The big news at the time of this writing was that Itronix was being acquired by giant defense contractor General Dynamics. This came as a result of the company's good performance during its roughly two-year tenure as a property of the Golden Gate Capital equity investment firm. The change in ownership will be both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity for Itronix. General Dynamics is a US$20 billion company with over 70,000 employees, and heavily vested in sophisticated mobile technology.
The big mystery about Itronix, at least to us here at Pen Computing Magazine, has always been why this company that is so good at designing and selling rugged computers was idly sitting by while Panasonic cleaned up with an ever more interesting lineup of "semi-rugged" or "durable" notebooks. The difference between "rugged," "semi-rugged" and "durable" is at times subtle, but it is safe to say that durable computers have a potentially far larger market than fully ruggedized ones. Durable notebooks appeal to a growing clientele of people who are sick and tired of chintzy plastic notebooks that fail and break at an alarming rate. That failure rate has long been an embarrassing secret of the industry, and with notebooks increasingly replacing desktops, it's become an alarmingly expensive problem as well: Technology Business Research estimates the damage expense per incident to be a whopping US$2,900. Sure, commercial-grade notebooks are cheap, but once you consider the short lifespan and all those costly failures and repairs, the ROI looks rather dismal. Panasonic has known that for years and built products to address the problem.
With the newly introduced GoBook VR-1, Itronix has now joined the party. Sort of.
I say "sort of" because anyone expecting to find an Itronix competitor to Panasonic's elegant and slender T, W, and Y Series Toughbooks will quickly realize that Itronix's initial foray into the "semi-rugged" market is still very much on the rugged end of the spectrum. Itronix itself calls the new VR-1 "the world's toughest semi-rugged notebook computer," and that pretty much describes the new model. This is not a slightly fortified ultra-portable. This is a very serious, very tough computer built to slightly less stringent ruggedness standards than Itronix's full-blown rugged machines. It can handle the same amount of vibration and be used in the same rather extreme -4 to 140 degree Fahrenheit operating temperature range as the fully rugged GoBook III, but it is built to slightly lesser drop test (repeated 30-inch drops) and ingress protection standards. That's not necessarily a bad thing. For example, with an easily accessible optical drive, easily accessible expansion slots, and easily accessible ports and interfaces, the VR-1 can be a much more pleasant daily companion than a fully ruggedized box that requires working through latches and seals every time you want to plug something in.
But let's take a look at the specs of the Toughbook VR-1. It's a performance machine thanks to a powerful 1.86GHz Intel Pentium M processor. Video is handled by an Intel 915GM/GMS chipset with 64MB of shared memory. Standard memory is 512MB of DDR2 DRAM. The machine can be configured with up to 2GB. There is a 40GB shock-mounted and removable 2.5-inch hard disk, with an 80GB drive available. A multimedia pocket contains a CD-RW optical drive, but can also be equipped with a DVD/CD-RW or DVD-RW/CD-RW drive.
On the connectivity front the VR-1 comes with 2 USB 2.0 ports, a 56k modem, a gigabit LAN jack, VGA and serial ports, audio in and out, and an expansion connector.
Power is supplied by a 48 watt-hour smart Li-Ion battery that's good for four to six hours of operation. If that is not enough, there is an optional 71 watt-hour main battery pack upgrade.
It has always been an Itronix tradition to offer a large variety of wireless options, and to make sure that multiple wireless options work well together. The VR-1 comes with the common Intel Centrino 802.11a/b/g WiFi. Optionally available are 1xRTT/EV-DO or GPRS/EDGE data communication, GPS, and Bluetooth. If you need the integrated GPS receiver, you also get a highly optimized Quadrifilar Helix antenna for maximum satellite positioning access. Integrated options are packaged using the Itronix CRMA Express (Common Radio Module Architecture Express) for seamless plug & play (and future upgrades or expansion as well).
As far as size and weight go, the VR-1 weighs in with a 11.5 x 9.8 inch footprint--quite compact--and a thickness of 1.7 inches, and the whole thing weighs about 5.5 pounds. That's more than the pretty durable Tablet PC convertibles from Toshiba, HP, Fujitsu and others, but less than most full-size consumer notebooks. The VR-1 achieves that feat primarily via the use of fairly light construction materials--plastics and die-cast magnesium for all structural elements. It also saves weight with its relatively small footprint and smallish display. The choice of a 12.1-inch 1024x768 XGA LCD is perhaps one area where we would have liked to see additional options. In this day and age, 12.1 inches and XGA resolution are somewhat marginal for web browsing and many graphics-intensive applications. In addition, the target clientele of field sales personnel, public safety officials, high-end technicians, road warriors, etc., are generally used to 14.1-inch and larger screens and may find the 12.1-inch LCD restrictive.
There is no arguing with the ruggedness of the machine. The hinge--almost always a weak spot in consumer grade notebooks--is solid as a rock (see mechanism below). The machine also won't open inadvertently thanks to the hinge and the dual springloaded active latches. The spill-resistant keyboard uses a standard 84-key full-size notebook layout. Navigation is via a very responsive 3-button capacitive touchpad. A touch screen is optionally available.
Those concerned with security, both for the device and its data, will be pleased with the optional fingerprint scanner located to the right of the touchpad, and also the availability of an optional Smart Card reader.
If you wonder why the computer used by the two ladies has a different color scheme, that's because Itronix also offers a HUMMER branded version of the GoBook VR-1. That's the result of a licensing agreement between Itronix and General Motors, and geared more towards consumers who love branded products, have a Hummer, or simply like owning something different and exclusive. And you can't just get the Hummer Laptop in Hummer Yellow. It also comes in Pewter or Victory Red.
Itronix's first step into the "semi-rugged" market is quite impressive. In order to have a full lineup competitive with that of Panasonic, they will need additional machines more on the lighter weight, less expensive business end of the spectrum, but the GoBook VR-1 is definitely a good start. - www.itronix.com - www.itronix.com
--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Note:In July 2006, the GoBook VR-1 passed ANSI/IEC 529 IP5x testing
at National Technical Systems, i.e. protection against dust. As far as we know, at this point the VR-1 is
the only semi-rugged machine that offers this level of protection and makes
the device fully suitable for use in dusty/dirty environments such as work
trucks, vans and public safety vehicles.