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WalkAbout Hammerhead

WalkAbout improves a near perfect rugged slate computer
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Every once in a while a company gets a product so right that there simply isn't a need to change it just for change's sake. The original Volkswagen Beetle was such a product, and the Swiss army knife was and still is. Some classic guitars are, too, and there is little that can be improved in the way a good watch is designed and made. That doesn't mean those products won't evolve over time. Progress doesn't stand still for anyone, and there will always be advances in manufacturing methods and new and better technologies. Those improvements can be incorporated into those timeless designs, making them ever better.

WalkAbout Computer, a privately held company located in West Palm Beach, Fla. makes one such product, the Hammerhead. WalkAbout got into the business back in 1990. One of the company's driving forces was a co-founder of Tusk, an early pioneer in the pen computing field which created the highly acclaimed "All Terrain Supertablet." He brought with him other former Tusk engineers and designers. Those guys knew rugged pen computers inside out, and they wanted to build the most compact, most rugged pen slate possible. Now keep in mind that this was the early to mid 1990s, an era when pen computing had first been hyped into high heaven, then, when the industry couldn't deliver everything that had been promised, came crashing down under a torrent of criticism. WalkAbout went ahead anyway, carefully avoiding all the pitfalls of earlier designs. Their product was going to be targeted at a few narrowly defined industries, namely the gas and electric utilities. And they were determined to do it better than anyone else. So while the competition built machines that felt as solid as if they were milled from solid blocks of metal, WalkAbout's new Hammerhead WAS milled from a solid block of metal--aircraft grade aluminum, to be precise.

We had one of the early Hammerheads, the 586 (the first one was a 486), in our Pen labs back in 1995 and the review appeared in our February 1996 issue. The Hammerhead was as simple as it was brilliant. Take that solid block of aluminum, excavate enough to fit a simple motherboard with a miserly Cyrix 586 processor running at 100 MHz without the need of a fan, seal the whole thing tight without any visible openings or ports, facilitate connectivity through an ingeniously designed port replicator with a single point of contact that also doubles as a deskstand, and top it all off with a (then) large and highly readable 9.4-inch backlit display and active Wacom digitizer. We called the 586 "invulnerable" and were mighty impressed that such a tough machine measured just 11 x 7.75 x 1.5 inches and weighed only four pounds. We also loved the Hammerhead's form-fitting and extremely elegant custom-designed carry case and called it "easily the best we've ever seen."

While others in this tough industry floundered and died, WalkAbout apparently had gotten it right. By 1997 it was the fastest growing small business in Florida. And by the time we published a review of the Hammerhead P233 in our April 1999 issue, WalkAbout had quietly deployed some 12,000 Hammerheads and grown into a well-respected and profitable business. The Hammerhead looked the same (we concluded, "There simply wasn't a need to change a design that's hard to improve on.") but it had benefited from some major technological advances. It was now powered by a 233 MHz Pentium and disk capacity was up by a an order of magnitude (from a few hundred meg to 3.2 to 6.4 gig). And it now had two PC Card slots for additional flexibility. The monochrome screen remained the same. It was the only thing we criticized as we were hoping for an indoor/outdoor viewable color display.

A couple of years later WalkAbout answered that concern with the Hammerhead 3 which was available with a 10.4-inch SVGA transmissive or a transflective TFT. This model was featured in our 2002 and 2003 Buyer's Guides. Although now equipped with a Pentium III, WalkAbout kept the speed at a rather conservative 400 MHz, presumably because the sealed case would have created thermal problems with Intel's ever faster Pentiums that weren't available yet in Speed-stepped low-power versions.

Fast forward to the present.

The Hammerheads sill exist and they still use the same basic design philosophy. Take a hardened case and seal the electronics inside. However, the Hammerhead now comes in two flavors, and it has undergone an aesthetic redesign that adds a flair of elegance to its utility. Basically the line, that is now in its seventh generation, has been split into the "value class" rugged Hammerhead RT and the ultra-rugged, no holds barred Hammerhead XRT. The RT model carries an IP64 rating which means complete protection against dust and protection against rain or water spray from any angle. The XRT sports an almost unheard of IP67 rating, the number seven meaning that it is sealed against immersion in water.

Hammerhead RT800 and RT933

Inside their form-fitting case both Hammerheads appear to be identical, but take the RT out of its shell and you'll see that this is a slightly different animal. For starters, while the case is essentially the same it is a bit more rounded and it's blue-gray while the XRT is black. The housing also feels different to the touch, and that's because this Hammerhead is made of magnesium instead of aluminum. It is not immediately obvious why this machine should be less rugged than the XRT model as it feels as solid as a rock and doesn't have any more openings than the XRT. There are slight design differences: The on/off button is integrated into a single large panel that also has eight annunciator LEDs whereas the XRt has the power switch on the side. The small, sealed speaker is on the right instead of on the left of the device. There are small inserts and screw mounts for a protective rubber molding on each side. This can be used instead of the form-fitting case.

