Rugged Tablet PC specialists launch rugged, robust protective cases for Microsoft Surface 3 and Surface Pro 4 tablets by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Right upfront, this article and review is about MobileDemand's xCase for Microsoft's Surface 3 and Surface Pro 4 tablets. These rugged Surface cases make those Microsoft tablets easy to carry and handle, able to handle a good deal of abuse, and even be mounted in vehicles, all while retaining their full functionality.
Somehow — and somewhat unexpectedly to many — Microsoft managed to make their Surface tablet computers an impressive success. By some estimates, they sold six million Surface tablets in 2015. That's massive. Unfortunately, as sleek, elegant and powerful as those glossy Surface tablets are, they are not rugged. Not one bit. And that limits their use in the enterprise and in the field.
Would you use your sleek but slippery Microsoft Surface tablet out in the woods? Of course not. For that you need a rugged tablet, like the one shown below. One with a tough case, plenty of protection, rubber bumpers, palm straps and briefcase carry handles so the thing won't slip out of your hands. It must have vehicle mounting options, and a loop for the pen.
Well, surprise: the tablet shown above IS a Microsoft Surface tablet. One inside of MobileDemand's new xCase for Surface. The xCase turns the slender and rather fragile Microsoft tablet into a well-protected tool for the job out there in the field.
How did this come about and how does it work? It started when MobileDemand, which is an expert in making tablets rugged and has been providing rugged tablet computers since 2003, realized that the booming worldwide popularity of tablets was creating a demand for tougher, more durable versions that conventional rugged tablets could not fill. Why not? Because most were overkill for light-duty enterprise applications, and they simply cost too much if all a customer wanted was as a better protected tablet.
That train of thought initially led to MobileDemand's Flex 8 and Flex 10 tablets. Both of those combined a generic modern media tablet with a specially designed and preinstalled case that offered very respectable ruggedness. Available for less than a premium consumer tablet, the Flex models provided great value and the extra protection many customers were looking for.
The Flex models, however, being rather basic tablets, did have some limitations in terms of performance and functionality. So rather than scouting the market for suitable higher-end donor hardware, MobileDemand came to an obvious conclusion: why not apply their ruggedization recipe to highly regarded, high-end tablet hardware like the Microsoft Surface tablets, which already sold by the millions?
MobileDemand's xCase approach
So what MobileDemand is doing with their rugged Surface case is protecting a series of successful brand-name tablets that meet significantly higher performance demands. What differentiates the xCase from just any available 3rd party case is that it was designed by MobileDemand, a company that has vast experience in mobility and rugged tablets.
That experience extends to an also available screen protector that's not just the usual sheet of plastic but scratch-proof glass with a special oleophobic (fingerprint-resistant) coating. According to MobileDemand, it improves impact resistance by 20% — much welcome extra protection for sure.
The image below shows the whole thing, a Microsoft Surface 3 with its Type Cover keyboard and the two parts that make up the MobileDemand xCase:
The xCase protective casing works as follows:
First, the tablet is inserted into a custom-designed silicone rubber boot, shown on the lower left. This is made from sheet rubber that's about 2mm thick, similar to a heavy-duty inner tube of a motorcycle tire. The sheet is textured and molded to exactly fit the tablet (this is not an approximate one-size-fits-all design). How does the boot become a three-dimensional enclosure? Via the four thick corner bumpers that are vulcanized onto the boot. The tablet can easily be inserted into the protective boot which, MobileDemand says, carries a "Shore A 60 durometer" rating. That means it's almost as tough as automotive tire thread.
Second, there is a tough polycarbonate plastic (PC/ABS) backplate, shown on the upper right, that's also meticulously designed and machined to precisely fit the tablet in its rubber boot. The plate has integrated guides along three sides so that the tablet in its boot snaps very firmly into place. The bottom is left open so as to allow the snap-on Type Cover keyboard to connect to the Surface hardware. Two integrated retainers to the left and right of the keyboard connector on the bottom of the plate make sure everything fits neat and tight.
This backplate not only serves as a tough protective exo-skeleton for a Surface tablet, but it also provides all sorts of extra functionality.
There are four cutouts that serve as anchor points for the elastic handstrap.
There are integrated loops for the briefcase handle.
There's a pocket for the Surface pen.
There are cutouts for the Surface ports.
There's a rubber strip with individual port plugs/covers. The strip is screwed on to the back plate with the help of a small metal bar.
There's a screwed-on "Snap-Mount" plate for use with MobileDemand's slim and durable vehicle Snap Mount system.
There's a screwed-on adjustable easel that's magnetically held in place when not in use, and also helps keep the Microsoft Type Cover keyboard secured to the tablet.
And do note that whatever is screwed on is not just screwed into the polycarbonate backplate; there is always a metal anchor inside the backplate for any screw.
The two images below show use of the palm strap (left) and carry handle (right). Both comes with the "premium" version of the xCase, and can easily be installed or removed. They make operating and carrying the tablet much easier.
