The push-and-pull between form and function is a major concern for the IT departments of companies with fleet operations. While rugged laptops offer both physical and computing strength, most smartphones and tablets offer the same computing power, but with significant cost savings, but they’re also far more prone to on-the-job accidents. Device manufacturers, however, are seeing an opportunity in between the two types of devices and are starting to offer rugged handheld devices that bridge the form and functionality gap. Find out more about this new generation of devices in this article, republished with permission from Field Technologies Online.

When it comes to line-of-business applications in the field, enterprise IT departments have typically had to choose between specialized rugged mobile computers (which will last longer, but are more expensive) and consumer-style mobile PDAs or smartphones (which are cheaper, but may have high replacement rates). In many applications, there is no choice, because harsh environments dictate a highly rugged computer, but for many field sales or “gray-collar” applications, the selection process can be challenging.

Now rugged device manufacturers have rolled out new semi-rugged devices that incorporate smartphone-like design features, along with built-in bar code scanning and a slightly less rugged enclosure. “Semi-rugged devices provide more durability than commercial-grade smartphones, and the cost of these devices is typically less than fully rugged mobile computers,” says Joe DeWenter, principle product manager at Intermec.
Smartphone vendors have also unveiled more rugged devices or rugged enclosures for consumer-grade devices, but these solu- tions have their drawbacks. “Consumer-grade, semi-rugged mobile computers have failure points related to components, construction, and mechanical and electrical design,” says Douglas Lloyd, sales and business development at Janam Technologies. “To compensate for vulnerabilities, products frequently have protective add-ons such as rubber coatings or supplementary gaskets. Ironically, these afterthoughts add weight to the product and further diminish its ability to survive tough usage.”

The semi-rugged smartphones and PDAs from traditional enterprise vendors typically have a lighter-duty touchscreen and may have an IP (Internet Protocol) rating of IP42 (versus IP64 to IP67 for highly rugged devices). They may have a less robust drop spec, shorter battery life, or a less rugged keypad, and may have different security options. Unlike their consumer counterparts, however, they support bar code scanning and (more importantly) printer drivers. “Semi-rugged PDAs are intended for lighter-duty use in retail or field sales applications where price is more important than durability and security,” says Elva Martinez, product manager at Datalogic Mobile.

It is important to understand what level of ruggedization you need for your application; that will guide the decision between a rugged, semi-rugged, or consumer-grade device. “When office workers break their consumer-grade PDAs, they don’t instantly become nonproductive,” says Gregg Anderson, North America mobile solutions director for Psion. “But if a device fails in the field, the service technician can no longer receive or send customer or service information, which comes at a huge cost — labor and reduced customer satisfaction.”

To read the rest of this article, including how to navigate the software selection process, go to Field Technologies Online (subscription required).

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Avatar photoField Technologies Online provides is a resource for the optimization of field workers, service and assets. The publication's goal is to provide companies in the field service, transportation/distribution, government, public works and utilities industries with information on mobile technologies that can be used to improve productivity and drive efficiency.