In the past, data collection in the warehouse, factory or field was primarily carried out using barcode scanners, imagers and then handheld mobile computers. However, in recent years, tablet PCs have become an additional and increasingly popular alternative. Different types of tablets abound in the marketplace, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one that fits your specific requirements.
So, what sort of features should you be considering?
Processor / operating system
There’s a wide range of processors used in tablets, although Intel tends to be the most prolific. Typically, you might find the well-known Intel® Core™ i5 (e.g. the Panasonic Toughbook CF-33) or i7; or the Intel Atom Quad-Core (e.g. the Xplore XSlate D10). Interestingly, the Toughbook has a detachable keyboard, so it can also be used as a notebook.
For operating systems, there’s usually a choice between Windows – typically Windows Pro10 (e.g. the Getac A140) – and Android – typically Android 5 Marshmallow, 6 Lollipop or 7 Nougat (e.g. the Dolphin CT40). However, some enterprising manufacturers offer tablets with a choice of Windows or Android, such as the Zebra ET 55.
Screen / size
When is a tablet not a tablet? That’s hard to say – some mobile devices in the marketplace are described as both tablets and mobile computers. These tend to be the smaller, handheld devices that are about the size of a smartphone.
These will typically have a screen size of about five inches. Some screens are even smaller than this but although they might be easy to hold, they become more difficult to use. The opposite problem can occur with larger tablets – they might be much easier to use in terms of the screen operating space but become less easy to hold.
The most common tablets range from those with a five-inch screen, such as the Opticon H-28, through to those with a 12-inch (Panasonic Toughbook) or 14-inch screen (Getac A140). The larger screens give wider viewing angles and reduce the need for scrolling.
The display might have a TFT touchscreen or the increasingly popular and durable Corning Gorilla Glass. Some screens (such as the Xplore XSlate D10) are multi-touch and can be used with fingers, gloved hands or pens.
Tablets that are used by workers in the warehouse or field need to be rugged and are therefore subjected to tests for protection against water and dust ingress – and drops onto concrete from heights of five or six feet. Most (but not all) will have a fairly high IP rating of about 65, although those used in harsher conditions tend to have an even higher rating.
Similarly, high-quality rugged tablets will be able to operate at a range of temperatures, usually from about -30oC to 60oC plus. Some tablets, such as the XSlate D10 and the ecom Tab-Ex 01, are ATEX-certified for use in hazardous conditions.
Most tablets tend to have lithium-ion batteries. They have varying lengths of operation. This can be a defining characteristic, as some workers need batteries with a long life if they’re working for long periods in the field. For others, this won’t be so critical, although most users will favour batteries that give at least eight hours so that they’ll last for a whole shift.
Manufacturers therefore tend to give a range of options, including hot-swappable twin batteries and batteries with an extended life. For instance, the single battery in the XSlate operates for up to eight hours, but there is a hot-swappable second battery, giving up to 15 or 22 hours of life.
Similarly, the Panasonic Toughbook CF-33 provides up to ten hours of life with standard twin batteries and up to 20 hours with extended life twin batteries.
Today’s tablets offer a range of connectivity options. Many (such as the ecom Tab-Ex 01), offer both wireless wide area network (WWAN) and wireless local area network (WLAN) connectivity, with various IEEE 802.1 Wifi options. Bluetooth connectivity has also become a common standard feature in tablets. And most tablets provide GPS (global positioning system) and/or GPRS (general packet radio services) capabilities.
Many other features need to be considered when choosing a tablet. These include the software available with the device; the type of barcode scanner or imaging engine; and the in-built camera. If the camera is just for general use, you might be happy with a 3MP version, whereas for higher quality images, you might prefer an 8MP camera (e.g. the Getac A140) or even a 16MP camera (the Opticon H-28).
Other interesting features that are available include sensors (such as an accelerometer or gyroscope); a fingerprint reader (e.g. the Getac A140); and various handling and carrying accessories.
- In 2017, Apple sold nearly 44 million iPads, and Samsung sold some 25 million tablet PCs. However, overall tablet sales for most manufacturers (except Apple and Huawei) have been slowly declining. By the end of October 2018, Apple had sold a total of over 400 million iPads.
- The origins of tablets can be traced back to 1968, when Alan Kay first developed the concept of a Dynabook, although this never became a reality. The forerunner of today’s tablets was the GRiDPAD in 1989, a fairly cumbersome device with a monochrome screen. It weighed 4.5lb and cost over US$2,000.
- Also in 1968, Arthur C Clarke introduced the idea of a tablet in hisclassic science fiction story: ‘2001: A space odyssey’. This includes the following passage: ‘(Floyd)… would plug his foolscap-sized newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one, he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers… Switching to the display’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.’
- One of the world’s largest commercial tablets is the Ocado Slablet, produced in 2014, which has a massive 42-inch screen – probably not ideal for field work!
If you’d like advice about choosing a tablet – or any other handheld device – please give us a call. We’d be happy to help.
Renovotec blog #26
Geoff Littler – Chief Technical Officer