Number Crunchers

by Libs mulling over latest loss in 407 dispute

Notebook computer manufacturers have done a great job creating smaller and lighter products. The downside is that keyboards are more fragile, peripheral connectors more exposed, and screens more vulnerable to cracking-and that’s especially bad news if your notebook is subjected to the everyday jolts, vibrations, and temperature swings of a truck environment. What to do? The logical answer is to look for a “ruggedized” notebook that’s stronger than the rest. Computers that are genuinely rugged (there are imitators out there) aren’t cheap, but they’ll keep going when the going gets tough.

What distinguishes a “ruggedized” computer? Look at Panasonic’s CF-25. Originally designed for field workers in the oil industry, agriculture, and the military, the CF-25 sports a magnesium alloy shell (20 times stronger than the plastic found on most notebook cases), a gel dampener surrounding the hard and floppy drive units, a rubber seal around the LCD screen, dust-proof hinges, and a sealed keyboard. It’s virtually bulletproof, but the CF-25 sells for $6000 to $7400.

Last year, Panasonic introduced a new line with a lot of the CF-25’s features but a less hefty price: Toughbook models have magnesium cases, hard drives that are shock-mounted in a stainless steel case, and water-resistant keyboards and touchpads. They’re still expensive, but at least you can feel reasonably assured that your notebook can be put through the same paces you or your drivers go through.

Similarly, Dell Canada’s Latitude notebooks have features like HyperCool, a combination of active and passive thermal management that reduces heat-flow to the computer’s most critical components, and StrikeZone, a raised surface beneath the unit’s hard drive that stops the hard drive from vibrating or shifting if the notebook is accidentally dropped flat. The Latitude has won PC Computing magazine’s “Torture Test”-in which notebooks are heated, chilled, steamed, dropped, and otherwise abused-for the past four years.

Dell is aiming the Latitude at the person who works long hours and is always rushed. So the Latitude’s design incorporates lots of details that help make that user’s life a little easier-things like the two ridges on the case that actually reinforce the display screen, the grooves built in to the notebook’s base that help guide it into a desktop docking station, and metal protectors around the peripheral connectors.

A lot of these features that have migrated into mainstream products were developed by specialized computer makers like FieldWorks. The Eden Prairie, Minn.-based company rolled out its first notebook in 1992: its FW8000 has shock-mounted drives, a sealed mouse/trackpad, and a die-cast magnesium chassis.

FieldWorks took mobile computing to a new level this year when it introduced an on-board server for heavy trucks. The FW-2000 has two independent screens, one for the driver, and one for a passenger. The driver’s display shows key information about the route and the vehicle, including dispatching and street-level mapping data. And since the system is connected to the vehicle’s data bus, it can display, under driver control, a full complement of gauges and status messages, replacing the mechanical dashboard.

The second terminal has a wireless Internet connection (using Cellular Digital Packet Data, or CDPD) and full PC functions, so the passenger can complete driver logs, fuel tax reports, billing, and other paperwork while the truck is rolling down the road.

“There is nothing precluding the on-board server from containing all of the electronic documentation and diagnostics required for the truck,” says Rick Evans, the company’s director of advanced technologies. “With that capability on-vehicle, and with real time updates available through the Web, the truck will be able to perform self-diagnosis prior to a major breakdown, saving the fleet down-time and expense.”

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