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.

GETAC

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.[PAGEBREAK]Itronix

Itronix is one of the world's leading producers of ruggedized computers, offering semi-rugged, rugged, and ultra-rugged models. The company not only builds tough computers, it builds tough computers with integrated wireless capabilities.

"It seems like Itronix's approach is to build its computers around radio and wireless systems, rather than to build a computer and then try to make a radio work with the computer," says Lt. Robert Durko of the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office in Fort Worth, Texas. Tarrant County has a number of the ultra-rugged GoBook Max systems in the field.

Itronix sent me a GoBook II rugged notebook to evaluate. It has a lighted keyboard that makes it really easy to use at night in the car or plopped on the hood where I used to generally write my reports when I worked patrol.

But the real selling point of the Itronix is speed. The Itronix GoBook II is one of the few rugged notebooks that boasts the power of a Pentium IV processor. Itronix says it has worked out the overheating problems that prevent many companies from using Pentium IV chips in their dust- and moisture-resistant ruggedized units. The GoBook II comes standard with a 20GB hard drive and 128MB of RAM.

In addition to speed, the GoBook II offers great wireless capabilities. My eval unit was equipped with a wireless modem, and It effortlessly connected to the Internet every time.

Connecting to the Internet in the field can be critical for law enforcement officers, especially in emergency management situations. Durko says that after a tornado played havoc with the local radio system and some cell sites in his area, the Tarrant County Sheriff's deputies relied on their Itronix systems and were up and running in a few minutes with full Internet access.

Kontron Mobile Computing

The Mobile Computing division of Germany's Kontron AG started selling ruggedized computers in 1992 under the name "Fieldworks." Since becoming a division of Kontron, the company's focus has been on industry-specific rugged computers that are at home in harsh and extreme environments.

Kontron Mobile Computing's platforms are designed for the demanding field environments of law enforcement and military operations. They are made to conform to the military's test standards for shock, vibration, moisture, and temperature. Some of the features that Kontron builds into its systems are high-resolution outdoor readable display screens, sealed pointing devices, and integrated technologies to protect the systems for extended use in climatory extremes.

The company's latest mobile computing line is the ReVolution. Debuting last year, ReVolution created a brand new category of computing devices. A notebook and touch-screen tablet PC in one package with added benefits of ruggedness, upgradability, and integrated wireless communications features. The ReVolution is a fully Windows compatible Pentium III-powered computer that converts in seconds from a notebook to a tablet with a quick flip of its rugged, 180-degree display hinge. Kontron can even provide a docking station for vehicle mounting. The dock allows you to take the system in and out of the car without losing any data or having to shut down before moving it.

MicroSlate

MicroSlate's philosophy is to provide cost-effective mobile hardware solutions for business and government organizations that need to provide information to mobile workers. The company is a world leader in the design and manufacture of rugged mobile pen and notebook based computers and hardware systems.

Back in 1988, MicroSlate designed the first digitized screen. Since then it has licensed the technology to companies all over the world. Jan Rowinski, executive vice president of operations for MicroSlate, says the company builds its customers' systems based on the end-user's specific needs. There are no off-the-shelf systems at MicroSlate. The company configures its computers after meeting with the users and looking at the tasks necessary to accomplish the mission.

MicroSlate's systems are modular and are easily upgraded. Perhaps that's why the Chicago Police Department has been using MicroSlate systems for the past 15 years. Chicago's Emergency Services has one of the finest and most efficient telecommunications systems in the world and MicroSlate's MSL 3000PIII is an integral part of the Windy City's police communications.

The MicroSlate MSL 300PIII is a ruggedized notebook computer that runs Windows 98, NT, 2000, and XP. It's powered by a 500MHz Pentium III, comes with a 20GB hard drive, and 128MB of RAM.

MicroSlate also makes a ruggedized tablet system. The MicroSlate Datellite 500PIII mobile workstation is a flat-panel touchscreen system that's powered by a 500MHz Pentium III processor. It comes standard with 128MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive.

Panasonic

When it comes to ruggedized computer systems Panasonic is the 800-pound gorilla in the law enforcement market. Panasonic's Toughbook computers are used by law enforcement nationwide, and with good reason.

Both the Toughbook 34 and 28 have magnesium alloy cases and internal steel supports. And they live up to their name. Last year in Cass County, Mo., a deputy's Toughbook caught a round from a .45. Later he was able to make the computer boot up. There is even a well-documented case of a Toughbook being used as a shield during the war in Iraq. An American soldier held up his Toughbook while disengaging from enemy fire and moving to a better firing position. The computer suffered a direct hit to the hard drive. The computer didn't make it, but the soldier did. The 7.62mm AK-47 round is still lodged in the computer. If I were that guy, I'd buy the thing and have it mounted when I got home.

While using a Toughbook as a shield is not quite within the realm of normal wear and tear and would most certainly void the warranty, Panasonic's notebooks hold up remarkably well under the stress of police operations. The outer shell and keyboard resist moisture such as a cup of coffee spilled on the unit. And it's hard to beat the Toughbook for shock and vibration protection. Toughbook components are mounted with special gel-mounts to cushion them from the typical bangs and bumps of police car life.

My agency is just now upgrading from its old Panasonic Toughbook 25s to the lighter and more powerful Toughbook 28. We have had the 25s for over five years. That's a long time for a computer to be knocking about on patrol, and believe me they still work.

Panasonic sent its new Toughbook 18 convertible tablet computer for evaluation. This is a great little computer that offers users the best of both worlds. It's both a tablet and a notebook, and all you have to do to change from one mode to the other is give the screen a quick flip. In the tablet configuration, the digitized touch screen can recognize writing from the included stylus mouse and can transfer what you write to your forms. In the notebook configuration, you use the keyboard just like any other notebook computer.

The fully ruggedized Toughbook 18 weighs only 4.5 pounds and is protected by a full magnesium alloy case. It's also really well configured for wireless LAN and wireless modem use. The Toughbook line, including the 18, is now powered by Intel's Centrino chip, which features integrated wireless LAN capability and offers expanded battery life of up to six hours. The 18 comes standard with a 900MHz Centrino processor, 256MB of RAM, and a 40GB hard drive.

For More Information

AMREL Systems
www.amrel.com

GETAC
www.getac.com

Itronix
www.itronix.com

Kontron Mobile Computing
www.kontron.com

Microslate
www.microslate.com

Panasonic
www.panasonic.com/toughbook

Sgt. Dave Douglas is a 25-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department and a POLICE contributing editor.

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