Back in 1965, a few years before he helped found Intel, a scientist named Gordon Moore postulated a law of technology. What the brilliant Mr. Moore said is that the power of computers will double every year. Some say he said every 18 months.
If you’re in the business of buying computers, then you hate Gordon Moore. Well, maybe not the man himself, but you certainly hate his law and the effect it has on your decision-making process.
The issue in question is obsolescence. If you buy a computer today, will Moore’s law turn it into a doorstop in a year or two? Not really.
Bob Davis, supervisor of the San Diego Police Department’s computer lab, says that computer buyers have to put Moore’s Law out of their minds and buy what they need even if they know it will age quickly. “You just have to get past needing the latest and greatest,” Davis explains. “You need to look at the decision more analytically and ask, ‘What am I going to use my computer for?’”
Davis’ point is a real cost-saver and it’s the first step in the practical purchase of computers for law enforcement agencies. They should forget about having the fastest and the best and try to match the power of the computer with the applications that they need to perform.
Outside of a crime lab, most law enforcement computing applications involve either word processing for filling out reports and forms or data sharing via wireless connectivity. And you don’t need a super computer to perform these tasks. There are many agencies nationwide that are still getting by with Pentium III systems.
Rugged vs. Non-Rugged
If you’re buying computers for police cars, you shouldn’t worry about processing power as much as survivability.
Theoretically, you can save money by buying non-ruggedized computers and mounting them in your cars because ruggedized mobile computers cost roughly twice as much as garden variety laptops. But computer specialists at agencies that have tried this concept say it’s not really practical.
Tim Jay, division manager of computer resources for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Police Department, says that his agency’s attempt to use non-ruggedized laptops in its patrol cars wasn’t a disaster, but it also wasn’t a great success. “We took 75 non-ruggedized laptops and put them in some of our cars, and then we started having power supply issues,” he explains.
St. Petersburg quickly discovered that the perceived saving on the non-ruggedized computers was a mirage. Florida’s heat and other factors caused the standard laptops to spend almost as much time in the shop as in service. Earlier this year, St. Petersburg acquired new ruggedized Panasonic Toughbooks for its patrol cars.
Ruggedized computers from Panasonic, Getac, Itronix, and other manufacturers are designed to operate under the harsh conditions that are found in combat zones. In other words, they meet military specifications, Mil-Spec.
Law enforcement computers must operate in many of the same nasty conditions as military computers. That’s why Mil-Spec is the standard for ruggedized police laptops.
Mil-Spec covers such issues as vibration, impact, and heat. For example, Mil-Spec ruggedized computers are cooked at 120 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that they won’t fail in desert heat. They are dropped onto concrete floors to make sure that they can survive impact. And they are vibrated for long hours to test their ability to continue functioning in moving vehicles.
Mobile computers are also prone to disk skip. A computer hard drive is essentially a very sophisticated form of record player. The magnetic disk is read and written by a head that floats microns over the disk. If it’s not properly insulated against shocks, the read/write head will skip across the disk, causing errors.
Various manufacturers address this issue in different ways. Some design their machines so that the disks are loaded vertically. Others load their disks horizontally. And some pack their disks in vibration absorbing foams or gels. The bottom line is that any mobile computer’s hard drive must be built to automotive standards for shock; these are the same standards that are applied to CD players that are built into cars.
Fluids and Dirt
All patrol car computers should be sealed against fluids and dirt. This is not just a precaution against ham-handed officers spilling 32-ounce Big Gulps on their keyboards.
That’s a major concern. But the real issue is weather. Officers and their cars operate in all conditions, including torrential downpours. Under such conditions, water is sometimes splashed around the car and onto the mobile computer.
Jay says that the effects of rain water on the department’s mobile computers was a major issue for the St. Petersburg PD. When hurricanes and tropical storms hit the area, officers sometimes have to jump out of their cars to respond to calls for assistance and sometimes they leave their doors open. Jay says this was one reason that his agency chose to purchase new Toughbook CF29s. “They can’t be submerged,” he explains. “But they will take a spray of water.”
One of the most important features on any laptop computer is the screen. It’s expensive to replace, probably half the price of the entire computer, and it’s extremely fragile.
Unfortunately, it can only be protected so much. Most ruggedized laptops used by law enforcement have protective metal frames on their edges that minimize the pressure exerted on the screen when the officer closes or opens the laptop. However, the middle of the screen can’t be protected at all. Your best bet here is to warn your officers not to stab at the screen with their fingers, not to strike it for any reason, and to check for foreign objects such as keys, paper clips, and pens on the keyboard before closing the laptop.
Since displays really can’t be cop proofed, your primary concern about displays when buying a computer is screen brightness. Some laptops are extremely difficult to read in direct sunlight. So before you buy a mobile computer for patrol car applications take it out in bright sunshine and see what you can see.
Of course, there are also times when cops don’t want to be illuminated by bright laptop screens in their cars. This is why many mobile computers for law enforcement applications have displays that are adjustable for brightness with settings that range from daylight to nighttime to stealth modes.
Computers are useless if you don’t have a way for your officers to input data into them. The simplest form of data input system is a keyboard. But think about it, typing is not an activity that can be performed easily or safely in a moving vehicle. It’s also not easy to do under stress, and it’s easy to make mistakes.