For now, MobileDemand offers xCase versions for the 10.8-inch value-priced Surface 3 and the larger and more powerful 12.3-inch Surface Pro 4. One thing that's different between the Flex 8/10 and the Surface xCase is that MobileDemand exclusively sells the former as pre-installed systems, i.e., both the tablet and the case are a package deal.
The xCase for Surface, on the other hand, is sold either as an accessory where customers then put their Surface tablet into the case themselves, or it can be purchased as a bundle with the Surface tablet included. The latter has the additional advantage that the optional screen protector is professionally pre-applied in a clean, dust-free environment.
Self-installation is not difficult, but since the case is a nice, tight fit, attention is required to make sure everything fits right and nothing gets pinched.
Ruggedness: light and medium-duty applications
Here it gets interesting. The Surface tablets themselves are consumer-grade and not rugged. The xCase, which is made of very tough materials, adds a good degree of ruggedness and protection, but it's, of course, still a retroactive upgrade of ruggedness. So there are some limitations.
For example, despite the rubber plugs that protect the I/O ports, we're talking physical protection and not sealing against liquids. So there is no ingress protection rating.
Likewise, since the tablet itself remains the same, ruggedness ratings that are determined by the guts of the device remain the same, such as operating temperature.
What does change however, and dramatically so, is drop and shock resistance. As is, bare Surface tablets don't resist much of anything, and whether they survive any fall is usually a matter of sheer luck. Not so once they are inside the xCase. Then they can pass MIL-STD 810G, 516.6 IV. Which means 26 repeated drops onto plywood over concrete from a height of four feet. Four feet is roughly the height a tablet is held when being used in a standing position. With the xCase, the Surface survives such drops. Without, there's much less of a chance. And note that while the MIL-STD language allows using up to five tablets to pass all the tests, MobileDemand needed just one tablet to pass all the drops.
The video below shows MobileDemand's drop testing a Surface Pro 4 inside its xCase.
What does it all mean? In essence, it means that the xCase allows a Surface tablet to be used in situations and on jobs where it'd simply be foolish to use a bare, unprotected tablet. This, by all practical standards, greatly enhances and extends the appeal of a tablet that has earned itself remarkable success.
And it all comes at a low cost. The basic xCase for the Surface 3 runs US$74.95, and US$109.95 for the premium version that adds protected ports, hand strap, briefcase handle, and the easel. For the larger Surface Pro 4 it's US$89.95 and US$124.95, respectively.
So, again, while the xTablet Flex 10 looks like a fully rugged device, it is a consumer tablet inside a very intelligently designed case system. It can handle a lot more abuse than any sleek consumer tablet, but it is not a sealed unit and it is not designed for use in truly harsh and unforgiving environments.
Various mounting options
Most tablets used in business or on the job come with some kind of docking and mounting options, and MobileDemand offers those for their Flex 8 and Flex 10 tablets. Quite obviously, many customers who put their Surface tablets in an xCase may well be interested in mounting hardware as well.
The pictures to the right are for the Flex 8/10, but their design and concept is the same as for the xCase, which has the same "Snap Mount" system on its backside that allows use with a simple desk stand or other mounting gear.
For vehicle use of the xCase, MobileDemand provides a flexible arm that can easily be installed on the passenger side using the same bolt that secures the passenger seat to the floor.
The arm works with the RAM-Mount ball system with the standard AMPS hole pattern. There are both 2-hole and 4-hole mounts for use with RAM's type B ball adapters, or even the large type C ball round base for heavy duty applications.
The image shows some of the mounting components, as well as an actual example of a tablet mount install in a vehicle. That all also works with the xCase.
Bottom line: MobileDemand xCase for Surface
So what does the xCase mean? It's absolutely an interesting, timely product, given the large and growing number of Microsoft Surface tablets out there. Sure, Microsoft offers its own covers and sleeves for the Surface.
But just like Apple and most other makers of consumer tablets, Microsoft designs for consumers and office professionals where image and sleekness matter.
MobileDemand, on the other hand, designs for mobile on-the-go professionals. Those customers may love their Surface tablets' sleek good looks, but what really matters to them is that their tablet doesn't break down on the job.
That means they need more than just a boot or sleeve. Microsoft and third parties offer those, too, but there's very little out there that a) provides more than generic one-size-fits-all protection, and b) comes from a company who truly KNOWS rugged. And that's what the MobileDemand xCase is for. It makes Surface tablets rugged. And much easier to carry than a bare tablet.
Note that the xCase was built to permanently ruggedize a Surface tablet. It can be removed, of course, but it wasn't designed for frequent removal as that's not what mobile professionals would expect. A Surface in an xCase is a tool to get the job done, anywhere and anytime. It provides protection against bumps and falls, and likely a good deal of vibration as well. Anyone who needs that, look no further.
-- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer, March 2016
1501 Boyson Square Drive, Suite 101
Hiawatha, IA 52233