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Buying Ruggedized Computers

By understanding what you really need, you can avoid making costly mistakes.

November 30, 2009  |  by Tim Dees - Also by this author

Patrol officers today rely on ruggedized computers in their cars to provide vital information and withstand the rigors of constant hard use.

The most common question law enforcement officials ask me about computers is: "What kind of computer should I buy?" The best answer I have come up with so far is: "It depends." They don't like that answer very much, but the truth is there are many factors involved in making these decisions, and they get even more involved when ruggedized computers come into the mix.

What Does Rugged Mean?

Most portable computers marketed to public safety agencies are the ruggedized variety. This generally means that the machines have passed the tests set out in MIL-STD-810, an 804-page document from the U.S. Department of Defense. The tests measure a device's resistance to vibration, shock, G-forces, dust, moisture, and other hazards equipment commonly encounters in a field or combat environment.

A casual discussion - like the one you might get in a sales pitch - of these tests can be misleading. For instance, one test requires that a device be dropped 26 times from a height of 30 to 36 inches onto a two-inch-thick piece of plywood over a four-inch concrete pad. A computer will be dropped on each of its four corners, all four edges, and both sides in varying combinations, and still work. The test isn't as rigorous as it sounds. The vendor is allowed to use as many as five devices for the drop sequence, and the computers aren't running during the test. If a unit breaks during the 26-drop sequence, it can be replaced up to four times and still pass, so long as there is at least one working unit at the end.

Ruggedized computers are considerably more durable than the consumer type, but they aren't indestructible and shouldn't be treated as such. With reasonable care, the hazards they are likely to endure in a patrol vehicle are constant vibration, dust, extremes of heat and cold, humidity, and the occasional spilled coffee or soda. A ruggedized computer should take all that and keep working.

Some computers exceed the MIL-STD 810G standards, and their manufacturers will be sure to let you know about it. At that point, you need to ask yourself if you are paying for more durability than you need. A Humvee will almost certainly outlast a patrol sedan, but there are good reasons the latter are much more common than the former.

Computing Horsepower

The heart of any computer is its processor, sometimes called the Central Processing Unit or CPU. Every six to 12 months, a new line of CPUs enters the market and represents a significant advantage in processing power over the previous latest-and-greatest. Computer game enthusiasts drive much of this development. Games are extremely complex and require big-time computing resources, and the newest game might not run at all on a machine purchased two years previous. Other graphics-intensive applications, like photo and video editing, also require big computing resources.

Most software running on law enforcement mobile computers doesn't use complex graphics, so you can get by with older, cheaper CPUs. You'll probably get better performance by maxing out the amount of Random Access Memory (RAM) the computer can support. Where desktop computers usually have independent graphics processors and memory, mobile computers commonly integrate the graphics chores with other computing tasks, and devote a portion of the onboard RAM to this. Increasing the available RAM will bring a better return on investment than buying the top-line CPU.

The internal hard drive of a mobile computer can be its Achilles' heel. Conventional hard drives are, in essence, sealed matchbox-size cases containing one to four rapidly spinning disks, stacked and separated by a read-write head, like multiple phonograph records. Introduce a good jolt to the hard drive, and one of those read-write heads will make physical contact with a disk, causing a hard drive "crash." Good-bye hard drive and usually any data that is written on it.

In the last year or so, Solid State Drives (SSDs) have appeared on the market. Composed of memory chips, they work very much like the flash or thumb drives you might keep in your pocket or desk. SSDs replace conventional hard drives, are faster, and have no moving parts. Their only drawbacks at this writing are price and capacity. A conventional 320GB notebook hard drive might cost $60, where a 128GB SSD would cost $350.

Despite the cost, the SSD is the better way to go. Unless you're storing very large databases or a lot of video on your mobile hard drives, you're probably using only a fraction of their capacity. If you have mobile computers already in use, check and see how much capacity is available. You can probably get by with a 64GB or 128GB SSD, and significantly reduce down time on your computers.

Optical drives (CD or DVD) are standard on mobile computers, but you may not need or want them. Software and updates are installed faster from a flash drive or even wirelessly than with an optical drive, and optical drives are sensitive to shock, dust, and moisture. If you have a DVD drive installed on a mobile computer beware: Someone is going to use it to watch movies at work. Your vendor may be able to offer you some options that will help you minimize such concerns.

Finally, you may have to choose between operating systems. Most public safety software runs under some version of Windows. Windows XP has been the standard, as Vista was too unstable for some users. By the time you read this, Windows 7 will be in general distribution. Win 7 is the successor to Vista, and a pre-release version has been available for months, with manygeek types running it on their computers. It's difficult to find anyone who doesn't rave over it. Win 7 seems to be the best operating system Microsoft has ever produced, and I'm going to go out on a limb and recommend it to you. Check with your software vendors and ensure their products will run under Win 7, but otherwise get it if you can.

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