900
  • Hand Held Products 9550
  • Hitachi VisionPlate
  • Honeywell Dolphin 7600
  • Honeywell Dolphin 7850
  • Honeywell Dolphin 7900
  • Honeywell Dolphin 9550
  • Honeywell Dolphin 9900
  • Honeywell (LXE) MX3XPlus
  • Honeywell (LXE) MX5
  • Honeywell (LXE) MX6
  • Honeywell (LXE) MX7
  • Honeywell Optimus SP5700
  • Intermec 700 Series
  • Intermec CK31
  • Intermec CK61/CK61EX
  • Intermec CK1
  • Intermec CN2
  • Intermec CN30
  • Intermec CK60
  • Itronix Q200
  • Janam XT85
  • Juniper Archer (full)
  • Juniper Archer XF101 (full)
  • Juniper Allegro CX
  • Metrologic SP5700 OptimusPDA
  • MicroSlate MSL-1500
  • MicroSlate SideARM
  • Motorola ES400
  • Motorola HC700-L
  • Motorola HC700-G
  • Motorola MC35
  • Motorola MC55
  • Motorola MC75
  • Motorola MC3000
  • Motorola MC3090-Z
  • Motorola MC3100
  • Motorola MC9090-G
  • Motorola MC9090-K
  • Motorola MC9190-G
  • Motorola MC9097
  • Motorola MT2000
  • NEC MobilePro 900c
  • Nova Mobility NMS SideARM
  • Panasonic Toughbook CF-01
  • Psion Teklogix 7530 G1
  • Psion 7530 G2
  • Psion Teklogix 7535 G1
  • Psion 7535 G2
  • Psion Neo
  • Psion Teklogix NetPad
  • Psion Teklogix NetBook Pro
  • Psion WorkAbout Pro G2
  • Psion Teklogix WorkAbout Pro G1
  • Psion WorkAbout Pro 3
  • Psion XT10
  • Psion RT15
  • Psion ikôn
  • RMT G-Force 8500
  • Socket SoMo 650 (full review)
  • Socket SoMo 650rx
  • Symbol MC17
  • Symbol MC35 (full)
  • Symbol MC50
  • Symbol MC55
  • Symbol MC70
  • Symbol MC3000
  • Symbol MC9000-G
  • Symbol MC9090-G
  • Symbol MC9090-K
  • Symbol SPT 1550
  • Symbol SPT 1800
  • Symbol PDT 8100
  • Symbol PPT 8800
  • Symbol WT4000
  • TDS Nomad
  • TDS Nomad (full review)
  • TDS Ranger
  • TDS Ranger (full review)
  • TDS Recon
  • TouchStar Olympus R1000
  • Trimble GeoExplorer
  • Trimble Nomad 800
  • Trimble Juno 3B and 3D
  • Trimble Juno ST
  • Two Technologies JETT.eye
  • Unitech HT680
  • Unitech PA500
  • Unitech PA500e
  • Unitech PA600
  • Unitech PA600 HF
  • Unitech PA600 MCA
  • Unitech PA600 PE
  • Unitech PA950
  • Unitech PA966/967
  • Unitech PA968
  • Unitech PA968II
  • Unitech PA982
  • Unitech RH767
  • ViewSonic V38r
  • ViewSonic V38r (full)
  • Zebra (Motorola) MC65
  • Zebra (Motorola) MC75A
  • Zebra (Motorola) MC3100
  • Zebra (Psion) EP10
  • Windows Mobile Info
  • Windows 10 IoT Core
  • Windows Embedded 8.1 Handheld
  • Windows Embedded Compact 2013
  • Windows Embedded 8 Handheld
  • Windows Embedded Compact 7
  • Windows Embedded Handheld
  • Windows Phone 7
  • Windows Embedded CE 6.0 R3
  • Windows Mobile 6.5
  • Windows Mobile 6
  • Windows CE 6.0
  • Windows Mobile 5
  • Windows CE 5.0
  • Windows Mobile Smartphone
  • Windows Mobile 2003
  • Windows CE .Net
  • Windows for Pocket PC 2002
  • Pocket PC intro 2000
  • Windows CE H/PC Pro 1998
  • Windows CE 2.0 1997
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