I'm writing this a week before the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference and tradeshow in New Orleans.
Why that's relevant to this article is easy to explain. In recent years, IACP has resembled a computer show as much as a police gear show. You walk the aisles at IACP and the biggest booths tend to belong to high-tech companies hawking the latest computer-aided dispatch systems and newest lines of mobile data systems, including laptops and on-board computer terminals.
All of that high-tech stuff and the jargon spouted by the reps from these firms can make your head spin; at least it does mine. But the one thing that I can clearly make out of the marketing din is the fact that these computers keep getting tougher, faster, and more functional.
There's a famous computer dictum invented by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in a 1965 paper. Moore wrote that "the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit is increasing exponentially, doubling approximately every two years."
Moore's Law means that since the 1960s, computer power has been doubling every two years. Moore's law is why it's now hard to find a patrol car in this country that isn't equipped with an onboard or laptop computer system. Computers are cheaper, faster, and lighter than they have ever been. In the next few years, they will get even cheaper, lighter, and faster as manufacturers switch from hard drive memories to flash memory.
Unfortunately, the innovation quantified in Moore's Law is a double-edged sword for the computer buyer. You can buy really cool stuff now, or you can wait and buy even cooler stuff in three months. This is the reason why used computers depreciate in value even faster than used cars. You can't really buy a state-of-the-art computer.
What you can do, however, is find a computer that fits your needs. It doesn't have to have the fastest, newest CPU on the market. All it really has to do is run your software at an efficient speed, communicate with your peripherals such as fingerprint scanners and citation printers, offer you a display that can be viewed in bright daylight, and survive your operating conditions.
That last point is critical for law enforcement mobile data systems. They will get shaken around, maybe even dropped, and they are prone to catching spilled drinks and other fluids on their keyboards. Even worse, they have to cope with the constant vibration of being driven around in a car, sometimes at high speed.
This is why you can't take a normal, everyday laptop and mount it in a cop car as a mobile data system. You can get the best mount made, and the vibration will still shake that system to death.
The solution is to buy laptops and onboard computer systems that have been ruggedized to certain military specifications (Mil-Spec). These computers have been shaken, dropped, sprayed with water, dusted with sand, and they came through the torture testing still functioning. Even a high-quality standard laptop would be toast if you dropped it from three feet to a hard floor, but ruggedized computers will keep on computing. (See "How Rugged is Rugged?" below.)
Most of you probably already have ruggedized laptop or onboard computer systems in your patrol vehicles. So the question that you probably need answered is, "When should we upgrade?" You need to upgrade when your computers are starting to reach the point of obsolescence where they can no longer do what you need them to do. And no one can make that decision for you.
When you do make that decision, it's time to contact the manufacturer or one of your local systems integrators and see what they have for you.
Just know this: The ruggedized computer market is booming. Everyone from soldiers and Marines operating in the Sandbox to construction supervisors building your local strip mall are using these things. That means that a ton of companies are getting into this market and offering a variety of different models, and it will pay to shop around.
The chart that accompanies this article will give you a good idea of what computer companies and systems integrators will have to show you in the coming year.
How Rugged is Rugged?
The gold standard for ruggedized computers is Mil-Spec 810F. But unless you work in a computer testing lab, you probably don't know what is required of a computer before it can boast this rating.
Mil-Spec 810F (also known as MIL-STD 810F) status is bestowed after a machine survives a series of tests that if you were a computer you would think of as torture. The machines are dropped, shaken, heated, frozen, elevated, and drowned.
Here's a quick look at what Panasonic does to its Toughbooks to make sure that they can survive hard time in Iraq or thousands of hours on duty with you.
The Drop Test
The Toughbook is sequentially dropped in non-operating mode (meaning screen closed and computer down) onto each face, edge, and corner for a total of 26 drops. The impact surface is two-inch-thick plywood over a steel plate over concrete.
The Vibration Test
The Toughbook is clamped to an aluminum plate. Switched off and closed, it's subjected to a good shaking. Yeah that's simplistic, but the science reads like this: 0.04 g2/Hz at 20-1,000 H, -6 db octave at 1,000 to 2,000 Hz, one hour duration axis. Trust me, they vibrate the heck out of the sucker. Another vibration intended to simulate 1,000 miles of ground travel is conducted with the computer and the hard drive activated.
An operating Toughbook is sprayed with water for 12 hours to simulate rain. If it can take that, it can handle your coffee spills.
Pray that you never have to work in these conditions: 86 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit at 95-percent relative humidity. The Toughbook has to endure 10 days of this heat and moisture.
At 140 degrees, silica flour (simulated sand) is dusted over the machine. The computer fails if anything binds up or any of the contacts or relays malfunction.
With the computer switched on and open, it is heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Tack on another 20 degrees for the non-operational mode testing.
The computer is frozen to minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit while operating. Switched off, it experiences a balmy minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Panasonic sets the high non-operating temperature at 205 degrees Fahrenheit and low non-operating temperature at minus-60 degrees Fahrenheit. The computer gets three cycles of this temperature variance.
Odds are your patrol car won't be flying at 15,000 feet without pressurization. But if it does, your Toughbook can take it.