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Machine Language

The latest mobile computing solutions offer cops everything they need and then some.

November 01, 2003  |  by Dave Douglas

Panasonic Toughbook

Sometime during our careers we all have worked with an officer who earned the title "Captain Gadget" or some more unflattering nickname for his or her love of equipment. When I was in patrol during the late '70s and early '80s, our Captain Gadget was a guy who had four scanners, a CB radio, a Kaypro portable (read: "luggable") computer equipped with a 7-inch green, glowing CRT, and a dot-matrix printer all in his car. In addition, he had a handheld ham radio, carried three guns, and sported a light that could have blinded an aircraft pilot at 20,000 feet. It must have taken this guy 45 minutes to load his car and put on his Batman utility belt after line-up.

Back then, us "real cops" went in the field with just our uniform, badge, revolver, cheap three-cell flashlight, ticket book, and an attitude. Only the sergeant had a portable radio, and it was about the size of a World War II walkie-talkie.

So if someone had told me then that Captain Gadget was laying the foundation for the future of police work, I would have pointed and laughed and probably choked on my donut. But now I have to admit that he was.

Today our car radios are about the size of a healthy sandwich, and they automatically scan every law enforcement frequency in the surrounding jurisdictions, basically accomplishing what Captain Gadget's multiple radios used to do. And today we wouldn't think of going into the field today without our "Captain Gadget" arsenal of handheld radios and 30,000-candlepower tactical rechargeable flashlights, and, of course, our department-issued notebook computers.

Which brings us to the topic of the hour. Perhaps the biggest change in police work over the last decade has been the introduction of mobile computers in our cars. Mobile computers now interface with our radio systems to dispatch us to calls. We use them to communicate with our dispatchers; run wants, warrants, criminal histories; and receive driver license and motor vehicle information. We even write our reports on them and can transmit the reports to our supervisors for approval and then relay them to our records division.

Shock Protected

One of the major considerations each department must struggle with regarding notebook computers is whether to go with ruggedized, semi-ruggedized, or non-ruggedized hardware. A ruggedized patrol computer has a hard outer shell and shock-protected internal components. Semi-rugged systems have shock-protected internals and a somewhat hard outer shell. And non-rugged systems are the normal consumer notebooks you can buy at any electronics store or on the Internet from Gateway, Dell, Compaq, and other manufacturers.

Most people would assume that the best computer for police applications is a ruggedized unit. After all, the machine can take a fall, its sealed keyboard guards against coffee spills, and its display won't crack if you grab it too hard, all of which are likely to happen to any cop's computer at any time. But the rule of thumb is, the more rugged a computer, the higher the price.

Accordingly, some administrators figure that for the cost of a ruggedized system, they can buy two or even three non-rugged systems. Other administrators analyze the applications for the computers and assign ruggedized, semi-ruggedized, and non-ruggedized units based on the rigors of the users' duties. A patrol officer pushing a car on the road eight, 10, or 12 hours a day, getting in and out, going inside to take reports, and doing the things patrol cops need to do, may be better suited for a ruggedized system. Detectives and administrators may only require a semi-ruggedized or non-rugged system. However, it's not unusual for departments to purchase ruggedized notebooks for everyone across the board and save money on training costs and repairs.

If you want to buy a ruggedized computer suitable for police or military operations, you're limited to fewer manufacturers than for just a general use notebook. But there are a wide variety of machines to choose from. Here's a look at some of the rugged and semi-rugged notebook computers available to law enforcement today.

AMREL Systems


AMREL Systems introduced the notebook computer to the American market in January 1991, and it has since become a leading manufacturer of rugged mobile computing solutions. In 1995, AMREL released the Rocky, its first fully rugged notebook computer. The Rocky was the first line of practical and cost-effective rugged mobile computing solutions that was designed to meet the demands of niche markets, such as military, police, fire, and field service.

AMREL's Rocky was the industry's first Pentium-powered, fully water-resistant rugged notebook computer. The following year the company released Rocky II, the first fully water-resistant, rugged notebook computer with swappable components. AMREL has since developed and marketed a number of state-of-the-art notebook systems, including the Rocky Mobile, the Rocky Matrix, and the Rocky Apex.

The Rocky Mobile and Rocky Matrix are integrated systems built to mount in your police car. The Rocky Apex is a tablet computer with a digitized touch screen. It also comes with a keyboard.

I was able to test the 500 MHz Pentium III-powered Rocky Apex system, and I found this tablet system to be very light and easy to use. The Apex has an optional keyboard that appears to be just as tough as the computer and plugs into a well marked USB port on the side. It comes standard with 128MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive.

The unit AMREL sent for evaluation came loaded with mapping software. And not only was it surprising how simple it was to use, but the brightness of the screen in daylight was astounding. The Rocky Apex is very well designed for using typical police software in sunlight.


Established in 1989 as a 50/50 joint venture between Taiwanese computer manufacturer Mitac and General Electric Aerospace Group, GETAC's primary mission is to supply defense electronic equipment for military applications. For nearly 15 years, GETAC's rugged computers have been deployed with the U.S. armed forces.

Today, GETAC offers leading-edge rugged computers for all possible field force applications, including military, public safety, transportation, telecommunications, construction, mining, and related heavy industries.

GETAC's product line includes a light rugged system, a rugged tablet computer, and a fully ruggedized system. The GETAC A-Series MIL-SPEC notebook computers were originally designed for military use under extremely harsh conditions. To meet the rigors of this application, the chassis is constructed entirely of a lightweight but strong magnesium alloy, sealed from the environment with o-ring gaskets, and cooled with heat-pipe technology. GETAC's W130 is enhanced to fit the needs of law enforcement.


The GETAC CA 25 tablet system is a ruggedized tablet wireless computer designed to operate in a harsh environment. It is a full computer with a Pentium III 700Mhz processor with up to 512MB RAM, and it can support a wide range of applications. The CA 25 runs Microsoft Windows 98, 2000 Professional, and XP.

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