This is why many agencies like to have touchscreen features on their mobile computers. Touch screens are a very efficient way of moving from window to window on a computer. And touchscreen commands can be used to acknowledge receipt of information, so that your dispatchers will know that an officer has received an alert and is responding.
If you want touchscreen capability, be sure to talk to the manufacturer or the system integrator in advance. Not all mobile computers come with this feature, and it can be very expensive if not impossible to add after the sale.
Just having ruggedized computers in your cars does not give you all the tools to take advantage of the benefits of mobile computers. You have to have a way to send information from dispatch to the officers’ computers and to share information and reports from the field with dispatch and other officers. In other words, you need a network.
Inside a building, most computer networks involve tethering each computer to a hub via ethernet cable. This, of course, is not practical for a mobile computing network. So you will need a wireless networking system.
Which means that you need wireless connectivity built into your computers. Wireless 802.11 cards sometimes come with a mobile computer or they are installed after the purchase.
There are a variety of wireless technologies available for networking your mobile computers. Work with your systems integrator or computer reseller and your wireless communications provider to ensure that your new computers will be compatible with your preferred wireless data transfer technology.
In addition to sharing information between all of your computers via a wireless network, you will also need to connect peripheral devices such as printers and fingerprint scanners to each of your machines. This will require you to have connectivity ports. Fortunately, connectivity is built in to every mobile computer. Still, you have to make sure that your new computers have the amount and type of connectivity that you will need for all of your peripherals.
At the very least, you’re going to want a serial port (the kind used to connect older printers) and a USB port (the kind used to connect newer printers). San Diego PD’s Davis recommends that police mobile computers have a serial port, at least one USB port, and a PCMCIA card slot. The PCMCIA is extremely important if you want to transfer data from a high-end digital camera or if you need to add a GPS card. If you plan to use the computer outside of the car, you will absolutely want an ethernet port for connecting the laptop to a cabled network.
A luxury that you may want if you’re moving large amounts of video or image data is a FireWire. This Apple Computer connectivity is now found on more and more Windows PCs thanks to the popularity of the Apple iPod music player. FireWire is a very fast way to move large files from a camera or hard drive into a computer.
One of the major concerns for mobile computers that often gets lost in a discussion of such “sexy” topics as processor speed, disk size, and RAM, is mounting. How are you going to install the computer into your car?
There are two options here. You can mount the computer in such a way that it can’t be removed without tools and time. Or you can take advantage of the dual use benefits of your laptops and let your officers remove them from their cars to write reports or perform other job tasks.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Allowing your officers to take the computers out of their cars gives them a valuable tool to use in the office and in their cars. However, it also will lead to more wear and tear on the mounts and on the computer’s connections.
Davis says that when officers are constantly connecting and disconnecting their system it can lead to damage, especially at the cabling points. “Any time you have two pieces of metal sliding up against one another, especially very fine connection points, then you may have failure points,” Davis explains. “If you jam that machine down into its docking bay, and you don’t have it lined up properly, you’re going to bend a connection pin.”
Bending a connection pin may seem like a small thing, but it will take a computer out of service. And it can be relatively expensive in time and money to repair.
One determining factor for some agencies when buying computers to upgrade their aging systems is to match the new machines to their existing mounts. Mobile computer mounts for patrol cars are not cheap, ranging from $400 to $700 for complete mounts. So be sure to take this into consideration when calculating the cost of buying mobile computers.
When to Upgrade
While you can’t let Moore’s Law paralyze you and prevent you from buying the computers that you need, you should be aware of it. Moore’s Law means that the computers you buy today will probably have an effective lifespan of three to five years.
Of course time in service doesn’t work the same for computers as it does for cars. Computers don’t suffer the same kind of wear and tear from use. So as long as your computer can run the software you need and perform its tasks, then you don’t need to upgrade.
Remember that an upgrade should not be driven by a desire for faster machines just for the sake of having the best. In the computer world, the best is a very fluid concept. That dual-processor Itanium system may be today’s computer equivalent of a Ferrari but in six months it will be a Honda Civic.
This is why this article hasn’t concentrated on a lot of issues like processor speed, RAM capacity, and hard drive size. All of these things should be based on one factor alone: What do you need to get the job done?
If all you’re going to do is write reports, then processor speed is a very minor concern. Get a Pentium M with maybe a 1.6GHz processor and it will likely serve you long and well.
RAM capacity should be decided by your operating system and your software. These days for optimum processing, you will likely need 512MB or more of RAM.
As for hard disk size, you may not need much at all. The primary purpose of a hard drive is to locally store data. If you aren’t storing large amounts of data and software on your computer, then you probably can manage with the computer manufacturer’s standard hard drive. However, if you are importing large image or video files and need to store them locally then you will need to add a bigger hard drive to your systems. This is usually a nominal cost.
Regardless of what type of computer you choose, rest assured that most contemporary law enforcement agencies really do need mobile computers. They have become as critical to efficient police communications as radios.
“Ultimately you are hurting yourself and the people you serve if you don’t have mobile computers,” says Davis. “The faster the information gets out to the cars, the faster we are going to be able to respond and prevent and solve crimes.”