In terms of performance, you can select between the RT800 and the RT933. The names, of course, indicate the speed of the models' Intel Pentium M processors. There are other differences. The entry-level RT800 comes with the molded rubber bumpers whereas the RT933 comes with the form-fitting case. Both models have integrated Ethernet and room for a Type III or two Type II PC cards. The RT933 can be had with internal radio options: GPS, CDMA, and GPRS. Both models come with 256MB of RAM and a shock-mounted 20GB hard disk. Both offer 512MB RAM and 40GB hard disk options. External connectivity is via a single USB port and a RJ-45 Ethernet jack. There is actually a total of four USB ports. Two are internal, and a second external one is accessible via the port replicator or dock which also add up to three serial ports, a parallel connector, an SVGA video port, and a keyboard jack.

Both models can be had either with a 5-wire resistive touch screen or with an electromagnetic Wacom digitizer that uses a tethered, reinforced Wacom pen. The Wacom digitizer model runs Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 whereas the touch screen model comes with either XP Professional or Windows 2000. Both models can also be ordered with either a 10.4-inch SVGA or XGA transmissive display for indoor applications or one using WalkAbout's "All-Vis" indoor/outdoor display of the same size. Chemically strengthened glass makes the displays near invulnerable.

As far as size and weight go, the RT models stay pretty close to the original Hammerhead. Size is 11 x 8.25 x 1.6 inches. Weight with two batteries is 4.56 pounds. Note that I said two batteries. The Hammerheads, all models, have two externally accessible batteries that fit into recesses at the bottom of the housing. They are held in place with an ingenious, and ingeniously simple, plastic wheel that you need to rotate into just the right position to release a battery.

As for ruggedness, although the RT models are marketed as value-class machines, they are plenty tough. They operate in temperature between five and 140 degree Fahrenheit and can boot in sub-zero temperatures with an optional heater.

Our RT tester was a 933 model with an 800x600 indoor/outdoor display. As all daylight readable displays, this one is a compromise. It is nice and bright indoors and retains a decent but not great degree of legibility outdoors. The price you pay for the outdoor readability is a display that has a mildly irritating iridescent sheen to it. Further, while the display has very wide horizontal viewing angle in the default landscape mode, the vertical viewing angle was much narrower. And the 800x600 screen model did not allow us to rotate the display into portrait mode unless it was switched into a higher resolution, which was impossible without going into a mode where we'd have a panning screen. In terms of operation, the RT933 performed flawlessly. It was quick, didn't run into any glitches, and even the notoriously recalcitrant Wacom digitizer was perfectly calibrated and allowed precise operation even along the edges. The machine ran noticeably hotter than earlier Hammerheads--but that's just one of the prices we pay for the much improved performance of the new Intel processors. The RT933 feels totally invulnerable. In fact, this is one computer where when it comes to rough handling I'd fear for whatever it comes in contact with, and not the other way around.

Hammerhead XRT

The Hammerhead XRT is WalkAbout's no-compromise high ultra-rugged model and the direct descendant of the original Hammerheads. Like them, the XRT still uses a case milled from a block of 6061T6 aluminum (6061 stands for the type of aluminum used and T6 for the heat-treating process). The housing is matte black and looks almost identical to that of the RT models. The XRT, however, cannot accommodate the rubber bumpers and comes with the form-fitting case instead. Power jack, a small speaker, a RJ-45 jack and the sealed PC Card slot door are on the left, a single USB port and the power switch on the right. On the back are the externally mounted dual batteries, the expansion connector, and a sealed door behind which lives the heavily shock-mounted disk drive.

Most of the electronics and display options for the XRT are the same as for the RT models. The XRT is powered by a 933MHz Pentium M-processor, has 512MB of RAM and either a 20 or 40 GB disk. The 10.4-inch display can be either 800x600 (SVGA) or 1024x768 (XGA), and it is available either in standard transmissive form or with the All Vis indoor/outdoor technology. Like with the RT models, the XRT can be ordered with a 5-wire touch screen (Windows XP or 2000) or a Wacom electromagnetic digitizer (XP Tablet PC Edition 2005).

Apart from the higher IP67 rating, the XRT also passes a variety of additional environmental tests. Check with WalkAbout for specifics as the extra toughness may or may not be needed for your application.

In daily operation the XRT performed as flawlessly as our RT933. Performance was more than adequate and the unit felt invulnerable. It seemed to run a little bit cooler than the RT933, likely due to the different heat dissipation properties of aluminum versus magnesium. At 5.16 pounds with both batteries, the aluminum-clad XRT is a bit heavier than the RT933 (magnesium is about 33% lighter than aluminum).

What it boils down to is the choice between a very rugged industrial computer that can handle almost everything that's thrown at it, and an extremely rugged one that can survive even harsher punishment. Both lines can be configured for almost any job. They can be mounted in vehicles, used with a desk stand, or simply carried around.

Anyone in the market for one of the toughest computers around, one that has been field-proven for almost ten years, and one that is unlikely to ever let you down, contact WalkAbout.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer

Type Rugged Tablet PC slate
Processor Intel Pentium M 933MHz
OS Windows XP Professional Tablet PC Edition
Memory 256MB expandable to 512MB
Display 10.4" XGA (800 x 600 or 1024 x 768) All-Vis TFT
Digitizer/Pens Wacom/1
Keyboard external option
Storage 20 or 40 GB hard disk
Size 11.0" x 8.25" x 1.6"
Weight 4.6 to 5.2 pounds incl. battery pack
Power 2x20 WHr Lithium-Ion
Communication Variety via port replicator
Interface 1 USB 2.0, RJ45, various modules
Price inquire
Contact WalkAbout Computerwww.walkabout-comp.com