Self-Assess Your Mobile Computing Needs

This tool is designed to help you determine which features you need in a mobile computer. Although most people are comfortable "spec'ing out" a commercial, plastic computer designed for indoor use, there are enough nuances in field or mobile computing to warrant taking a few minutes to complete this checklist.

1. Intended Application / Form Factor 
The first decision is to determine the form factor of the computer. The application software and intended usage will dictate the form factor. For example, graphics-intensive software like CAD/CAM or GIS mapping perform better with the good display resolution, high-end graphics card and ample Video RAM one would only find in a high-end laptop. Or, if the application is forms automation or one-handed computing, a tablet pc or UMPC would be the correct choice. Here are your form factor choices: (Click for Category Details)

 Laptop / Notebook
 Convertible (Tablet-to-Laptop)
 Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC)
 Fixed Mount 

2. Degree of Ruggedness
Fully-rugged means fully waterproof. Semi-rugged means completely ruggedized but not waterproof. Business rugged means slightly ruggedized for white collar frequent travelers. Beyond those basic definitions, there is no standardization among rugged computer manufacturers. So you need to consider carefully what environmental conditions you need to mitigate such as drops, shock, vibration, humidity, salt spray, temperature extremes, exposure to hazardous chemicals or gasses, liquid spills on the display and keyboard, etc. (Click for Rugged Details)

Business Rugged
Semi Rugged
Vehicle Rugged
Fully Rugged

3. Display Screen Characteristics
Normal displays that come in commercial, plastic computers are designed for indoor use. Vehicle-use and outdoor-use computers require a much brighter display. Choosing the best display for your needs will be a function of where the computer is intended to be used the majority of the time. And, another display-related factor is whether or not you require a touchscreen display. 


4. Computer Size / Display Size
The size of the display generally dictates the size of the computer. The display size is fixed in a handheld, tablet or UMPC. Generally, where you have choices would be in a laptop or a fixed-mount computer. Here are your choices (keep in mind that bigger displays are nice but that can mean big, bulky computers that don't fit well in a vehicle or on an airplane seat-back tray table): 

No Preference

5. Computer Weight
In a mobile computer that is going to be hand-carried, weight is an important consideration. Generally, people want the mobile computer to be as light as possible while still being rugged, providing the features they require and having a decent size display screen. Keep in mind that almost every feature in a computer adds to the weight. So, for example, a computer with lots of connection ports, a DVD drive, a backlit keyboard, a smartcard reader, etc., etc. will weigh more than a bare bones unit. 

 Lightweight is Important 
 Weight not most important criteria

6. Keyboard Characteristics 
The first question may be whether or not a keyboard is required. With touchscreen computers and their virtual on-screen keyboards, a keyboard may not be necessary. Slate tablets and fixed-mount computers do not have keyboards. Handheld computers may just have a numeric keypad. UMPCs may come with a keyboard but not one designed for heavy typing. Also, external keyboards can be purchased that connect to the computer via USB or Bluetooth wireless in those scenarios where a keyboard is occasionally, but not always needed.

All laptop/notebook computers, by definition, have a built-in keyboard. But the smaller laptops have keyboards that are somewhat cramped.

No Keyboard Required
External keyboard (plastic and inexpensive OK)
External keyboard (needs to be rugged and waterproof)
Built-in Keyboard

In the rugged computing world, a popular feature to have is a lit keyboard. This makes it possible to use the computer at night or in darkened areas. There are 3 ways to light a keyboard. 1). keyboard light or task light, 2). glow-in-the-dark phosphorus keyboards, and 3) backlit keyboards.

Lit Keyboard
 No Keyboard Light Required

7. Integrated Options
Rugged, mobile computers often offer integrated options (built-in options) that are not available in commercial, plastic indoor computers. Primarily, we are talking about integrated wide-area wireless cards (mobile broadband such as Verizon, Sprint and AT&T) and integrated GPS receivers. But integrated options could also include bluetooth wireless, Wireless LAN, fingerprint reader, smartcard reader, connection to a vehicle docking station, and a connection to an external wireless antenna to put on the roof of a vehicle. 

 Verizon Mobile Broadband
 Sprint Mobile Broadband
 AT&T Mobile Broadband
 GPS Receiver
 Bluetooth Wireless
 Wireless LAN (WiFi)
 Fingerprint Reader
 Smartcard Reader
 Express Card Reader
 Connection for vehicle docking station
 Wireless antenna pass-through to external antenna

8. Vehicle Docks and Mounts 
Many rugged, mobile computers are designed to be mounted in a vehicle and have vehicle docks/port replicators designed specifically for that brand and model of computer. Some customers require an intelligent dock that passes through all the connection ports and has a built-in power supply and surge protection. Other customers just need a docking cradle with no electronics inside. And there are other customers that just need a simple universal mounting platform or "mobile desk", and finally, some customers just want to throw the computer in the passenger seat next to them. 

For those customer that require a dock or cradle, they also need mounting equipment that is specific for dock and their vehicle.

 Intelligent Vehicle Dock with Port Replication
Docking Cradle
Docking Platform (universal)
 No Dock, Cradle or Mount Needed

9. Battery Life
Battery life is important in mobile computers in those cases where an AC outlet or a vehicle power source is not always available. A general rule of thumb is the more powerful and full-featured the computer, the less battery life it will offer. A 2.0GHz processor is more power hungry than a 1.2GHz processor. A computer with a backlit keyboard, a high-bright outdoor display, a mobile broadband card, and an integrated GPS will use more juice than a bare bones laptop.

Of course, the software applications also play a big role. Processor-intensive and graphics-intensive applications use more power than writing a letter with Microsoft Word.

If battery life is important, be sure to check for the availability of the various features and accessories listed below: 

 Additional Main Battery
 Secondary or "Media Bay" Battery (2 batteries in the same computer)
 High-Capacity Battery
 External Battery Charger
 Ability to turn off non-needed features to maximize battery life

10. Other Computer Considerations
There are other considerations that are important when choosing any computer, not just a mobile computer. These considerations are listed below for your convenience:

 Microprocessor Speed
 RAM Memory
 Video Card or Chip
 Video RAM Memory (dedicated or shared)
 Solid State Hard Drive
 Hard Disk Drive Storage Capacity
 Additional, Removable Hard Drive
 CD, DVD, and/or floppy disk media drives
 Modem (RJ-11)
 Ethernet LAN (RJ-45)
 USB ports
 Serial Port (RS-232)
 Parallel Port
 FireWire (IEEE 1394)
 PS/2 Keyboard / Mouse

11. Accessories
Finally, it makes sense to think through any accessory items that may be required. Here are some of the most common: 

 Carry Case
 Spare Battery
 Additional AC Adapter
 Automobile Power Adapter (cigarette lighter adapter)
 LCD Screen Protector
 Battery Charger
 Stylus Pen
 Mobile Printer
 Mobile Scanner
 Desktop Docking Station

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